Have we reached a pinnacle of MMO innovation? ZAM considers the precedence set by the world's most popular MMOs, and what it means for the future.
Have you ever wondered what the modern MMO landscape might look like if the forerunners of the genre had been different? The multiplayer text-based games, MUDs, of the late 80s and early 90s ran on pre-Internet, dial-up networks called Bulletin Board Systems, or BBSs. These games helped to pave the way for early-generation MMOGs like Neverwinter Nights; the first MMOG to feature graphics instead of a text-only or ASCII art interface.
Next came the classics; the pioneers of the MMO industry like The Realm, Ultima Online and Everquest. But it wasn't until World of Warcraft that MMORPGs truly went mainstream, breaking down the walls that separated RPG fans and PC gamers. Both Everquest and WoW changed many gamers' preconceptions about the role-playing genre. They exemplified a new breed of MMORPGs that didn't rely so much on turn-based combat, text-heavy interaction and many other inherent staples of traditional RPGs.
When I see the products that consistently rise to the top in today's lineup, it makes me wonder if the modern "mold" of MMOs is cured to a rock-hard standard, or if we might still see an innovative change in the mainstream market. Also inspired by an editorial I stumbled upon recently; Colin "Seraphina" Brennan's "All hail the modern MMO gamer—a twitchy, frothy mess," I'm more curious about the current MMORPG paradigm than ever. Will players embrace unfamiliar MMO concepts, or are we stuck in a market that will only produce viable games if they follow tried-and-true designs?
I realize that gamers might be tired of seeing World of Warcraft used as a model to compare and contrast all other MMOs to. But regardless of which angle you view it from, WoW has set a precedent in today's market—there's just no denying it. With 11 million subscribers, it's either the best MMORPG ever made, or the most accessible.
It's only natural that subsequent MMOs would try to follow in the footsteps of giants like WoW and EQ. Once the industry finds a recipe that works; i.e., one that's successful, major developers aren't going to waste a substantial amount of time and money trying to re-invent the wheel.
This is a concept you can observe in almost any industry—just look at the soda we drink. Despite the large number of beverage companies that exist, most of the soda flavors on the market are derivative of something else. There might be dozens of different kinds of cola or lime-flavored soda, but they're all based on popular brands that established an earlier market presence. Every once in a while we might see something innovative appear (remember Crystal Pepsi and OK Soda?), but these products usually only attract a niche customer base or eventually die out.
Although the analogy is crude, it's an accurate way to describe the concept of market precedence in any industry, MMOs included. An established precedence helps explain why you'll find so many similarities among the most popular MMOs, whether it's in graphical design, the UI, level progression or gear itemization. It's not necessarily a matter of one MMO "ripping off" another; if players learn that a floating exclamation point over a NPC's head means there's a quest available, developers will use game elements like that to their advantage. A few months ago, ZAM featured an editorial about that very topic.
But to broaden the subject a bit more, let's take a look at an excerpt from Brennan's editorial, which I mentioned earlier:
[…] Take the gimmicks away from the boss fights in WoW and your skills don't matter. You end up with a whole UI loaded with junk and crazy people attempting to theorycraft their way out of a virtual paper bag. It all comes down to what armor your[sic] wearing at the time, because that's what WoW does to make sure people don't get ahead of themselves. (Because content lockdown via random item drops is the best thing a game designer can make.)
Brennan is specifically referring to the demise of tactical thinking in modern-day MMOs. She argues that—beyond a few exceptions like EVE Online or FFXI's "skillchain" system—most of today's MMOs lack many of the tactical combat mechanics that attracted so many people to traditional RPGs in the first place. Some people even feel that MMORPGs are slowly leading to the demise of traditional RPGs.
It's one example of how market precedence can dictate the types of MMOs developers choose to invest in, even years into the future. When a successful MMO paradigm is established, it can be surprisingly difficult for the industry to collectively break free of that archetype. The "Quest: Kill 10 Rats" joke is a testament to this concept. The idea of an adventurer heading to the outskirts of town and slaying X number of monsters had become an archetypal pattern in modern MMO design, long before WoW came along.
When you take a moment to consider how many other MMO design elements wound up being paralleled in some fashion within today's games, the concept doesn't seem that far-fetched. Level progression, hit points, mana, spells or abilities, action points, talent points, roots, stuns, AoE—the list goes on, and those are just examples of character and combat mechanics. People tend to gravitate toward the familiar; an issue that's become a double-edged sword when it comes to MMOs.
Brennan's standpoint revolves primarily around the idea of real-time combat versus turn-based combat. She admits that the two types of combat can't easily be pigeon-holed into a "which is better?" argument, since it's really more like apples and oranges. It's just one aspect of MMOs that's used to illustrate the influence that precedence has over the industry. But it's a good one, because it's a mechanic that exemplifies a current MMO paradigm that will prove difficult for developers to break free of.
To expound upon this particular idea, try to imagine the alternative: some kind of hybrid real-time/turn-based combat system. Then try to imagine that system used in the world's next "big" MMO; one with more than a million subscribers, or even the eventual "WoW-Killer," whatever that might be. Imagine the difficulty developers would face in acclimating new players to something so new and unfamiliar. Not many developers and publishers want to take that chance.
Even though every new MMO that comes out is different and unique in some way, they all seem to have been built on one another's failures and successes. When developers do try shifting the paradigm, the results are usually met with mixed reaction. For example, when Mythic developed Warhammer Online, it envisioned a way to bring back spatially-relative combat by adding character collision to PvP. The goal was to create situations with more tactical realism; tanks in the front, physically blocking and protecting the casters and healers in the rear.
Unfortunately, WAR's character collision detection was met with heavy criticism. Most opponents blamed it on buggy coding, although many people simply weren't used to the mechanic—they just couldn't "get comfortable" with something so different from the "norm." The same is true of Darkfall's combat system, which takes place in real-time but is meant to be more tactically-played than a typical fantasy MMO.
We might be on the threshold of witnessing a new shift of the MMO paradigm as "next-gen" game types like first-person-shooter and "superhero" MMOs grow in popularity. So far, most MMOFPS games released have been poor examples of an MMO, with nothing more than an upgradeable character and a multiplayer server to warrant the "MMO" prefix. But as new games are developed, it's inevitable that innovative gameplay will also emerge.
Someday we might see the successful implementation of hybrid real-time/turn-based "standard" in MMOFPS games, at least. I'd love to see something similar to the V.A.T.S. (Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System) combat system used in Fallout 3. Until the right blend of action and tactical combat can be achieved, I'm afraid Brennan's assessment of contemporary MMOs might be correct.
When it comes to classic fantasy or hack-and-slash MMOs, it might be a longer period of time before we really begin to see new games that don't rely so heavily on tried-and-true formulas. Some things look promising, like the flight system used in the upcoming Aion, or the "sandbox"-style gameplay we're hearing so much about.
But these are still just baby steps when silhouetted against the sprawling landscape of the established MMO paradigm. You also have to consider if a drastic change in that landscape is desirable, or even warranted. There's a reason the wheel hasn't been re-invented thousands of years after its inception. It's been upgraded over the years—refined—but never truly changed.
Maybe the modern MMORPG isn't much different, having already reached its optimum potential. A decade from now, we might still be hunting down those 10 rats and furiously hitting "1" on our keyboards, waiting for a cooldown to refresh. But for gamings' sake (and to keep Gary Gygax from rolling over in his grave), I really hope that's not the case.