The Soapbox: Applying Neal Stephenson's Innovation Starvation to MMOs

Jef Reahard
J. Reahard|10.25.11

Sponsored Links

The Soapbox: Applying Neal Stephenson's Innovation Starvation to MMOs
Rocket launch failure
Disclaimer: The Soapbox column is entirely the opinion of this week's writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Massively as a whole. If you're afraid of opinions other than your own, you might want to skip this column.

You've probably heard of Neal Stephenson. The celebrated sci-fi author recently released his 13th novel, Reamde, and while it treads a little closer to traditional thriller territory than some of his more cerebral efforts, it still packs a futurist punch (and even led the author to comment on MMOs, virtual worlds, and World of Warcraft in a recent interview).

In addition to speculative fiction, Stephenson is also prone to the occasional essay, the latest of which found its way onto the intarwebs a few weeks ago. While not directly related to the gaming or massively multiplayer industries, the piece does feature some interesting observations about the stagnant creative culture to be found in contemporary corporate America, and Stephenson also offers plenty of food for thought that can be applied to the current state of the MMO space.

Astronaut with a for sale sign
The title of Stephenson's piece is called Innovation Starvation, and the gist of it is that the quest to eliminate uncertainty has also largely eliminated innovation. His primary example is the American space program, currently dying a slow death thanks to political machinations and a disinterested populace with an aversion to math, science, and long-term goals.

What does this have to do with MMOs? Well, like aerospace industry projects, MMOs are expensive endeavors, and as the latter have grown more popular (and more costly to produce), the spark of creative madness that infused early titles has largely been extinguished in favor of safer, more homogenous design.

Mercury liftoffWhat? You don't agree? Well, compare the average feature set of an MMO released post-2008 with one released pre-2004. Also note that what is arguably the most creative AAA MMO ever devised is unceremoniously being served its termination papers in favor of a new quest grinder.

Lack of innovation is a common cry on MMO forums these days, but what is innovation, really? Developers and developer apologists like to say that current-gen MMOs are in fact innovative but that the innovation comes in the form of small refinements to the existing formula. This supposed addition by subtraction is the essence of "design," according to people like Raph Koster, which is ironic because Koster was responsible for the aforementioned Star Wars Galaxies (and has now retreated to the comparatively safe world of social networking games).

Disaffected MMO fans, from sandbox nuts to virtual world enthusiasts to hardcore themeparkers lamenting the glory days of EverQuest, will tell you that each new MMO is basically a clone, and then they'll revert to trolling message boards waiting in vain for the industry to serve up a game or two that suits their tastes. This lack of innovation meme is so strong that it's even generated a backlash of sorts, and you'll see yes-men pop up in the very same discussions, usually commenting on how the vets need to move on, get with the times, and accept the fact that MMOs have settled into a comfortable/predictable rhythm.

The funny thing, though, is that even developers are starting to acknowledge that MMO design is stagnant. David Brevik (a Blizzard alum with some fairly heavy-hitting titles on his resume) recently opined that "MMOs in general are in a rut. It's still mainly WoW clones," he said. "A lot of people have done these games, but it's been that same kind of gameplay, and that doesn't mean that's what it has to be."

Gemini liftoffFuncom's Craig Morrison, former game director on Anarchy Online and currently overseeing Age of Conan, recently blogged about how the industry is in the midst of refining first-generation gameplay at the expense of progress. Morrison couches his phrasing quite carefully, but it's not hard to connect the dots and conclude that many dev studios wish to avoid moving the genre forward in order to appeal to the widest possible demographic and "polish" what passes for current-gen content (and whether they're polishing the proverbial turd or not depends largely on when you started playing in the genre and whether your sensibilities skew toward MMO-lite accessibility or MMOs as virtual worlds).

Stephenson, while not a game developer, offers a possible explanation for this innovation starvation. He posits that mass access to limitless information is breeding a generation of business people who are afraid to take a risk because they can quickly and definitively see how similar risks have panned out.

"There is no such thing as 'long run' in industries driven by the next quarterly report. The possibility of some innovation making money is just that -- a mere possibility that will not have time to materialize before the subpoenas from minority shareholder lawsuits begin to roll in," Stephenson writes.

Whether or not you subscribe to his theory that more information is responsible for all the risk aversion, what's not really debatable is the fact that the business world in general has been infected with a sort of cancerous short-term thinking usually associated with the young, impatient, and inexperienced.

Saturn liftoffStephenson is blunt in his assessment:
Today's belief in ineluctable certainty is the true innovation-killer of our age. In this environment, the best an audacious manager can do is to develop small improvements to existing systems -- climbing the hill, as it were, toward a local maximum, trimming fat, eking out the occasional tiny innovation -- like city planners painting bicycle lanes on the streets as a gesture toward solving our energy problems.

Any strategy that involves crossing a valley (accepting short-term losses to reach a higher hill in the distance) will soon be brought to a halt by the demands of a system that celebrates short-term gains and tolerates stagnation but condemns anything else as failure -- in short, a world where big stuff can never get done.
This sentiment dovetails with Morrison's assertion that the MMO industry is caught up in perfecting the ancient DIKU-driven design model, and frankly it's anyone's guess when (or if) a development firm will realize a significant return on something more substantial.

Unfortunately, the way out of the current malaise isn't clear, and Stephenson avoids even the hint of a solution to the problems plaguing aerospace companies and the idling economy in general. Similarly, MMO designers and financiers don't seem ready to make any meaningful changes, judging by the release schedule over the next couple of years. Your biggest innovators appear to be your BioWares and your Funcoms, both of whom are simply layering story on top of tired mechanics and drowning the whole confection in an enormous IP (or a hodge-podge of popular urban legends). ArenaNet is the wild-card here, and perhaps the firm will deliver. Honestly, though, I worry that Guild Wars 2 is burdened by more hype and starry-eyed fan expectation than it could overcome in two lifetimes.

The hope for all three of these companies, and the rest of the AAA space, is that MMO players will continue to find retreads and small tweaks palatable, but I say it's high time we graduated from TV dinners to filet mignon (or failing that, at least a good all-you-can-eat buffet).

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!
All products recommended by Engadget are selected by our editorial team, independent of our parent company. Some of our stories include affiliate links. If you buy something through one of these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.
Popular on Engadget