So they ask: What is the future of the massively multiplayer game? And I think: More importantly, how long before that future gets here? I’ve been waiting for ages. Surely with all that soul searching and “post-mortem analysis” the developers can’t be far from that elusive next-gen ideal? Surely someone will spot all the best bits and make a game to end all games?

Won’t they? Ach, maybe it’s hopeless. How can I really know? How can I predict what games are going to do in a year, let alone a couple of decades? Who could have predicted the rise in professional gaming, or the importance of mods, or the black-market virtual cash cultures, or the thronging game cafés of the Far East, where people can lose their lives in arguments over virtual items?

Ah, yes. Amid all of this unexpected and bewildering new culture lies my answer: The future of massively multiplayer games is gamers. Amid the chaotic genealogies of games there lie some hidden trends, and it’s these subtle patterns that give us some clues to the future: A future in which games rely not on them, but on us.

There are two types of massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs). The first type is essentially just a single-player game stretched to fit this new “online” way of doing things. You’ll often hear a complaint about games like World of Warcraft, that they are too focused on soloing or lack decent player cooperation. You get into the game, you hit stuff, you get bigger statistics and head out to hit stuff with even bigger statistics; there’s not much more to it than that.

In the case of WoW, this has happened because Blizzard has taken the single player RPG, Diablo, and bolted the template over online technologies. If player vs. player combat is poor, or the capacity for self-creation is limited, then it’s because this was a game that took old standards of what makes a game successful and applied them to an entirely new way of interacting. The game is inflexible, focused on the individual and acutely reliant on content provided by the developers to keep us entertained. Sure, Bob is with you, and his dwarf looks funny, but you’re not exactly getting anywhere. There’s nothing unique here; you are, as one Icelandic games developer memorably said to me, “just queueing to be next on the theme park ride.” It’s empty, and you can’t do much to fill it up.

Of course this model hasn’t exactly proven unpopular, and my own six months as a slave to the perpetual monkey-finger collection is a testament to that. The sheer beauty of games like World of Warcraft, combined with an appetite for the familiar from a majority of players, means that their ilk will probably still be around in 2020, and still be raking in the cash. Just a brief glance at the MMOGs scheduled for release over the next five years confirms this thought. We want beautiful worlds given to us neatly packaged, and we’re going to get them.

But as time progresses, the ol’ Darwin effect kicks in – the second type of game has already begun to appear from the primordial ooze: games like Second Life, A Tale in the Desert and, to a lesser extent, Eve Online and Star Wars Galaxies. All these titles have glimpsed the possibilities of alternative method, although none of them provide a satisfactory example of it. This second kind of game is one where players begin to have to make their own fun, rather than have it provided for them. Some examples of this include the way in which Eve Online players have naturally grouped into unofficial “alliances” and have begun to monopolize areas of their world. Initially there wasn’t much to do in game, so player interactions provided the most interesting possibilities. Wars, politics, trade: it all opened up very quickly.

The developer, CCP, suspected that this kind of thing might happen, but really had no idea how to implement it. Why would they? No one has tried open ended gaming on such a scale before. Instead of trying to provide any kind of concrete guild system they’ve provided a framework for shooty spaceships and a consumer economy and let the players fight it out. Providing players with resources to struggle for meant that they would do just that, and instantly the challenge of taking on human beings with other human allies becomes more interesting than battling crap AI trolls for another pot of gold. In time Eve has seen socioeconomic systems emerge spontaneously. Once the larger dynamics become clear, then extra support can be coded into the game.

If this analysis sounds a bit clinical, then I should say that it’s all very earthy and practical on the ground. Players want to be rich, to blow stuff up, and to have friends, so that’s what they do. The natural tendency for tribes to form to keep strangers out and to fulfill these desires has made the game as interesting as it is today. CCP have nurtured this tendency and they have benefited from allowing human nature to find its own way to make and break the game world. Any game that learns from its players in this way is going be far less one-sided than our first type of game. It’s a symbiosis, one of nature’s most successful systems.

I could talk about space war and galactic capitalism all day, but the point is that this provides a powerful example of developers using the biggest resources: the social inclinations of their players. Players want to fight, consume and build. So let them.

The entirely peaceful ancient civilization MMOG A Tale in the Desert takes the building impulse further, turning the whole game into a communal effort. It’s a collaborative relationship between the developers who provided the tools for building, and the gamers who built inside the game itself. When the first run of pyramid building had come to something of an impasse, players and devs alike agreed that it was time to reset ancient Egypt and start from scratch. And so they did. It was a better game for it.

Of course, this idea of communality between gamer and game isn’t an easy thing to define, and there are going to be lots of misadventures as this terrain is explored. The game that currently takes the building idea to its most absurd extreme is the MMOG Second Life, which essentially throws the tools for creation out into the community and tells them to get on with it. Rather than the ready-made World of Warcraft or even Star Wars Galaxies, first-time visitors to Second Life find themselves in a vast sandbox mishmash of things that other people have made. It’s a fairly crude-looking MMOG and seems to be more of a glorified 3D modeling tool than a game – it’s clunky, difficult, and awkward. Hell, even movement seems ill executed. What is this game playing at? What’s to like? Well it’s this: Second Life is a game that has a little piece of the future in it. And the future of games is gamers.

Second Life relies purely on its players for its content. They create the buildings, the clothes, the vehicles, the jetpacks, the books and the guns. Almost everything aside from the most basic tutorial hubs has been created by gamers. There are some incredible examples of what they’ve been able to achieve with the flexible scripting – naturalistically flocking fish, rock concerts, even an internet inside this game inside the internet. The possibilities are boggling and far beyond the creative capabilities of any single development team. Walking its blocks and ghettos is like walking a kind of trash-littered dreamland – the shared imaginations of hundreds of players. Second Life is demonstrating, albeit in an ugly work-in-progress kind of way, just where players can take their games if they’re given the tools. With a little bit of clever game design, developers can make their players do all the work and, potentially, come up with something a little more special than what the team might have produced on their own.

This is the vital link to the future within MMOGs. While many developers are trying to provide their players with the best-looking world, the biggest dragons to slay and the tallest mountains to climb, really they’re missing an opportunity – the chance to make the game exist as a collaboration with players, rather than a straightforward production. Yet, looking at Second Life you might see something of a dead end. It’s interesting to visit, but it’s not exactly a game that you’d want to play excessively. It’s just too much like hard work. Too fragmentary. Too weird.

But perhaps the game that really allows player and developer to work together in the most productive way hasn’t yet been properly conceived. The first inklings of how this might work have come not from an MMOG, but from Will Wright, the creator of The Sims. His GDC speech “The Future of Content” argued that developers simply have to let players create, both thanks to spiraling development costs and from the sense of satisfaction derived by the players themselves. His solution was Spore, the apogee of the God-game concept finished off with a neat idea: mediated player-made content. Wright wants his players to be able to create new and unique objects for the game that can shared and downloaded from the internet, but without the undesirable messiness of Second Life. His game provides an easy-to-use editor that allows players to build diverse creatures from a set of adaptable prefabricated parts. Minor adjustments in the editor are dealt with procedurally by the game, so that weird new buildings and animals can be made to “fit” within the game shell. Because Spore provides definite limitations within the game space, while at the same time offering multiple variables to play with, players can’t break the game or introduce anything incongruous. They can, however, play endlessly as they build. It’s akin to Lego – there are multiple toys you can build with any one set of bricks.

This, then, is where I see MMOGs going: deciding on what set of bricks you want to play with, or, if you’re a developer, deciding what set of bricks you want to provide. Games must find better ways to enable the player to build within the game world. This will partly come from the likes of, say, City of Heroes‘ character editor, which allows players to simply dress up in ever more imaginative ways. Or it will come from Guild Wars‘ concept of “instancing,” but with players building, hosting and populating their own dungeons, into which unwitting strangers may wander. But it will also come from player’s interactions with each other – using social and “economic” investment in a game to create content, as Eve does with its alliances and player-run businesses.

The challenge for developers is not to build the most beautiful game world, but to allow players to feel that they, themselves, are investing in something beautiful and with more depth just than killing enough blue goblins to get that brand new level-35 Stetson. Sure, the casual hat-coveting gamer will need to be catered to as well, but why not let the more dedicated players create that hat for him? Why not allow the player to set the quest himself, because he actually needs five hundred goblin toes?

Perhaps, if game engines ever manage to be truly approachable, then players will be able to customize almost everything about their worlds. A democratic, mediated customization – a little like how we live in the real world.

The wikification of games, anyone?

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