Title: Overhauling the MMO: Part 1
Posted: July 09, 2007 (05:13 PM)
Everyone seems to be split when considering the future of MMOs. On one side of the debate, the cash and time investments required of gamers mean that only a handful of high-profile games can succeed. On the other side, MMOs are still getting their bearings and we have only begun to see their potential. I fall into the latter camp, but don’t call me an optimist just yet. If there is one thing that can kill the genre, it’s a lack of variety.
Small, independent MMOs can be surprisingly diverse, but looking back at the larger titles that rose above flavor-of-the-month status, they don’t seem all that unique. I have played numerous MMOs, including Ultima Online, Everquest I and II, Final Fantasy XI, and World of Warcraft to name a few. Frankly, I am getting sick of swinging swords, killing kobolds, grinding for experience, and pizza delivery questing. Every addition to the scene inevitably touts something like revolutionary combat or an innovative leveling system, but in the end, it always feels like the same old song with a few tweaks thrown in for good measure.
It’s time to throw out the conventions and overhaul the MMO.
It’s not hard to see why the realm of medieval fantasy has captured the imaginations of people around the world. It’s a place where heroes don’t drop bombs from behind a computer. They gloriously sweep through the battlefields with finely-honed skills. The adventurous can pack their bags, forget about rent and mortgages, and survive on wit and ingenuity. Mysteries abound and myth becomes reality. It’s a great escape from the 9-5 drudgery of adding numbers, folding shirts, or waiting tables. Medieval fantasy is a wonderful setting with amazing possibilities, but it’s only one of countless worlds to be explored.
You wouldn’t know it by looking at the top MMOs though. Games like World of Warcraft, Lineage, and The Lord of the Rings Online have their distinctive attractions, but they share very common roots. When did medieval fantasy become the be-all to end-all setting? Why not a space station, an exotic alien world, a wild-west frontier, or even an urban setting? Some have argued that sales figures prove that medieval fantasy is what people want. More likely, it’s because few developers are willing to leave the path and venture into territories of uncharted profitability.
A few have tried, but most of the resulting games were too broken or poorly designed to stand a chance. Auto Assault, with its post-apocalyptic world and car combat, is a poster child for experimentation, but it is also a prime example of broken gameplay. Anarchy Online went the sci-fi route, but it was only a cosmetic change. You can call a swirling blue light “nanotechnology,” but it’s still magic in my book. The Matrix Online and City of Heroes used modern, urban landscapes, and while City of Heroes was entertaining, neither used the city for much more than a backdrop. Where do all of those citizens sleep at night?
Altering the appearance of a setting is not enough. Players must be able to interact with it in a way that makes sense. If there is a bus shelter, there should be a bus driving by. Even better, let players ride that bus. If there is a door, let players open, close, lock, or even barricade it. Just imagine the new strategies for PVP that such a simple interaction would create. When developers step back and examine potential interactions, as opposed to transposing old gameplay mechanics, it opens the gate for experiences we had only imagined.
EVE Online is an excellent example of an MMO that employs its setting in a unique way, even though that setting is technically nothing. EVE Online could have been a generic space-shooter filled with a galaxy of dogfighters. Instead, developer CCP asked how a pilot might actually make a living in space. You can still try to live out your Cowboy Bebop fantasies, but the real money lies in trading, transporting goods, and mining. It might sound boring on paper, but the constant betrayals, shifting alliances, and get-rich-quick schemes created by players have made EVE Online a veritable underdog of the genre.
If nothing else, the continuing success of EVE Online and City of Heroes proves that not everyone wants to drink mead and run around in a loincloth. Many gamers crave something new, with the attention to quality and detail afforded other high-profile games. World of Warcraft blew the charts away with 8 million+ subscribers and now everyone wants a piece of the action, but mimicry is not the way to get noticed. Instead of trying to tackle the giant or walk in its footsteps, developers should be taking the next turn to see what is waiting in the distance.
Posted: July 09, 2007 (07:20 PM)
Space Cowboy - An MMO in which you pilot a ship. Think of it as an online Starfox, minus the furries.
Audition- Korean rhythm MMO, where you play dress up with your characters and gain levels by dancing.
Phantasy Star Universe - Kinda suffers the same fate Anarchy Online does, but it's still a pretty fun game that focuses more on kicking ass with a group of friends instead of simply grinding for items. Either way, you can call it a photon blade ll you want, but it's still just a green sword.
Posted: July 09, 2007 (08:14 PM)
No doubt that there are quite a few MMOs out there that don't fall in line with the rest, but I am referring mainly to the ones you see sitting on store shelves. Tabula Rasa and Huxley are major titles that look like they have the potential to break the trend, though we'll have to wait and see if they live up to expectations.
One of my favorite indie MMOs is Urban Dead. It's about as low-tech as they come, but it gets pretty tense.
Posted: July 10, 2007 (09:36 AM)
I demand an Urban Dead review.
Mainly because I really want to try and get into it and just need a nudge to do so.
Posted: July 10, 2007 (12:47 PM)
Actually, I decided last night to start doing a regular MMO review topic. It'll focus mainly on the indies. I don't plan on adding them to the HG database though, as most of them don't last all that long.
Posted: July 10, 2007 (01:07 PM)
We have indy MMO's up and I even got a request from one to cover their game (Dinohunter: DoI did it)
It's your call, of course, but very few sites cover games like that and it might be quite the feather in our cap if you did. Assuming you have something to say about them, of course.
EDIT: Why was your peice taken off the focus window? I call foul play.
Posted: July 10, 2007 (03:06 PM)
It was up for the Focus Window on Monday. If it got taken down early, I didn't notice.
Posted: July 12, 2007 (03:19 PM)
I've played several indie MMOs in my time as well. I'd be more than happy to help review a few. I've actually been thinking of requesting that the indie RPG Well of Souls be added to the database. It's a fun little game where you can customize your own world with its own classes, spells, items, story, and just about anything you want.
Posted: August 23, 2007 (12:31 PM)