NCsoft’s Richard Garriott has opened the main two-day Develop conference with a speech dissecting the MMO genre he helped build, saying games developers have failed to add anything new to online game design since the release of his first game Ultima Online in 1997.
He said: "Game design has not changed over 10 years. Fundamentally the gameplay is unchanged."
"Worse yet," he added was that many of those fundamentals h borrowed from Ultima Online and contemporaries such as EverQuest have become standards that "undersell" the potential of the genre to consumers.
"We owe it to consumers to provide new kinds of gameplay," he added.
Combat systems, character leveling that caused players to obsesses over ‘grinding’ and the misassumption that AI can be replace by player-controlled characters were the features he dismantled and accused MMO developers of being overly reliant on.
Garriott added that his upcoming game, Tabula Rasa, was being designed to address these category staples, updating the genre’s combat mechanics and adding dynamic battlegrounds and compelling story to the mix.
He predicated that one feature "really important fore ht next generation of MMOs’ was artificial intelligence: "I think it has a lot more to offer the MMO genre than a lot people has given it credit for. The richness it offers in helping create the world and making sure that players are not the only moving part in that world is really important for the MMO category."
In future, he said, NCsoft also plans to broaden the genres available of online games, away from the stereotype of medieval fantasy: "We really want to broaden the kinds of genres that are successful in the MMO space."
Churn, also, was key, with Garriott saying those studios in the MMO business operating just one product (and the obvious candidate there is Blizzard) would be in trickier position than a portfolio company like NCsoft as players will eventually move away to other MMO products. NCsoft’s aim is to present a portfolio of games that can ensure player loyalty across a whole range of titles.
"You go from a moderately profitable business to a phenomenally profitable business," he said, saying NCsoft’s strategy was to "make churn our friend".
Garriott’s keynote also looked at the various business models for MMOs, explaining that NCsoft was committed to exploring different business models in each territory it operates, for instance the mix of free to download/retail/subscription models.
"The business model games has some incredible advantages," he said when explaining how NCsoft reinvests some of its profits into adding new features to maintain games like Lineage – but that it only invests some of the money.
"We spend less on new products than we do profits so money is always going in the bank."
Key, however, was the message that the genre is still up for grabs for newcomers.
"I really do believe that are some great opportunities in the MMO genre. From a creative standpoint the genre is still very much in its infancy," Garriott added at the close of his talk, pointing out he was only now working on his second MMO despite a long and notable career in the genre.