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Why MMOs Are Stagnating

05. December, 2012Tags: MMO Blog, MMO Industry

MMOs StagnatingThere’s one thing I’ve noticed over the last few weeks. MMOs like to borrow from other MMOs. Perhaps there’s no more incestuous corner of the gaming industry than our own and it has long-lasting effects that perhaps developers don’t consider when perpetrating this particular “crime”. It’s something that’s apparent whenever you consider World of Warcraft and its relation to any other MMORPG released in the last 8 years, but it goes far deeper than that. I thought to begin a new month, we’d take a look at an old problem and how it infects our gaming even today.

 

MMO: In the Beginning…

We’ve spoke before about how difficult it has been for MMO developers to keep up with what’s available on consoles. Whereas Final Fantasy VII had hundreds of beautiful locations, thousands of characters to speak to and endless enemies to fight in ‘96, many MMOs still relied on SNES-like 2D graphics and, where there WAS a soundtrack, rather dull, few-track midi pieces, seemingly put together in someone’s basement.

"There has always been that need to keep up with single player games though".

Ultima Online

That’s partly because it is more likely to attract a console/offline-only PC user than an MMO with no story, no character development outside of armour, weapon and skill development (although it could be argued they’re not getting that in modern MMOs anyway) and archaic controls. It’s also because these single player games are what rule the industry. For the longest time, a JRPG could sell millions, today that spot is held by the FPS genre. Developers have had to shift from skill building and number crunching to more action-based games to appeal to the general consensus of what a game should be.

A Modern Example

Guild Wars 2, for instance, is a game that, at first glance, looks much like any other MMORPG. If you saw a single screenshot, you’d perhaps be forgiven for believing that it’s World of Warcraft with a reskin. The important elements are there: the skill bar at the bottom of the screen, the radar style map that shows points of interest, the towns and villages made up of NPCs. There are elements of the genre that pre-date World of Warcraft and remain an important part of what makes an interesting MMO. But Guild Wars 2 is also a little bit faster, a little bit more battle-based. The quests are designed in a way that helps people hold their attention on the game.

Guild Wars 2

Guild Wars 2 Diary on DevilsMMO.com every Saturday->>

As Guild Wars 2 ages a little more, other games will borrow the improvements it has made and those same games will probably make improvements of their own. Is this a good thing? In many ways it is; can you imagine a world where only fresh games were allowed on the market? Nothing would ever come out, and improvements – fixing an already excellent formula – are ultimately what people want. It also leads to other problems though.

Guild Wars 2 is an excellent game, one of my favourite MMOs from the past few years, and I can’t really knock it. It’s done many things that I haven’t seen elsewhere, and yet there are times when it feels very, very familiar.

The same can be said for TERA, for The Secret World and for everything from the last ten years. These are games based upon improving an already successful idea. Many are good games in their own rights, but they’re also very familiar. The developer will tell you that this makes it more accessible and I have to admit that coming across a control scheme that is unfamiliar is very annoying, because it rarely improves on the tried and true methods used by the majority of games. TERA and its use of the controller was one of the positive examples, but even that was limited.

The Secret World

The Secret World...

It’s amazing to watch how these games evolve as they grow. Many games will borrow elements from other successful titles, even small things like ideas for holiday events or new weapons and dungeons. Even certain popular quests can, in a way, become viral and end up being copied and “improved” upon by other developers. There’s nothing really wrong with this, but it ends in an industry that is as much about fixing one another’s mistakes as it is about pushing boundaries and moving the genre onwards. This is why we end up with decent but underwhelming titles like The

Secret World and The Old Republic, games that have a ton of potential but that most people can’t enjoy for the generic elements borrowed from other games.

Moving Forward

So how can anybody break this near-unbreakable chain? The folks making Citadel of Sorcery hope to break the chain by moving away from traditional MMO publishers and by funding it themselves. They want to expand what is currently accepted in MMOs, not just improve upon it. They might be able to convince a small minority that things can be done differently, and I’ll be first to logon when that game is released, but without The Lord of the Rings or Star Wars sitting atop the logo, I have my doubts that they can truly change the MMO world. At the very least, they’ll be an influence for others to, yes, improve and implement ideas into their own work, but the general public like things they recognise.

Citadel of Sorcery

Citadel of Sorcery sounds incredibly innovative but will it ever turn into reality?

Traditional publishers don’t seem to want to move forward, but hope to distract the player with flashy graphics and new systems. The Elder Scrolls Online will likely be a great game, but it’ll be the same game we’ve played a thousand times before with perks added and recognisable enemies and places from a massively successful franchise. Guild Wars 2 will continue to grow and improve, but it’ll likely never move out of the shadow of World of Warcraft and its kin.

"These developers (and the publishers that fund them) are unlikely the choose to spend money on an untested feature, but with the help of people like those working on Citadel of Sorcery, perhaps things will turn out ok."

World of Warcraft - Mists of Pandaria

Conclusion

At the beginning of this article, I used the word incestuous, and that’s a word that I really believe sums up what’s wrong with the MMORPG industry. Guild Wars 2 and World of Warcraft are basically the same game, made from a different perspective. For that matter, you could say the same for The Secret World and Everquest, or even TERA and Ultima Online. These are games that are made in different times, but with the same intentions, and many borrow elements from others. Sometimes this would be called evolution, but sometimes the gene pool is at risk of stagnating. Fresh blood is needed.

And, with that potential explosion of an analogy out of the way, we can only guess at where (and when) that fresh blood will appear.

What do you think?


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