I'm on the phone to EA Mythic's Paul Barnett. I can hear him wandering about on the other side of the world, occasionally saying something to people as he passes them in an office somewhere in the US. We're chatting because we're continuing a conversation about the MMO panel at the PAX East convention in Boston, for which he was one of the panellists. "MMO, as a phrase, is something that is becoming irrelevant," says Barnett. "It's like 'dialling' a telephone number. You don't actually dial numbers much now. And MMOs, the games that are massive and multiplayer and online, aren't really MMOs any more."
What he means is that the term "MMO" now encompasses such a large area as to be unrecognisable. We identified the same problem with the word "games" a few years ago. We might have meant, roughly, "videogames" when we used that word, but what that term referred to was becoming increasingly varied. As the meaning of the word has expanded, so it has become imprecise. While we can always identify games, we can't necessarily identify what all games have in common. The same is now true of MMOs. It used to be that there was a server that loads of people could all connect to, and that was an MMO. Now things are a lot more complicated.
The basic issue with evaluating the state of MMOs is one of breadth: the MMO moniker can now be attached to a vast array of possible experiences, from the enormous complexities of the subscription-funded epics of World Of Warcraft and EVE Online, through a host of online experiments, down to the asynchronous, essentially non-multiplayer casual games such as FarmVille. The PAX East panel didn't recognise the existence of sports MMOs - not because they'd not heard of the games, but perhaps because they didn't fit the template of what people there thought MMOs should be. They are not games built in the likeness of EverQuest or Ultima Online. They are not part of that conversation.
Nevertheless, much of what worries the MMO folks right now is the success of the quasi-MMO areas such as FarmVille, or the free-to-play or MMOs such as MapleStory which now boast millions of players. It seems as if the market is moving away from the subscription-based MMO and into a place where the model is quite different: a model of giving things away for free and then trying to persuade the player to give you any money at all, a.k.a. "micro-payments". Could it be that the internet is making everyone want everything for free? People are starting to mutter about the end of MMOs.
There's a deeper issue here, of course, which is that the big MMOs of the past few years seem to have been built on the assumption that World Of Warcraft made the MMO market a lot bigger. World Of Warcraft seems to have peaked at a colossal 11 million subscribers - almost five times the size of the previous champion, Lineage. In its wake we have seen a whole other generation of MMOs built along similar lines: Lord Of The Rings Online, Warhammer Online, Vanguard, Tabula Rasa, Star Trek Online, Dungeons & Dragons Online, Aion, Age Of Conan, and several more.
None of them have found the same kind of success as the Blizzard masterpiece, even though many of them have been accomplished iterations of the classical MMO template. They are huge projects that have aimed for massive player numbers and equally enormous returns of subscription revenue. With the exception of Tabula Rasa, they haven't exactly failed, but the millions and millions of subscribers haven't appeared. Does that mean it's the end? Has the MMO audience peaked? Or did World of Warcraft simply create an audience for World Of Warcraft, leaving the rest of the MMO world out in the cold?
This topic came up when discussing the lo-fi, post-apocalyptic MMO Fallen Earth with its project manager, Colin Dwans. Fallen Earth has not quite suffered in the same way as these mega-projects, being a smaller, less ambitious, independently developed MMO, but it exists in the shadow of Blizzard's opus.
"We've definitely benefited from World Of Warcraft's success," says Dwans. "In a strictly business sense, people are more willing to take the MMO space seriously. They understand that if you are able to find loyal followers this can actually make money.
"From the audience perspective, well, I do believe that the vast majority of people come in, hit World of Warcraft, that's their niche, they've found it, they're going to stay there. But there will be a percentage that want something new. I've heard of people making the jump to EVE from WOW, and that's a game that is vastly more complex."
For the major publishers, of course, that confidence translates into attempting to replicate WOW's success, but it needn't go down like that. There is also scope for a smaller, iterative project to be grown from a small start: a project like Fallen Earth or, more famously, EVE Online. Games that are less approachable, more hardcore, have benefited from both punters and investors being more familiar with the idea.
"EVE requires familiarity with MMOs," says EVE Online producer Torfi Frans Olafsson. "We see that the large majority of our players are seeking refuge from other MMOs. They come to us after being let down by other games, and as such we don't consider World Of Warcraft or any of the other MMOs to be harsh competitors in that sense, because they often provide a training ground for people to move on to EVE." Olafsson's claims are backed up by the numbers: Eve Online grew 30 per cent in 2009, up to 320,000 subscribers.
The implication is fascinating: that World Of Warcraft was perhaps even more important for business confidence than it was for audience growth. Sure, there are people leaping off the WOW train into EVE and Fallen Earth, but none of the really big MMOs have bagged the market of millions that World Of Warcraft's subscriber base seems to suggest exists. Instead their markets are tens or hundreds of thousands - far closer to the numbers that the MMO world knew at the time when EverQuest and Asheron's Call dominated the landscape. The exodus from WOW is actually little more than a trickle, but when it's a tiny fraction of eleven million, smaller companies can still reap significant rewards.
To do so demands experimentation. The MMO template has been defined quite narrowly: experience points, quests, levelling up, fantasy lore. It makes sense for it to be built along these lines, because proven imaginative and mechanical models are a safe bet for both developers and publishers, but the truth is that there are lots of areas left to explore, in both form and content.
Fallen Earth, for example, has focused on a Fallout-style post-apocalypse, and immediately picked up a loyal following because of its subject matter. What Dwans' team couldn't do was aim for the millions of players the big fantasy MMOs had in mind. Instead, they started small and grew from there, a model that had already been proven by EVE Online: create the world and then start etching in the details over time.
This process has even moved outside of EVE itself, away from the PC, and onto consoles. CCP intend to create an FPS, DUST 514, to allow players to fight planetary battles on the consoles. They're moving into console development and action game production, while maintaining their connection to a networked, persistent community, a community that sticks around for years on end.
"This has a lot to do with the open-ended sandbox gameplay," Olafsson says of Eve's continued appeal, "there is no way to win, or to reach level cap, but there is always something to do. Because the high-end gameplay in EVE always involves interaction with other players - collaboration or war - there is always drama to be found." It's a way of doing things that, Olafsson suggests, has come about because of a wave of designers who were familiar with MUDs and Ultima Online. EVE's own legacy, Olafsson suggests, could soon start to appear in new generations of MMOs, as another wave of designers begin to bring their experiences with EVE to the table.
This point in the history of games - the era in which, if Barnett is right, "MMO" is becoming a meaningless badge - could be the start of significant change. Experimentation has already lead back to revolutions within the business model. When the most fundamental barrier to MMOs has always been that monthly sub, it makes sense to play with ways of getting around it. We're starting to see that experimentation mature: APB isn't going to have a subscription. Allods Online just landed a pretty well-developed MMO in the market for no pennies. It's going to make MMOs even more diverse, and that acronym even less precise.
Dwans suggests that these changes are going to be about diversity, too, rather than straight-up competition. "I don't think it's too much of a threat to our direct subscribers because so far the free-to-play stuff isn't quite hitting the same audience, or the same market," he says. "None of them, so far, do the same kind thing that we're doing. I also think of free-to-play games as supplementary. Since they're free, you don't have to drop your subscription to play them, you can play them in addition to the game you are paying for."
But there could, Dwans believes, be another consequence of the free-to-play game: a change in player tastes and expectations. Just as WOW might have ripened players for Eve, so the MMO has traditionally asked a lot in terms of time and attention from its players. We understood that, and committed our time, or not. Free-to-play could change that. "The reward structure in free-to-play is more casual," says Dwans. "They're quick hits, and people can get their cookie quite quickly. We have to consider that: how can we make sure people feel rewarded in our more standard MMO, and don't get bored and leave?"
It's perhaps this stuff that designers are referring to when they start saying - as so many did in the wake of the Game Developers Conference in March - that they'd have to start paying attention to FarmVille and the other Facebook games. It's not so much that these games are competition for traditional MMOs in any direct sense, but that they could end up changing what people expect, or will tolerate, from their moment-to-moment gaming experience. They could change things at the level of tastes and expectations.
Back on the phone with Barnett, one thing becomes obvious: whatever the shape of the MMO market now, and wherever the various parties are heading the in the future, there's life in the gigantic subscriber MMO yet. Star Wars: The Old Republic is rumbling over the horizon like a Blizzard-sinking Star Destroyer. BioWare's resources for the project are colossal, and the rest of EA's hive mind is rallying behind it. I doubt it will be the last of the major MMOs, either. Whatever anyone else has to say about the massively multiplayer space, and however many pocket-sized indie projects come to light, I suspect it will still be the big boys, the captains of BioWare and Blizzard, who will have the final word.