If you’re an MMO and RPG forum troll like I am, then you no doubt are very familiar with the old argument: “[Game X] was so awesome! It had a great story, innovative game play, and killer graphics!” vs. “[Game X] was a pile of crap and that’s why it’s gone. Nobody wants to play a game like that clunky POS.”
The two are talking about the same game, but have two completely different takes on it. Chances are, only one of them actually played the game in question for any length of time and which of the two that was would largely depend on the game itself, not which side of the argument that person is on. Many games that can be truthfully labeled “innovative” while containing a “great story” have come and gone in the past. Of note is the fact that they rarely seem to stick around. The problem is the players.
Yep, gamers are to blame for the lack of innovation in the MMO industry.
Arguably, every major MMO being played by a large share of the market right now is basically the same game with slight tweaks to make it “different” from the others in some way outside of just its title. World of Warcraft, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Lord of the Rings Online, RIFT, Aion.. when you boil them down, they’re basically the same games.
Sure, the graphics are (somewhat) different, the settings are (somewhat) different, and each has a specific area of game play that might be considered “unique”, but the basic game play between WOW and LOTRO and SWTOR isn’t much different. Whether you’re cruising around a hostile planet in SWTOR, tromping the forest in WOW, or following the Fellowship in LOTRO.. there really isn’t much to differentiate the games outside of how they look (backdrop).
Think about it. All MMOs follow the same basic theme: you’re a hero with a set of weapons and protections (armor, spells, whatever) and you deal and take damage using those items. Your goal is to kill as many bad guys (if you’re the bad guy, it’s just a change of label, not really role reversal) as possible, gain experience (XP), and level up.
In other words, your goal is to grind out levels to improve your stats so you can kill bigger and badder bad guys so that you can get more levels and improve your stats..
That, in the end, is the basis of an MMO. Around that come the facilitation of the grind: weapons, armor, baddies, rules and mechanics, etc. Nearly every MMO follows the same rule sets and has the same basic criteria for measuring success and failure. For the developer, the trick is to balance success rates with potential failure rates so that the game is neither too hard nor too easy. All while throwing in cool graphics and (hopefully) compelling bad guys and their attenuating plot lines (short as these stories tend to be) to hold interest outside of the grind.
Most games compete with each other based on graphics quality (or graphic type – meaning a “toon” versus a “realistic” backdrop) and story lines. Yet most games’ stories are pretty simple affairs that generally unfold without much player interaction required. In other words, you don’t “discover” a story so much as get subjected to it as you follow a basically railed system of progression through a quest or dungeon.
In LOTRO, for example, you can actually get nearly all the way through the game without interacting with the Fellowship at all. There are certain points where your contact with them will be inevitable, but you can pretty much skip the “Epic Storyline” and just play the game if you really want to. I can’t count the number of high-level players I’ve encountered who are still on epic quests that are far below half their level – level 60 toons that still haven’t completed the level 10 epic storyline are not uncommon at all, in fact.
I mentioned this phenomenon, briefly, a few days ago in The Hero In All of Us, which was the impetus for this article. Games with great story lines and awesome story telling tend to end up being marginalized because the majority of the game playing market isn’t interested in involved, truly epic stories. They just want to satiate their need to triumph over bad guys for an hour or two at a time without having to get involved in some long, drawn out, possibly deep-thought interaction.
In Same Old, Same Old, James Pinnell at Games On uses TERA’s new release as an example of how this phenomenon works. Game developers, probably mainly at the urging of marketers and publishers, generally have a set script to follow in terms of how the game should progress, how gamplay operates, and the general mechanics of the game itself. Instead, they focus on single “differences” that make their game “unique” compared to others – TERA, he points out, has simplified combat, SWTOR has incursions, RIFT has invasions…
Those “one big change” items are usually not really much of a change, more like a “feature” that is likely just a new name and face for an already-existing game mechanic.
Pinnell continues by saying:
Has no one yet learned any lessons from the events of the past five years? Einstein famously defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. But MMO makers seem to avoid reinventing the wheel because the risk is too high. This is, by definition, insane; almost every single major MMORPG has failed or become F2P because the core gameplay is practically identical to other, more established properties.
On this, I couldn’t agree more. As a player, writer, and generally lovable guy, I get invited to beta events and press views for new (or upgrading) games regularly. What I see are usually a lot of marketing glitz and small upgrades that are touted as huge advances and “industry-changing” phenomenon. Most of the time, this is just marketing hype. Few games really revolutionize anything – even fewer change the basic script behind an MMO. What I disagree with is where Pinnell lays the blame.
Sure, there are certain things that have been perfected over time and probably don’t need changing. Like selecting and attacking foes: simple clicks should be all that’s needed – one to select the enemy, one to make the attack, and an option to “auto-attack” to simplify further. I don’t think anyone will argue with this. Few games would benefit from a complex attack/defense control set like the old arcade game Karate Champ had.
But there are plenty of other things in an MMO that could be completely different. Nearly all MMOs today are missing two huge elements: a sense of player ownership and a truly unique or open game in story and/or style.
Player ownership comes from far more than just “I’ve spent hours getting this guy to cap level” or “I have all the coolest gear because I ground through the kills needed for them.” Instead, it should include players mattering to the game’s economy, story lines, success or failure of other players, etc. Games need community. Sadly, most players have learned that this is not a requirement for game play, so they tend to be only interested in grinding, looting, and level advancement.
Truly unique game play, style, etc. would change that, but so far has resulted in only a very few successes. EVE could be said to be unique at high levels, but is probably the only example of a generally wide-scale game that does so. Most games that have tried to be truly unique have ended up in failure.
This creates a conundrum for developers since creating games is, in the end, about markets. If a game has limited appeal, it’s not going to do as well as one with a more broad appeal. While taking chances with something new and truly innovative might sound like a great idea, most businesses are not based on taking a chance when a core model that has already been well-proven is available.
In a way, it’s a sort of self-feeding monster. Game markets produce games and players play them. If the gamers don’t want or reward new and innovative ideas in games, then developers have little incentive to create such games. So while the market (gamers) continually bleat about wanting new and innovative games and of being tired of the “same old, same old”, they have yet to step up and truly back a game that does what they’ve asked. Meanwhile, developers are not producing those innovative game-changers on a broader scale either.
Many other industries see the same problem. In other venues, I cover a lot of automotive news and that industry has the same issues. People claim to want smaller, more efficient, more innovative vehicles, but most of the buyers of vehicles aren’t buying those – about half the American automotive market, in fact, is in light trucks and SUVs/crossovers, not “small and eco-friendly.” Gaming is seeing the same thing. Gamers claim to want one thing, but are putting their money into another.
Until that changes, nothing else will either. So asking for an innovative, genre-changing MMO is great, but once it’s delivered, you’d better play it.