Is there a market for a premum multiplayer online roleplaying game? Not massively multiplayer – exclusively multiplayer?
Consider it. You log straight in – no queues because it’s not oversubscribed. You notice there’s another mate online, but you want to put together a party to tackle an interesting new dungeon in Erewhat that’s just become available. You put your pick up group (PUG) note out, and while away five or ten minutes at the tavern or shophouse on the inevitable logistics of inventory management and planning that accompanies all RPGs. Suddenly your character’s sleeve is tugged by a young man. It’s an NPC, Bob the messenger. “Sir, the village of Erewhat is under assault! We have a team of heroes going to save it, will you aid us?” As usual, the adventure concierge is being played by a real person, and he feeds you context on the way, as you converse with him. Or in the case of team thump, when you are missing a really big clue. Many NPCs are from the English speaking developing world: it’s a growing job market in Manila and Mumbai. Robots are only used when the admins are particularly busy putting out fires somewhere.
You join the three other players outside the village and soon charge into the fray, throwing off waves of zombie skeleton wombats. You lose track of your young messenger Bob – did he die or slip away to other great deeds? Never mind, there are baddies to kill, and you happily hew your way through the dungeon. It’s good fun, but nothing you haven’t done a thousand times before, to be honest.
Then – wait. Was that arrow from behind? You swing around. A swarm of ninja koalas have snuck behind you, and have nearly sliced the squishies into mince already. It’s an ambush. Maybe even encirclement. Smeg! You’ve opted to lose gear and XP on death for a discount in fees and the extra pang of having skin in the game. You fall back to a doorway, making sure the priest is ok. Behind the scenes, and from the conversation with the messenger, a DM has noticed you’re an experienced band and would relish more of a challenge. As in NWN, roaming DMs might jump into a dungeon and make it more interesting. Unlike in NWN, they are paid staff.
You dig deep, and you’re holding the monsters at bay, but you’re in lousy shape. Some of the party weren’t quite as experienced as they said. Usually this would mean they die and respawn. Today’s a bit unusual though. “Hail fellows, well met!” – it’s Bob. He shouts out from behind you. It turns out you fell back into a mansion house, and Bob knows a secret tunnel. If their hadn’t been a tunnel, he wouldn’t have intervened, but this makes for an interesting moment. Barring the door for a minute to keep out the monsters, you slip into the tunnel, a rest area, and the start of a new underground zone …
Maybe my description is off – I’ve only newbed around on a few free online RPGs and never really got bitten by the bug. At the moment, though, WoW is so huge it’s necessarily a mass consumer product. It’s the McDonald’s of MMOs. And though I did eat McDonald’s when drunk the other night, if I want a nice meal out, I pay a bit more to go to a nice restaurant where I can enjoy the food and the social setting. It’s been noted many times that gamers are on average 30+ years old with stable lives and incomes. They’re only getting older and richer. Whether you like the class implications or not, the age of the online country club is coming our way.