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** A Wall-of-text resistance of at least 10.0 is recommended before reading this post. You have been warned. **
As I'm sure many here will agree, the majority of fresh ideas in the game industry are borne not of the big companies (unproven ideas are risky, after all) but rather the indie coder with nothing to lose but time and daylight. With the current wealth of free information, tools and tutorials, coding a game has never been easier for those who wish to turn their dream game into reality (albeit a very basic approximation). Some of the best games since the birth of the industry have been the product of creative and talented individuals who have either re-imagined existing genres or created completely new ones. Publishing a game, too, has become infinitely easier with the advent of the internet, with an increasing number of commercial releases opting for, or migrating completely to, a digital download format.
But despite all this good news, one genre remains untouched by the pioneering bedroom coder... the mighty MMO. For every bright eyed and bushy tailed post from some eager young gamer wanting to "zomg make my own version of Warcraft!!1!" there will be an avalanche of responses politely (and not so politely) pointing out that he'd have a better chance selling snow to an Eskimo. Eventually, after several pages of cold, harsh reality, the poor wretch is never seen again.
But why is this? Why is the MMO genre such a punishing genre to dip your toe into as a coder? Trawl these forums on a regular basis and you'll see plenty of people passing judgment on existing games; offering up their own - sometimes questionable - suggestions, but all equally with the same zeal and enthusiasm. The problem lies, as any veteran gamer or coder who has looked into the unforgiving void that is MMO development will tell you, in the fact that undertaking such a project needs resources that your average hobby coder does not possess or is unable to acquire. The sheer amount of manpower, finances, knowledge and time needed to create even a small game can be simply overwhelming, even to experienced coders.
And this, ladies and gentleman, is why we need a radical change in the industry. We all know it's become stale, but that's not the fault of the companies; they're a business, not a charity. They take a look at what's popular in the market and replicate it. Ad infinitum. It's a sobering thought to consider that we're unlikely to see anything truly original for at least another 10-15 years... UNLESS there is a major shift in the way MMO's are both made and played. Consider this theoretical situation:
A game company creates an MMO development system. Something accessible, easy to code in, but with the capacity to be expanded greatly through mod’s and open-source add-ons. They provide the servers, the network code, security, all the back-end technical stuff, and you, the coder, get to create your game in a nice shiny interface. Sounds crazy? Read on...
Think about it. They could introduce a system whereby you pay outright for the software and are able to play your game with a certain number of people through their servers. If you wish to make the game widely available, you pay a nominal monthly fee dependant on player numbers, servers, tech support etc. Your game could be free to play up to a certain number of subscribers at which point you can continue to let people play for free (revenue through advertising perhaps, at the risk of annoying players) or introducing a monthly fee or shop system. The company providing the infrastructure takes a cut, and you get to keep the rest. It's a win-win situation. People would finally have the chance to develop their own games with intuitive, user-friendly software without having to worry about the nightmare of servers, networking and all the other horrors associated with developing an MMO. And that's not to mention the community: imagine millions of people swapping ideas, art packs, mods, music, sound effects, experience… the list is endless.
This is my dream for the future of MMO's. Putting the power back in the hands of the average gamer and letting them create the vision that they had always hoped for.
I’d love to hear the views from people with more knowledge that I about the MMO industry as to the feasibility of such an idea. I have no doubt that it would make a profit, the problem lies with the infrastructure and being able to police and maintain such a complex system.
In the meantime I’ll keep my fingers crossed and hope some nice CEO of a major games company happens to be trawling these forums and likes what he sees…
(10% in shares will do me just fine).