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.