Justin du Coeur (jducoeur) wrote,
Justin du Coeur

The evolution of online games

I wrote this as a response to a comment on the larpa-gen list. But it occurs to me that it makes a good entry unto itself (especially since so many people have been driven off that list by the endless rounds of NERO arguments). The original comment was to the effect that we won't see much change in MMORPGs in the next five years, and probably not dramatic change in the writer's lifetime; this was my response.

I don't know -- five years is a pretty long time in this business. I'm quite sure that your estimates of not seeing the next level in your lifetime are way off.

There are a lot of directions of evolution coming; the only question is which ones happen when. On the one hand, there will be more "story-based" MMORPG systems, where the system is designing more customized and sophisticated quests. No one's had the nerve to build a large-scale one yet, but enough people have talked about it for long enough that I'm pretty sure it's going to happen sooner or later. (We tried to pitch one to EA back at Looking Glass, but they didn't get it.) That's going to be pretty crude at first (same as the current systems were), but I'm reasonably confident it'll evolve quickly.

On the other hand, there are going to be the highly-distributed systems, which are *eventually* going to eat the lunch of the current centralized models. The only reason the commercial systems have thrived as well as they have is that the attempts to do open versions have been so half-assed. But one of these days it's going to be done correctly -- there are projects out there doing *very* interesting stuff, and the real question is which one will gain traction first. Once a properly-designed open system is up and running, it should gradually eat the proprietary ones, the same way that the Web destroyed systems like AOL and Prodigy. (Which, it should be noted, thought that idea was ridiculous -- my father was Director of Advanced Tech for Prodigy, and it took me a fair while to convince him the company was doomed.)

Moreover, even if distributed technologies don't take off soon, I'm reasonably sure that distributed *story-building* will. One of the systems I'm paying attention to is Second Life, specifically because their attitude is conducive to this. If they were to give their users good tools to customize scenarios, the way they give them tools to customize the world, it would become a *very* interesting environment for games that were more RP focused, less hack-and-slash, and significantly smaller-scale. In the YouTube era, there is every reason to expect that small-scale game creation has a rich future, if people are provided with the proper tools.

So there's going to be evolution, and it's going to be fairly fast. The only thing slowing it down, really, is the inherent conservatism of the companies that can afford to build large-scale systems. Still, we're going to see more small, successful experiments, and you can bet that the big companies will jump on those bandwagons *fast* every time they happen. Or they won't, and they'll die and be replaced. That's how evolution works. Punctuated equilibrium in the online world...
Tags: larp, mmorpg, programming
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