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Where are MMOs going in the next decade?

Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

Massively multiplayer online games are a genre at a crossroads. Development funding, post-launch business models and the gameplay experience itself are a few of the elements of MMOs that are subject to constant experimentation these days. The world is changing, and during PAX East 2014 yesterday, a few individuals who are invested in the MMO market discussed the ways in which MMOs are going to evolve over the next decade to keep up.

The panelists agreed that there's no one-size-fits-all business model for MMOs; whether a game is free-to-play or requires a subscription of some kind has to be decided on a case-by-case basis. Kjartan Pierre Emilsson, principal game designer at CCP Games, pointed out that a subscription makes sense for Eve Online, for instance, because it can take months for players to plan strategies for battles and operations in the space-based MMO.

an MMO remains a tremendously risky proposition

But perhaps an even bigger financial challenge is finding people who are willing to fund the initial development of an MMO. It remains a tremendously risky proposition, with top-tier titles costing upwards of $100 million over the course of as many as six to eight years, according to the panelists. And the rise of Kickstarter over the past couple of years as a new avenue for raising money doesn't really apply to MMOs, said Stephan Frost, game design producer on WildStar at Carbine Studios. For most Kickstarter projects, $100,000 would be a lot of money. But if you were trying to develop an MMO with that much?

"Good luck!" laughed Frost.

It's expensive to have a large team of developers continuously creating content for MMOs. One solution to that is to rely partly on the players themselves, which is Sony Online Entertainment's strategy with EverQuest Next and its companion game, Landmark. The latter title takes the same creation tools that EverQuest Next developers use and puts them in the hands of players. According to Dave Georgeson, director of development on the EverQuest franchise, players often come up with clever ideas that the developers may not have thought of.

Allowing for user-generated content is a way to keep those players invested in the game. It also makes for an ever-changing game world that can continue to provide everyone with the proverbial "sense of wonder," which, one attendee told the panel, some MMO players feel has been lost in recent years.

MOBAs have "leveled up people's expectation of skill"

The typical gameplay of the MMO genre is also changing. In particular, the multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) genre, which includes games such as League of Legends and Dota 2, has been a driver of evolution in MMO gameplay. MOBAs have "leveled up people's expectation of skill," said Frost, noting that the genre has made the industry realize that "it's OK to be deep, complex and hard to get into."

Frost added, "That opens up possibilities for MMOs," and other panelists chimed in to point out that the eSports-oriented nature of MOBAs is another potential avenue for MMO designers to go down. After all, chasing leaderboards — and the skilled gamers on them — has been a vital facet of all kinds of gaming for decades, and it keeps people playing. And the design influence is going in the other direction, too: Frost mentioned that games like Ubisoft Massive's The Division and Bungie's Destiny are incorporating MMO elements.

Even the way MMOs are played is evolving, the panelists said. Frost, Emilsson and Georgeson all expressed their excitement for virtual reality. Georgeson added that he believes augmented reality will also become popular, and we'll end up playing games out in the world, not just in our rooms on a computer or console. And the world is a key part of the discussion around the future of MMOs, too. Emilsson said CCP wants Eve Online players to feel like they're doing something "meaningful and important," not just wasting time in a virtual world. People have been forming real relationships in MMOs for a long time, and according to the panelists, that will only become more common as we move through the next 10 years.