Down with the goblins - Or how to make MMOs fun again

We’re not asking for a complete end to traditional MMOs. As games in their own right they’re great, and still have an important part to play in the overall tapestry of the RPG scene. But just as FPS had to start letting us look up and down and make large messes with realistic physics, the online RPG genre is at a point where technologically and creatively it can and has to broaden its horizons.

The lines between other genres have been blurring and blending for years, and current-gen technology allows us to create truly detailed interactive experiences like never before. MMOs can benefit more than any other type of game from the new freedom designers possess, and they have the potential to bring the most to the table if they’ll loosen up a bit too.

Thankfully, some high profile MMO developers are now working to take the genre to its full potential. Diablo creators Flagship Studios are aiming to streamline the whole experience in order to make it friendlier and much more instinctive. We talked to Travis Baldree, Project Director of the company’s upcomingMythos, about his feelings.

“I think level grinding is usually used as a crutch to keep players in subscription games for a long period of time.Progress bars while crafting items or performing simple tasks are a way to keep players in the game and artificially extend that playtime I think.

"On the flip side, there is something innately satisfying about increasing your level and watching numbers go up, but I don’t think it is a necessary game mechanic, or at least not in the extremely protracted state that it appears in a lot of games.For an MMO to persist, there does need to be a sense of advancement and reward, so that achievement can differentiate you from other players, but I’d rather it not take me 3 months to do.I’m still looking for a game, and not a lifestyle choice.”

There’s positive movement in other camps too. Cryptic Studios’ newly unveiledChampions Onlinepromises to take the genre wholeheartedly into the brash and colourful world of superheroes with a completely action-led interface. The blend of real-time superhero combat and deep character customisation sounds like exactly what we want, and we're really looking forward to playing it.

And while the 3D GTA series has taken baby-steps into the RPG realm, the creator of the original game, David Jones, isshifting the crime simulator online, in what sounds like a brilliantly refreshing direction. APB is planned as a full-scale cops and robbers game with players on both sides pulling and thwarting dynamic real-time heist missions. Set in “a highly volatile world filled with dramatic car chases, shootouts, busts, escapes and arrests”, deep customisation will come from accruing wealth, possessions, weaponry and in-game reputation, and player skill will be just as important as total playtime.

The future of the MMO is potentially a very exciting one. More exciting in fact than that of any other kind of game. At the moment its rigid constraints and conventions often actually hamper the player’s sense of playing a role, but if the above games are successful then the coming yearsmay well see a revolution in the experiences that massively multiplayer online play can bring. And don’t forget, we’ve also got MMOFPS Huxley on the way, promising to severely shake things up.

The day of the goblin is far from over. They do their job well, and there will always be a place in our hearts for the goofy old pointy-eared freaks. But the MMO can do so much more, and we can't wait until it does.