Posted in Guild Wars, Star Wars: The Old Republic

The wheel still works

I’m starting to see a growing trend among MMO developers — particularly ones who haven’t put out a title yet — of lashing out at “same old, tired, boring” MMO tropes and promising that their game’s going to be SO different, SO revolutionary, SO exciting that it’ll make everything in the past seem like dirt.

And, invariably, such statements are then followed by “We’re makin’ a fancy action-MMO!  Yee haw!”

Okay, maybe the hillbilly accent is just implied, but I hear it in my head.

First of all, while it’s important — and even essential — to establish your company and game as captivating, different and attention-worthy, there’s a line that’s crossed between sane marketing-talk and pie-in-the-sky promises.  Whatever points you win now for bashing the established competition is going to come back and haunt you if — and when — your game ends up being another one of the bunch instead of something 100% different.

Second, what’s with the perception that to fix MMOs we need to go the whole action-MMO route entirely?  Sure, action games work for some people, and they can even be quite fun paired with RPGs, but guess what?  They’re not for everyone, they’re not even that new, and the implication that one is better than the other is complete hogwash.

Yes, I said hogwash.  Don’t make me swear again.

You see, there’s a lot to be said in favor of your typical MMO setup — people understand it, it doesn’t necessarily cater to twitch-based gamers over those who prefer strategy and tactics, and it’s been proven to work just fine over the years.  Some MMOs skew more toward faster-paced, rapid-click action (like DDO or Vindictus), some love their 100-icon hotbars with the passion of a thousand suns.  A bit of diversity is good for the genre, to be sure — you just don’t have to go an declare one as dead or unimaginative or whatever trash talk these devs (and, to be fair, players) like to fling out.

The cliche of reinventing the wheel — in other words, spending unnecessary time and effort to redo something that’s already been done perfectly fine — comes to mind.  It’s weird to consider that for a pretty young genre, people already see us as in a “rut” because change isn’t coming fast or wild enough.  It’s weirder when you compare this mindset to almost any other hobby, especially if you consider how other hobbies are just fine with 95% the same plus 5% improvements with each year’s iteration.  You don’t see gardeners out there waving their fists at the sky because we’re still planting stuff in rows, or football fans angry that we’re still stuck with two teams going left or right on a field, or race car game players livid that these vehicles don’t fly yet.

Entertainment’s almost always seen gradual evolution of trends and techniques with the rare, occasional revolutionary leap forward.  Movies, books, TV, puppet theater — these things don’t change that quickly.  Some are better than others, a lot are crap, but there’s a reason we’ve settled down to accept predictable movie formulas that (hopefully) offer a new twist, a well-done production or solid acting instead of ranting that we’ve been in a movie rut because we’re still watching linear talkies in color.  The technology gradually improves (3D, IMAX, digital projectors, CGI) but the basic essence of a movie experience is the same as it was back in the 40s.  So what makes MMOs so special in this respect?

Part of the reason for this trend of dissatisfaction over the general status quo of MMOs is the sheer amount of time per year that we spend playing these games.  We as players absolutely gorge ourselves on MMOs, devouring content so quickly that devs have to introduce artificial speed bumps (excessive grinding, time sinks) just to keep us from burning out faster than we already are.  We don’t want anything that remotely looks like WoW, because we’ve already spent 1,939 days playing WoW.  So now we’re backing studios into a corner demanding not only that they make new games, but that they not be the same without alienating us.

Is it any surprise that the studios are coming back with these sorts of outlandish statements, appealing to the “We want, we want, we need, we need something different!” cry from the crowd?

When TOR releases, people invariably are going to bash it for being too much like other MMOs, especially those who’ve built it up to be a lifesaver instead of just a fun game.  When GW2 comes out, players are going to skip past any of the genuinely different parts to harp on how we’re still doing “X out of X” kill/click/carry quests (well, events, but still).

The wheel — the whole car — has already been established.  It’s just not feasible to remake the whole thing, and it’s not healthy for us to expect every studio to do so.  I’m not saying they shouldn’t polish, they shouldn’t try new designs, new features, new ideas.  I’m saying that they — and we — have to gradually come to grips with the reality that we’re not going to see a radically new, radically different MMO any time soon.

And that, my friends, is okay.  We’ll still have fun with the ones we have and the ones we’ll get.

22 thoughts on “The wheel still works

  1. The underlying game will still be recognizable. The original telephone was just a telegraph with a voice feature. 🙂 A modern Maserati feels very different from a Model T. (Sadly, this is just a conjecture.)

    But that doesn’t mean there won’t be real innovation. I think Rifts and GW2, with their emphasis on changing worlds (which appear to build on Warhammer Online’s Public Quests) show that we have momentum towards new forms of gameplay. The games themselves will still feel like World of Warcraft -plus- these dyanmic events feature. But over time, twenty years from now, I bet the MMO we will be playing will feel radically different from the originals like Meridian 59 and EverQuest. We’re just not going to see it all done at once.

  2. It’s weirder when you compare this mindset to almost any other hobby, especially if you consider how other hobbies are just fine with 95% the same plus 5% improvements with each year’s iteration…So what makes MMOs so special in this respect?”

    I’ll offer up a statement I’ve made before in this regard: MMOs are simply bad games.

    The core gameplay of MMOs is driven by dull, boring, mindless repetition that hinges entirely on a moronic AI doing the exact same unrealistic, stupid thing every single time. They rely entirely on social factors that don’t have anything to do with the game (my friends play!) and obsessive rat-in-the-maze-gets-the-cheese reward system to keep people coming back.

    People are happy with football because every football game is different and exciting (or at least has the potential to be). Underdogs and upsets, injuries and bad calls, can all be surprising and keep things interesting even in a lopsided game. When was the last time a Molten Core run surprised anyone? The very terminology we use as gamers – ‘run’, ‘farm’ – shows how we feel about it. It’s automatic, easy, and pretty much mindless. You take the same action you did last time, and hope you get lucky on the reward, and then you do it again. And again.

    People want to see massive improvements to the games because they NEED massive improvement. If planting crops in rows worked as badly at growing food as MMOs do at actually providing fun, we’d all be roaming tribes of nomads following herds of antelope. And can you imagine the WiFi costs to try and play an MMO then?

  3. Growing trend? Really? So every Diku-MMO (what some of you kids call “WoW clones”) doesn’t bother to hype their game up whatsoever or call attention to their so-called “special features” because hey, why bother, it’s just the same game you’ve been playing for a decade, right? Why spend marketing dollars to get gamers interested? Only the guys (allegedly) making (allegedly) new gameplay with (allegedly) new features need that marketing?

    “… ones who haven’t put out a title yet…” Really? Given the context of the post, it’s safe to assume you mean “MMO title” so go ask Blizzard how much never having done an MMO before matters. At all.

    Contrast that to those who *have* put out an MMO title. How’s Mythic these days? Oh yeah… How the original EQ loudmouth himself, Brad McQuaid these days? Oh yeah… Does he even have a job? Many of the other well-known “Founding Fathers” of MMOs have given up and are off trying to make the next FarmVille, not the next great MMO.

    Parts of this read very much like yet another MMO Gamer who gets all defensive when a whippersnapper developer smack-talks the genre. Seriously, they’re not going to take over WoW or LOTRO or whatever and turn them into God of War games. Then the other parts read more like what I’d expect of someone who can step back and look at things objectively and sanely, though it almost seems like even in those good parts there’s a bit of… anger seeping through?

    No one is “reinventing the wheel.” Millions are content with the generic wheel that ships on their car, just as millions are happy with the traditional MMORPGs out there. But there is a reason that custom wheel shops exist for certain customers, just as there is a demographic for EVE, Darkfall, Perpetuum, and even some Action-MMOs such as DC Universe which will be releasing way before Undead Labs’ game which doesn’t even have a name yet.

  4. @Buhallin
    Well, I think Syp is on to something here. It may very well be that MMOs are simply bad design (no argument from me on the terminology), but what Syp noted was the sheer amount of time people are “expected” to put into an MMO. “Casuals” who only play a 1/2 a day or goodness forbid, even LESS, are derided and asked if they even *like* MMOs.

    I have friends who knit as a hobby; they do amazing things and read/write knitting blogs, collaborate, photograph their work and aspire to greater things, but they don’t spend 5 hours a night doing it. They don’t get up in the morning to get those last stitches in before work. They do it while they watch TV, a bit before dinner, to unwind 20 minutes before bed. That kind of time in an MMO gets you under 1000 hours in five years (I know, because I have under 1000 hours in Guild Wars and that’s how long I’ve played, and how often).

    When you think about it, consider how much time some people put into MMOs and consider how much time others put into their hobbies (football games only run a couple of hours a week, don’t they? the rest is fantasy football teams, reading sports news, talking about the big game at work, etc.), it’s no wonder at all that people are grouchy and burned out on MMOs and want huge iterations on game design each new wave of games that come out, even if the game has been in development for five years.

  5. Randomessa – I certainly agree with Syp’s thoughts on the time people put in, and how they can contribute to burnout and wanting more, but I think that does nothing but reinforce my points.

    When people get up to sneak in a few minutes before work, or spend 5 hours a night doing it, is it for the sake of the entertainment value itself? I do it too, and I’m pretty sure it’s not. Whether I was making my mithril mining cycle in Charred Vale or starting my extractors in EVE, there wasn’t anything “fun” in those few minutes. They were done for the reward, not the fun.

    Which is, I think, why we see this mechanic in MMOs. People don’t play these games because they’re fun – they’re not. They play for the social, which is good, and the rush of rewards, which is bad. It’s essentially an addiction. When I got tired of playing Warmachine I took a break from Warmachine – no big deal. But when people get tired of MMOs, they lose that rush of the rewards, and go looking for something better. They don’t want to leave MMOs, so they hope for MMOs to improve. That’s a big part of WoW’s longevity, IMHO – people are addicted to rewards, and nothing delivers them in as streamlined, comfortable manner as WoW does.

    Now before someone goes over the top, obviously this doesn’t apply to everyone who’s ever played an MMO, and it’s not a universal that every piece of every MMO is a bad game. But I think it all ties back into the core point – concisely, that people play MMOs for the rush of rewards even though they’re bad games in themselves, which leads to people wanting to see the game improved.

  6. I think you are right, but I think that means the MMO fad will start to die. If this is it, I can’t see playing the same game over and over with minor tweaks to graphics and content. I disagree about time: even if you only spend 1000 hours of year you will still get sick of the genre. Music games are casual and formulaic, and they are on the downswing.

    I predict you will see less complaints, but also less players as they move on to other things.

  7. Buhallin is onto something, that MMOs are poor games in and of themselves, but do have two factors which are appealing to many, including the much-sought-after non-gamer and casual market: various types of rewards, plus the social aspects of chatting, or simply reading the chats, and sharing your reward achievements with others. It could be your XP bar, crafting progress, reputation, whatever; the whole “oooh my numbers went up!” is catchy and indeed the most successful Facebook “games” rely upon exactly that. Buhallin’s example of logging into EVE just to start up his extractors is key. We do things because, whether immediately or eventually, those things make our “numbers go up” somewhere, not because those things are “fun.”

    With MMORPGs in particular, they usually offer a multitude of activites, which equates to a multitude of numbers we can have go up. The few Action-y games haven’t necessarily offered enough. Auto Assault didn’t seem to. Tabula Rasa was on the verge of coming into its own but NCsoft killed it off out of spite. I’m tempted to go ahead and lump Jumpgate Evolution into that same category of being too much action but not enough to do. Or perhaps, too much of the same action, which gets repetitive. “Depth,” however we personally define it, becomes an important factor in a games’ longevity. I’m already hearing DC Universe, while being a good Action game, may not be worth a subscription *for that very reason.* That is also how I’ve felt about City of Heroes and now Champions (though for my two cents, I’d sub to Champions before CoH any day). Beat stuff up, or shoot your pewpew guns, and then what? That’s the “problem” these so-called Action MMOs have to solve, *ASSUMING* they also fall into the same trap of requiring players to put in ridiculous time in order to justify the subscription and to keep them playing/paying.

  8. @Dblade
    Not 1000 hours a year, 1000 hours over five :).

    I’m coming to realize I don’t so much mind a game coming to an end (a la Guild Wars where you actually get the end credits when you finish a campaign). I don’t mind moving on to another game and that doesn’t mean the previous one “failed” me in any way. I don’t mind treating MMOs like single-player games that I play with a few friends and/or my husband, while surrounded by a community of players (the Massively part in my view, and I know this is heresy!).

    But then, I don’t play MMOs for the rewards, but for the story. I realize this makes me an outlier. But it does mean I’m not “sick” of MMOs or even of killing ten rats (though I may tire of it on a given evening).

  9. I disagree, Syp. I don’t see why we can’t expect more from our MMO studios.
    Studios *don’t* need to reinvent the wheel, but I do expect more than incremental improvements to the formula.

    When I played WoW for the first time, I said “this is amazing! It’s nothing like Anarchy Online!”

    When I played AO for the first time, I said “wow, this is so different from EQ!”

    When I played EQ, I said “oooh, so much more going on than Meridian 59”

    and M59 was like nothing I had ever played before.

    None of these reinvented the wheel. The core gameplay was all the same. Still, you can’t describe any of them as “like that older game, but with this small feature list of improvements.”

    The gap between EQ and WoW is about as big as in single player games developed that many years apart. Can you really say the same for the gap between WoW and TOR or Rifts?

  10. Where did I say we shouldn’t expect more, that they shouldn’t improve? Actually, I believe I did say just that. My point is that anyone who constantly demands a complete revolutionary leap forward is setting themselves up for disappointment, which is something that I don’t see from fans of other entertainment genres. We should expect more and better, but I think people are going a little too far and expecting the ridiculously awesome while hoping that some major shift of design will suddenly cure their MMO blues.

  11. @Randomessa

    What story though? I mean, I haven’t seen a decent story in them compared to your average JRPG. I’m reminded of Persona 3 which had great characters you grew to care about over the time of your interaction with them, while in most MMOs it’s just you and quest giver number #75.


    Problem is all MMOs seem to offer is mechanics. What else can we expect to be better or more? You tank one instance, you’ve tanked them all.

  12. I think it also comes down to the length of one’s experience with MMOs. I’ve been playing them since The Realm in 1995, and I don’t really expect any reinvention anytime soon.

    I think it’s great that things are moving forward in small, but very important ways. It seems like the industry as a whole is pushing towards worlds that actually change in some way depending on what the player does. This is absolutely awesome.

    I think the ones who are complaining about the UI being stolen from x and the classes being stolen from y just don’t have the experience with MMOs as a whole to be able to separate the forest from the trees.

    WoW brought in a lot of new players who never played an MMO before. Unfortunately, we oldschool folks are going to be inundated with those making ignorant comments and complaints for some years to come. This only gets dangerous when devs actually listen to them.

  13. @Dblade
    You’re right in that most MMOs don’t have much of a central storyline to offer, save Guild Wars and LOTRO, and I don’t play single-player games, so I can’t compare experiences there. I play Guild Wars for the story and I enjoy doing so, and care about the characters I’ve encountered, which is why I look so forward to Guild Wars 2 for example.

  14. I agree with the thrust of your post, Syp. Moreover, I don’t see much difference between MMORPGs and the other kinds of entertainment I consume in this regard.

    I’ve been reading novels for over 40 years. The new novels I read are indistinguishable in most ways from those of my childhood. Same with films. Same with music. There are innovations and variations but the experience is very largely unchanged.

    The reallong-term issue for the future of MMORPGs may be the possible decline and disappearance of the desktop PC. If the PC disappears from offices, like the typewriter or the telex machine before it, can it have any future at all as a gaming platform? Presumably not. And some commentators seem to believe the PC’s days are numbered

  15. People have been declaring the death of the PC, and PC gaming, for more than a decade. These declarations usually match up to a new shiny – smartphones, tablets, cybernetic wetware implants, whatever – that makes people’s eyes glaze over without actually providing much in the way of capability. PC gaming is suffering because consoles tend to do it better, and they do it DRAMATICALLY cheaper. But until I see secretaries and accountants replacing their desktops with iPads, I’ll call it just another iteration of idiotic prognosticators. The cited article is so vague on reasons and full of contradictions it’s meaningless. Gartner makes a ton of money throwing gee-whiz predictions at ignorant MBA-holding CTOs; relying on them for actual tech predictions is silly.

    Now, back on topic… Syp, since you asked again I’ll say it again: You don’t see constant demands for revolution improvements from fans of other hobbies because other hobbies don’t need it as badly as MMOs do. I expect that regardless of the time we put into it, and keep coming back to them, we all know how bad the games really are. We may convince ourselves that the good outweighs the bad, and it might even be true – but there is so much bad in these games they need the help.

  16. Bhagpuss, I really doubt that. There’s a huge difference in kind at least between Nancy Drew and Harry Potter. The novel’s techniques don’t change, but the content does a lot. If you’ve read for 40 years you might know who Tom Swift is. The fact that a lot of people don’t might be an indication of how much they change over time.

    You are even worse off with music. Ragtime versus Big band versus New Wave versus Rap: it almost always reinvents itself nearly every generation.

    For some reason MMOs just don’t get that kind of advancement.

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