Design Innovation in MMORPGs: Still a Dirty Word?

Some months ago I tried to create a list of [sometimes Massively] Multi-player Online games (Role-Playing Games, mostly) that were innovative. Below, I will list what, at least at the time, I was able to find for the list here on the database:
 

Multiplayer Online Games that Try Something Different

Apparently A Tale in the Desert isn't entered...  Nor is Atriarch...  Nor is Seeker... " Love" is too damned hard to look up...  
 
Well, there you have it.  The list is above.


Nothing, in other words. A Tale in the Desert and Love have since popped up thankfully, but the games listed in the description were the games that came to my mind as innovators though, and I'm admittedly not an avid follower of MMOs. I will say I still follow the news about new the releases because I'm curious about the social phenomena that emerge from them, about the revenue generation (which is often creepily manipulative), about the CHANCE for innovation in some of them (or my ideas about what might be cool innovations), and about the game mechanics (which are often all but carbon copies of prior successful formulae; the kind of inbreeding you'd expect from, say, a particular STYLE of game, not an entire framework for games).  To put the last parenthetical point another way, I think MMORPGs in particular have a tendency, albeit an understandable one, to play it safe with mechanics, even within the trope-heavy fantasy archetypes that might otherwise shake things up a bit with some setting quirks (setting changes which seem to be flatly rejected by people with a frankly fetishistic elf or dwarf obsession...  not that there's much wrong with fetishism itself, but when people get abusive or crazy because New MMO doesn't have their pet species/race, something's wrong).
 
I'm willing to bet there are plenty of MMOs that have managed to change the formula significantly. Not many are popular, though, and many of the more popular ones are slavish to the expectations of people who play them (well, ostensibly slavish-- I think some developers use the users' desires as a crutch to excuse a lack of innovation). This is intrinsic in the kind of money that's being thrown around; like in films, the more investment there is, the more the investors can put pressure on the developers to do things by the book to get reliable results. 
 
(I'll say as an aside that I think Star Trek Online seemed to hold some of that promise for me, but it turned out the previews I watched were the sum total of what was available. They promise more, but recent geological surveys have discovered that the Earth is not filled with liquid hot magma, but with unfulfilled promises. Enough fans hoping for a Star Trek experience or a cool science fiction RPG experience seem disappointed to me that I'm going to be a bit more wary in the future).
 
That's why the subtle changes that NCSoft says they are making for Guild Wars 2 are exciting to me. NOT because I'm likely to play the game (I need a new computer for that--  though if I had a new computer I'd totally hit that for a while), not necessarily for the innovations they promise (though exciting, I have lingering questions that aren't answered in all the interviews and dev blogs I've read about just how interactive things really are*), but because they promise innovations and potential users appear to be excited. This to me is important, because these beliefs: that users are a conservative bunch who don't want innovation, who want to craft the same way, grind the same way (some people lazily speak of grinding as if it were part of the genre itself, when it absolutely doesn't have to be), have the same features, over and over throughout eternity-- all are shown to be at least partially false. There are users out there who want something different, and many of these users are the grognards** that have seen many iterations of the same formula and, at the very least, want a strong refinement of that formula.
 
Arguably World of Warcraft was, for many, a kind of refinement, making the problems of past MMORPGs smaller (or even disappear).  Here's hoping that Guild Wars 2 is at least a next step in the evolution of what we EXPECT from MMORPGs, perhaps to the point that there might be a bit of a branching off, and that there might actually be different camps of expectations for such games, sort of like what we get when we talk about plain old RPGs.  Different genres of MMORPGs might then be on the horizon, which might allow for more willingness to innovate, and so on...   assuming it ever gets cheaper for a smaller company to actually run such games.  
 
Maybe breaking the cost barrier is the real revolution that still must to happen for innovation not to be a dirty word. As browser-based games become less of a chore to run, I can see such things not being a big deal.  Then again, my current browser is such a slug that I won't hold my breath for my being able to take part.
 
 
*How does your change to the world environment affect players who join you at a later time. Does one user dominate this change? Are the changes subjective? Do you guest on another person's world, or do you see what you did, not what the others did? Does the alteration of encounter amount have a guarantee against users deliberately running away from a fight they can't win, only to return after it's over, on purpose, to stack the odds in the party's favor?
 
 **Spellchecker suggests I'm wrong in using this perfectly adequate term, providing me with the alternatives: grogginess, graybeards, graveyards, and groundsman, all of which might have made a more interesting, if confusing, sentence.  
 
This article seems to address some of my questions:  http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/guild-wars-2-dynamic-events-interview?page=1
8 Comments
9 Comments
Posted by ahoodedfigure

Some months ago I tried to create a list of [sometimes Massively] Multi-player Online games (Role-Playing Games, mostly) that were innovative. Below, I will list what, at least at the time, I was able to find for the list here on the database:
 

Multiplayer Online Games that Try Something Different

Apparently A Tale in the Desert isn't entered...  Nor is Atriarch...  Nor is Seeker... " Love" is too damned hard to look up...  
 
Well, there you have it.  The list is above.


Nothing, in other words. A Tale in the Desert and Love have since popped up thankfully, but the games listed in the description were the games that came to my mind as innovators though, and I'm admittedly not an avid follower of MMOs. I will say I still follow the news about new the releases because I'm curious about the social phenomena that emerge from them, about the revenue generation (which is often creepily manipulative), about the CHANCE for innovation in some of them (or my ideas about what might be cool innovations), and about the game mechanics (which are often all but carbon copies of prior successful formulae; the kind of inbreeding you'd expect from, say, a particular STYLE of game, not an entire framework for games).  To put the last parenthetical point another way, I think MMORPGs in particular have a tendency, albeit an understandable one, to play it safe with mechanics, even within the trope-heavy fantasy archetypes that might otherwise shake things up a bit with some setting quirks (setting changes which seem to be flatly rejected by people with a frankly fetishistic elf or dwarf obsession...  not that there's much wrong with fetishism itself, but when people get abusive or crazy because New MMO doesn't have their pet species/race, something's wrong).
 
I'm willing to bet there are plenty of MMOs that have managed to change the formula significantly. Not many are popular, though, and many of the more popular ones are slavish to the expectations of people who play them (well, ostensibly slavish-- I think some developers use the users' desires as a crutch to excuse a lack of innovation). This is intrinsic in the kind of money that's being thrown around; like in films, the more investment there is, the more the investors can put pressure on the developers to do things by the book to get reliable results. 
 
(I'll say as an aside that I think Star Trek Online seemed to hold some of that promise for me, but it turned out the previews I watched were the sum total of what was available. They promise more, but recent geological surveys have discovered that the Earth is not filled with liquid hot magma, but with unfulfilled promises. Enough fans hoping for a Star Trek experience or a cool science fiction RPG experience seem disappointed to me that I'm going to be a bit more wary in the future).
 
That's why the subtle changes that NCSoft says they are making for Guild Wars 2 are exciting to me. NOT because I'm likely to play the game (I need a new computer for that--  though if I had a new computer I'd totally hit that for a while), not necessarily for the innovations they promise (though exciting, I have lingering questions that aren't answered in all the interviews and dev blogs I've read about just how interactive things really are*), but because they promise innovations and potential users appear to be excited. This to me is important, because these beliefs: that users are a conservative bunch who don't want innovation, who want to craft the same way, grind the same way (some people lazily speak of grinding as if it were part of the genre itself, when it absolutely doesn't have to be), have the same features, over and over throughout eternity-- all are shown to be at least partially false. There are users out there who want something different, and many of these users are the grognards** that have seen many iterations of the same formula and, at the very least, want a strong refinement of that formula.
 
Arguably World of Warcraft was, for many, a kind of refinement, making the problems of past MMORPGs smaller (or even disappear).  Here's hoping that Guild Wars 2 is at least a next step in the evolution of what we EXPECT from MMORPGs, perhaps to the point that there might be a bit of a branching off, and that there might actually be different camps of expectations for such games, sort of like what we get when we talk about plain old RPGs.  Different genres of MMORPGs might then be on the horizon, which might allow for more willingness to innovate, and so on...   assuming it ever gets cheaper for a smaller company to actually run such games.  
 
Maybe breaking the cost barrier is the real revolution that still must to happen for innovation not to be a dirty word. As browser-based games become less of a chore to run, I can see such things not being a big deal.  Then again, my current browser is such a slug that I won't hold my breath for my being able to take part.
 
 
*How does your change to the world environment affect players who join you at a later time. Does one user dominate this change? Are the changes subjective? Do you guest on another person's world, or do you see what you did, not what the others did? Does the alteration of encounter amount have a guarantee against users deliberately running away from a fight they can't win, only to return after it's over, on purpose, to stack the odds in the party's favor?
 
 **Spellchecker suggests I'm wrong in using this perfectly adequate term, providing me with the alternatives: grogginess, graybeards, graveyards, and groundsman, all of which might have made a more interesting, if confusing, sentence.  
 
This article seems to address some of my questions:  http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/guild-wars-2-dynamic-events-interview?page=1
Posted by Claude

It's going to take something great and make it simple to gain on the ground that is WoW. You don't try and beat it, you just peck at its value.

Posted by TheMustacheHero
@Claude said:
" It's going to take something great and make it simple to gain on the ground that is WoW. You don't try and beat it, you just peck at its value. "
After Cataclysm WoW will begin to die down and eventually it will be dethroned.
 
Fingers crossed for Guild Wars 2 doing that.
Edited by ahoodedfigure
@Claude:  I guess I have to further qualify what I'm saying here; while the business of the game matters, I don't care much about WoW's market share. It's about getting a sufficient number of players to have sustainable growth. Didn't want to get into the econo-politics of it because I'm more just happy to see that people are willing to chip away at the design assumptions (that WoW pretty much helped made ubiquitous by its own success, and its aping of many elements of prior popular titles like Everquest).
 
@TheMustacheHero: You looking to try out GW2, or are you more like me, treating it like a spectator sport?
Posted by TheMustacheHero
@ahoodedfigure:  At this point I'm looking to try it if my computer can handle it. If not I'll spectate :P
Posted by RagingLion

I'm very much with you Hooded in terms of the many of things you seem you feel impassioned about in terms of the current state of affairs with MMOs.  As you say yourself it's a crying shame that grinding is almost synonymous with MMOs when it really doesn't have to be and likewose with many other unimaginative gameplay tropes.  Maybe I could be open to playing an MMO in the future (though I am wary of the time investment often required) but so far almost nothing has come close to interesting me in terms of the gameplay and story/experience on offer.
 
I'd have to add EVE online to the list of innovative MMOs.  One of the RPS journalists has a pet peeve about how few MMO developers are taking note of it to think about incorporating some of its features into their own games and many haven't even tried playing it before.  The clever thing about EVE is that so much of it that seems to make it unique is a result of the player base being able to have to so much freedom and control and this leads to all kinds of emergent gameplay the developers never thought through in advance.  That seems to be what creates such a potentially rich experience.
 
So yeah, I'll also continue to be just a somewhat interested spectator in MMOs for the foreseeable future.

Posted by ahoodedfigure
@RagingLion:  EVE is definitely innovative (I've devoted some time before to it, and spent some time Wikitasking it to acceptable levels despite having never played it), in that it has one server, so the rules are all the same, and a laissez-faire approach to solving in-game disputes. Little shifts like that make a big difference.  That game has some really ugly elements to it, so while I'm continually intrigued by it, and might play it for a while, I can imagine feeling exhausted after losing my in-game money (and life), which translates into real time and real money, getting blown up by some vindictive interstellar jerk.
 
I think in general, the amount of player investment for MMO's is something I can't really manage. I don't really compete in anything I do play in, so I automatically lose out in that respect, but I do like to explore. I'm one of THOSE people.  My exploration of the wilderness with my little Iksar monk in Everquest was one of the coolest gaming experiences I've had, but it was all because I was curious enough to go the places I did, and make up a little story why. I went into places that were too tough for me, thought about why these weird things were side by side, why this crater was there, why the Iksar ruins were there.  It was damned fun, but if I knew all the back story behind everything, it wouldn't have been nearly as fun as it had been.  I was allowed to go through a place that took years to build, and treated it a bit like a playground. There were tons of details I never saw, and most of the time I never did stuff with groups, but it was neat to have that extra element of the randomness of human stupidity and generosity, combined with a wide environment built up to play in.
 
GW2 manages to sound like something that THAT style of play would be fun to work in, and on top of that it doesn't force you to pay much for the privilege, so a person like me sits up and takes notice.
Edited by Clbull

Maybe breaking the cost barrier is the real revolution that still must to happen for innovation not to be a dirty word. As browser-based games become less of a chore to run, I can see such things not being a big deal.  Then again, my current browser is such a slug that I won't hold my breath for my being able to take part.   


Runescape started out as a game in 2001 as a project by Andrew Gower which he operated from a server in his own home. By late 2001/early 2002, he met with two other people including his brother, Paul and Constant Tedder to set up Jagex Games and keep the MMORPG running.
 
Look at where Runescape got to within 10 years: 

  • Subscription based premium service. Namely paying about $5 - 6 per month for premium features which made up a vast majority of the content ingame
  • A huge amount of updates, normally weekly, fortnightly or in rare cases, monthly.
  • Most popular free-to-play MMORPG for several years (including currently even) according to the Guiness Book of Records.
  • Five revisions of the Runetek game engine which Runescape was built on. Including many graphical improvements which make the game look closer to but not quite as graphically equivalent as Vanilla WoW. Considering previously, it looked almost as bad graphically as a SNES game using Mode 7.
  • At least a million subscribers. I don't know their exact Members' figures but I heard its at least 1M. More successful than many other MMORPGs in terms of subscriber base.
 
My point is, as proven by Runescape, you don't need craploads of money to start up a basic MMORPG from the ground up. However, if you are trying to enter it immediately on a large scale, yes it will be a large investment. The problem is that many developers are just shelling out money for MMORPGs with a severe lack of innovation and often copying other game genre's mechanics but badly.
 
Example 1: All Points Bulletin. It was basically a poor GTA clone, its only real redeeming features being an extensive custom character editor and the fact that its set in a massively multiplayer world. Apparently over $100,000,000 of investors' money was poured into this game and it tanked like crazy. This game is now officially shut down.
 
Example 2: Warhammer Online. Very similar gameplay to World of Warcraft but with slightly different classes and collision detection between other players. However, it did so many things wrong that it convinced people not to pay a subscription to continue playing the game. Namely, these problems included piss-poor player vs monster content, a severe lack of any endgame content apart from scenario grinds and Land of the Dead, and a huge emphasis on grinding in the same old scenarios and open realm vs realm combat environments over and over again.
 
My point is, until developers realise they have to make a fun, innovative game that works in an MMO world rather than think "World of Warcraft is successful, why don't we make our own cash cow?", we will continually witness a stampede of crap MMO games.


Posted by ahoodedfigure
@Clbull:  All good points. From what you've said, Runescape managed to have a sensible financial model that allowed them to grow without pouring tons of investor money or resources into a project and hoping They Will Come. Same with games like Puzzle Pirates, which is similar in that it's a browser-based system that has free play modes, with a microtransaction style server and a subscription style server.  They've been around for a while, and while they're not hugely successful, so far they've managed sustainable innovation.  And it's damn fun to play, too.