If established titles are by nature more complete and problem-free than new games can possibly hope to be even months after launch, we need to also recognize that this is so because too many new titles rely overmuch on the existing MMO model: subscription fees, levels and traditional roles, questing and aggro, and so on and so forth.
But we’re now just starting to see games on the horizon which discard parts of that model. MMOs derive their basic play from single-player RPGs, which in turn derive, ultimately, from good old Dungeons & Dragons. Something like The Agency, built around (presumably) microtransactions and promising gameplay which diverges from the modus operandi of traditional MMOs. The Agency is still largely an unknown quantity, but it has the potential at least to offer some forms of gameplay that are less dependent on pouring massive amounts of manpower into developing quests and other scripted content.
Second Life is another example, and it’s even been around for a while now. Its nature allows the developers to focus on infrastructure instead of content creation, on core improvements rather than swimming against a tide of player achievement. It provides a foundation, an environment in which participants can enter and then do much as they please, within the limits of what the engine is capable of.
But the thing about Second Life is that most people do not consider it an MMO, with good reason – there’s no game in there except that which players create for themselves. It diverges greatly from the standard MMO model, but even games which diverge substantially less (like Guild Wars) are often considered something other than MMOs by the MMO audience. The distinction is not in the persistence of the virtual world – Second Life is persistent and Guild Wars is not – nor in the presence of game – Guild Wars has that but Second Life does not.
EVE Online, on the other hand, is universally considered an MMO, even though it shares many characteristics and something of a common approach with Second Life, in providing an open environment in which to pursue whatever the player would like. EVE also has many game elements, of course, but when you really think about it, an awful lot of that is being driven by player activity rather than by anything in the mechanics.
I think that we are seeing substantial innovation in this area, but MMO aficionados do not consider many of those titles to be the same kind of product. Even titles like D&D Online and Guild Wars, which share virtually all of the characteristics of other MMOs, are pretty routinely stated to be outside the same category as the WoWs and EverQuests. What will we call something like FreeRealms, which will be far more different?
If innovation is something we are looking for in the MMO field, we need to be willing to understand that the definition of ‘MMO’ is still evolving, and that the games that contain that innovation will by nature stretch the boundaries of that term. The problem lies, at least a little bit, with a definition of ‘MMO’ that is narrower than it ought to be. Maybe we need new terminology that reflects more accurately what we mean, and other terminology that’s more inclusive.
But innovation is overrated. Often, the most innovative, visionary products fail in the marketplace (re: Ryzom,) but their ideas are inherited by other properties that refine them. This is the moral of this post, and the last – the nature of the MMO as we currently define it is that it continues to evolve, and is by nature dynamic. A new MMO with a few fresh ideas (Warhammer, Age of Conan) is relying on that freshness to gain a foothold in the marketplace. Because the other, existing titles are dynamic and capable of very substantial change, it’s inevitable that those new ideas will be incorporated into those games in some form or another. Hesitantly or carefully, perhaps, because MMOs and very complex and precariously balanced creatures, but it’ll happen, and then the edge that the newcomer had goes away, and what’s left is momentum and marketing’s ability to sustain it.
And an MMO, again, by nature, has tremendous momentum. Players invest very heavily in them to a degree almost unheard-of in other types of computer games, and get attached on some emotional level with their characters. Permanently prying a player away from an MMO is hard. They may get burned out or take a break, but inertia makes it likely that they’ll go back, just as we are seeing many return to WoW after the shine wears off the new hotness. A player who’s dropped a couple of hundred hours into WAR is more likely to choose the WoW or EQ2 that they’ve put several thousand hours into when interest levels equalize, even inconsiderate of the fact that some enhancement has almost certainly been made to their old favorite in their absence.
Again, none of this is to say that new games cannot compete, or are unwanted. The point is to illustrate that the MMO marketplace is a very difficult one for even an excellent new game to get a foothold in. It’s why the companies developing Triple-A titles are justified in feeling they need operating budgets upwards of $30 million, and why considering the scope of that investment, it should surprise no one that designers err on the side of caution when developing new features and so frequently rely on proven tropes and technologies. Those who complain about a lack of innovation are often both unrealistic in their expectations and reluctant to recognize innovation where it does appear.
How many people who seem to play and talk about various EQ clones (i. e. virtually everything on the market) have you heard complain about “there’s nothing new out there,” while ignoring the fact that radically different MMOs do exist, like A tale in the Desert? One of them, EVE Online, is even a very successful, Triple-A title, with ads plastered on every square meter of the internet. I see ads for EVE on the Sports Illustrated and Entertainment Weekly sites, for Christ’s sake. Isn’t it at best narrow-sighted to complain about a lack of innovation and yet ignore the huge example of innovation staring you right in the face?
It’s going to be the small games that make the biggest innovations, not the Triple-A titles. And such games are not likely to much resemble existing MMOs, because the MMO mainstream is reliant upon an extremely cash-hungry development model, one unsustainable by the small companies and new people that are most likely and motivated to innovate.
“But wait!” you say. “Those games aren’t fun!” And it’s totally fair to say that – maybe, for you, they aren’t. But if so, and assuming you also recognize that some games out there are fun, you need to recognize that you are finding proven gameplay tropes as more fun than innovative ones. That should tell you something. Like, maybe, that you might be better served by not being concerned about a perceived lack of fresh ideas, and decide instead to find a game or games that is fun, and stick with that selection of favorites, regardless of how new they are.
Find the best games you can, and invest your time in those. Make decisions, even if they are hard. Your personal selection might include some new titles, or not. But a list of ‘best’ games, by any remotely objective measure, is going to be overwhelmingly composed of titles that have been around for a while.