Analyzing the MMO: Second in a series of a few

Last time, I talked about what MMOs do well.  This time, I’ll talk about what they do poorly.

Specialness:  “Hey, look, another guy in Demonstalker armor.”  “How many Onyxia raids is this for you?”  “Sure, here’s exactly how you do that quest.”  Sound familiar?  In MMOs, everyone does exactly the same thing, over and over again.  This shared content helps with the sense of community, but it tends to diminish individual “specialness.”  Obtaining pretty much anything in an MMO is a matter of investing enough time and maybe finding a good raid group: levels, achievements/badges/titles, gear, etc.  There is little that any player can do that only that player can do.  To be fair, this is a problem with single player games, too, but in MMOs, it’s right there in front of you as the fourth guy in 10 minutes runs by with the same Tier 4 armor you’re wearing. 

Skill:  MMOs are simple.  This is a plus in some ways, as mentioned in the previous part of the series, but it’s a minus in that there’s not a whole lot of “there” there.  Once you learn the basics of combat, there’s not a lot of skill to hone, beyond “press this button, then that one.”  There’s very little in terms of timing, precision, coordination, strategy, etc. in most MMO solo or small group combat.  Arguably, this, along with generally weak AI, is why raids are basically multiplayer puzzle and timing games; given the simplicity of the base gameplay, raid-sized groups are the first place that those skills have any use.

Development time:  Due to the need for much stricter QA, more difficult and intricate coidng, etc., there is a long turnaround time for MMO development.  I’ve heard estimates of 2 to 4 times as long for a similarly complex single player game.  In addition, new content takes much longer than it seems like it should once the game is up and running, for similar reasons.  A lot of the things that are released as expansions in MMOs, either free or pay, could be done by a small mod team in similar time in a single player game.

Innovation:  Here’s the big one.  MMOs, with very few exceptions, don’t innovate.  They almost all have a health bar, a mana bar (or two or three), an experience bar, some combination of levels and/or skill levels, etc.  It’s hard to think of the last time something truly innovative was done in the genre.  For the most part, it’s a series of incremental improvements, with perhaps one innovation every two or three games.  The next big thing I can think of is, depending on how it pans out, Conan’s combat system.  Even then, there’s still the old trappings of hit points, multiple swings required to take down mook NPCs, etc.

 The overriding theme of the things that MMOs do well was “community.”  To me, the theme of what they do poorly is “safety.”  From making the gameplay simple, to staying within the same gameplay mold, to discouraging “specialness” by limiting what characters are capable of and what their players can experience, MMOs are designed less as games and more as very safe investments.  To be fair, the companies developing them sink tons of money into them, so that’s understandable.  However, that fear of failure also prevents them from being great a lot of the time.  Instead, the vast majority of MMOs are content with being “pretty good,” or if they’re ambitious, “the best MMO game out there,” which is sort of like being the thinnest guy at fat camp.

Next time, I’ll be taking a little break from Analyzing the MMO to write about my favorite much hated character type in Defending the Tank Mage.  

6 thoughts on “Analyzing the MMO: Second in a series of a few”

  1. Nice article :). The two things that are killing the genre for me are the “specialness” and the lack of skill required to play. These are two reasons why I had enjoyed SWG for as long as I had. Gear wasn’t the deciding factor in how good your character was which in turn led to many people that actually dressed more according to taste than anything else. And, with how many different skill sets that were available you could actually tailor your character to highlight your strengths and make up for your deficiencies as a player.

    While community can be a bonus for these mmogs, I see them also as a downside. Primarily because you rarely see or hear the “positive” elements of a community what you do hear is the inane babble of the unwashed illiterate masses to put it as nicely as I know how to :) Barrens chat in wow, Ironforge chat in wow, lonelands chat in LoTRO to name but a few. :)

  2. We want to innovate, but it’s:

    -Too Expensive to do it yourself.
    -Too Risky for someone else to pay for it.

    Innovation is (relatively) cheap, but it’s the graphics that heft that fat price tag. It’s been said before, but the fact is that we LIKE things that are flashy and shiny. A gameplay trailer for Pong would never be take seriously.

    I’m not saying it’s impossible to innovate. Games like Okami worked around the graphics barrier with a unique look. For the few months it was online, the game SEED used a type of cell shading, and stressed NON-VIOLENCE and ROLEPLAYING. Pretty daring and innovative, but they just didnt have the money, and were shut down.

    Give me a sum of money large enough and I can move the earth.

  3. Re: innovation, I’m hoping we’ll see some good stuff come out of Multiverse. The mod community in FPS games were almost always where gameplay innovation came from.

  4. ff you want innovation, take away character persistence;

    we’ve seen it time and time again. games like starcraft, warcraft iii, half-life… they have online aspects, but the characters that you used are based upon skill rather than time dedication. players introduce content they generated themselves, and people play it, or they don’t. the stuff that gets played most is the stuff that’s the most balanced.

    most of the starcraft maps used in the pro competitions are player-created… dota, the most played w3 custom map, is player-generated… cs, the most popular half-life game mode, is player-generated. make a game, take away the persistence, and let the community innovate for you.

  5. But that has nothing to do, specifically, with character persistence. That’s just talking about player generated content. It’s true that it’s easier to do PGC without persistence, but it’s not impossible.

    Besides, I’d argue that persistence is one of the cornerstones of the MMO genre. Hell, even Planetside has persistence of a sort.

  6. I agree with your points, but there is hope. Thoughts below:

    Specialness – I’d really like to see an MMO start offering more random quest rewards, or at least different colors. More player customization options can help with this as well. CoH is a great example of this. We can have the exact same power set, but our chars will look completely different, and a lot of the specialness problem is perception.

    Skill – very true. The holy grail is a system that is simple to learn, but offers more rewards as it is mastered. In this respect, your game would be more like a traditional chess game, where once you learn the basics, there are infinite strategies to evolve.

    Dev time – woo boy. This is a huge problem. The trick here is that there is no way for any dev team (or even any mod community) to keep up with the demand for fresh content. Players can always get through content exponentially faster than devs can create it. You can get around some of this by making repeatable content. This can be done in a couple of ways, with various levels of acceptance: instances, repeatable missions, pvp. Ideally you would give the players a sandbox that they could occupy themselves in while you develop more core content. WoW did a pretty good job of this with the Battlegrounds, though that only appeals to a subgroup of their players.

    Innovation – yes, this is the big one. There are two parts to this, publishing, and development. The only way for publishers to be willing to take more risks on innovative products is if you can convince them that it isn’t actually a risk. Dev costs and live upkeep costs mean that publishers are generally going to be conservative in this area. They’re in it to make money, and they’re going to put their investment in whatever the spreadsheet says will make them the most return – unless you can convince them that the spreadsheet doesn’t know everything. Good luck with that. This can happen if just one innovative game breaks out, at which point entire genres can be spawned. I think the MMO market is due for one of these shifts in the next few years.
    The dev side of this is more psychological. Dev teams know how MMO’s are ‘supposed’ to work, and it’s very easy to fall into a mental laziness of using genre conventions as shorthand in your game. This is especially tempting if you are trying to do something different. The more ‘newness’ you put in a game, the more you have to use older conventions in other areas so your player’s comfort level doesn’t drop to the point where they are lost in your game.
    MMO environments are the hardest to do this for, as players are comfortable with ‘men in tights’ prevailing throughout the genre, and it can be tricky to get past their subconscious expectations and get them to be open to the idea of something new.

    Community – unfortunately, people are often feebs. I still have nightmares about Barrens chat.

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