What if they gave a world and nobody came?
That's the dilemma facing dozens of companies and hundreds of developers this year, as they gamble tens of millions of dollars in the volatile realm of online games.
To be more precise, they're wagering on the growth of MMORPGs and MMOGs -- the unwieldy acronyms for "massively multiplayer online role-playing game." It's a genre with enormous commercial potential, as demonstrated by the success of fantasy titles like Ultima Online, Everquest, Asheron's Call and Dark Age of Camelot, each with paying subscribers in the hundreds of thousands. (Everquest is the ranking colossus, with around 400,000 players.)
Many industry analysts anticipate that those numbers will grow in the coming years, and grow mightily. "I expect there will be 2 to 3 million more people in the U.S. that come on board in the next two years," says David Cole, president of the multimedia research firm DFC Intelligence. "Humans are a social species," says game designer Brad McQuaid, formerly the prime creative force behind Everquest, "which is what makes me believe MMOGs will rival the movie industry in the next five to 10 years."
If they don't, it won't be for lack of trying. Virtual worlds expected to go online this year or next include (by no means a complete list): 3rd World, Ages of Athiria, Asheron's Call 2, A Tale in the Desert, Black Moon Chronicles, Caeron 3000, Charr: The Grimm Fate, Citizen Zero, City of Heroes, Darkfall, Dragon Empires, Earth and Beyond, El Kardian, Endless Ages, Eve Online: The Second Genesis, Horizons, Lineage II: The Chaotic Chronicle, Myarta, Myth of Soma, PlanetSide, Quest of Ages, Realms of Torment, The Rubies of Eventide, Shadowbane, The Sims Online, Star Wars Galaxies and World of Warcraft.
Almost all of them are fantasy, with a smattering of sci-fi. Even if you're a gamer, chances are you've never heard of most of them.
And in all likelihood, this is the last time you ever will.
Most of these games will fail for several prosaic reasons -- not the least of which is an unavoidable fact of life: The hardcore gamers who make these games successful can usually obsess over only one game at a time. There are only so many hours in a week, after all, and MMORPGs are nothing if not massively time-consuming. (For this very reason, says Cole, "I think there is room for only a handful of these games in each genre.") And because many gamers have long since established a social network on established MMORPGs, it's unclear how these new titles can lure them away.
"I play Everquest currently and have for three years," says Jennifer Powell, an online community consultant and freelance writer based in Colorado. "The only thing that would make me switch would be if all my friends did, since my friends, including my husband, are the main reason I continue to play."
But the main limitations on the MMORPG market really seem to be self-imposed: Most developers can't shake the fantasy/sci-fi mindset or conceive of an alternative way of playing. Very few role-playing games have deviated far from the world imagined by that somewhat dotty, Hobbit-fixated Oxford professor 50 years ago, or strayed much from the central conceit of "leveling up" -- that is, improving the traits and abilities of your persona in gradual steps -- originally invented by Gary Gygax for Dungeons & Dragons more than 25 years ago.
The genre restrictions create a kind of hardcore role-playing gamer ghetto. "I think they're all kind of mining the same hardcore group," says Will Wright, chief designer at Maxis Studios, speaking of the current roster of MMORPGs. "I don't think they're bringing a lot of new players in."
Are too many game companies chasing too few hardcore gamers? If so, we could be set for a disastrous year of reckoning, as the game industry's fixation on its own cultural inclinations sends it into a downward spiral of failure. With so many entrants fighting for air, companies will fold, game worlds will evaporate, investments of time and capital will dissolve into ether -- all lost in a narrowness of imagination and an unwillingness to build a space that accommodates the rest of the world. In the short term, the real battle for an online audience will most likely come down to two games in a clash of true titans: Star Wars Galaxies and The Sims Online.
But there's some hope. Because while Star Wars Galaxies may seem at first glance an exclusively geek nirvana, the developers have taken an effort to make it something more. Even more intriguingly, The Sims Online hints at a different future and could promise a true breakthrough: a world of online role-playing where everyone feels at home -- and everyone has a home.
"You're running a fucking service!" Bernie Yee growls at a group of his industry peers. He's trying to persuade his fellow MMOG developers not to force their subscribers into "a Darwinian survival of the fittest," which benefits their most obsessed subscribers. Instead, he argues, the developers should cater to casual gamers, even at the expense of their hardcore fans.
"That's a new law, then," another developer scoffs back, suggesting that designer Raph Koster's influential "Rules of Online Gaming" will need an addition: "survival of the wimpiest."
Yee refuses to budge: "You tell me -- who do you want to alienate more?" Since developers are often as hardcore about games as their audience, many are evidently unwilling to buy his reasoning.
The exchange took place at the Game Developers Conference in March, during a heated round table on the future of MMORPGs. Yee, former director of programming at Sony Online Entertainment, was the moderator. And from the start, the dialogue was interspersed by shouts and smack talk. It was also an early glimpse at the oncoming train wreck of soon-to-fail games.
"Will all the women in the room please stand up?" an overwrought British developer fumes. "It's white males, all wearing glasses! Look at us!" The bespectacled Caucasians in attendance nod: The lack of women players and developers, they agree, is keeping their games from becoming truly mass market. And with so much potential revenue out there, where are the games that aren't sci-fi or fantasy? "We're all the Star Wars, D&D, Tolkien fans; those are the games we create," another developer admits glumly.
Both Star Wars Galaxies and The Sims Online aim to break out of the hardcore ghetto. And so, for varying reasons, the eyes of the gaming world are upon them.
"Star Wars Galaxies and The Sims Online probably impressed our editors more than other MMORPGs this year," says Ken Brown, editor at Computer Gaming World. Set to launch sometime this December, both these games -- from Sony Online Entertainment/LucasArts and Maxis Studios/Electronic Arts, respectively -- represent the game industry's first (and perhaps last) chance to prove how large the market for massively multiplayer games can really be.
"We think Sims and Star Wars Galaxies will be a real indication of the potential for the market," says DFC's Cole. As indicators of the MMORPGs' overall appeal, he added, "either or both could be the first games to top the 1 million [subscriber] mark."
Set shortly after the destruction of the Death Star, from the first Star Wars film, Galaxies provides players with eight to 12 planets to explore, including four (Tatooine, Naboo, Endor, and Yavin 4) featured in the movies. (Spacefaring is planned in later releases; for now, automated shuttles ferry players between these destinations.) Each planet, according to LucasArts producer Haden Blackman, is bigger than the entire Everquest landmass.
Major characters from the first trilogy are on hand: Jabba the Hut offers assignments to prospective bounty hunters, for example, while Han Solo or Boba Fett may drop in on the player, when the right circumstances obtain. The designers also plan to have special events, in which their "digiteer" staffers will take control of Lucas' most beloved characters, in order to engage players in live, semi-improvisational online theater. Killing any of the franchise's key archetypes, however, will be impossible, as they'll usually appear in contexts where fighting is prohibited, while only the best player characters even stand a chance of beating them to a draw. (LucasArts staffers doggedly maintain the game's internal consistency to the world conceived by Lucas, even squaring it with the films' other cross-media tie-ins -- books, comics, and so on -- the aggregate of which they lovingly refer to as "the continuity." They also speak with quiet pride of the role Galaxies will play, after Lucas releases the next and final film -- when the MMORPG will alone remain, as LucasArts publicist Tom Sarris puts it, "to carry on the canon.")
It's the kind of space, in other words, that you can imagine "Star Wars" devotees spending their entire lives in.
And that may be a problem. Is there room for a normal person in a world of Lucas fanatics?
"Casual gamers -- even gamers most people would consider hardcore -- are intimidated by the zealots investing four to six hours a day into an MMORPG character," says Erik Peterson, a freelance game reviewer. "It ruins the game for them and turns playing into an escalating arms race of online gaming hours that they just can't win." Not to mention the even more noxious subset, who hack cheats into a game, or still worse, the "griefers" who actively sabotage the game, harassing newcomers (often sexually) or springing practical jokes that leave their hapless marks lost, poor or dead. "Making it so the hardcore experienced players don't totally take advantage of and ruin it for the newbie players is essential," says Cole.
According to Star Wars Galaxies lead designer Raph Koster, they're making a concerted effort to bring in more casual players as well. "We're hoping that we can reduce the time commitment required to play these sorts of games," Koster tells me by e-mail. "Until now, it's not been uncommon to see the average player spending 20 hours a week online ... So we're hoping to cut that in half. Of course, the die-hard Star Wars fans may well prove us wrong on that in the end."
To ease the players' anxiety of leaving their world, Koster and his team have implemented ways for remaining engaged with it offline. For example, if you choose to play a merchant, you can hire a computer-controlled character to staff your shop for you while you're grappling with real life. You can also give missions to other players, subcontracting tasks while you're away. Features like these have helped mesmerize gamers during Galaxies' long production cycle over the last couple of years.
"The sheer number of skills and professions is exciting," says Rick Moffat, 36, a hardened veteran of games like Everquest and Asheron's Call. "If they can actually make some of the professions viable -- bounty hunters, explorers, smugglers -- it's going to stretch the boundaries of what's possible in an MMORPG."
It's impressive, to be sure, but I wonder if Koster and Rich Vogel, his design partner, underestimate the militant devotion that the franchise has accreted. There are people who actually waited in long lines for the premiere of "Attack of the Clones." You have to ponder how the same kind of Jedi masochists -- who kept the flame burning even after the disheartening "Phantom Menace" -- might drive off the more blasé fans. Who wants to hang out in cyberspace with the kind of guy who spent a week outside the multiplex in a pup tent?
"That's a definite possibility," says Ken Brown. "But I think guys like Raph Koster and Rich Vogel are among the smartest online designers in the business, and they know how to make a game appealing to as many people as possible." Wright speculates that it may come down to how well Koster and Vogel can mediate a balance between the players who "are just hardcore -- they've been playing this thing 40 hours a week, and now they're a super Jedi -- versus somebody who just dropped into the world and is just cannon fodder."
LucasArts' Blackman insists this won't be the case. "The interaction we've seen on our community message boards have been heartening," he says. "The hardcore Star Wars fans have patiently educated all the less-informed board members on the nuances of Star Wars, while the hardcore MMORPG players have done the same for MMORPG newbies." (And the zeal of the former group has an influence on the design team as well: On learning that Wookie characters would speak English, as opposed to the grunts and trills they associated with the beloved Chewbacca, "the hardcore fans," says Blackman, "freaked out." Now, before you can understand a Wookie, you must first learn the lingua franca of Wookiese.)
Many in the industry argue that MMOGs won't become a breakout success until they can bring in a substantial number of women into the audience, and the Galaxies team says they have accounted for that.
"We're definitely including elements that will appeal to women," says Blackman, pointing in particular to the many ways players can customize the social interactivity aspects (like stylized chat text), and a far more granular selection of female character body types. (In previous MMORPGs, women often complained that the options for their online alter ego were restricted to thin and busty -- or, well, curvy and busty.) You can also customize appearance to an infinite degree-- every facial feature can be subtly altered with a slider control, as can skin tone -- to create a persona that's truly unique. Of the 700 or so learnable skills available, only a third are combat-related, with a number designed to appeal to women -- or at any rate to those less interested in a life of galactic swashbuckling. "I'm kind of embarrassed to mention this," says Blackman, "but we have a hairdressing skill tree."
This attentiveness will also be evident in the game's handling of the griefer problem, which anecdotal evidence suggests plagues female players disproportionately. The anti-griefer policy hasn't been totally enumerated yet, Blackman says, but will operate on a basic principle: "Anything that loses revenue is bad." So bad, the game will include a hot key for instant harassment reporting. (It also transmits a snapshot of the victim's last five minutes of conversation with the accused, allowing the company moderator to make a fair deliberation between them.) Still, of the 250,000 people registered on the Galaxies community site, LucasArts staffers estimate that only 10 to 15 percent are women.
The breadth of choice may end up overwhelming the uninitiated. "It might be too deep for casual players," says Computer Gaming World's Brown, "but it will offer a rich, detailed, engrossing world to those willing to spend a little time with it." Which might also mean a game that's all things to all people -- but beloved by none. "The gamers who would consider themselves mild Star Wars geeks won't subscribe to the game," game reviewer Peterson predicts, "because either they don't enjoy MMORPG games or they feel intimidated by both the more hardcore Star Wars geeks and the more hardcore gamers who play MMORPGs like they are a part-time job."
Not all the prerelease hype has gone to Star Wars Galaxies. "In addition to Galaxies and The Sims Online," says Brown, "we're also very interested in World of Warcraft, which will of course be huge." No doubt, given the phenomenal success of the strategy games that inspired it -- but given Blizzard Studio's equally phenomenal release delays, it's anyone's guess when Warcraft will manifest. Another potential standout may be Asheron's Call 2, set a hundred years after the first game, when the world has declined into a chaotic wasteland -- which players must work together to tame and rebuild.
"Game journalists are hardcore gamers," says Peterson, who attended E3, the game industry's premier expo, held last month in Los Angeles. According to him, the title with the most buzz among his peers (after Galaxies) was City of Heroes, in which players take the personae of costumed superheroes fighting crime and evil in a virtual metropolis. "Despite the prevalence of fantasy tropes in online games," says Rick Dakan, lead designer for Heroes, "very few people can actually relate to what it's like to be an elf or wizard or what have you. Players immediately understand superpowered heroes."
But gamers understand The Sims even more. A networked variation of Wright's game, The Sims Online arrives at a time when the original title is still a bestseller (two years after its release), joined by numerous expansion packs -- 6 million and 8 million sold so far, respectively, easily making it the most popular game of all time. Expectation has been building on the games' numerous fansite communities. (Wright says with winning understatement, "If we can convert a good percentage of that community to Online, then it'll probably do very well.")
"Fans are already posting for roommates!" said the producer demoing the game for me at E3, as she maneuvered her space alien alter ego through her ornately furnished apartment, pausing to dance with, then slap, a gentleman caller. As in the single-player game, you can buy your own property, or share a lot with several housemates.
What you do there is entirely at your discretion. "Naked-clown beauty pageants, superhero cowboy bars, and exclusive mountain hideaways are just a few of the many strange possibilities this game offers," says Computer Gaming World's Robert Coffey. This is because the game comes with no overarching theme. Wright's idea is to provide tools that are robust enough for players to shape their own world, at their own leisure. "We're trying to make [success] more correlated to your creativity than your time investment. What I want is a game where people play three, four, maybe five hours a week, and feel like they're getting a lot out of it."
While the world is laid out in a way that'll call to mind Sim City, Wright's earlier hit, the game itself is expansive enough to include genre elements of other MMORPGs. "A lot of neighborhoods will be themed areas," says Wright. He envisions players with like tastes naturally migrating together, and using the diverse range of objects (homes, furniture, and so on) to create their own unique communities. "So I look at the neighborhood, and I see, say, Western town, or Futureville, or whatever... And that'll give me a good sense of, 'Oh, if I'm into science fiction, I should go to Futureville,' and I zoom down to Futureville ... and if I'm really into that, I probably would want to move there and build my futuristic house in that area You can buy a chair that looks like it came off a starship, you can buy a chair that looks like it came out of a castle or one that looks like it came out of a Las Vegas casino. I think the range of objects that people have to build with are going to suggest the breadth of theme that we hope to see in the world."
There will be no segregation between hardcore and casual players; rather, Wright is working to make their differing preferences complement each other. "If you have everybody in one area, and they're all trying to do the exact same thing, that's when it starts feeling kind of repetitive. But when you have people all mixed in pursuing different goals entirely, then it starts feeling like, you know, the real world." He guesses that the more dedicated gamers will devote their time to creating fictional businesses or pursuing other economic goals. But doing this creates, in his words, a "pyramid of dependency." A group of hardcore gamers can unite their properties to create a grand theme park with rides and entertainment, for example -- then sell tickets to casual gamers. "I'd like to keep the game structured so that the hardcore people are continually interacting with the casual people."
The user objects are designed so that players can even create their own games within the larger game. "You could easily build a treasure hunt with this one object that we're making," says Wright, "and strew clues all over the world, and you kind of have to search the world and find the clues. Or play a game like Assassin, where everybody has an envelope and a name in it, and you have to go find that person ... We want to have a lot of activities that kind of span the world."
As with the original version of The Sims, another feature in the online version enables players to define their relationship to other people. But in the multiplayer realm, the function allows for all kinds of wacky sociological chess games. During a testing session, for instance, Wright competed with a member of his team to become the most popular Sim on the server. "So we were being nice to everybody, and they were making us their friends," he says. "We both got very competitive about it, and we started paying people to be our friends. And from that point it kind of escalated, and we started hiring people [to become an enemy of the other person] ... It was kind of twisted."
Unlike every other game on the market, The Sims enjoys a fan base that's roughly equal male and female. Which must be partly why Wright has devoted so much attention to the griefer problem. While the Ignore/Ban function allows players to summarily remove offending persons from their lot, he's gone a bit further with The Sims Online: Wright is trying to grief his own game. "Lately I've been trying to play as a grief player in our internal tests of TSO," he says, "both to explore what the likely tactics will be and also to get a sense for how motivating or satisfying it is to play that way -- and, hence, how to make it less so."
Some aren't so sure dedicated game fanatics will descend on Wright's game. "I doubt TSO will appeal much to hardcore gamers," says Computer Gaming World's Brown. "But I don't think that matters much. Millions of non-gamers have discovered the fun of playing games on their computer because of The Sims, and TSO may encourage many of them to try online gaming for the first time. That's good for consumers, good for game companies, and good for everyone except, possibly, TV executives."
But even if TSO and Galaxies are the blockbusters they'll surely become, it's unclear whether their success will mean a revolution in online games. They may just sponge up the market so thoroughly that the competition will be left to pursue increasingly smaller, unsupportable niches. ("The worst case, really," notes Wright, "is when you launch one of these things and its just marginally successful. Because then youre in a position where its hard to kill it, but you still have to incur the expense of just running it.") TSO and Galaxies may be perceived as too exceptional for others to follow the trail they blaze: Few developers, after all, have Wright's ambition or commercial track record, and no other film or book franchise has anywhere near the draw or scope of "Star Wars." (Except, perhaps, "Lord of the Rings," the MMORPG adaptation of which currently languishes somewhere in preproduction.)
But what happens when almost all of the upcoming fantasy/sci-fi MMOGs fail and investors lose countless millions? Publishers may cede the field to LucasArts, Maxis, and the current hits, convinced that the genre takes too much time and money to be worth the wager.
"If they're all in the mold of, you know, the men-in-tights Everquest model," says Wright, "we're pretty close to the limit right now." Perhaps hardcore fantasy gamers will move away from MMORPGs entirely, gravitating instead toward games that allow them to customize an online experience according to their own obsessive-compulsive calibrations. Toward titles like the long-awaited Neverwinter Nights, for example, which enables player to create and host mini-multiplayer worlds for up to 64 players.
"But as they start to diversify into these other themes," Wright continues, "I think potentially the market is much bigger than it is now. Maybe ten times bigger." This has proven true in the Asian market, at least, where games like Lineage (recently imported into the U.S. by Ultima creator Richard Garriott) enjoy subscribers in the millions.
But all that depends on whether developers are willing to risk creating games that appeal to other people besides themselves.
"Here's a little thought experiment," says designer Andrew L. Tepper. "Ask yourself which of these stories is more appealing:
"1. A story about saving your family. 2. A story about saving the world."
Tepper continues: "I can relate to a story about saving my family, and so can most casual game players. So why does every game designer insist on writing games about saving the world? MMORPG designers are especially guilty of this, and it's the reason they have trouble moving beyond the hardcore gamer market." Tepper is behind A Tale in the Desert, an MMORPG being developed by his staff of three. Besides The Sims Online, it was the only game that the GDC round table could point to as being truly innovative. "It is a game about building the perfect society," Tepper says. "After [life's] necessities are out of the way, you advance your character spiritually ... Once your character reaches a high enough spiritual level, you can lead large projects that advance the entire civilization."
"When massively multiplayer games become simpler to learn, offer more of a sense of online community and interpersonal communication and different rewards than just killing and leveling up," says Brown, "then these games will break through to a wider audience." Citing the massive sales of the sleeper single-player hit Roller Coaster Tycoon a couple years ago, Brown suggests "a massively multiplayer theme park game, where users of any age could ride other players' rides, build their own rides, and hang out with other park visitors."
But some prominent developers aren't sure the time for significant change is now. "To me," says Everquest creator Brad McQuaid, "'leveling up' ultimately just means a focus on character or persona development." And he considers it an inextricable part of the genre's appeal. "I'm not saying someone won't invent alternatives one day ... maybe they will. But, at least short term, I'd advise against it -- we need to see one or two more successful generations of MMOGs before we get too experimental." Presumably this will be a guideline for the online game McQuaid is working on now, under the auspices of Sigil Games Online, his new studio.
"When it comes to attracting women and the mass market in general," says City of Heroes designer Rick Drakan, "I think the games need to expand in both genre (out of the fantasy ghetto) and in gameplay (out of the repetitious cycle of killing and looting)."
But are they ready to give women what they want? According to longtime MMOG player Jennifer Powell, that means giving them "[a] safe environment, definitely. Free of harassment and most forms of vulgarity or verbal assault." But getting that might require a cultural shift that the industry isn't ready for: "In the past, continuing into the present, MMOGs have been designed and run mainly by game geeks ... they are great, fun people in many ways," she says, but "they are not for the most part socially skillful." It's part of what makes customer support for the games she's played, by her estimation, dictatorial and arbitrary. "I'd love to see that replaced with something less personalized and more equitable, not to mention more thoughtful. But that requires a level of maturity most customer support departments in MMOGs don't yet display." For now, there is no developer patch for social skills.
It might take some time to "level up" that social-skill stat. So the first step might be for designers to confront their mania to become micromanagerial gods in the universes of their own design. Wright suggests it may require confronting a "moviemaker wannabe" streak evident in many developers: "You know: 'Well, George Lucas made his world -- here's my world!' And of course for them, in their background and their interest, a cool world usually is either postapocalyptic science fiction, or it's Tolkienesque ... Somehow we keep falling into these two well-worn themes over and over and over and it's getting a little, you know, worn out.
"I think another approach to this whole thing is that you give the players that canvas," Wright says, "and let the players create the back story and the theme and whatever, and you focus on being innovative through the [game] mechanisms." The future, in other words, may depend on an equal collaboration between game players and game developers, working together to create worlds that neither could dream up alone.
Or they can continue as they always have, playing heroes in the tiny worlds they've made for themselves, designed to keep anyone unlike them outside, drawing their virtual swords, once more, to fend off the same stand-ins for innovation and genuine social intercourse, and -- as the economic realities threaten to pierce the veil -- keep whacking away.