Zoned in

July 27, 2007

Innovation sorely lacking in MMOs
By Michael Lafferty and Matt Eberle

Changing names and environments won't be enough to sustain the genre as it enters a new phase

Welcome to the World of the Typical MMO, the world where you have elves, dwarves and humans vying against dark elves, trolls and orcs.

Wait a minute … that sounds like just about every MMO on the market.

Oh, but wait, humans can be evil, too!

Still not that different.

Did we mention the unique combat system?

Which, in 80 percent of the cases or more, is exactly like everything we have already seen.

Ok, then we have transportation …

Yah, yah, ships and quests to get mounts and so on.

Hmm, you ARE a tough sell …

The problem is not your selling techniques, it is simply that most of what is out there on the market place is a rehash of typical themes and ideas.

Let’s face it, MMOs are in a rut. You could go down the list and, in most cases, what you will find are the same gameplay elements, the same overview that is mirrored in so many other games. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.

Every online game has a list of things it includes. Developers in the genre have had years to study the successes of the past. There will be a combat system, a crafting system, a trading system, and so on. What the developers seem to have forgotten is the thing that brought gamers into the online world in the first place.

Something called “innovation.”

EverQuest has been the online gaming gold standard for years. It introduced features no other game had ever included. There were many things that helped propel EverQuest’s success, but a large part of it was the innovation. The sense of “there is so much to do!” gamers felt as they began exploring the virtual world. For years after the release of EverQuest other developers have attempted to rival that success. Sadly, for every success there were many failures. The sheer number of online games cancelled before their release is truly staggering.

Why do I care about innovation?

Developers are not stupid. As many times as players have ranted and raved about poor decisions, the developers are working on games to make a profit. They pay close attention to the writing on the wall. It costs a lot of money to make a viable online game – even one that never becomes popular or one that is a complete dud. As time has passed developers have had to face the cold, hard reality of the online world. Investors want success more than anything else. Games that don’t promise the lure of success won’t find anyone willing to help create them.

If it is fun, it will be successful, right?

That viewpoint might be true, but consider how little variation there is in a game these days. A lot of gamers have played a lot of MMO’s. The frequent complaint is something called “burnout.” Playing a game until it stops being fun and interesting. Innovation helps keep gaming interesting. New challenges to be faced or new puzzles to solve can be captivating.

Innovation can begin in little ways. For the sake of this article (and to drive the point), let’s look at the races.

Usually, in an MMO there are two main factions – good and evil. Asheron’s Call 2 broke that mold by creating factions. One (Dominion) was a little shadier than the others, but it left the play style completely up to the player. If you wanted to be Dominion and good, that was your right. Dominion and evil – again, your right to choose.

But look at the deeper side of racial relationships within the games. They mirror society in many regards. In many books, there is an uneasy truce between dwarves and elves, not the friendly camaraderie portrayed in games. That tension sets the races apart – something that is overlooked in many games. There is a stock formula in MMOs, one that developers seem unwilling to deviate from.

Most games have the two sides and then relegate races into those simply because that seems to be the way it was always done. Put the elves on the side of good, the orcs or goblins on the side of evil. Dwarves? Good. Trolls? Bad. Humans are generally good, but can be bad as well. It’s a neutral race, good at everything.

The latter seems to be a developer prejudice, though. Humans, if one delves into the literature that has seemed to spawn the majority of the notions that fuel the fantasy genre, are not really that good at everything. Magic, for example, is the domain of races not tied as strongly to the world, races that have a bit of the ethereal in them – like elves, or demons. But no, if there is magic in a game (and there must be) then all races can wield it.

Have developers ever stopped to consider that not all races should be able to wield it? They seem to think that players deserve the right to play any race and to master any discipline. The decision to make everything available to every player is nothing more than an attempt to appease jealous players. Games can be more interesting when each class has a defined role, something they excel at, and something they lack. Friends can come together to pool their strengths or minimize their weaknesses. Game developers fear angering the fickle player base. Instead of designing truly unique classes numerous hybrids are created.

Players and developers need to come together and realize that innovation is what keeps online gaming a vibrant community. The developers have to be willing to take a bold step forward and risk the consequences. Players need to accept that the developers have a plan – even if they won’t tell the rest of us. More of the same style of game is still more of the same. How can we find excitement in that?

MMO gamers are, for the most part, a fickle crowd. Each is looking for that one game that holds all they wish to achieve and are willing to bounce from one game to another in search of it. Sometimes, when a new game is released, you will see numbers slide downward on existing franchises. In some cases, the numbers rebound if the migrating players do not find what they are seeking in that new title. There are a few games that have very loyal fan bases. They evolve and grow, but usually in a manner that echoes what players want.

With the next generation of consoles, and the cross-platforming capabilities that seem to be looming on the horizon, it may be time for developers to take the opportunity – as the genre transitions into the next era of MMOs – to take a fresh look at the games and stop trying to make a title that appeals to everyone. Take a few chances, create a vibrant world that is not a cookie cutter when it comes to races and profession. Put a little edginess into the world. It could be we are wrong in thinking that the genre is ripe for this, but then again, as avid players, we also know what we want.