Being a gamer in the modern age is very different from being one 10 years ago. Gaming is no longer widely perceived as a hobby of the teenager or reclusive nerd. Today, games are overshadowing major Hollywood productions in terms of revenue and each major title release is given the same reception as a highly anticipated blockbuster.
I’ve spent a great deal of my adult life attempting to build communities through gaming. In addition to operating a gaming news site for several years, and hosting a machinima show focusing on the latest gaming trends, I have also been a genuine fan of the artistry and potential of various platforms. BBS door games, first-person shooters, real-time strategy titles, and even massively multiplayer online games have each played an important role in defining one of the largest industries in entertainment.
When considering what the future might be for multiplayer gaming, it’s important to take a look at the past, and see where things have been going. After all, you might be surprised how many old concepts are set to make a comeback in the modern computing world. With MMOs seeing a decline in numbers and paid subscriptions, perhaps the smaller, more community-driven gaming world is beginning to see signs of a second wind.
Early PC Gaming
BBS Door Games
There are people who will disagree with me when I say this, but I will always remember the BBS as one of the most significant early multiplayer gaming platforms in the PC world. Users would log in to one of many of these bulletin board systems and take part in what was referred to as door games. Trade Wars 2002, Legend of the Red Dragon, and others brought communities of gamers together in a way other PC games hadn’t quite accomplished to that point.
I remember fondly logging in to Not Ready for Prime Time (NRFPT) in Victoria, TX each day after school so I could spend my 100-200 turns in Trade Wars 2002 before logging in to my father’s BBS (Smoke Signals) to wage war against him for Ferrangal, the Ferrangi homeworld featured in the Trade Wars universe. Each BBS hosted its own universe, so players could play multiple games across several independently owned and operated bulletin board systems.
You had to play one at a time, and you were given a specific number of turns per day so everyone else had a chance to take their turns.
You can still play these games on some still-existing BBS platforms still operating by way of the Internet.
MUDs as they are commonly called, are a lot like BBS door games of old in that they are largely (or entirely) text-based, though they allow players to join grounds and explore in real-time. In fact, you aren’t limited by the amount of moves you have in a day, but the amount of time you can put into them.
I’ve written quite a lot about my experiences with MUDs over the past two decades, though I was surprised to discover recently that these games are still quite popular. Not only are many gamers still taking advantage of the robust, independent worlds hosted on these servers, but it’s also one of the few gaming genres to support the blind and visually impaired communities.
Because MUDs are largely text-based, players relying on braille displays can experience playing the same game everyone else does, with the only limitation being the speed at which they can read braille. On the same token, a normal-sighted individual may actually be at a disadvantage here as learning the cartography of the world can be as much a memory exercise as one of perception and quick reading ability.
MUDs are, in my opinion, the first true MMORPGs. A good server has a team of dedicated administrators that have often spent countless hours writing descriptions for each room, and designing quest areas and travel paths that combine to create a truly expansive and impressively massive worlds. These worlds each having a unique feature or storyline including: vampires, fantasy, science-fiction, crime, or any other potentially interesting genre you could imagine.
MUDs can still be played and remain a popular part of modern gaming.
PC gaming has long been a smörgåsbord of opportunity, allowing gamers to partake in a variety of different experiences and platforms that set each franchise apart. Half Life, MechWarrior, StarCraft, Neverwinter Nights, Baulder’s Gate, Diablo, Quake, Unreal, and others didn’t just bring an interesting story or twist of an old tale to the table, but each one had its own unique look and feel that set it apart from the rest of the pack.
Recently, the growth of mobile gaming due to an emergence of more powerful smartphone and tablet platforms has created a resurgence of this early PC gaming spirit. Independent developers are also shedding the skins of their publishers and setting out to create content that they can truly call their own. In many ways, this is a very good thing.
Multiplayer Role-Playing Games (RPG)
Neverwinter Nights is a great example of a game that was built not just for its single player experience, but as a platform in itself for inventive minds to build their own worlds, and perhaps expand upon it or host a persistent world on which players could interact in whatever way suited their playing styles. While it may not qualify as an MMORPG by definition, the servers and worlds created and hosted by dungeon masters were often very popular and used by hundreds of players. At any given moment, a persistent world built within Neverwinter Nights might expect to see up to 55 players logged in at a given time, each exploring the world either independently or in part of group(s).
Neverwinter Nights 2 followed the same basic guideline, though it fell short in terms of player adoption and longevity. Yes, you still see servers up and people are still playing, though the much older original title still retains much of the fanbase it has for years. I’m still receiving updates from a community I joined almost a decade ago about a server that remains quite popular. To me, this is a sign of a successful game.
Baldur’s Gate, possibly the big grandfather of the RPG genre in general, is still widely regarded as one of the best games of its type of all time. Both single and multiplayer, Baldur’s Gate led adventurers through a world of danger and intrigue. Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition is expected to come out soon.
Today, you don’t see very much out of this genre that hasn’t been done before. Neverwinter, a follow-up to the original Neverwinter Nights and Neverwinter Nights 2, promises to bring the story and playing style of the original titles to a massively multiplayer online (MMO) environment.
Outside of rehashed versions of older games, you don’t see a lot in this department. Skyrim is largely single-player, though an MMORPG is expected to be in the works. Being able to host and adventure as a small team in a world that surrounds you and your immediate party is an appealing part of an RPG, though apparently this isn’t so much of a priority these days.
When it comes to simple, small-scale multiplayer RPGs, this genre just isn’t what it used to be.
First-Person Shooters (FPS)
First-person shooters have been around for ages, and multiplayer servers have been up for decades. Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Half Life, and countless other titles defined a genre that has withstood the test of time. Some of these games tell a story that is both compelling and easy to become immersed in, while others are just about killing as many things as you can.
This is one genre that has expanded and become increasingly popular as time goes on. Call of Duty and Halo are just two of the largest franchises gaming history in terms of income and player population. Like the multiplayer role-playing games, first-person shooters are largely focused on bringing the action online through small, independent servers allowing players to combat one-another in a scale that’s more controllable and easy to keep up with.
After all, could you imagine an FPS with 1,000 players on a single server? It would be a chaotic mess unless the world itself was truly expansive. However, we haven’t seen a widely expansive world in the FPS genre since the days of Delta Force: Land Warrior.
Players years ago would rely on simple keyboards and mice to make their kills and navigate through missions. Today, there are gaming keyboards and mice riddled with additional buttons in ergonomic configurations that resemble something entirely different. Some of these devices don’t actually qualify as their, giving the user additional control including 3D space navigation and more.
Unlike the first-person shooters of yesteryear, today’s games seem to focus on quantity and visual quality. Where older games of the genre such as Doom and Half Life might see one expansion or sequel after years, modern series such as Call of Duty have a new title come out every year. These titles are further enhanced with downloadable content such as maps or added assignments.
Massively Multiplayer Online Games
Being in a virtual world with thousands of your fellow players creates an entirely new dynamic to gaming worlds. World of Warcraft, Everquest, Star Trek Online, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and more have made a huge impact on the gaming industry as they bring gaming to a subscription-based model rather than one allowing you to buy once and player forever.
For several years, this genre flourished under the subscription model, with players willingly shelling out $15 per month for access to their characters, which themselves were enhanced and improved upon over long periods of time. This is actually what makes it work. You are less inclined to cancel a subscription if you risk losing access to something you spent so much time building. Characters are worth quite a lot to their players, and in some cases people have made comfortable livings building and selling characters.
Today, things are a little different. Subscription games still exist, and make quite a healthy profit. However, more and more titles are switching to a free subscription model that focuses on providing additional products and services to players for a profit. You may be able to play the game for free, but if you want to get past level 20 or wield this really shiny axe, you’ll need to pay.
Guild Wars was one of the first MMORPGs to follow a single-purchase business model. Once you pay for the box, you have access to your character and its various goods forever. You could opt to pay extra for storage, character slots, or future expansions, but it isn’t necessary.
Real-Time Strategy (RTS)
Playing a strategy game in real-time can be a lot of fun, especially if you enjoy a game that challenges your ability to multitask while outsmarting your opponent. I like to compare playing an RTS with a superior player to playing two games of chess at once, on a timer. You have to watch multiple fronts, predict your opponent’s next move, and execute before they do.
If you’re really good at RTS games, you could earn a healthy living competing in ladders and ultimately professional tournaments where the greatest players from across the world compete for tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.
This genre started a long time ago, and while Warcraft wasn’t the first game to feature this playing style, it was arguably the most significant catalyst for the genre taking off. From Warcraft came StarCraft and countless clones. Command and Conquer is also a major franchise in the RTS world, bringing modern warfare and near-future weapons to the battle field.
RTS gaming has evolved over the years from simple land battles to one of land, sea, and air. Warcraft II introduced three levels of battle, each threatening to shut the opponent down entirely. RTS games which were once relatively simple are now complex and highly competitive. Often, the playing field will be littered with hundreds of individual units, each with its own purpose and plan for either defending against or attacking the enemy.
The Future of Gaming – Mobility Meets History
Gaming today is evolving faster than it ever has. More and more, people are discovering online games that take advantage of cloud processing and other technologies to bring the same experience of the PC to mobile platforms such as the iPhone, iPad, and Android.
Mozilla, the company behind hit browser Firefox, recently released an MMO that operated entirely off modern browser technologies, allowing the same game to be played on everything from a smartphone to a fully equipped PC.
Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, Draw Something, and others have arguably spawned a resurgence of the casual game, converting non-gamers into gamers once more. Casual games are selling faster than ever, with hundreds of thousands of them currently available on mobile platforms. That’s a startling number, but that’s the way of gaming today.
It stands to reason that some of the more popular genres of yesterday may be moving to the gaming platforms of today. Massively multiplayer online games, role-playing games, and even first-person shooters are already being developed for mobile platforms. In addition, the call for these servers and worlds to be persistent across multiple devices is being heard loud and clear, and we’ll undoubtedly see more of that as time goes on.
The remake of Baulder’s Gate we mentioned earlier is being done in a way that allows it to be played on the desktop as well as the iPad. What’s old is new again, and what’s new is incredibly innovative and interesting. Perhaps the small-scale RPG will make a comeback. In my mind, there’s no reason the next World of Warcraft couldn’t be made available on both the PC and mobile devices. After all, wouldn’t it be cool to log in to your favorite game on whatever device you happen to have with you at the time?