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What was the biggest massively multiplayer online game of 2007 - and, indeed, of 2008 so far? Ignoring the obvious answer - "World of Warcraft, again" - I'd argue for a rather unusual answer to this question. Not Lord of the Rings Online, not Tabula Rasa. No, to my mind, the biggest massively multiplayer online game of 2007 was Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.
Of course, in the strictest possible sense, CoD4 isn't an MMO. Each individual game instance holds only a few dozen players, after all - although if you really wanted to turn this into a pub argument, you could introduce the fact that World of Warcraft also restricts your party size to an absolute maximum of 25 players in its instanced dungeons.
Rather than miring ourselves in that impossible debate, though, consider the ways in which Call of Duty 4 does resemble a massively multiplayer game. Each player character is persistent, levelling up through the ranks by gaining experience - earned either by killing enemies, or by completing in-game tasks. As you level up, you unlock the ability to use new or upgraded weapons, and learn new abilities, and thanks to the persistent nature of your character, those abilities stay with you throughout future encounters.
In many ways, the system I've just described is a more important part of the MMO concept than the whole "massively" element itself. COD4 may lack the ability to see large crowds milling around waiting to go into instanced combat zones (although you'll see hundreds of names in lobbies in the course of an evening's play), but the levelling up, unlocking of new gear and learning of new abilities are all lifted directly from the MMO playbook.
Given that COD4 is far and away the most successful online console game of the current generation thus far, it's obvious that there are lessons to be learned from Infinity Ward's approach. With regard to the surprisingly MMO-like progression system, I'd say that there are two key areas which publishers and developers need to pay attention to.
Firstly, from the point of view of a significant part of the industry - those working on console or PC games with single-player and multiplayer modes - the lesson is simple. MMOs have dominated headlines in the games industry's news feeds in recent years not just because World of Warcraft has been a huge success, but because they're onto something big. The sector may be shockingly expensive, risky as hell and littered with the corpses of high-profile failures, but the player numbers overall keep growing and the rewards of success are immense. They're doing something right.
Call of Duty 4 proves that it's possible to take some of the things that MMOs do right and distil them for a game that wouldn't traditionally be seen as an MMO. The potency of the idea, even in this form, is obvious; the drive to play just a little bit more, because there's a reward waiting just up ahead, is an incredibly powerful and addictive force for players.
What other ideas could work, carried across wholesale from the MMO model and turning existing game genres into MMO-lite contenders? Persistency and progression is an obvious, powerful and surprisingly under-utilised one - but in the hands of a gifted development team, couldn't the same transition be made by concepts like player economies, large-scale Player vs Enemy encounters, virtual world interactions and a host of other concepts that MMOs, to some extent, really get right?
That's the lesson to those who aren't making MMOs is that you should also be watching this space. Amazing stuff is happening here. Player retention and the science of addiction is being expanded upon in innovative, groundbreaking ways; new business models are emerging and undergoing their baptisms of fire; and fundamental questions about human interactions within game-playing worlds are being answered, and before anyone has even thought to ask them. Even if your game is nothing like an MMO, you owe it to yourself to be watching carefully.
What, then, is the lesson to those who are making MMOs - or who aspire to doing so?
Basically, it's this - that while we're all talking about how to bring MMO games in new directions, how to break out of the swords-and-sandals mould and drag new audiences into the massively multiplayer ecosystem, Infinity Ward has quietly (and perhaps unintentionally) gone and actually done it, in a small but vitally important way.
The wider gaming market has come to understand that you can't attract new audiences without making radical changes to the definition of videogames - hence SingStar, Wii Fit and their ilk. Equally, the MMO market needs to come around to the idea that you can't pull in serious new audiences by re-skinning World of Warcraft - and that not every successful MMO is even going to be recognisable as an MMO.
The technology which now exists to enable online, massively multiplayer gaming is astonishing. Developers are working with a level of network and server capacity, not to mention CPU and GPU power on the client machines, that they would barely have dared to dream of when the likes of Meridian 59 and Ultima Online launched - and I refuse to believe that the existing model (Quests, Grinding, Auction House, Instances) is the only way to leverage all of that power to create a social, addictive gaming experience.
What this industry should be striving for isn't to become the next World of Warcraft - it's to become a game equally as successful as World of Warcraft, but whose Venn diagram of players has as little crossover with Blizzard's opus as possible. Given what we've seen in recent years in this market, nobody should be shy of innovation - because it's perfectly obvious that slavish copying of the market leader is just as likely to result in utter commercial disgrace. Reinvention and rethinking of the genre and the medium may actually be a lower-risk prospect - now there's something you don't hear very often in the games industry.
I firmly believe that MMOs point the way to the future of videogames - but that doesn't mean that every game in future will be an MMO. In fact, rather like point-and-click adventure games, I suspect that the MMO genre as we know it now is doomed to become little more than a tiny niche, of interest only to die-hard enthusiasts. Just as point-and-click adventures handed over the reins to a host of new games that took their core mechanisms and made them work in new contexts and settings, the science and philosophy of design which has been learned with MMOs will be imparted to whole new generations of games. COD4 is only the beginning. After years of separate evolution, it's time for the DNA of massively multiplayer games to spread into the wild.
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