Friday, September 15, 2006

Will Social MMO games conquer all?

Yet another idea that is coming out of the Austin Games Conference is that social MMOs are on the rise to topple the DIKU Model MMO. I have no idea what DIKU stands for exactly but from what I can gather it was a branch of multi user dungeon games that revolved around item and experience acquisition to define character progress. So basically its the template for every role playing game in existence right now. However, it seems as if I only ever hear the term used when a older developer is complaining about modern MMORPGs. So what makes these doomsayers think that social MMOs will overthrow the current DIKU standard?

Well one reason is that there are a couple of these social MMOs out there with what seem like impressive numbers. While they might not be comparable to Everquest 2 or World of Warcraft in game play they do meet many of the criteria of being a Massive Multiplayer Online game.

Habbo Hotel - Apparently this game has become the standard example for showing that social MMOs are really more popular then current MMORPGs. The game itself has limited functionality to create virtual objects and is based on a micro-transaction revenue model. Its basically a free chat program with big headed avatars. The avatars can interact in a number of limited ways which has led to the duplication of real life games in Habbo Hotel such as musical chairs or dress-up. However, the numbers that are attributed to this game barely generate any revenue for the game even if they are greater then the subscriptions World of Warcraft has. From what I understand the game makes most of its revenue by hyping their world wide user base and charging low cost advertising.

Neopets - I am starting to see this game mentioned more and more often. Its basically a collection of free flash based games which allow you to gain points. These points can be spent to train and upkeep virtual pets which are used to battle each other. Its like a world wide pokemon game that has about 200 mini-games inside of it. Most of its revenue is also made by advertising but at least its games are better defined then Habbo Hotel and also fun. Its users are through the roof with unique free accounts numbering over 100 million. I've watched more then one fellow coworker make use of neopets to pass away time at the office which leads me to why I think social MMOs are gaining so much attention

Social MMOs are gaining attention because they are the perfect short term distraction. People can log in and say hello to their friends while pursuing a fun activity that has almost no time commitment. I especially see these short term distractions used in the workplace and I am sure a good portion of Neopet's user base comes from bored office workers. However even discounting the play from work aspect I don't see these games ever providing the same immersive experience that MMORPGs now offer. People still want an escapist experience when they play an online game. It doesn't matter that they are talking on Ventrilo while number crunching the latest stats on their new item. A part of the brain is still pretending that they are the avatar on the screen.

I do see some potential in social MMOs though and that is mainly in providing free digital services in exchange for advertising rights. However I don't see any of these types of games gathering the revenue necessary to polish their service into something a person would be willing to spend major money on. What I do see happening is social MMOs consuming other internet services like blogging, video sharing and social websites. Now there is one social MMO I would like to mention because I think it has some interesting features which I can see influencing next generation of MMORPGs.

Second Life - This game allows a wide range of virtual item creation and even allows players to code physics or weather patterns into the spaces they own. The game works off a micro-transaction system based off virtual land sales and generates decent revenue unlike the 7 million freeloaders at Habbo Hotel. The avatars are realistic and allow all kinds of customizations and interactions. In fact its because of this that the game can quickly get sordid as players act out their baser instincts. From what I understand the Sims Online suffered from a similar problem.

The two main strikes against Second Life are the lack of any defined game and the creation of bad player content. Despite these two main failings the game has managed to gather 70k users and seems to be enjoying solid growth. Terra Nova has predicted large scale growth for the game over time but so far it has failed to match any of the established large scale MMO titles. I feel the game will continue to gain strength as long as other MMO's fail to have player generated content. While I doubt purely social MMOs will replace DIKU model MMOs I do see some aspects of them being added.