There’s been a discussion kicking around Twitter for the past week or so, which seemed to end up with a single question. I think it was probably best said by Wolfshead: “is there anything left to say about today’s MMOs that hasn’t already been said?”
If we’re talking about the current crop of MMORPG games then no, there probably isn’t anything more that can be said about them. While our experiences playing those games is as varied and unique as our daily lives, the core mechanics used are almost identical. No wonder we’re all getting so jaded!
So why do we keep playing (and writing about) these games when there seems to be diminishing returns? When you’re comparing Dishwashing Online and Washing Up World, you’re still virtually washing dishes. Surely there’s only so much you can say?
When looking at an MMO there’s usually three blocks that govern the majority of experiences you’ll have:
- The World – the place in which the game takes place. The regions and continents, the creatures and people. Worldbuilding is an oft-overlooked skill, but it’s something you need to do well in order to create a place that players want to enter and explore
- The Story – what happens in the world that players can get involved in. How do the people and creatures in the world interact with eachother, what conflicts and alliances exist. A good story will help keep players in the world as they explore and play it out.
- The Game – the mechanics, rules and methods with which the player interacts with the world and the story. A good game will feel fluid and natural, while a bad game will tarnish experiences and push people away.
When Blizzard started on World of Warcraft they already had a world largely fleshed out from three previous games, coupled with a story arc that was already underway. A large chunk of the effort went into the game experience, iterating and polishing the experience as only Blizzard do.
The trouble is that since then almost every single MMO publisher has tried to emulate the process – two factions, talent trees, dungeons, raids, etc. Just give it a new world and a new story and away you go. You can even go further than that – buy in IP and have a ready made world and story that you can develop and plug into. There’s no certainties though that buying an IP will help you in the long run.
It’s all getting a bit repetitive when – from the player’s point of view – it’s only the window dressing that changes. We’re able to continually find new things to talk about partly because of new content (i.e. story), or because of the players we encounter and experiences we have. It’s fair to say that other players is the biggest asset a game can have right now. It also means that the MMO blogsphere is full of unique tales, insights and experiences that are great to read.
So where are the exciting new MMO concepts going to come from? What will really invigorate the genre beyond what it is now? As you can guess, it involves stretching out beyond the tried and tested MMORPG framework that’s been tinkered with the past few years and moving into new areas:
- MMO Crafting – think of games like Minecraft or Terraria, but on an MMO scale where destroying and reshaping the landscape around you is key. You could even look at Populous or Black and White for other foundations to build on.
- MMO Vehicles – I was really looking forward to Jumpgate Evolution as a way of coping with my X-Wing nostalgia. World of Tanks also does this currently, albeit on a smaller scale.
- MMO Strategy – whatever happened to evolving on concepts like Planetarion and Ogame? The only game I’ve seen tackle this is EVE, with a loyal fanbase and no-one else even daring to go near it.
- MMO First-Person Shooter – It’s rumoured that Blizzard’s Titan will be using this style of gameplay. I’d also argue that Team Fortress 2 does this pretty well, even if it’s not strictly an MMO.
There are a huge range of ways in which players can interact with both the game world and the created story. Developers shouldn’t be constricted by just a single method just because it worked for Warcraft. It’s likely that players will reward you for it.