A note before we continue, from here on out the spelling of certain words may have changed from older entries. That’s because I’m now using Word 2010 for my entries instead of WordPress’s editor, thus all further entries will reflect that.
I think that if things continue in their fashion massive multiplayer online games, or MMOs, will suffer the exact same fate of Adventure games in the early 90s. Normally I would say that I was worried about that fate but considering I stay well away from MMOs and I consider them only slightly above the blackened abyss of hell that is Sports games it isn’t as much of a tragedy for me as it is with other people.
To be specific, when I talk about MMOs I’m not talking about the Farmville style games that are free to play from launch and are relatively simple to maintain. I’m talking about games like World of Warcraft, Star Trek Online, DC Universe, Warhammer Online, Lord of The Rings Online, Star Trek Online, and Star Wars Old Republic.
So why do I think the genre is doomed to fail? Well, among the list of games I mentioned above only two of them are not free to play despite launching as a subscription. I didn’t even list all of the defunct ones as that would be a full journal entry on its own. The difference between Adventure games and MMOs is simply that Adventure games were saddled with the tradition of inscrutable puzzles which consisted of walking around rubbing items on other items until they worked. Unless you had an actual puzzle. Then you were screwed. You were forced to work out the insane leaps of logic the developer decided to instil to give it a reasonable level of challenge. I’ve gone at length about how books should be accessible already, so you can imagine how these games bothered me. There’s a great online journal entry about this and I would not be surprised if in a few years we saw a similar one about MMOs, stating how blatantly obvious the flaws are in hindsight stating how the MMO games killed themselves.
Meanwhile, MMOs suffer from a similar problem to adventure games, being that they have the same core methodology over and over. Most MMOs have one and only one quest with three variations on it. They are go kill X number of grues, go kill X number of grues and get an item; there may be a boss grue, and lastly; go kill X number of grues in a special location; there will be a boss grue and he may drop an item you like. The only difference between the two genres is that while Adventure games are needlessly difficult, MMOs are profoundly easy.
I noticed this the most when I tried the beta for Star Wars Online where I decided to be a Jedi and after a few minutes of decent opening I found myself in that same grue hunting situation I mentioned. No I didn’t get a lightsaber and explore the galaxy a bit. That might have actually whetted my appetite for the real game. Sure it would have been a letdown to have to start from scratch but there could have been a quick path for those who played the demo. Or, and here’s a wild idea, since they used the same interface as most MMOs the players could have started in their classes ready to explore the universe after a quick tutorial.
Anyway, carrying my argument forward, a few days ago I saw the new issue of Gameinformer and I was caught by the cover.
I thought it was great! Very stark and minimalist, making me instantly curious about the contents. I gave it a close examination and saw the name Morrowind. Knowing that to be a continent from the Elder Scrolls universe I saw the three creatures, the lion, the griffin and the dragon, eating each other in an odd Ouroboros formation. I was remarkably excited by what I saw. The image showed multiple nations in the background and my first thought was either a new Elder Scrolls game encompassing multiple nations or some sort of anthology game. Once I inquired about it to my co-workers I immediately threw up my hands in disgust. Yes, it seems the Elder Scrolls franchise, hailed as the last bastion of honourable gameplay development, the golden standard that proved you didn’t need DLC or online codes to make a successful game that was immersive, engaging and massive beyond measure, has announced they are making an MMO.
Oh I’m sorry, Bethesda, the company that developed the series isn’t behind it at all. It’s actually a new studio called ZeniMax Media. So we have a publishing company giving license to another developer studio to design a new take on their game with limited interaction from the development group that made the previous success. Oh yeah, that’s never gone wrong.
Not at all.
Thing is; after my initial revulsion about this situation, and believe me it was strong, actually travelling through the Elder Scrolls lands sounded like a really fun idea. That’s the only thing that limits the core franchise of games was that you couldn’t see how the other areas from older games were doing after your involvement. So, okay. We have a good world to work with, are they going to change up the MMO gameplay format to stand out among other titles that have tried World of Warcraft’s design but failed because they were only seen as shallow copies?
Nope! If the issue of Gameinformer is to be believed (the facts about this game are taken from Gameinformer June 2012, issue 230 starting on page 48) they have no desire to change core gameplay conventions and methodology. Look, I know it’s a symbol of good design to use existing conventions to ease in new users but this is the gaming industry! If you don’t try and use new gameplay mechanics you get made fun of like Call of Duty or Sports games! But no, the major innovations in the genre, according to developers, are going to be mostly in the setting and quest styles. Oh you’ll still go and kill grues but the plot will be good so it’s worth it.
Listen, I’m a fairly moderate person and I had a bad reaction to this article. If you are going to create a new MMO it can’t just be sold on the setting. There has to be an innovative new core gameplay mechanic at work otherwise you’ll get a reaction like mine from a lot of people. When they talk about your game they need to say why it’s fun and different to play. That’s why it’s a damn video game! On top of that, if you only have the same basic interface and levelling system as your top competitors then the best of your innovations to that methodology will be used by your competition! Look at what happened to Warhammer Online. World of Warcraft copied a lot of their PVP stuff. As it is the MMO genre is becoming recognized as a stagnant place, derelict of interest. It nearly killed the public opinion of PC gaming if Minecraft hadn’t come along and proved the platform was capable of delivering an unparalleled experience through independent developers.
They also mentioned how they planned to bring back public dungeons which I argue is another misstep considering association to existing or abandoned mechanics is effectively death in this industry. It also plans to use phasing like World Of Warcraft which only aids my argument. Even if you look at some of the graphics the game is oddly colourful which barely fits the very dark and grim atmosphere (grimdark, hey I just got that) that The Elder Scrolls has cultivated up to this point. Heck it’s so colourful I’d almost say it looked a lot like World Of Warcraft and if I have that problem, imagine gamers with less attention spans then me! You can be as pretentious as you want about that dynamic of people but even the most basic outlook has merit and simply discounting their opinion is not healthy.
What we need is a new core mechanic. Personally I think the system used for the Enter The Matrix MMO was vastly underused. In that game you had no classes. You simply had a type of skill bar that you could fill with whatever skills you wanted. As you levelled, the more skills you could put in. Why aren’t we seeing more of this? It could revolutionize clan structures! Even more, it would empower players, especially since so many are forced to restrain themselves to specific class builds to optimize their characters. Heck, include bonuses for interesting combinations!
From what I hear the big new innovative MMO is The Secret World, a game set in the modern era where you have no classes or levels, you simply acquire experience to get skills, as you fight against the supernatural as one of three factions. That I think is a good step in the right direction from a conceptual outset and I would love to see more new implementations from it. Of course, it doesn’t have the ad revenue that the Elder Scrolls MMO does so we’ll see if as many people learn about it.
In the end I think the proof that the MMO genre needs a massive dose of innovation lies in the extensive wake of dead and free to play games in its history. The gaming audience and the journalist media can’t keep accepting and praising the same conventions in this genre, otherwise it is doomed to fail. As it is that is a problem with the industry as a whole.
And so too does this work exist.