Babies and Bathwater

There has been a recent round of blog posts suggesting that current MMOs have lost something, that they aren’t living up to their potential, are in desperate need of a revolution, and that power-mad developers are trying to lock players on a limited path. Of course, these assertions aren’t anything new–posters on entrenched message boards like FoH have been saying the same thing for years.

Certainly there is room for entirely new styles of massively multiplayer online games to be developed. We need this kind of development to happen. But the fact is that the Diku MMO is here to stay, if for no other reason that it’s a popular style of game that millions of people around the world have proven willing to pay money for. So look, just stop whining that the genre is exhausted and out of ideas, because it doesn’t matter–even if there are jaded gamers who have had enough of the format and should just move on already, there are millions of new players waiting to take their places.

Rather than abandoning hope for the Diku MMO–which is about as likely to disappear from the gaming landscape as the FPS–we should look for ways to address its shortcomings.

The problem isn’t that there are a lot of quests in these games; it’s that the quests are often boring, non-heroic, and the only legitimate path of advancement. Worse still, quests in some current titles actually penalize socialization because updates don’t apply to the whole group. And nobody enjoys ganking a named creature in the wild only to reach a quest hub and receive a mission to kill that very same beastie.

These are solvable problems. Let’s not do away with the game content Achievers love; let’s stop penalizing Explorers and Socializers instead. By being thoughtful about our methods of delivering achievement, we should actually feed exploration and socialization. Reward people for encountering mysteries in the wild. Create settings that foster a variety of adventuring outside the linear quest line.

Another topic that comes up a lot is how current MMOs have removed all sense of danger and risk. Again, this is a problem we can solve without going in a completely ridiculous and reckless direction. Simply walking outside the borders of your home town needn’t mean that everything your character has ever earned is on the line (don’t worry–those of you who enjoy that sort of thing will always have niche PvP games to play for however many months of lifespan those titles have). Punitive death penalties may please the hardcore, but they are one of the primary reasons players leave a game.

Instead, find other stakes with real consequences that players can fight for. Make them overcome huge obstacles with a real chance of loss–but loss that makes them feel like they really tried and want to do better next time, not a loss that makes them feel stupid or unskilled.

Look, a lot of this comes down to content, and making content is expensive–believe me, I know. But MMO makers are just going to have to bite the bullet on this one. If you read between the lines and pay attention to what the developers of tomorrow’s MMOs are telling you, several companies are working on addressing these challenges in their own ways (such as BioWare, Trion, and, yes, 38 Studios). There is no universal solution, but developers are trying new things.

While some teams will focus on taking the MMO into bold new directions, others will try to build upon what has proven to work and make it even better. This genre has room for both revolution and evolution, and in fact needs both paths to thrive. Pushing boundaries is healthy, but throwing out the baby with the bathwater would ultimately undermine the considerable progress MMOs have made since the late 1990s.

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