The future of massively multiplayer isn’t you. Or me. Or anyone else who’s a serious fan of the genre as we hardcore gamers know it. Don’t get me wrong. We’re part of the future, but we’re not the future. Not if the genre is to grow enough to approach mainstream status.

Why is this, you ask? How can someone who has logged thousands of hours in dozens of online worlds possibly think like this? Well, it’s pretty straightforward. There simply aren’t enough people willing to spend the time playing day after day, week after week, month after month, to sustain rapid, ongoing growth in just the hardcore segment. Sure, our ranks are increasing, but not nearly quickly enough to support the kind of broader audience expansion I foresee over the coming years.

This means massively multiplayer gaming will have to attract other types of users, not just more like those of us who are already familiar with World of Warcraft and EverQuest.

Lord of the Rings Online, Age of Conan and other games that build upon popular brands will certainly expand the market, but these newcomers will still only tap into a miniscule proportion of the greater potential audience, which is anyone with a PC and an internet connection. Many of them are “casual” gamers, ranging from those who buy a game or two a year, to those who just play free ones. And no, the vast majority won’t make the jump to MMOGs targeted directly at hardcore players.

Mike Goslin is Vice President of the Walt Disney Internet Group’s Virtual Reality Studio. He was one of the principals on Toontown Online and is presently focused on Pirates of the Caribbean Online, which is approaching launch. Both of these MMOGs target non-traditional audience segments, children and teens respectively. He’s clearly a believer. “I agree with the premise. The only thing that I would add is that we can [either] wait for the audience for games to diversify and have this audience begin to demand more diverse games, or we can create more diverse games and accelerate the process.”

While the game industry is moving in the direction of the mass market, Disney has been there for many years. Its VR Studio was initially set up to create interactive virtual reality attractions for the company’s theme parks, which draw, well, pretty much everyone. Their operations went online as far back as 1999, when Disney first started thinking about Toontown. “We had the idea that we could use our theme park skills to create a similar experience for the home by developing MMOGs,” Goslin says. “It seemed natural to us to continue developing for the broad theme park audience that we already knew, and we thought it would enable us to do something different from the other games in the genre.”

I asked whether the current crop of online worlds has reached its potential, in terms of audience. Goslin says Disney’s “point of view is that a ‘mass market’ is both large and diverse. I don’t believe there are many MMOGs out there that appeal broadly to kids and parents, male and female, and young and old.” As for how to attract such groups, he’s clear in saying “we need a much wider variety of gameplay, themes, settings and stories available in the marketplace, and these games need to be much, much easier to pick up and start playing.”

Daniel Huebner, who works on Linden Labs’ Second Life, agrees. In his opinion, “the fierce competition in MMOG development has created a plethora of niche themes, but far less differentiation in the experience itself.” He also sees the potential to capture a much larger user base, though it’s unrealized. “The worlds offered online are rich and fascinating, and the presence of actual, living human beings with whom someone might interact gives these worlds the potential to be far more compelling and immersive than traditional media – but the experience is still too constrained.”

Huebner says although certain current properties qualify as “social phenomena,” none are mass market. “There is something about the nature of the experience that is holding it back. Star Wars, as a brand, is as mass appeal as one could hope for; but Galaxies didn’t bring a vast new audience to MMOGs. Certainly, the age range of gamers is broadening; there are parents playing World of Warcraft, but how many grandparents? Genders are certainly not equally represented.”

Second Life, Linden Lab’s virtual world, isn’t a game in the conventional sense. Huebner doesn’t call it one, although he does say, “The ways in which the virtual world presents itself, and mechanisms for interacting with that world, are very game-like. … [However,] Second Life doesn’t offer up a neatly packaged theme or plot, so we’ve never been able to fall back on the kinds of built-in audiences that gravitate toward sci-fi, fantasy or licensed titles. Our target audience is those who are restless, self-motivated, creative and tenacious.”

While hardcore online gamers often possess these qualities, so do many others. Goslin thinks “the big difference between casual and hardcore gamers is the amount of time they are willing to invest. To attract the former, you have to get them engaged faster, because their time is limited. Once they’re playing, however, the game needs to be challenging, deep and fun, if you want them to continue. If you succeed in creating a game that’s challenging, deep and fun for a casual player, it will likely also be fun for a hardcore gamer.”

Similarly, Huebner believes virtual worlds and other non-games can appeal to hardcore gamers, although in different ways. In the case of Second Life, he cites “deeper interaction, more robust relationships, fewer social and creative restraints, and the ability to contribute to the building of a world, rather than simply its consumption.”

In the creation-consumption vein, the future of MMOGs will also include new ways to monetize them. Most of the major Western publishers are sticking with box sales plus monthly subscriptions, but from a business point of view, this single-minded approach is self-limiting: A lot of people aren’t comfortable paying $15 a month for a game. But it’s only a matter of time until someone makes a lot of money – and opens the demographic floodgate – without charging players a monthly fee.

The future of the genre will be defined by the decisions developers make now. MMOGs used to be created by the hardcore, for the hardcore, but as the audience continues broadening toward the middle, the hardcore will represent a shrinking proportion of players. Like digital pioneers, the hardcore will see the fertile lands they discovered filled by the less intrepid from all walks of life, and those new souls will only push the old guard forward, past the horizon. Who knows what they’ll find?

Richard Aihoshi blurred the line between work and play in another way. Several years ago, his hobby, computer games, turned into a career writing about them, primarily the massively multiplayer and roleplaying genres. An online poker player for about a year, he claims to be ahead overall but admits he makes far too little even to dream about playing for a living.

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