In theory, massively multiplayer gaming isn't a genre. It's everything else - a business model (or several), a technological framework, a social philosophy. There's little to dictate that MMOs have to fit a particular style of design or gameplay.
In practice, of course, things have been very different. There are a number of reasons why the massively multiplayer online role-playing game has come to totally dominate the field. Online gaming's roots in the early multi-user dungeons, or MUDs, is one of the most important, along with the RPG form's relatively lax requirements when it comes to lag. But these reasons become less relevant with every passing year, while the need for MMOs to diversify - as well as the need for other spheres of gaming to access the gushing revenue streams of online gaming - becomes more intense.
Yet it still hasn't quite happened. The overpopulated wilds of free-to-play gaming have seen all manner of gaudy and variously misshapen hybrids spring up in the bid for attention, but few have risen above the general hubbub. In the MMO mainstream, space sim EVE Online is just about the only departure from straight fantasy role-playing to achieve longevity and distinction. Realtime's crime actioner APB has recently made a bold stab for new ground, but Planetside is barely more than a memory now, and the MMO shooter still remains a mystifying, distant holy grail.
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Taking real-time strategy gaming into the massively multiplayer realm has long been one of the more talked-about cross-breeding projects in the gaming geneticists' labs. There are challenges - not least the fact that each player needs to be represented by multiple units rather than a single avatar - but there's also a natural synergy with a genre that has long been synonymous with online multiplayer and the PC platform.
End of Nations could well be the first credible stab at the MMORTS. It's being made by Petroglyph, an RTS specialist formed by former Westwood (Command & Conquer) developers, the men behind Star Wars: Empire at War and Universe at War. The publisher is more of an unknown quantity: Trion Worlds, a well-funded MMO specialist banking on nifty server technology and the traditional subscription business model to make its mark. It also has internal studios working on fantasy MMORPG Rift: Planes of Telara and an ambitious project with the Syfy TV channel whereby players' actions in an MMO will affect the plot of an accompanying TV series.
When we saw Rift (then called Heroes of Telara) at E3 last year, it's fair to say that its unique features grabbed our attention ahead of its generic art and setting. Much the same was true when we saw End of Nations at E3 2010.
Its story of near-future dystopian rebellion, in which the old countries of the world are rising up against a global superpower called the Order of Nations, is only notable for its contemporary twist: the worldwide chaos that gave rise to the Order was caused not by a nuclear bomb or environmental catastrophe, but by economic meltdown and rampant inflation. The game's artwork is a conservative and not particularly attractive run of the RTS mill, with unlovely, angular and strangely eighties units that at least benefit from colour and decal customisation options.
End of Nations doesn't have a particularly strong character, then, but in massively multiplayer gaming it's your character that counts. Here Petroglyph has made an interesting and potentially clever choice: rather than trying to distil the disembodied, godly commander of the RTS into a hero unit or avatar, in End of Nations you become your base.
Your HQ doesn't have a physical location in the world, as such. Indeed, End of Nations doesn't boast a single persistent landscape like World of Warcraft's, being an instance-based game accessed through a world map and War Room menus. But that suits both the RTS form and its story well enough. Your base, which is accessed from the War Room and which you can invite friends to view, represents your advancement through the game's role-playing-style progression system.
As you harvest experience from missions and level up, you'll unlock new units and abilities that will all have a visual representation here; buildings might unlock the ability to launch a super-weapon or grant you a passive bonus. Most importantly, its visual magnificence will represent your stature in the game. MMOs are all about bragging rights and climbing the social ladder, and there's no reason a strategy variant should be any different.
The War Room, which Petroglyph views as a massively multiplayer evolution of the RTS lobby, also has panes allowing you to view open missions, a news ticker updating you on friends' and other players' activities, social features like a friends list and Coalition (i.e. clan), and intelligence reports that will highlight dynamic special events occurring on the servers.
The War Room is a functional interface at first glance, and unromantic compared to the wide-open landscapes of a World of Warcraft. But it's when you see End of Nations' World Map that you understand that this clinical, distant but thrillingly comprehensive overview just happens to be what an RTS persistent world looks like. Updated in real time, the World Map shows the state of the global struggle on your server, borders shifting in the changing winds of the strategy meta-game, and it twinkles with dozens of live "public" instances that you can join or just watch as a spectator.
The public instances are huge maps that might be populated by some 30 to 50 players at a time. They're typically fairly free-form, player-versus-environment scenarios where players battle together or alone, grinding, running missions, exploring, harvesting loot for unit manufacture and interacting socially with each other. This is End of Nations at its most MMO-like; a public instance is roughly comparable to an open questing zone in an MMORPG.
Private instances are akin to a classical raid or dungeon. This is where you group with three or four others to run a more scripted, sculpted and challenging mission, and where the commander classes come into play. MMOs are founded on class-based co-op dynamics and Petroglyph is drawing on this with its Tank, Strike and Artillery commander types who excel, in turn, at close-range, heavily-armoured units; stealthy high-damage hit-and-run tactics; and long-range shelling. Any commander will have access to a wide range of other vehicle units and tactical options; it's more a specialisation than a strait-jacketing restriction.
We're shown a raid on the Acropolis, an Order of Nations stronghold in the former USA defended by a giant wall like a futuristic Great Wall of China. The players are asked to help break a stalemate in the Resistance's assault on the base, and have to get a move on - if they take too long, the Order will break through and destroy their own encampment. Our guide describes the mood as "trench warfare on a tank scale" - the landscape blasted, gouged and scarred by fire.
After a dash across no man's land, the first choke point is a gigantic, temple-sized anti-tank Gatling gun ("everything the Order of Nations does is big") which we destroy by staying in range long enough to deliver a virus to it, all the while wearing down the garage "spawners" that keep a constant stream of enemy units trundling at our position.
After that, we battle past big dome cannons to a mammoth artillery unit that forms part of the wall itself. In a "Guns of Navarone type situation", this immense gun is firing tank-sized shells at another map altogether, so defeating it - as we eventually do by employing a napalm-strike super-weapon enabled by a building at our HQ - will influence the server-wide meta-game on the World Map. It's also the "boss" that represents the half-way point of this mission, opens the route into the heart of the base, and marks the end of the demo.
End of Nations' player-versus-player game will be unveiled at gamescom in Cologne next month, so our guide can't tell us much, but promises that Petroglyph is well aware how important PVP is to RTS gaming. He suggests that team-based modes, taking advantage of the commander classes and the possibilities of the game's peer-to-server rather than peer-to-peer set-up, will be its star attraction. We'll know more soon.
End of Nations may not be that eye-catching, superficially, and how well it meets the narrow, exacting requirements of RTS balancing and design is entirely unknown at present. But in the grand scale of the World Map and the free-form, large-scale multiplayer of its social instances, it's possible to catch a glimpse of something very rare indeed: a completely new way to play RTS games.