Thomas Bidaux of NCsoft Europe didn't pull any punches with his presentation at the UK's Develop conference. Instead, the MMO giant's director of product development outlined four major ways in which the MMO world will be turned on its head. Or, rather, the 'online' world -- rather than limit himself to MMOs, Thomas talked about online games as a whole.
Firstly, a platform revolution -- including a push towards console gaming -- brings with it challenges as well as opportunities for online games. Digital distribution and a wider audience are key benefits, but developing a console MMO means dealing with the genre's baggage (keyboard and mouse controls, patches, inter-player communication to name but a few). Community is key to many online games, but achieving that while removing the requirement of PC ownership is another challenge.
Consoles aren't the only platform, however; browser-based games such as Runescape already attract huge numbers of players, and the cross-pollination of casual gaming and MMOs will surely have at least one browser-based bastard child. Handhelds with their wifi capabilities are in a key position to take advantage of persistency, and while the heterogeneous mobile platform is in its infancy according to Mr Bidaux, other audience members disagreed.
Secondly, a cultural revolution can redefine what we mean by 'online' and how we interact with online games. Online isn't just MMOs and a large, persistent world; it's also persistent user data, such as achievements and skill level. It's the ability to push updates to a client and help the game evolve post-launch. It's the ability to play alone with thousands, even millions of people; to find the perfect opponent from a huge pool of possibilities.
Thomas gave the example of a Tekken-style game which could revolve around its online component (rather than having multiplayer added in as an afterthought). Online rankings and tournaments allow players to test each others' boasts and shoot for the moon; persistent characters give the player the chance to evolve, learning new moves and customising heavily; constant content updates keep the game fresh and appealing.
Thirdly, an economic revolution may mean the $14.99 subscription model becomes defunct. Online games suit online delivery; digital distribution at its best. iTunes changed the way music is delivered, and models like micropayments, in-game advertising and the 'no monthly subscription but constant sequels' approach all help redefine the way online games work financially.
Older game distribution economics centres around the game's genre, art direction and the technical canvas; in today's online world, add "what do you pay for?" into the mix. Added value is the key phrase here -- Bob can pay twice as much as Anna, but he gets twice as many character slots. Extending this to ingame artifacts such as money and items is an extremely tricky field, but even without that there are features that scale with cost.
Finally, a lifestyle revolution -- identified by Mr. Bidaux as the advent of Web 2.0 -- means more opportunities for online games. The Internet is constantly evolving; collective intelligence (e.g. Wikipedia) and viral content (e.g. MySpace) provide opportunites for community and collaborative efforts. The dematerialisation of software, as embodied by Google's AJAX ventures, is an example of how persistency has power even outside the gaming world.
Overall, it's an exciting time for online games, but we have to wonder how many of these 'revolutions' will have the impact Thomas predicts. New technologies and platforms such as Live Anywhere may help enable some of these visions, but the risk of investment in novelty means that many points may be a long way off, and changes may be gradual. The most exciting possibilities seem to be in the cross-platform 'casual MMO' browser space, where digital distribution and micropayments can be toyed with by smaller studios such as Three Rings -- an interesting platform to watch. Also, seeing what NCsoft is predicting as the near and distant future is valuable in and of itself.