Roberts on Generational Evolution

My friend and colleague Jason Roberts (Dymus) is generally a man of few words, so when he says something, it’s worth your time to listen. He recently made a post in the 38 thread on FoH which merits further attention, so I am quoting it here. His post was in response to the notion that “the Next Generation of MMOs is coming”:

I’m quite literal and thus a generation is defined by an iteration and building upon the best of what came before. Since MMO’s take roughly 5-6 years from inception to completion let’s use that with the overlap. Given that, I’d say we’re in the midst of generation 2 and working on generation 3. I’m also keeping the focus to subscription and ‘classic’ style MMO’s, adding the other branches gets unmanageable and I want to stick to one family tree.

Generation 0: IRC, play by e-mail, web games, MUD’s (This is obvious)

Generation 1: (1999-2004) Asheron’s Call, EverQuest, Ultima Online, Meridian 59, Dark Age of Camelot, Anarchy Online, and others.

Generation 2: (2003-2008) World of Warcraft, EVE Online, EverQuest II, Warhammer, Conan, Star Wars Galaxies, Final Fantasy, Matrix Online, City of Heroes, Vanguard, and several others.

Generation 3: (2009-2014) Whatever Blizzard is making, Star Wars: Old Republic, Whatever Carbine is making, Heroes of Telara, whatever else Trion is making, Copernicus, and others.

Now let’s play evolution…
Generation 1: There were three main models that passed on their genes — Ultima Online, EverQuest and Dark Age of Camelot. There were traits that the second generation inherited from all the other games but the primary evolutions in generation 2 came from those three.

What did generation 1 teach us? MMO’s work. Playing with other people is fun. Raiding is cool. Organized PvP is cool. Emergent gameplay is not always a bad thing. Among a whole host of other things, but it was all new.

Generation 2: What defines generation 2 is a refinement of the main ideas from the prior generation. In this, one game had one very key adaptation: Accessibility. Other evolutions happened they just were not as successful.

But what has Generation 2 taught us? People like to play ‘around’ others but not necessarily always ‘with’ others. Accessibility and polish are of critical importance when there are choices. Focus on what your game IS not what it COULD be. (A corollary is that radically changing a game mid-flight is probably a bad idea). Building massive worlds and system generated content to fill them is bad.

Generation 3: We’re just starting here. But there are now two generations to learn from. Not all the ideas from generation 1 were refined in generation 2 since they were so overshadowed by the one big adaptation of Accessibility and polish. I think those are a given by now, if you don’t have that adaptation you can’t compete in the natural selection. The question is, will Generation 3 hit on anything like that adaptation and be a clear trait to carry forward? Perhaps… a lot of us are guessing what it could be, and it might be that there is more than a single answer.

What do I think generation 3 teach us? Story (personal and world focused) is more important than people guessed. You can successfully apply the working models to more genres than fantasy. You can make a massively single player game and still be successful. If you don’t seriously include socialization as a goal you’ll have a serious retention problem.

Many people are still quick to throw the tired phrase “next gen” around. When I was community manager on EQ2, I had to constantly hear a certain game being touted as “third gen” without any substantive merit as to what that meant, so I really like Jason’s delineation. It’s not about technology or platform, but about key adaptations and innovations. After all, building Pong with fancy 3D assets doesn’t make it a next-gen game. Truly ushering in a new generation is about building upon what went before and adding both polish and some interesting new twists.

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Steve Danuser, also known as Moorgard, is a a writer, editor, and game designer.

7 thoughts on “Roberts on Generational Evolution”

  1. That is a great post on Jason’s part. I think he has hit pretty dead on with what a lot of people are looking for. I’m also interested to see what generation two notions are completely throw aside. A lot of MMO players are advocating a renaissance of sorts. There was a lot of good in Gen 1 that people simply chose to cast aside.

  2. Heh. That “certain game” sure seemed to regress back to “gen 1″ IMO.

    I think it will be fascinating to see what this “3rd generation” adapts and hopefully improves upon..

  3. some very astute ideas in there. personally, the part that interests me the most is the idea of looking back at generation 1 and digging up the gems that got left behind by generation 2 and building on them as well. hindsight being marvelously clear, there was a certain “wholeness” to some of the gen1 worlds that somehow wasn’t completely captured in gen2.

    I certainly hope the evolutionary process is not so rigid that all the “forgotten” good ideas from the grandaddies are simply a thing of the past.

    I’m not sold on the idea that injecting a set story (or stories) into a game is a great idea. or, rather, I think it depends a LOT on what exactly you mean by it. maybe it’s just me, but I’m not interested in following a set story arc that thousands of other players are following. what does interest me is the idea of a world so rich in surrounding “story” that you can get lost in any and all aspects of it, interact with it and make your own story.

    I don’t want to be “the chosen one” because that means everyone else is too. I do want to adventure in a world full of well developed conflict and intrigue, of possibilities and of consequences. and maybe even leave a mark. there’s my 3rd gen hope.

  4. I think the entire idea of generations is absurd. Is grand theft auto 4 the 7th generation of Pong? No, every game is tries to improve upon ideas from other games, with the vast majority of people being unable to do so successfully (read: your own article about execution). To imply that the games in 5 years from now (MMO or not) will take the ideas present in the current games and improve upon them is naive at best, since we all know that a large percentage of games released are not that great and have plenty to learn from.

    As such I think it’s stupid to assign traits to the different ‘generations’, such as generation 2 was more accessible or generation 3 is about story.

    MMOs are games, and 98% of their success (or failure) are the same as their single player counterparts. You can have the most accessible mmo ever, but it’ll fail if you then do not have the long term depth to keep the players paying you money. You can take one of the most popular fictional stories ever conceived and build a crappy game about it and still not have any success. See you all in hell.

  5. What is to come?

    – Unpredictability, perhaps with (good!) random generated content.
    – Player generated content (very tricky, but inevitable in the end).
    – Acknowledgement that a MMO should not try to tell a story that makes you think you play a single player game although you quite obviously don’t. Stories for grown-ups. No more evil guys that behave idiotically or like little children. Credibility.
    – Concentration on a few big stories instead of 10.000 independent quests.
    – More focus on trade/traveling in Fanatasy MMOs. Player run economies. Fun crafting. Economy/Scarceness is part of the game.
    – The rediscovery of slowness and rapidity where they are appropiate. (Reading books in multiplayer dungeons is not appropiate).
    – As much immersion as possible as little immersion as necessary. With a new focus on the first part of the sentence.
    – Obviously: Better graphics/sound. e.g. Fog on water. A boat seemingly floating. Waves. Thunderstorms. Sandstorms. Humidity.

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