At E3, trying to slay an MMO stereotype

Makers of online role-playing games aim to attract a diverse crowd--and break out of the fantasy-medieval mold.
Written by Caroline McCarthy, Contributor
SANTA MONICA, Calif.--For game publishers at E3 showing off massively multiplayer online role-playing games, the message was clear: this year, they want to get big.

Thanks to better broadband penetration in the United States, the soaring popularity of online social networking and virtual worlds, and the fact that spending a whole lot of time playing video games is no longer taboo, the timing, they believe, is right.

"The demand for MMOs (massively multiplayer online games) is not even close to being met," said Mike Crouch, a media representative for game publisher NCsoft, which specializes in the online role-playing games. "The demand for it is exceeded only by the technology that is needed to play the MMOs."

But there's another slight problem that can't be solved by the likes of broadband providers Verizon Communications and Comcast: when it comes to MMOs, publishers like NCsoft and Sony Online Entertainment need to defeat one ugly troll of a stereotype.

It's similar to the kind of common perception that regular console gaming--now a staple of entertainment--had to get over not so long ago. More than a few people believe that MMOs require such an immense time commitment that they're incompatible with "normal" lives, that the story lines and structures of the games are headachingly convoluted, and that players need to team up with a sizable pack of other rabid participants in order to accomplish anything.

It's perhaps best exemplified by an episode of late-night cartoon South Park in which the main characters grow so addicted to World of Warcraft that they render themselves immobile.

World of Warcraft, from Blizzard Entertainment, is one of the fantasy-theme games that most frequently comes to mind in the United States when MMOs are mentioned. And it's probably no surprise that Sony Computer Entertainment America CEO Jack Tretton chose the consumer-friendly term "social network" over the geekier, more weighted "virtual world" when talking about the company's new 3D endeavor, PlayStation Home.

In other words, market expansion is the name of the game, and it really is in game publishers' best interests. With a seemingly endless number of missions and objectives, MMOs have proven themselves to be "sticky" beyond titles with finite story lines that an experienced gamer can easily accomplish. They're also profitable; many people have no problem forking over monthly subscription fees for a game like EverQuest.

And then there's the catch-22 of online role-playing: stickiness means a loyal audience, but it also means that dedicated players may be unlikely to ditch one game for another, or even divide their game time between two MMOs. The potential growth, therefore, is in attracting different kinds of players.

"I think the traditional view of MMO players is that they're your Dungeons & Dragons kinds of players, that it's all about swords and shields and that kind of thing," NCsoft's Crouch said. "We try to make different genres so they appeal to different audiences."

For most of the new MMOs that were shown off at the Electronic Entertainment Expo here this week, the tactic of choice is breaking the fantasy-medieval mold that has been associated with online role-playing since the games of text-based Telnet MUDs (multi-user dungeon, domain or dimension). Attendees lined up to try out Pirates of the Burning Sea, an MMO that's structurally similar to World of Warcraft but swaps elves and dwarves for high-seas mercenaries and buccaneers.

Considering the trendiness of pirates in the wake of the blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, this is certainly one to watch.

NCsoft was highlighting Tabula Rasa, the latest endeavor from Ultima creator Richard Garriott, a fast-paced military science fiction title that's a conscious departure from the plodding "leveling up" and inventory building that is a prerequisite for progress in many MMOs.

"It's neither story nor role-playing, when you get down to managing the data of your inventory on such a minute level," Garriott said.

There's also a focus on solo playing in Tabula Rasa, for players who might be intimidated by the "guilds" of traditional MMOs, in which players have to team up and coordinate to all be in the game simultaneously. And there are 30-minute gameplay features: "plenty (of time) to step in, accomplish a mission or two, and step out," Garriott said. So much for the stereotype of MMOs as equivalent to a full-time job.

It should be noted that the new MMOs at E3 are still geared toward a hard-core gamer audience, even if it's a broader set than the typical MMO players. It's hard to imagine Tabula Rasa appealing to "casual" players, but in this post-Wii sports age, that's probably not too far off on the horizon.

And while MMO publishers are vocally trying to move beyond the level-40/half-elf/mage image, they're more than willing to give World of Warcraft the credit it's due.

"World of Warcraft has blazed a real good path for us," Crouch said. "What World of Warcraft has done is set a standard for polished and excellent gaming...As long as people like Blizzard keep making good games, we're all going to be happy."

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