The Problem With “Future of MMOs” Panels

Every year at PAX East there is a panel called “The Future of MMOs” and as someone who enjoys MMOs and really cares about them, I always attend this panel. It isn’t always hosted by the same publication, this year it was done by MMORPG, but regardless of who is leading the panel it always has the same huge failing. The focus is never on the future of MMOs but on whatever games the panelists happen to be working on.

Now you might think to yourself “if the game they are working on isn’t out yet, then talking about their game is the future” and in a very small sense you would be right. The thing is, any MMO currently being worked on and played, even in closed betas, is part of the current landscape. People are experiencing the game and pushing its current development. It might be idealistic of me but when I think of the “future” I tend to think in terms of more than a few years from now.

I’m not saying people currently working on MMOs shouldn’t be on the panel, they absolutely should be. They just shouldn’t be focused on promoting their individual projects. And mentioning the games shouldn’t be forbidden. Absolutely introduce each person and their game, heck even give a quick synopsis of the game; it gives the audience an understanding of where each panelist is coming from. But then move on to the broader topics MMOs face, there are so many to choose from.

Here’s a few choices topics which could easily fill an hour long panel.

The first is “leveling experience versus endgame experience”. Anyone who has played multiple MMOs knows there is often a huge disconnect between how a MMO feels while leveling and how it feels at max level. Often players find the way they were able to play while leveling doesn’t work well when they move on to max level content. The end result is often one of two things. At max level the player discovers either the class they thought they really enjoyed and liked they don’t enjoy anymore, or the player misses out on playing a class they would enjoy at a lot at max level because the leveling experience isn’t fun. In the end this is a problem because it creates a barrier which causes people to stop playing.

Another interesting topic is payment structures and pitfalls. I know many Devs would rather not think about the monetization of their games, but it is a business and MMOs aren’t cheap. No matter if a game is subscription, buy to play, or free to play the choice of which model to go with will have an affect on the game and who is willing to try it. The MMO community has a lot of differing opinions about the payment models and hearing Devs discuss them in an open and honest way could be a really interesting discussion.

A related but huge topic on its own is, how fears about ‘pay to win’ are affecting MMOs. No MMO wants to be labeled as ‘pay to win’ but what does it even really mean? There have been huge discussions, and arguments, in the MMO community about at what point a MMO becomes pay to win. In fact it seems the only thing the community agrees on is pay to win is universally bad. The one thing I haven’t really seen is Devs talk about it, except to say their game isn’t/won’t be pay to win. This could actually be an interesting discussion if people didn’t spend the whole time trying to sell their game.

I’m also not saying mentioning how something is done in a game to illustrate a concept or give an example is a bad thing. There’s just a pretty big line between giving an example and promoting a game. One problem of course is at shows game developers are very much in the “promotion” mode. Breaking them out of this mentality to get to the deeper issues could be problematic, but it also is probably easier than some would assume. I have to think at the end of the day most people making a MMO are doing it because they actually like the genre. And because they work on them they have to at least thought about these issues on some level.

The real roadblock would probably the panel “moderator”. I say moderator in quotes because very little of what happens at these panels resembles moderating at all. Most of the time questions are thrown out, and then there is no attempt to keep things on point. Finding someone who would be willing and able to push back and really lead an in depth discussion of real MMO issues seems like it could be the real barrier. I mean, this year there was one panelist who talked about how no publisher is willing to pay for a fantasy MMO anymore. The kicker was he was sitting between two people who were doing just that. One who’s game has been out and successful for a few years, and the other on a game which just recently came out. It was mind blowing.

A panel which is focused on current issues and how they might or should be solved would be far more interesting than a panel about “why this game I am working on is awesome”. I am probably foolish in holding out hope this might become a reality… but it was be amazing.