Think Small

A guy I work with talks a lot about the Good Old Days in Star Wars Galaxies. Keen talks a lot about the Good Old Days in Dark Age of Camelot. Guys in the tabletop community talk a lot about the Good Old Days of White Box D&D. I call this “Golden Age-ism,” and in general, I find it annoying, even though I think everybody is guilty of it to some degree. In general, I believe in progress, and progress always moves in the direction of “better,” even if it has fits and stops and occasional steps backwards. Thinking this way can make us too focused on the past, at the cost of looking ahead to the future.

The trouble is that in the case of MMOs, many of us (“us” meaning the community of commentators,) feel that progress has stalled.

A lot of folks talk about “generations” of MMOs, grouping EverQuest, DAoC and Asheron’s Call into the “generation” after Ultima Online, for example. While I think this terminology is too vague to serve any useful purpose, it does make for a fun talking point.

For the purpose of furthering the discussion, then, let’s accept that there is some commonality between the games of that era and group them together. Let’s call it the “Second Generation,” although I know we can argue that it’s actually the third, or even the fourth if we want to go back to the days of MUDs. We can also safely assume that this Second Generation ends with the launch of World of Warcraft. I think everyone would broadly agree that EQ, AC and DAoC should be taken together in retrospect. I’d further suggest that EVE (dating as it does to before WoW,) should probably be regarded as part of that release cycle as well. Same with Star Wars Galaxies.

So, what’s the commonality? All five of these titles are very different from one another, and very different from the predecessor – Ultima Online – that inspired them. It turns out to be innovation itself – when MMOs were a new frontier, developers were daring enough to innovate. Perhaps more importantly, budgets were modest enough to allow experimentation.

Enter World of Warcraft. Pre-WoW, there was clearly money in MMOs. Good money, but perhaps not the uncounted billions that WoW showed that MMOs could make. WoW changed developer expectations, and therefore also the budgets for MMOs moving forward, and those big budgets have had a stultifying effect on innovation.

In the span of four years – 1999 through 2003 – we saw at least five major MMOs release, all of them different from the others, all of them trying different ways to feel out the market space that virtual worlds might occupy. After WoW, the solution to that puzzle seemed clear to the money people – WoW had solved the equation.

Thus, clone after clone of WoW rolls off the assembly line of MMO development. No major title has since dared to vary from the formula, bearing in mind that the formula includes the budget and the approach to marketing as well as the actual design of the game. Tabula Rasa varied the design, but not the budget, and consequentially failed. No big-budget MMO is going to bring us innovation. That’s just not the way it works. Big money means an unwillingness to take chances. The innovation is going to some from smaller games with smaller budgets, and they’ll start out small and hopefully grow. Darkfall would be one example of a game well-positioned for growth (here’s hoping that can be pulled off.)

So we have the old generation of MMOs – the EQs and the EVEs and the DAoCs. And we have the WoW generation. Many new games launch with the idea that they represent the vanguard of the next generation. Warhammer Online was widely touted as such, for example. Yet it went out not with a bang, and barely a whimper. It’s easy to laugh at it now, but that the time such claims were taken as credible.

We are still in the WoW generation. The big big money draws venture capital like moths to a flame, and stuff that costs big money to create will inevitably offer only incremental improvement. In general, innovation is overrated, but it’s still nice, and we’d all like to see it. What I’d like to see is another take on the innovations of the aforementioned generation, or even an alternate generation to follow it. It’s not a specific thing that I’m looking for, and that’s the point.

But nobody’s doing it. As I’ve pointed out before, the big MMO budgets represent a trap. The only things on the horizon that look to be capable of shaking up a deeply complacent hobby are Guild Wars 2, which could easily be much less novel than ArenaNet would like us to think, and World of Darkness Online, because of CCP’s history of innovation and a source material that’s different from the traditional roots of the RPG. But that’s a long way off.

What we need is for someone with, say, $20-30 million to put together a small, dedicated team, leverage open-source assets (far more plentiful now than at any time in the past,) and put together something that won’t go under for failing to get a million subs in the first month.

5 responses to “Think Small

  1. One to keep an eye out on (since it seems to be potential interesting) Earthrise

    Sandbox, territorial warfare, FFA pvp, loot drop etc.

    How it will pan out after launch and if it will remain alive, I have no idea, depends on how quick they will roll out expansions etc.

  2. I’m never convinced by the premise that all we’ve been offered post-WoW are WoW clones. Similarly, I’m not convinced that pre-WoW the variety offered was greater than it later became.

    The first MMO I played was Everquest. In short order I also tried UO, DAOC, Anarchy Online (another big game of the second generation), AC and a number of others. Having started with EQ, the only one of those that I felt was substantively different was UO and that was purely because of the isometric 3D graphics (which I didn’t like).

    AC seemed like a bland version of EQ. DAOC was EQ with more PvP. Anarchy Online was EQ with guns. I’m pretty sure that the differences between them would be discernible only to afficionados of the MMO form. Even gamers, the huge majority of whom played strictly offline then, tended to lump all MMOs together and think of them as having interchangeable gameplay.

    There is more variety now. Wizard 101, A Tale in the Desert, Pirates of the Burning Sea just to name some off the top of my head, are all a step or several further away from “traditional” MMO gameplay. But it’s true they are still the exception. The vast majority of MMOs still follow an extremely familar format. I’d say that’s because it’s a sound format that has an audience.

    Whether we are short of independents with new ideas, though, I’m not so sure. What about Love? Or Minecraft? Or that non-combat space MMO that tanked, the name of which I forget? The question is if developers make radically different MMOS, do enough people want to play them? Personally, I’m more than happy to play variations of EQ for the rest of my life, just so long as they are interesting, well-crafted variations.

    And finally, with the heaviest possible irony, it seems that Blizzard is determined to turn WoW into the least WoW-like MMO there is. Where that’s going to lead the market God only knows.

  3. I have to agree with Bagpuss, at least on the point that there are actually a ton of decently innovative MMOs out there. If gamers really want to see more innovation, they should start speaking with their wallets and try some of them.

    I also think you are correct that it’s unrealistic to expect really big budget MMOs to be particularly innovative. The most successful MMO of the EQ era…was EQ. The most successful MMO of the next generation strongly resembled it in many ways: classes, levels, endgame focused on raiding and “phat lewt.” To be sure WoW resembles EQ much mores strongly than DAoC, SWG, AO, or AC..though it did take a good number of design elements from AC II. If you are an outsider looking to risk a ton of money on an MMO, something that deviates strongly from the EQ/ WoW formula seems like a poor bet. The best you can hope for is EVE numbers, and even EVE didn’t have EVE numbers at first.

  4. @Bhagpuss: I’m pretty sure that the differences between them would be discernible only to afficionados of the MMO form.

    Yeah, but that is us. 🙂

  5. Good Old Days to me were the BBS scene before the Net showed up. The newness of everything being connected from your private house was mind-blowing for us in those days. Now, it is so “oh hum”.

    While I played all the early online games like Yserbius, Merdian 59, The Realm Online, etc… I don’t have the ‘good old days’ feeling except for games that changed drastically and made me find another one to enjoy.

    Early games were conceived on the concept of Something New & Untried. They were built by people who liked to create challenges… both for themselves and the playing community. For us oldies, we were raised on stand-alone games which were brutal… failing = losing and restarting the game. Early online games mirrored this aspect and players accepted it gladly. It was totally acceptable if a game only had 20,000 subscribers, both in monetary and playability terms. We based having fun on the game dynamics, not how pretty it looks or the phat loot we get.

    Today, games are produced just to make mega money. If your game doesn’t make $xx,xxx,xxx money within 4 months of release, it is slated to close. A fine example of this is Tabula Rasa. Some big producers WILL support games which either stumbled-out-of-the-gate (Vanguard:Saga of Heroes) or have a much reduced player-base (Dark Age of Camelot). But these days, new games are created in a sink-or-swim atmosphere.

    Pre-WoW oldies like me have forgotten all the issues/headaches/reasons-we-left on those early games. Post-WoW newbies pan games that don’t have photo-realistic visuals or ban 3rd party add-ons.

    In 10 years, we will all have to see how many here are in the “remember the old days” crowd! -)

    TQQdles™,

    Dolnor Numbwit
    Eternale Newbie