The future of massively-multiplayer online games will see the merging of game genres, seamless transitions between single-player and multiplayer content and big sandbox experiences, according to the developers who spoke on a PAX East panel today about MMOs.
Developers on the panel each shared their ideas of where they believe the genre is heading, with some predicting the assimilation of genres while others focused on the merging of multiplayer and single-player modes.
According to Guild Wars 2 lead designer Jon Peters, sandbox and "theme park" games will come to dominate the MMO landscape.
"We're ushering in an era of high-quality sandbox games," he said. "People spend time on them because the investment pays back, and players can work on them on their own."
Jack Emmett of the Neverwinter team believes that MMOs will continue to adopt conventions of other genres, most predominantly first-person shooter and real-time strategy elements. Titles like Sony's PlanetSide 2 and Red 5 Studios' Firefall have already begun to meld these elements.
"We're ushering in an era of high-quality sandbox games."
"Standard MMORPG tropes won't be true anymore," he said, adding that more Eastern and European games are being brought into the West. "Globalization will become bigger too. We're already seeing this kind of cross-pollination with the Chinese market."
Both Star Citizen's Chris Roberts and Matt Firor, general manager for Elder Scrolls Online, said one of the future aspects of large-scale MMOs is the seamless integration of single and multiplayer content.
"[They need to] blend between single-player and multiplayer experiences," said Roberts, citing Demon Souls as a "pioneer" example of melding both solo and social content. "You need this balance between personal experience when you want to play yourself, and collaborative social experiences when you want to play with friends or fight with other players. For me, as a player, I like to play a game that's able to do all those seamlessly in the same world, so it tailors itself to me."
"But don't force anyone into anything, let them use their own social networks to figure out what they want to do," added Firor.
In response to a fan question on MMOs being shut down, using last year's closure of City of Heroes as an example, the panel participants unanimously agreed that online games shouldn't have a shelf life.
"If you continue to develop the game and feed your fans what they want, you should be able to keep them alive," said Sony Online Entertainment's Dave Georgeson, director of development for the EverQuest franchise. "It's only when something happens business-wise that games die. MMOs should last forever."
"User-generated content will only get stronger, not weaker."
"I don't think you shut down games, ever," added Jeremey Gaffney, executive producer for WildStar. "If there are any reasons, it's always on the business side."
"The universe should live forever," added Roberts. "That's the idea of it."
Integration with mobile phone applications will also be more popular in the coming years, said Emmett, stating that levelling up characters and interacting with the game via smartphones and tablets is "the future" of MMOs.
"I think for the high-end games, mobile devices aren't there yet, but they're going to become complementary," added Roberts. "I think in the long term there will be a tablet-like PC that when you walk into your living room it will connect wirelessly to your TV. I think that's the future. The mobile and table side is going to catch up.
"The popularity of modding is also a sign that many future MMOs will place heavy emphasis on user-generated content, including assets, environments and texture mods.
"The future of online games is the past of online games, in a way," said Gaffney. Text-based mods were popular in the 80s, he said, and player-created mods have continued to be a prevalent part of games. "User-generated content will be the future, because it's been so popular the past."
"In the near future, people are going to get real good at that stuff," added Georgesen. "And not all of them will be working for the development company, and that's where things will get really interesting. User-generated content will only get stronger, not weaker."