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.