29 March, 2007
Sara Jensen Schubert points to a recent Gamasutra article where, as she put it, “Former EQ GM complains that we keep rehashing the same old shit.” The blog entry is appropriately entitled “Not Again“.
The interesting thing is that the author of the original article showed up to try to defend himself. Or, as we say in the business “to chum the waters.” I figured I’d give Mr. Sorens a small education about MMO games that he seemed to miss in his time as an EQ GM.
First, I’m going to point out one of his erroneous assumptions: that MMO designers think the “massively multiplayer” aspect is the most important and popular part of the game. As someone who has disliked the term “massively multiplayer”, I definitely do not think that is the appeal of online RPGs (or MMOs, or PEGs, or whatever other stupid acronym you want to use). Instead, let’s go to a post I made in the past, What is an MMO? In it, I say
I think the core element is Communities. Without a community, our online spaces are devoid of anything unique.
Mr. Sorens states that he thinks the persistent aspect (or “cumulative character” as Jonathan Baron put it and then pointed out as the reason why MMOs fail to evolve beyond beating up walking bags of xp) is the appealing part of these games; this was his justification for coming up with a new, completely unnecessary acronym. After all, Diablo 2 and Guild Wars are pretty popular but aren’t MMOs in the traditional sense. While this is true, Mr. Sorens seems to miss the point of why these aren’t MMOs in the strictest sense.
But, let’s really look at the appeal of MMOs. To his credit, Mr. Sorens is correct, but he only sees part of the picture. For me, there are three distinct stages to MMO appeal.
1. The Beginning. This is when the player picks the box up off the shelf. The appeal here is pretty similar between MMOs and offline games. The player thinks it looks fun. (Whether it is or not is a completely different issue.)
2. Established Player. This is where he gets it right. After a few months, it seems like a bit of a shame to give up what you have invested in your character. So, you stick with the game a bit longer until….
3. The Honeymoon is Over. You can’t believe you stuck with that stupid game for so long. But, you probably keep playing because of one specific reason….
Of course, experienced MMO players and developers are chomping at the bit to mention the one thing trumps these motivations every time: “Because my friends are playing that game.” Most experienced people pick up a game because that’s what their friends are playing. How many times have you heard people lamenting, “I really don’t like the game anymore, but that’s where my friends are.” Yep, we’re back to that whole “community” thing I talked about above; it’s the one thing that trumps every other aspect of these types of games. To the inexperienced online game designer, it can appear that we’re simply in love with the “massively multiplayer” aspect when the truth is that we really respect the “community” angle in our games and know that’s the most powerful aspect.
Now, let me get a little (more?) snarky; I’m an MMO developer and you know I’m full of that. Mr. Sorens complains that MMOs miss the chance to be innovative. I find this humorous coming from someone who points to his work on a baseball sequel as his main qualification for being treated seriously as a designer. And, yes, that is a cheap shot on my part because I’m sure that he had little control over that project getting greenlighted. Yet, one might assume that with his work on that title he might understand why MMOs (and the games industry in general) don’t embrace wild innovation.
The problem here is the same as it always has been: money. MMOs have been ahead of the curve when it comes to the cost of development. While game projects were starting to go over the US$1.5 million mark, MMO projects were already costing multi-millions of dollars. The sticker shock for the price of “next gen” console titles has experienced MMO devs chuckling. As the console developers are now figuring out, when someone is paying a lot of money to see a game made the last thing they want to hear out of you is, “I have this unproven idea that’s just wacky enough to work!”
Unfortunately, Mr. Sorens also seems to ignore the fact that there are some innovative games out there. A Tale in the Desert and Yohoho! Puzzle Pirates are two of the most notable examples in our industry. Notice how these original and interesting games aren’t taking the industry by storm? Notice how few people are falling over themselves to make ATITD clones? Yes, part of the issue here is that these games are made by relatively small companies on modest budgets. But, this brings up the old Catch-22: you need big money to make an impressive, appealing, and well-marketing project and get noticed; but, big money is but its nature conservative and risk-adverse and not interested in “innovation”.
But, I think we’ll start to see some smart money being put into alternative projects. As Damion pointed out in a recent blog entry, DFC thinks that most competitors in the fantasy MMO space will fail. So, coming up with an original alternative is a good idea. The current (unfortunately, “hush-hush”) project I’m working on is definitely staying away from competing directly with WoW. But, we’ll do that by focusing not on persistent character, but rather on what really matters: community.