I have an admission to make: even though I've played MMOs for years, I guess I believed the stereotypes, and I expected Sony Online Entertainment's annual Fan Faire in Las Vegas to be filled with shuffling, socially-awkward freaks with poor dress sense, using obscure science-fiction references to mask their conversational inadequacy. The reasons for this are quite simple: having played MMOs for years, I'm a shuffling, socially-awkward freak with poor dress sense, and I use obscure science-fiction references to mask my conversational inadequacy.
Well, it turns out that my sad state of repair has little to do with the games I've been playing. While I searched the glossy gambling dens of Las Vegas's vast Hilton Hotel in search of nerds, shut-ins, and hunchbacks like myself, by and large I was confronted with a mass of mild-mannered families who just happened to really like MMOs - ordinary people, then, spread across a surprisingly wide demographic.
These people, it turns out, are mostly grown-ups. Real grown-ups, with children and responsibilities and mortgages. The majority of them weren't covered in pizza-stained T-shirts, and almost all of them smelled fine too (I checked). There weren't even that many people in cosplay for most of the long weekend: one bearded, armour-clad dwarf turned out to be a lady (that was a socially-awkward encounter), but she was only dressed up in Mithril to pimp her new MMO magazine. Equally, another promising subject, who I had taken to be a pint-sized Lucas-junkie in an unrefined R2D2 costume, was actually nothing more than a lavishly over-designed drinks dispenser.
Although it's always good to have clichs destroyed, I have to admit to a small degree of initial disappointment. Hunter S. Thompson came to Vegas and saw dinosaurs stalking the colour-clash corridors; I couldn't even find a decent elf.
The reason for such a familial and wide-ranging audience is actually pretty simple. SOE has been working on MMOs for over ten years. This is a player-base that has grown up, had kids, found jobs, had more kids, lost jobs, watched parents and peers succumb to horrendous diseases, and often found room to throw in a few divorces and second marriages along the way. To put it more directly, they've had time to level up in real life, with a constant thread of games like EverQuest weaving itself into the fabric of their existence. This isn't just an audience, then, it's a community - and SOE is smart enough to know a thing or two about communities by now.
The Fan Faire is the company's love affair to that community: an annual event that has been running through the good times and the bad, as SOE's fortunes swell and sink, its games evolve, and players fall in and out and then back in love with titles like Star Wars Galaxies and The Matrix Online. It's an opportunity for the players to meet the designers, and for the designers to find out what the players really want. It's three days of panel discussions, tech demonstrations, product unveilings - and indoor artillery fire, as endless rounds of Norrath T-shirts are blasted out of air cannons, often with comically hazardous results.
Everything old is new again
Although 2008 was a year in which three new, and pretty exciting, products were on close-up show for the first time, the most oversubscribed panels were for the existing games. EverQuest and EverQuest II frequently packed the halls with round-table Q&A sessions, often of a staggering granularity; one particularly involved query about the availability of old quests was written out on two closely-typed sides of A4, and took over five minutes to ask. We got a peek at the new Guild Halls available for EverQuest II, and there were raid workshops.
It was also these two games that caused the biggest splash during CEO John Smedley's annual address, with the announcement of their new expansions. "EverQuest and EverQuest II are still going as strong as ever," Smedley argued. "And we're coming to a milestone I never expected: our tenth anniversary." Both expansions - EverQuest's Seeds of Destruction and EQII's The Shadow Odyssey - have the tangible scent of a Greatest Hits collection to them, bringing a smattering of new features, but focusing predominantly on a return to many of Norrath's most iconic dungeons and zones. As senior producer Clint Worley put it, "Every expansion is the result of brainstorming with the entire team. This time we're rekindling fond memories."
When Smedley idly dropped in that every attendant of Fan Faire would be receiving both expansions for free, the ensuing roar was so loud, I thought an A380 Airbus had chosen that moment to pull off an emergency landing on the buffet table behind me. It hadn't, of course. I was just witnessing the full power of fan-service; staring into the eye of a terrifying new-media volcano, and watching as it erupted. As the applause died down, Smedley seemed genuinely moved as he explained, "You came from all over the globe, you dressed up in costumes. It's the least we could do."
Although cast as permanent second fiddle to Blizzard, SOE remains utterly capable of inspiring this kind of devotion. Despite its past upsets, Star Wars Galaxies seemed to be in fine health, for example, with plenty of players cheering its every mention from Smedley, and lines forming around its booth. With the game reaching its fifth anniversary, producer Chris Field emphasised the importance of keeping a dialogue with the players, announcing a new playable Hoth area and a trading card game.
Equally, the company's more niche titles, such as Pirates of the Burning Sea and Matrix Online - it's a sign of the company's rocky road to self-awareness that they managed to make a Matrix game niche, even if they did inherit it half-broken from Ubisoft - were well-represented. That said, Pirates learned the hard way that if you offer up a dense technical talk on art design, in Vegas, while there are free donuts being served at a Women in Gaming panel across the hallway, you're going to pay a price in audience turnout - and you're going to have to talk about greyscale and colour charts while the echoes of boisterous laughter and sugary chomping bleed cruelly through the walls.
The Matrix Online panel was perhaps the most intimidating session of the entire weekend, as many of the attendees were dressed in leather coats and sunglasses, and Ben Chamberlain, the single individual responsible for creating almost all of the game's daily content, from quests to live events, bears a disturbing resemblance to Agent Smith. Tellingly, most of the hour was spent allowing Chamberlain to gauge how well his efforts were going down. In a bizarre and - considering these games are meant to be massively multiplayer - financially worrying development, as the talk progressed, I slowly realised that everyone in the room except for me knew one another. It still provided a fascinating insight into the task of running a live game with a small team, and said a lot for SOE's bravery in keeping more modest products afloat.
While there's already a significant range to SOE's catalogue, as Smedley pointed out in his address, the company's new games will take this even further - and may be the key to SOE's resurgence. DC Universe Online is a case in point, levelling like an MMO, but playing like an action game. Its familiar characters and appearance on both the PS3 and the PC may make it an excellent gateway drug for those who've yet to taste the joys of Azeroth or Norrath. It doesn't hurt that it's also a solid chunk of Technicolor fun, and even a few minutes of throwing cars and frozen enemies around Metropolis suggest that it's the physics as much as the licence that may come to define this massively-multiplayer brawler.
With a regular queue forming at the preview pods, DCUO had an excellent showing. The only hiccup, in fact, was when my arrival at the demonstration stand magically coincided with the spontaneous emergence of long-dormant electromagnetic superpowers hidden deep within my body, as I managed to fuse three dev-kits and black-out at least five HD displays simultaneously, just by picking up the control pad - presumably also frying all traffic lights within a five-mile radius and sending slews of pink stretch Hummers into balletic collisions. (These same superpowers were possibly responsible for the scariest moment of the entire trip, causing my hotel room television to randomly switch itself on at three in the morning, filling my blurry consciousness with the disembodied voice of Barry Manilow urging me to check out the swimming pool.)
Five steps away from DCUO, but strangely absent from any in-depth mention in Smedley's address, was The Agency, which continues to look gorgeous, but remains unplayable. A panel showcasing a video walkthrough suggested there was plenty of brains behind the beauty, however, with elements like a web-based client that allows you to manage your operatives when you're not logged in. "We're taking the best of the MMO space and combining it with the best of the shooter," announced development director Matt Wilson, who felt there was no danger in moving the genre outside of fantasy settings. "MMOs come with recognition: you know what a troll is. That's exactly why we chose espionage. People still know what to expect."
But the central push of both the Fan Faire and Smedley's address was, surprisingly, Free Realms. "It's designed from the ground up to be playable by people of all ages," said the executive. "This is exactly something that's missing from the marketplace."
Chunky, colourful, and deceptively simple, Free Realms may quietly be the most progressive and inventive MMO in development. A mix of social networking site and a virtual world, the comical trailer doesn't even mention MMOs once, but this is far from being a simple tweenaged Second Life: there's levelling, classes, and a massive mini-game-riddled map, with entirely optional combat. Somehow, the development team has managed to make all this launch from a browser, with an almost invisible client download. On top of that, it's free to play, with a 'velvet rope' payment model separating off certain paid areas and items.
In retooling the MMO structure for as wide an audience as possible, Free Realms' team has managed to make something that already feels pure and uncluttered. Do MMOs really need limited inventory slots and an early choice tying you into a class? This game suggests they don't, allowing you to carry as much as you want and switch classes simply by changing your outfit. As the game is aimed at children, the team is already planning a suite of safety features to stop this virtual funfair from becoming a predator's one-stop shop, thankfully without the need for sadistically unmemorable Friend Codes.
A game that encourages people to play MMOs with their families was a fitting highlight for a weekend that showed that people already do play MMOs with their families. With many questioning whether this type of experience is even a viable market in the first place, or just a playground for Blizzard and a few plucky stragglers swarming in its wake, SOE is a good place to look for some kind of an answer. After all, SOE used to be Blizzard, back when EverQuest was taking the audience into the unthinkable realms of the half-millions. It isn't on top anymore, and, in a brilliantly honest strategy, isn't trying to pretend that it is. Despite that, it has a decade of experience, a suite of profitable games, the money and vision to take risks, and an ever-widening portfolio that allows it to work around World of Warcraft, finding different audiences, rather than headbutt Blizzard directly - like Conan and Warhammer - gaining partial victories which will probably be wiped out whenever Azeroth welcomes a new expansion.
John Blakely, development chief at SOE Austin (where DC Universe and Star Wars Galaxies are made), summed up the company's approach best when he told me, "When we started, we had EverQuest, which was a fairly traditional, hardcore, very difficult game. EQII fills a slightly different role, as does PlanetSide, and all of our games address a different market segment. Now, you're seeing us grow up with our fans, and we're branching out as they are."
It was hard to leave Fan Faire, then, with anything other than the feeling that SOE has put some seriously effective thinking into where to take its fans next. When the last night rolled around, and the cosplayers eventually turned up in force, the picture was finally complete: as secret agents shared the stage with tubby barbarians, the future of MMOs met up with their past, and, for one long evening, neither looked out of place.