“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?