Game publishers are looking to make a buck however they can. Players are pushing back, and games with aggressive microtransaction schemes have been met with a fierce backlash. Star Wars Battlefront II was dramatically pushed to drop temporarily disable in-game purchases at launch. Meanwhile, in Belgium, government regulators are looking to label loot boxes as gambling.
This tension won’t just disappear. Big games cost tens, even hundreds of millions to make and market, so publishers need players to stick around. That sounds like a tall order, but there’s already a genre that already figured out how to keep players playing without feeling cheated — massively multiplayer online role-playing games, better known as MMOs.
Don’t let a virtual world go to waste
The pressure to keep you playing has already changed the games you enjoy. Open worlds, once relegated MMOs and specific game franchises, such as The Elder Scrolls and Grand Theft Auto, have become the de facto standard AAA game structure. You’ve probably found yourself 80-hours deep in one of these games. You may even be that deep into several.
Yet even the largest game world isn’t infinite. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, my favorite sandbox from this year’s bountiful crop, is filled with secret vista, hidden items, and side quests. Still, it did run dry, and I stopped playing. I tell myself I’ll go back when new story DLC arrives in December, but will I? Diving back into that world requires a conscious decision, and means immersing myself in a game I already consider “beaten.”
Multiplayer solves that problem. Gamers themselves create the experiences, and community, that binds a game to your everyday life. Grand Theft Auto V was one of the first single-player, open-world franchises to realize this potential and harness it with persistent online multiplayer that, unlike its 2013 contemporaries, wasn’t cordoned into specific areas or limited-time encounters. That’s why GTA V is still on the best-seller list in 2017, four years after its release.
Destiny is gaming’s destiny
It’s only sensible for open-world games to embrace online play – and once that’s added, you end up in a massive, multiplayer world that no doubt includes RPG-like progression.
In other words, you end up with Destiny.
Destiny – and, of course, it’s sequel – offers a large open world, an RPG-style progression, social spaces, group play, dungeons, raids, and more. The game has a limited but existent economy, multiple character classes, and essentially requires playing with others to complete any meaningful end-game goals. Even if you wanted to play by yourself, you can’t. The game throws you into public spaces in which various events randomly spawn to keep you on your toes, and encourage cooperation with others.
Despite all the above, you won’t find the word “massive” anywhere on its website. Instead, it chooses to describe itself as an “expansive online world,” and marketing focuses on the game’ “cooperative gameplay.” Still – it sounds like an MMO, doesn’t it?
The term “MMO,” in the modern sense, doesn’t just represent games like World of Warcraft. Though technically an acronym, it really describes a set of mechanics that are only tangentially related to “massively multiplayer online” games. The coming next wave of open worlds will include many elements cultivated in MMORPGs, but they will not combine to make a game like Guild Wars 2 or Final Fantasy XIV.
Despite its roots, Destiny 2 doesn’t feel like these predecessors. It separates players dynamically into isolated missions, commonly referred to as “instances,” where groups can work together without overloading the game. Instead of sprawling social cityscapes, players commune in a simple, universal headquarters. Other players are around, but there are never too many. The game’s economy is also lean, skipping the thousands of small, trivial items that you’ll find cluttering your bags in Star Wars: The Old Republic.
Fans of traditional MMOs – myself included – tend to look on Destiny’s small-ness with disdain, but games like Destiny often have different priorities than a traditional MMORPG. By paring down in size and scope, the game is able emphasize a more cinematic story, and tightly controlled competitive matches. Plus, you can play it on a console.
Other games will follow this template not only because it’s profitable, but because it’s easy. Bioware’s games, from Neverwinter Nights to the Mass Effect series, have toyed with party-based multiplayer for years. Assassin’s Creed dabbled in cooperative gameplay several times, most recently with Unity, which supported co-op with up to four players. Middle-Earth: Shadow of War digs deep into asynchronous multiplayer. None of these games could converted into a World of Warcraft clone, but they already contain most the elements found in Destiny.
Loot boxes will remain, but you may not care
Now, you may be wondering how loot boxes, and other microtransactions, fit in. That’s the cause of the current meltdown, so will you see them in these future online worlds?
Of course you will. You can expect games to borrow heavily from Guild Wars 2, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and other free-to-play MMOs funded by cash shops. YouTube outrage aside, loot boxes and in-game storefronts make money. While World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XIV still carry the banner for old-school subscription fees, most of their peers fund themselves almost entirely off microtransactions, and even those stubborn holdouts have small, limited digital shops.
In fact, the shift to massive multiplayer experiences can justify microtransactions’ existence. The online infrastructure needed to keep such games running doesn’t pay for itself, after all. Persistent online games need servers, IT staff, and customer support. That’s in addition to the game itself, which must be frequently updated with new challenges, levels, and classes that keep players interested.
The first MMOs funded all of this with a subscription fee, but gamers and developers have agreed that subscriptions aren’t the future. They demand commitment, present a monthly decision to keep paying, and don’t work well for gamers who can’t rack up hours. Console gamers particularly despise signing up for another fee, as they already pay for PlayStation Plus and/or Xbox Live Gold service.
Microtransactions are more flexible. Gamers who don’t want to pay don’t necessarily have to, while those who don’t mind spending a lot – the so called “whales” – can dig deep into their pocket. Players can log in as much as they want instead of feeling obligated to maximum the value of their subscription.
That’s not to say all MMOs get microtransactions right. Archeage, released to much fanfare in 2014, sunk itself with a “labor” system that severely limits the actions players can take without paying up. Yet the fate of that game – and others with less appealing schemes – offers an opportunity for hope. Massive games with massive fan bases risk a lot if they squeeze the player’s wallets too much. It’s hard to make them return if they leave and immerse themselves in another game.
The death of the gamer is the birth of the player
Turning major franchises into long-term “service” games funded by in-game storefronts will mean a turn away from the once-per-year installments that many top names tried to maintain, and the elaborate DLC passes that went with them. Even Destiny 2 will go that route once Activision, a hold-out in its dedication to frequent full releases and DLC expansions, falls in step with its peers.
Instead, games will turn towards a constant drip-feed of content – just as Grand Theft Auto V, Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds, and traditional MMOs already practice. Few of your favorite franchises will be spared this treatment. Those that remain committed to annual or near-annual releases may wish they hadn’t; Titanfall, for example, won’t be high on Electronic Art’s list of priorities, and will continue to suffer for it.
That will be the final nail in the coffin of old-school game culture zeitgeist, where gamers who wanted to be “current” had to play all the latest, hottest titles. Few players consistently jump into many MMOs at once, and as more mainstream franchises adopt this model, fewer players will bounce from franchise to franchise. Even players who dedicate a lot of time to games will be hard pressed to juggle more than a few games at once.
So, you won’t. You’ll find yourself drawn back to your favorite experiences. The “gamer” in you will die. In its place you’ll become a “player,” gaming just as much as before, but focused on only a few games. This is the mold laid down by prior MMOs, and by esports, but soon it won’t be a niche. It’ll be the norm.
That is, of course, an exaggeration. It’s possible, perhaps even likely, that small indie games, bite-sized narrative experiences, and experimental titles will thrive in this future, adding variety when you feel burnt out on your main game. Still, the consolidation of players into a small group of games is already happening, and it will only accelerate as the biggest titles become better at hooking players into never-ending experiences.
Ultimately, in the not-so-distant future, we’ll all be playing MMOs – even if most of the people enjoying them have never heard the term.