Friday, June 12, 2009

Innovation in MMOs

This paragraph over at Ardwulf's lair really got me thinking:

It’s funny that we hear so many complaints from the MMO pundit class (of which I myself am a member,) to the effect that almost all MMOs are basically the same, and then when titles which are different are pointed out, they’re dismissed for putative ‘barriers’ set up against fun. D&D Online and EVE Online are two examples of this – both titles varying from a much inveighed-against paradigm, and both criticized for not matching expectations.

I think he really hit the nail on the head. What big budget MMOs have come along recently that were well and truly innovative? I would argue that AoC, EVE, DDO, MxO, Tabula Rasa, and City of Heroes all contained at least some major innovations. And all but two of those MMOs fell flat on their faces in the marketplace soon after launch. In many cases the very factors that set them apart are the features that many players complained about (e.g., the "link system" combat in MxO, the boggling complexity of EVE, or the heavy use of instancing and reliance on teamwork to progress in DDO). The main reason that MMOs are so rarely innovative is that publishers believe that there is little market for experimental MMO designs. And based on the behavior of most MMO gamers I'd be forced to conclude that they are right.

What I find even more frustrating is that there are a ton of games that really push the MMO design envelope, and that get almost completely ignored. Many of the commentators whining about a "lack of innovation" in MMOs have likely never even tried one. Below is a rundown of some of the ones I'm aware of (and I'll happily add in more). I will allow that many of these games stray so far from the design of a standard MMO that it's debatable whether they should even be considered MMOs. However, all of them are online multiplayer games that have the ability to support hundreds of simultaneous users.

If you are currently playing Everquest, Everquest II, World of Warcraft, Warhammer Online, or Lord of the Rings Online and aren't willing to try at least one or two of the following MMOs, you are part of the reason why big budget MMOs aren't generally innovative. You are therefore a giant hypocrite if you complain about it.

A Tale in the Desert: there is no combat. Players collaborate to "build a society." Myrmecology, raising ants, was recently added as a core system (no, really!).

Endless Forest: a social MMO where you are a deer. You can communicate with other deer only via sounds and body language.

Arden: the World of Willian Shakespeare: an MMO designed to teach you about the works of Shakespeare. Requires Never Winter Nights to play (designed with the NWN modding tools). Development was stopped because testers deemed it "not at all fun." But an interesting experiment nonetheless.

Wizard 101: it gets a lot of flack for being a semi FtP tween focused MMO. However the card based combat is like nothing I've seen in any other MMO, it has one of the better housing systems I've seen in an MMO, and the idea that you earn health/ mana potion refills by playing arcade and puzzle games is downright bizarre.

Cities XL: an upcoming MMO where you build cities. Entering closed beta in a few days, one to keep an eye on.

Puzzle Pirates: sword fights, crafting, ship to ship combat, and other systems are all resolved by playing puzzle mini games. Interesting "grouping" / social mechanics that many MMO designers would do well to examine.

Sports MMOs: there are way too many to list. The one I've spend some time in is Shot Online, which is based on golf. You play golf games with other players to gain levels and improve stats that affect things such as your accuracy or how far you can hit a ball. However, it's sufficiently skill based that a level one newbie can beat a vet if they are a better player. Others off the top of my head include Fantasy Tennis and Project Torque. You couldn't get any further from a swords and sorcery Diku MUD MMO than these games.

MANGBAND: a multiplayer version of Angband (a Tolkien themed rogulike). Rarely has more than three or four players on, but I've found the (minuscule) community to be quite friendly. The hard mode server is also the only perma-death MMO that I am aware of.

Planetside: the original, and currently only, MMO FPS. Still alive and kicking.

Asheron's Call: an older MMO that I personally have never gotten around to trying. However it still does a lot of things that few other MMOs have attempted, including ongoing updates that continually alter the world and push forward the game's narrative. This game is nearly as old as Everquest, and still more innovative than 95% of the MMOs on the market.

Those are all off the top of my head, I'm certain there are more that could go on that list. I didn't even get in to Diku MUD style MMOs that explore non fantasy settings, of which there are an increasing number. Innovative MMOs are out there. If you really want to see publishers take more risks with experimental MMO designs, seek these games out and at least try them.


  1. I dunno... I think your idea is essentially correct (I have very little respect for MMO players as a whole), but I'm not sure your approach to support really shows anything.

    The failures of several of the high-profile games you list has nothing to do with people liking or disliking the innovations. Matrix, DDO and Age of Conan especially suffered more from their incomplete, buggy launches than the innovative nature of systems nobody wanted. City of Heroes has done quite well for itself, essentially earning a sequel with Champions Online.

    It's also important to remember that just because something is innovative doesn't mean its good. I could propose a new MMO which would include a blood glucose test in the box, connected to your USB port, which would sync your character's energy level to your own once an hour (pricked finger required). Is it innovative? Yes. Is it likely to be popular? No likely. Is that lack of popularity due to players who just don't want innovation? Doubtful.

    Again, I'm not disagreeing with your premise, just your reasoning.

  2. I agree with you, Armies. innovation is not the same thing as fun. And I also think that's why Diku MUD style MMOs are the most popular. That's what the bulk of players find fun. WoW is fun to a lot more players than most MMOs.

    Certainly certainly AoC, MxO, and TR all had serious issues at launch, and so aren't really very good test cases for whether players want "innovative" MMOs.

    However, the main issues that DDO had at launch was a lack of solo content and the lack of any outdoor areas. Those were not "shipped too soon" issues. That was Turbine trying an experimental design and getting stung for it in the market place. I think it's one of the major reasons LoTRO is such a "by the numbers" standard fantasy MMO. Turbine couldn't afford to take any more risks.

    Asheron's Call was also much more innovative than EQ back in the day. EQ was a fairly standard MUD with 3D graphics, and it completely trashed AC in the marketplace.

    What are the most successful gaming franchises currently? EAs sports games, Halo, Grand Theft Auto, and the Sims are likely all way the hell up there. Innovation from one iteration to the next? Practically none.

    What about film? What generally does better in theatres? Paint by numbers popcorn or thought provoking art house cinema? How about books? Music? Television?

    Innovation that does well in the marketplace is a very rare exception. That's why most products from big producers/ publishers aren't very innovative. MMOs are no exception.

  3. Again, not really disagreeing with you, just expressing some quibbles.

    MMOs exert a great deal of inertia on their players. Abandoning powerful, equipped characters and established relationships is difficult. It's harder to move from EQ to AC than it is to try an artsy movie.

    Still lacking decent support, I find myself a bit skeptical. Chicken and the egg, and all that. Summer boom-boom movie sequels are definitely the order of the day, but how much of that is the consumer and how much is the producer? I knew some people involved in the development of Auto Assault, and after seeing an early look at the game commented on how much of a WoW clone it was. I was told that was intentional, that they were trying to make it comfortable for existing players. I thought they were completely failing to set their game's unique setting apart. Given the results of that one, I'll claim victory ;)

    There is certainly a challenge in innovation - you have to overcome the learning curve, in addition to just being fun. But (and mostly just keeping an interesting debate going) I think it's still up for grabs how much of that should be pinned on the players (which I still don't respect).

  4. Thanks for the comments!

    I'll definitely agree with you on one point regarding Auto Assualt. Designing it as a WoW clone was a huge mistake. We were all expecting an online sequel to Autoduel (please for the love of god someone steal that idea...I want to play it). Instead we got WoW, with cars (and a totally arcane nearly broken crafting system).

    However, I'd argue that the failure of AA was as much about trying to jam a square peg into a market opening that was round as refusing to innovate. Why did they think anyone wanted to play WoW...but with cars? Did they do any market research?

    The game also ran somewhat like ass on average gaming PCs of the day. Being an early adoptor of a physics card that almost no-one owned was not only a tactical mistake, it was also very likely a huge waste of development resources.

    Regardless, I don't think we are too far apart on the main issue. In the long term I think it's only a matter of time before something well and truly innovative comes along and does really well. I suspect it will be something that emerges from micro transaction MMO space at least initially. Pretty soon after it starts getting noticed Blizzard will copy the core design, polish the hell out of it, and make enough money selling it to the masses to buy a small country (perhaps Maldives).

    Not to trivialize the issue, but every style of game is innovative at least once. Tony Hawk might not have changed much over a gillion sequels, but the first one came out of nowhere and took the console scene by storm. I'm still waiting for something like that to happen in MMO space.

  5. Actually, I think something did - World of Warcraft.

    I'm not a huge fan of the game, and I certainly think it's very debatable whether or not it will eventually be a good thing for the MMO market, but it was quite innovative in a single major way: polish and playability.

    I remember my first time playing EQ - an Erudite wizard. It was cool until it got dark, then I couldn't see anything. When I wanted to train I had to hunt through a maze to find the trainer, and then spend money on spells that I knew nothing about but the name. A friend who tried a necromancer found out the hard way that the guards on the docks were KOS for him, as we both followed quests that involved me uttering one word triggers to a quest giver, if I was lucky enough to find one.

    I expect most people had much the same experience. WoW took a genre which was arcane and inaccessible, where decent web sites were not cheats but mandatory documentation, and created something anyone could play. MMOs had certainly been moving that direction - City of Heroes was the first to have a really decent interface - but WoW blew the doors off it.

    IMHO, it was an innovative game-changer. However much damage I think they've done to the community since, misusing the power they gained from that, I don't think you can take that accomplishment away from them.

  6. That's an argument I've certainly made on message boards. Even in a post here if you dig around. When WoW came out polish, accessibility, and being able to solo well regardless of what class you picked could in themselves have been considered innovations.

    However, in terms of core mechanics, WoW did very little that was new. The game was overall what Blizzard always seems to do. Taking the best ideas from an existing genre, and putting them in a product that is polished and engaging enough to go mass market. Say what you will about Blizzard, but it's a winning strategy that very few (if any) other gaming studios could pull off.

    Since WoW launched, I would characterize the newer games as a mixture of safe bets that payed off reasonably well and experiments that fell on their faces (though whether due to their core designs or to a general lack of polish is debatable in many cases).

  7. New MMO falling through in the market, besides their own problems in design/content/performance, is because it takes many failures to have a successful new thing.
    All of our modern comforts are distrusted back in their heyday, or were curiosities that no one care about.
    It's the same thing with entertainment. A certain genre of films will fall through until one signature film come out and all films are make in that genre.

    One positive point for MMOs is that unlike most other products, it can change, and can improve in aspects that they are previously deficient in. Hopefully the forerunners are still around when that "next big thing" comes.