Playing Risk

risk-board-game-strategies-6530“Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.” ~ Helen Keller

Here’s a pretty straight-forward question: are newer MMOs simply more afraid to take risks?

When the two most anticipated fall MMOs are sometimes described as a “shiny WoW-clone” or “City of Heroes 2.0″, that at least suggests to me that the public is picking up on a trend away from wild experimentation with multi-million dollar titles and toward a safer land of homogenized tastes and familiar setups.  But is this cynicism justified, or is the public guilty themselves of punishing risk and rewarding conformity?

Back in the Day…

There’s an undercurrent of frustration for many old school MMO players at the post-WoW generation, who never really saw the genre before Blizzard came on the scene.  For the new kids on the block, WoW was the genesis, and everything else is the follow-up; for the oldbies, WoW was a descendant of wilder, more risky titles that pioneered a path into the 3D MMO-space.

In subjecting yourself to even a brief survey of these older titles — Ultima Online, EverQuest, Asheron’s Call, Dark Age of Camelot, Star Wars Galaxies, Anarchy Online, City of Heroes — you’ll see that the only constant was that there was very little they had in common with each other.  They varied in genre, in UI setups, in skill vs. level-based progression, in raid-focus vs. PvP, in sandbox vs. theme park, in GM-run events to player-created events.  You get the sense that each of these companies was taking a buffet pick of what they thought worked from other games, but then devoted a large chunk of what they personally thought was best for their own MMO.  They were all over the map, experimenting, failing, succeeding and appealing to players who had far more time and patience to learn the complexities of their unique systems.

Because this whole period of 1997-2003 was pretty much the birth of the modern MMO (with apologies to a few older titles that can legally claim ancestry), risk was the de facto standard.  Every decision, every game these companies made was risky.  Because of that, and because of the newness of it all, the public was generally willing to be a lot more patient and long-suffering.

Enter the WoW

World of Warcraft did a lot of great things for the genre, but promoting risk and experimentation wasn’t part of it.  This was a game that played it safe — it borrowed, stole and ultilized whatever worked from previous MMOs, rarely innovating instead of polishing.  Instead of targeting a specific group of players, it sought to be the most crowd-pleasing game out there, even if it cost them focus and depth in areas.  WoW wasn’t the first guy trailblazing new territory, but the smart, shrewd businessman who came later, paved the roads, installed a few McDonalds, and became more famous for it.

What WoW did above anything else was to set (reset, perhaps) the gold standard for MMOs.  It solidified a UI scheme that is now pretty much required in most every MMO; it showed how successful these games could be and pushed others to achieve just as much; and it demonstrated how careful planning along familiar, well-trodden paths could pay off far more than strokes of genius and revolutionary moves.

Risk in a Post-WoW World

The catalyst for writing this article came when I was doing the MMO Timeline and noting a trend of more “risky” MMO concepts to either fail completely (and be shuttered) or struggle to find anything but a small niche audience.  Auto Assault, DDO, Tabula Rasa, Chronicles of Spellborn — definitely not “WoW-clones”, but also not rewarded for it.

Are we getting too far down a path where companies will simply stop experimenting so much with the genre out of fear that anything more than a mild deviation from what the majority of MMO gamers find comfortable and familiar will drive the game to failure?  Sometimes I worry.  I worry that we — myself included — are becoming to set in what we demand from all MMOs, and inflexible to anything truly new and daring.

Maybe I’m just fretting over nothing.  Thoughts?

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17 thoughts on “Playing Risk

  1. I don’t think you’re fretting over nothing in the least. You’re bringing to light what a growing base of players are saying. MMOs have becoming extremely “rule focused” and risk adverse.

    Instead of taking large risks it seems to me that most of the games are planned the same. You then just add a hook to try to sway players. Look at Aion.

    For everyone I talk to and have read they say that Aion is a good game. It isn’t a great game nor is it a bad game. It is a solid game that is “familiar” but lets you fly. So essentially another typical MMO with a hook. For some that is possibly enough. I just don’t see beautiful character models and flight as a reason to stop playing (insert MMO here).

    The game industry in general is going through this. How often do we see new titles? Not as much as we did in the earlier years for sure. We get sequels and “re-imagined” versions of IPs we know. The same could probably be said for the movie industry.

    We as consumers reward familiarity. We can go to the theater knowing that Iron Man 2 will probably be worth our money. It might not be the next Citizen Kane but we’ll feel okay spending $10+. I think that is where we find ourselves in the MMO market now.

    It is sad but it is self inflicted. Only a small proportion of us are willing to reward the niche game. Our industry, like any other, is about making money. A niche game might do okay profit wise but a big blazing WoW-like MMO with a hook will probably do better.

  2. MMO’s have become big business, big business wants to have garenteed returns on their investments. They don’t like risk.

    So yeah, more of the same. Which is sad, I am finding that MMO’s just like normal games have a play life and then you stop playing them. Granted their play life tends to be longer, but then you find that picking up another MMO that is the same is just meh. I have gone back to playing the more traditional computer games and have ignored MMO’s completely for 6 months now.

    I still read the blogs, but find I can’t motivate myself to dive back into another MMO. DDO I think I will try though free to play is hard to resist.

  3. You’ve fallen into the WoW trap of defining failure as not being wildly successful. Any title that is making money is a success, of some degree.

  4. @ Tipa – Ooh I hate that trap! Darn trap monkeys…

    I wasn’t so much talking about subscriber numbers, as just an overall sense of success or struggling/failure.

  5. When you look at trends for games over the last few decades there’s a natural saturation of the same game with a splash of paint.

    As I’m a relatively young gamer in the grand scheme of things (24) I may have an ill informed view but when I started seriously gaming on the SEGA Master System and Mega Drive (Genisis I think it was in the States) all you played were platformers and platformer/puzzle hybrids. Every game that came out was pretty much exactly the same as Alex the Kid but with a few more pixels and a different colour swatch.

    It moved on to Beat ‘em Ups with Street Fighter and Mortal Combat – same story for a couple of years.

    Currently all FPS games are essentially the same – different settings etc but it’s aim, shoot, reload in every game.

    MMOs are going the same road. Now that I think about it I’m not as worried about the state of the MMO-verse as I was previously. We’re going through natural saturation which at some point will stagnate and crack leaving the indy developers to shine through with a new take on things. Little Big Planet is a good example of an innovative fresh take on the old platforming format and games like ARMA and Operation Flashpoint are becoming more popular as people want more immersion and tactical challange from their FPS. Batman Arkham Asylum has shown us that combat games can be pretty innovative (people seem to forget a curiously similar combat model from the Matrix: Path of Neo game) and I’m really hoping that Star Wars TOR will show people that there is more to life than Purple.

    Hold on whilst I get another bucket; I seem to have filled this one up with mind vomit…

  6. It’s a pretty traditional business pattern. Any new field opens up with risky entrepreneurs, who do a lot of experimentation to find out what works. These guys are followed by other corporations (usually larger ones) who have been keeping tabs on what the market’s doing in that space and are ready to grab all the best practices gleaned from the innovators and put them together in one place in a slick package and a marketing hook or two, perhaps with some economies of scale factored in. The guys who have name recognition going for them will want to protect their names and their investment dollars by not associating themselves with anything too risky, and they know that mainstream buyers who recognize their name will generally embrace change at a moderate pace, but not at a radical pace.

    Radical change is left for niche and developing markets, like MMOs used to be. So I’d say that MMOs in general were bound to become more risk-adverse as soon as a MMO with enough mainstream appeal was developed. To see a lot of risky development again, we’d need to find a developer with a vision for a game sufficiently different from current MMO fare that it wouldn’t really be what we currently think of as an MMO any more. Otherwise, if the vision looks more-or-less like a regular MMO with a hook and a few upgrades to basic ideas, it will get developed like one, because there are enough experienced MMO developers out there that generally have a pretty good idea how to do that now.

  7. I think you’re fretting too much about the community and industry. I definitely see your points, but the more I think about it… I see the deeper, more important reasons for the communities and industries acting the way they are.

    Let’s face it: WoW (when pvp ranks were available) was the first MMO to truly give players a fun, challenging, stable, easy to play game that rewarded the player with happiness rather than frustration in most cases. I couldn’t sit down and play another MMO before this without getting frustrated at some of the irritating core game mechanics. I frequently found myself playing a game for a month or two, only to get frustrated beyond playability b/c the industry commonly did not care about what was most fun to players. Funny enough, there were more fanbois that wished the industry would run all over them with poorly implemented games. I couldn’t stand talking on forums b/c anytime I made constructive criticism about the game, the entire community would disagree and rather be screwed with a bad game.

    In other words, WoW learned how to give the players what they wanted. What truely defines innovation? They innovated their own world.. sure they borrowed ideas from others… Blizzard isn’t Tim Burton! It’s more efficient to improve an existing product than to scrap it and start a new one.

    The other games have to be different in their own ways to succeed. WoW already has the market, current games have to implement new ideas to take it away. AoC, WAR, Aion, CO, and SWTOR all have new ideas that separate them from WoW. The only things they have in common with WoW is how accessible the game is to new & casual players. The ideal game for most is “easy to learn, hard to master”… this is where many games fail. They are frequently either too easy all the time, or too hard all the time.

    SWTOR could branch off with a totally new way of doing their UI and probably succeed due to the developers, hype and fanbase. For the record, Aion is much more than a pretty WoW with flying… PvPvE is a big draw factor (something WAR failed horribly with b/c there was no incentive to stay in empty RvR lakes). I’ve learned over the years that you can’t describe a game by its features, only by how you feel when you play it. Aion is fun to play, period.

  8. Never played WoW myself, but I think it’s not really getting the credit it deserves. I personally think WoW was probably a pretty risky venture for Blizzard back then Syp – till WoW, most of their games were single-player RTS or dungeon hack’n’slash games with limited multiplayer functionality.

    Blizzard may have borrowed quite a bit game wise from other MMO pioneers, but they still put their balls on the line with the investment WoW probably required from a development & marketing perspective. It would have been much simplier for Blizzard to just release another Warcraft, Starcraft or Diablo game as at the time those games were a license to print money (some still are?).

    Quite honestly, risk is good but not if it’s foolhardy or reckless. Too often have I encountered games (single player, multiplayer and MMO) that pushed a new/innovative/risky feature at the expense of having a solid foundation – these games tend to be accompanied by a golden hype machine which increases gamer appeal in the beginning, but quickly tapers off when people get their hands on the final product and realize they’ve been had, duped, tricked or hornswoggled (take your pick).

    On a side note, I think if Blizzard really wanted to be innovative and risky once more they should consider the possibility of tying single-player type games to their MMO counterparts, so that your single-player efforts can impact your online efforts and vice versa. I, for one, would love to see Diablo 3 ship as a single player game with a great storyline that I can enjoy on my own, but could at any time enter an online environment with my character and interact with the rest of the Diablo 3 community in a robust MMO world. It’s what I’d consider “having my cake and eating it too”.

  9. I think you’re ignoring some titles, too. Wizard 101 is a good example of a title that breaks a lot of new ground. Atlantica Online as well. Fallen Earth is a throw-back to skill-based and sandboxy. Dragonica Online turns the MMO into an actiony-side scroller. Darkfall, from what I could tell, was another throwback and sounds a lot like UO, but most people didn’t seem to bite.

    It looks worse when you only focus on AAA huge-budget titles, but look at movies… sequels and clones are what you mostly get when you look at blockbusters; it’s in the indie space that you see films that break out of the box.

    It’s also interesting to note that when a game offers some different systems, players tend to either twist them back to the old familiar things they complain about, or just ignore them.

    Champions Online lets you create all kinds of crazy hybrid classes but I see people talking about making tanks, dps, and healer characters. You CAN play it that way, but you don’t have to and probably shouldn’t.

    And when WoW announced Cataclysm, what happened? All the people griping about how tired the MMO space is suddenly shifted gears and got all WoW-happy again, even though from what I can tell, Cataclysm doesn’t break any new ground as far as gaming systems go. Nothing radical anyway.

    In the old days, we referred to wargamers as grognards, which iirc translates to something like ‘grumbling old soldier’. Wargamers are virtually extinct now, so I think we can start to apply the grognard term to MMO players.

    We just seem to love to bitch. :)

  10. Following up on what Kevin said:

    The MMO community is still QUITE young, especially compared to the other popular media you mentioned. Many things in our culture run in generational patterns (usually 20ish years), which is why you see so many trends in music, movies, tv, and fashion come back every 20 years or so.

    What these trends usually have in common is what you’re describing: once “the next big thing” is found, it becomes huge, and everyone flocks to it… until the NEXT “next big thing” bubbles up from the nitche markets that had been ignored up until that point. And that’s where innovation occurs in this type of model — with nitche markets that are usually different from the mainstream and which can afford to take the risk exactly because of their low profiles. But you don’t see much innovation in the pack-followers, because they’re there solely to reap profit from known successes.

    Innovation is still possible, but it’s more likely to sneak up on us. It’s just a matter of time — soon, I’d say, given the age of this generation of MMOs. And then, once someone develops something truly new, we’ll see a whole new generational wave of pack-followers copying it.

  11. Good article and conversations!

    In some ways Blizzard appears to be playing it safe — PVE content comes to mind. In other ways Blizzard has indulged in constant experimentation at our expense. Consider how many iterations of PVP we’ve seen in WoW and look at how many time’s they’ve redefined classes since Ghostcrawler started working there.

    With the exception of phasing and even that was borrowed from Turbine’s Lord of the Rings Online, we really haven’t seem much innovation from Blizzard.

    Frankly, most of the risk is probably dealt with internally before they ever end up releasing their feature set for expansions. What we end up with in WoW is relatively safe and focused grouped to death.

    My whole grudge against Blizzard has been dominated by their lack of originality with regard to MMOs. Their two strong points have been lore and polishing of basic gameplay mechanics — that’s pretty much it.

    I fear that that can only take them so far. Perhaps they may try for something a bit bolder in their upcoming expansion. One thing is certain, if anyone can afford to do research into creating more unique and immersive virtual worlds and communities it’s Blizzard. That’s why it’s such a shame that they’ve been playing it so safe for all these years.

    New races, new quests, new continents, new classes — all of those things are NOT innovation and hardly original. They are just more of the same disguised as freshness and innovation.

  12. I think we’re going to see the majority of innovation from the Indie games from this point onward. There is some innovative features in some of those titles, but they are smaller budget titles. When you get to multi-million dollar budgets and venture capitol or investors, its a different matter. They want safe.

  13. To be honest, I don’t think the MMO market rewards innovation. Or at least not revolutionary innovation – evolutionary innovation of systems is acceptable.

    If you do come up with a revolutionary innovation in terms of game model or systems, you’ve got to convince existing MMO players to give it a shot. You need time to develop that game, have enough content to keep them interested and try to keep the money coming in at the same time.

    Personally I think there are a number of revolutionary MMO designs out there – ATITD was, EvE was and whoever manages to get an MMOFPS to the mainstream will be (PlanetSide and WWIIOL have tried; APB seems to hold the most hope). But since innovation != success (and might even reduce its chances) I can understand why most developers play it on the safe side and make their changes to the margins.

  14. It doesn’t make much sense to innovate if what you’re gambling with is tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in borrowed money. You’re seeing less innovation because development costs for AAA MMOs are unsustainably huge.

    We won’t get another giant wave of innovation in MMOs until the tools for building them get enough better that independent game designers can build something that’s significantly unlike WoW, but just as polished, for a budget no higher than an indie studio can afford to gamble and lose.

    Until then, if you want to innovate, the smart thing to do is what both CCP and Jagex did, not in terms of game design decisions, but in terms of budgeting. Decide how much gameplay you can build, make solid, and polish on your budget (and don’t be wrong about that). Ship that, promising no more than what you can deliver. Then reinvest the subscription revenue from that into making it better. Start small and grow, instead of thinking that you can pay off a gigantic loan by starting out as big as WoW.

  15. Pingback: Bite My Review | Can You Handle The Truth?

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