Hot off the heels of my first impressions of RIFT, I now want to touch on another broad MMO topic. In my last post I compared Warcraft and RIFT to two similar but rather different books by Terry Pratchett. However, this post at Massively touches on the long-standing criticisms of WoW and it’s influence on the MMO industry at large. The problem appears to be that all these MMOs have similar mechanics, and different ‘window dressing’. I rather take issue with this, because while FPS and RPG singleplayer games evolve and change, they’re still recognizably of a type and what changes is the…window dressing, and the amount of interactivity with the environment and AI that it is possible to program.
But there is a definite rut, and you see it everywhere, even in the fact that the “default” for an MMO is the way that WoW handles something. And there’s a distinct portion of the market that grew up (so to speak) on WoW. The sheer number of players has created a deforming force in the industry, something that has to be responded to consciously in order to stop making games that copy large chunks of what WoW has done.
I’m not sure entirely why this sort of criticism sets me on edge. It feels a bit like critiquing an FPS for being an…FPS. Or a fantasy saga for being a fantasy saga. It’s very easy to see WoW as a centre of design gravity as, simply by existing it pulls other objects, matter, space and bends it. It acts as a weight on the rubber sheet of reality. That’s how big WoW is in the MMO industry. However some of the expectations in these sorts of articles baffle me a little.
Unfortunately, the damage has been done, and it’s going to be a long time before we see something start coming out of truly left field. The design rut has lasted so long because WoW is still making embarrassing amounts of money, and even if one of the aforementioned games (or all three) winds up being the game that finally knocks its predecessor off the pedestal, the expected blueprint is now ingrained in our minds.
Do we want to see something come out of left field? Does a game have to be ‘revolutionary’ to be awesome? I mean sure, a lot of successful games have blown us out of the water by taking leaps and bounds where other developers have feared to tread, but what about a simply quality product? I do not expect every tv show I ever watch to include new and dazzling CGI techniques – what I want is good story, quality acting and entertainment. TV shows are ground breaking when they introduce great characters, or brilliant concepts, when they tell the stories that have traditionally been led by the way side or show case a great actor who tends to get ignored by the media.
A great book isn’t necessarily anything entirely fresh, but the quality writing and great characters and the author’s voice bring back readers time and time again. Game developers may chop and change with some of the essence of an MMO – maybe they remove stats and stat allocations, maybe they’ll remove the idea of a limited inventory. Maybe they add flying mounts or remove player housing, but in my mind these tend to take second place to world building, combat mechanics and storytelling techniques – whether they be interactive dialogs or cutscenes.
I can read a book by the Eddings, or I can read Fiest. Or I can read NK Jiemson and Patricia Briggs. None of these things are revolutionary, although of course they don’t cost me fees. However I don’t need to stick to one author, as there is value in all those different voices. They’re simply fun and enjoyable to read, and I enjoy the universes they’re set in. I think that is going to be the next direction for MMOs. LOTRO and SWTOR maybe huge IPs, but they’re not ones I want to immerse myself in. A new fantasy IP? Well, it’s like my own movie or novel saga, but I can chat and take my frustration out on unsuspecting Diamondhides or Hyenas in the middle of it.
I’m looking forward to see what Guild Wars 2 does, of course. And any number of MMOs. I’ve stayed in Azeroth for a long time and I’ll be staying there for a while yet, but enjoying the world building of others is something I will continue to do. So, is the future for triple A MMORPGs more of the same, but with better world building? Or is it something amazing that I just can’t envisage yet? Did all those MMOs fail because of WoW, or because their implementation of basic mechanics flawed, with not enough story and world building to prop them up?