These are some old thoughts that I guess I never really finished. Unfortunately, I don't remember where the comments and articles that I referred to are, so I don't have the links. I think I wrote this in response to an article by Neil Sorens on Gamasutra a month or two ago. Anyway (can you see where the site name came from?), here's my trail of random thoughts from long ago.
If you take anything from this, I hope it's an understanding that community is often not the main feature that attracts gamers to MMOs, contrary to popular belief.
IS A REHAUL IN ORDER?
I'm not a professional developer, but I am a gamer who considered MMOs his bread and butter through over a dozen such games since Everquest...until finally saying "to hell with these games" this past year. From that perspective, though I disagree with some of Sorens' key points, I believe parts of his article should be taken to heart.
The industry's current plethora of subscribers is not evidence of fun gameplay, as some seem to suggest. Blockbuster Entertainment thrives largely on renting out mediocre movies simply because its customers enjoy them more than what's on TV, not because its customers perceive these movies as better than mediocre. In the early years of SUVs, automobile buyers jumped at the opportunity to purchase a lot of unstable, gas-guzzling SUVs simply because they couldn't experience the same features in vehicles with better handling and gas mileage. In both cases, there are consumers who are enthusiastic in their praise of the mediocre products, but that doesn't mean most consumers aren't pining for better.
I agree with Sorens that many current MMO enthusiasts will be spending their money elsewhere as features particular to the genre (massive scope, heavily customizable and personal avatars, etc.) become more commonly available in other genres. I am just one of many gamers I know who were once head-over-heels in love with MMOs and have since abandoned the genre entirely. We abandoned it when we decided that its unique strengths no longer outweigh its obvious weaknesses. The basic nature of MMO combat systems did not appeal to me even in my first MMO experience, but other features were compelling enough to hold me (no, community was not among them, though seeing characters with unscripted actions and appearances was).
Most gamers I've known who enjoyed MMOs (for a time, if not still today) are fans of more active and complex games, including FPS and RTS games. They don't play MMOs to relax and unwind. They approach MMOs as they approach single-player RPGs, searching for exhilirating moments, though tolerating larger spans in between them (note that "tolerance" implies disapproval). While I am sure there is a considerable portion of gamers who enjoy MMOs for the low level of engagement necessary, it's indisputable that another significant portion consists of gamers who yearn for more engagement. Huxley, Darkfall, and other products are designed with such gamers in mind.
Are those of us who leave the genre being replaced by new subscribers? Certainly. The current model of MMOs will continue to be successful. But is the potential audience we represent any less profitable? I doubt it.
DEFINING AN MMOG
It's a pivotal question in this debate, so here's a reprint of my comment from Green's blog:
Diablo 2 does not generally classify as an MMO because it wasn't designed to make the avatar much more than just an instrument of power. It has as much chatting and grouping as EQ, but players don't define their avatars in the same ways and don't connect on the same roleplay level with those avatars. Hence, the online gameworld feels less like a virtual society than an online society, more between players than characters.
I think people underestimate the importance of (1) scope and (2) sandbox gameplay in MMOs. What first attracted me to the genre was the idea of such a huge world to explore and so many different paths I might take. Still today, that sort of gameplay is rarely available in single-player RPGs. Single-player RPGs tend to be much more constricted and limited in replay value.
In Neverwinter Nights, playing as a sorcerer is very different than playing as a fighter, but both start in the same place and are funneled into the same adventure. In EQ or WoW, playing a different character means experiencing a different setting and course. That doesn't only affect players who are interested in beginning again. It also means that one's character is more personal; not necessarily symbolic of the player's own identity, but intimately connected with the player is some way.
As Rich pointed out, Warcraft and other MMOs are full of players who solo and who group only when/because it serves self-interests. While I agree that community is very important to MMOs, that importance seems greatly overrated. If single-player RPGs regularly offered worlds that take several months to explore and the ability to shape one's own story, many MMO gamers would be playing those instead.
But I don't claim to know the demography. Without those elements being more separate, it's difficult to estimate what rough percentage of MMO gamers consider community the deciding factor as little as I do.
Consider this though: In non-gaming life, few people regularly submit themselves to boring activities just to be around friends. Generally, friends meet up around activities that provide mutual enjoyment. Enjoyment of the social setting may not be a person's focus during interaction (that is, the person's focusing on society itself), but it is still a necessary condition that usually precludes social engagement.
The MMO genre certainly still interests me. I write about it all the time, afterall, even though I haven't played one in many months. And there are many features I respect in current games. But, ultimately, I'm waiting for a new generation, because this generation bores me.