Friday, October 1, 2010

Thoughts on MMOs

I had originally wanted to talk about the MMORPGs that I saw at PAX and the various means that the games press was using to cover them, and the lack thereof.  I ended up not being able to write that.  The way it was going, I was writing more of a rant than a critique or editorial, which is what I was attempting to write.  The primary problem I had with the coverage of the games media was how they many times stated that MMOs could not hope to beat WoW by being just like WoW, yet most of the MMOs were getting considerable coverage, while at the same time trying to be just like WoW, and the one game that is attempting to buck the trend was not only being ignored, but was apparently being completely written off by said media.  So rather than outright rant, maybe I should just talk about why MMOs need to change, and why the media is not helping.

A few years ago, there were several MMORPGs were on the market.  They were all mildly successful.  Each contained its own unique world, style, and play mechanics, and each catered to a very small portion of what was a niche part of the PC market.  Everquest catered to the hardcore roleplayers, Dark Age of Camelot to the PvP players, Final Fantasy XI catered players looking for story (and some rather hard core play mechanics too).  There were other MMOs, and they all found their places in the grand scheme of the genre.

And then World of Warcraft came out.  WoW’s developer, Blizzard, took what they believed were the best elements from all the MMOs on the market, mixed in their own unique visual style, and created something that is considered to be a watershed moment for MMORPGs.  Well, the best elements from every game except FFXI.  Quick combat, large groups of enemies, PvP (both small and large scale), large amounts varied gear to outfit the player characters, and User Interface concessions made for usability.  The general mantra of Blizzard was to make it simple, easy, and accessible.  They succeeded in making (arguably) the best, but definitely the most successful MMO.

And that was it.  WoW is the most successful MMO on the market, beyond anyone’s expectations.  Many developers have dreams of making an MMO, while many publishers have visions of stealing Blizzard’s business and its massive revenue production.  And that is where we have our problem: everyone wants to be WoW.

In the time since WoW came onto the market and proved its popularity, nearly every MMO that has come into development and release has tried to be like it.  While each has had its own unique visual style and take, the basics have generally remained the same.  Move with these keys, fight with those keys, kill X number of enemies to complete ill-defined objectives, and acquire lots of loot and gear.  Rinse and repeat, do it until you’re blue in the face, then do it all over again when the next update it released.  It works for WoW, so it must work for everyone else, shouldn’t it?

And there we have our problem.  Its nothing new.  Sure, they have their own spins on the formula, but they have the same basic mechanics, basic play style as the game they’re trying to usurp.  Any player of one of these MMOs will play it exactly the same way that they would play WoW.  It should work, but it does not, not when these MMOs are coming out after a game that has already had a significant amount of time to build up bug fixes and additional content in the intervening time.  This is a genre where being second to the party does not end up paying off.

There is really only one MMO that has mimicked the WoW experience and managed to not fail, to put it diplomatically.  That would be Lord of the Rings Online.  By all accounts, it is a WoW clone, it controls the same and has the same play mechanics.  And yet is has managed to survive and become successful, even if it is not to the same extent.  How did it happen?  Simple, it is entirely due to its developer, Turbine.  A developer known for other MMOs, including the pre-WoW Asherson’s Call, Turbine spent a lot of time making sure that it was a well made game.  LotRO does nearly everything WoW does, and it does them well, and in some cases better that WoW.  That’s right, Turbine may have made a game that is derivative of WoW, but they did a good job of it.  Most developers do not, and they fail, sometimes after release, sometimes by failing to release at all.

But then there are the MMOs that try to do something different.  Originally, difference was the order of the day among MMOs.  They had to be different to get any notice in the relatively small market.  Every one had its own style that made it unique, while remaining a massively multiplayer game.  As it stands, WoW seems to have ended that.  Make no mistake, WoW did nothing new, it simply took elements from the major releases before it, and streamlined them, made them user friendly.  This combined with Blizzard’s pre-existing fan base from the previous games in the Warcraft series made it a success well beyond expectations, as has been chronicled in the news for quite awhile now.

Anyways, in the wake of WoW, anything new was effectively shunned in favor of copying the formula that WoW made work.  All the news outlets flocked to cover these new games and how great they were while at the same time railing against the publishers and developers for trying to recreate WoW’s success.  Games that attempted to do new things were largely ignored.  Regardless of quality, many games are not able to gain positive hype and sales, outside of die-hard fans and curiosity seekers, when these outlets fail to give the different games anything more than cursory coverage.  Several games were simply lost in the shuffle until the day they were released and the outlets reviewed them.  And the reviews were inevitably bad, ignored by the potential mainstream audience, and left to comments about how the game failed to live up to unrealistic and nonexistent hype.  I will not name names, but there were more than enough in the past few years.

But in the grand scheme of things, if the MMO genre wants to continue to expand, let alone remain relevant, it needs these games that try new things.  I realize that I am a bit biased in this remark, but the genre needs games like Final Fantasy XIV.  It wants to do something different with the MMO, without making something so out of line that new and migrating will not feel out of sorts with the gameplay.

WoW’s system is pretty simple, each character is one class and you kill stuff, specialize in a talent tree (where the community long ago decided that the tree you want to follow is the wrong one, but that is something else entirely), and then pretty much just upgrade your gear as you level.  In the end, in the system Blizzard created, all characters want/need to be nothing more than a cosmetically differentiated  version of the optimal build of the chosen class.

With FFXIV, Square Enix is trying to bring a version of its long standing class system to the MMO.  Its predecessor, FFXI, did the same thing but in a different way.  Players can play all classes on the same character, and a sub job system allowed the character to share some of the abilities outside of the ones specific to their current primary class.  FFFXIV is taking that a little further, by not only allowing characters to be every job, but to let them switch out at will outside of combat, and let the character share all abilities of every leveled class.  The game is still too new (as of this writing) to get a handle on it, and preferred builds are almost a certainty in the future, but the simple fact that a character has that much overall customization is something that most MMOs don’t even attempt to do.  Most MMOs that deal with class changing usually handle them in the manner of a progression based class upgrade, where a character is forced, usually by the game mechanics, to change to a new class once a certain character or skill level is achieved.  Never has it been handled as a function of equipment.  I will not say that FFXIV is a perfect game, but a system like this has so much potential if SE handles it properly through the life of the game.  And this is the kind of innovative thinking that I want to continue seeing in MMOs.

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