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The Soapbox: Same old song and dance

Eliot Lefebvre

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.

Our very first Soapbox column, you might remember, was one that I wrote. It was on the topic of World of Warcraft clones -- specifically, the fact that it's not really World of Warcraft's fault that a lot of developers have decided to copy an existing success rather than branch out into new territory. And the list of WoW-likes continues to grow rather than shrink, although naming games tends to produce frothing vitriol that isn't particularly helpful.

But there's more going on than simply a parade of copies. Games increasingly aren't just copying the lead of WoW; they're copying a wide variety of the game's design decisions, even if those decisions don't make much sense in context. I'm not fond of the claim that creativity is dead in the MMO industry, but we're definitely knee-deep in a design rut for a number of reasons.

A blueprint for success

In the first half of the 700s, Islam was aggressively expanding throughout the world, with dominance over the Middle East and northern Africa. It was a pretty disquieting time to be a Christian, especially at the heart of Constantinople, where it must have seemed as if almost any new religion could take root and start spreading overnight. So what did the higher powers in the city conclude? That maybe it was time to update their belief systems? That reaching out to the disadvantaged might produce a pretty fearsome army? Or did they assume that, since Islam forbade any graven images and focused instead on geometric designs, the picture of the Virgin Mary was what was getting in the way?

Keep in mind, if you are unsure, that the last option just requires smashing a painting instead of actually changing any behaviors.

We can laugh now, but the idea of mindlessly copying every practice of someone successful hardly died out over the past thousand-plus years. Case in point: Player housing, once considered the default, has now been relegated to meager showings in EverQuest II and Lord of the Rings Online. It's hard to think of a more modern or mainstream AAA game that includes the feature. (Darkfall has its city building, yes, but the game is specifically aiming at a more old-school aesthetic, and it's never going to be under the "mainstream" aegis.)

And we all know what game has steadfastly avoided player housing, first saying it was coming soon, then coming later, then probably never happening -- complete with several denials that the feature was ever promised and with the steadfast advocacy that most players do not expect it to be added as a game feature.

Of course, these days, most players don't really expect housing to be added. Can you blame them? Most games launched within the past three years certainly haven't included it, because its longstanding omission has essentially turned it into a non-presence. And no other designer would dare put it high on the priority list, because it's easy to roll all of WoW's attributes into a big ball of "this is what works" and use that as a principle.

The carrot

There's a very good reason companies have looked to the model of WoW as a blueprint of success. And it would be silly not to mention the simple reality -- the game has made embarassing amounts of money. Exact profit reports vary, but we can assume that, between monthly subscriptions and sales of Ugly Sparklepony and his Amazing Friends, the company is raking in roughly seven hojillion dollars a month of pure profit.

Now, sitting in your chair, you might well be thinking soberly that the profit isn't all that important. Disregarding investments and so forth, an MMO could certainly wind up making an excellent profit for its developers at a much smaller figure, enough to keep the studio running and players entertained. If you don't aim for two million players, you can do quite well at two hundred thousand, just to throw out pretty much random numbers.

The problem is once again a story taught by history. Reading about the California gold rush that started in 1848 is depressing work, because you see a huge number of people rushing to chase something that almost no one actually obtained. The problem was that suddenly a bunch of people (miners) who had never actually conceived of being wealthy suddenly had the means right there. All you had to do was get to California and try to grab some gold, and then you'd be rich.

Blizzard's success proved that you could be a relatively small studio with several modestly successful and very popular titles, and you could have a sudden breakout hit that catapaulted you into insane profits. And venture capitalists, of course, aren't about to bet on the moderate goals; they're going to bet on the long and immense odds to produce maximum profits. Copying WoW worked once, and the lure of trying to duplicate the success is there.

Hence, the rut

This is the hardly the only time that a massive success has dominated game design to an embarassing degree. There's a reason every RPG on the PlayStation bent over backward to duplicate Final Fantasy VII, every N64 game wanted to duplicate Mario 64, every first-person shooter now feels the need to be Halo, and why the RPG industry took until '91 to stop photocopying Dungeons and Dragons. Decrying what's going on now as the end of the MMO industry is an overreaction in the broadest terms.

But there is a definite rut, and you see it everywhere, even in the fact that the "default" for an MMO is the way that WoW handles something. And there's a distinct portion of the market that grew up (so to speak) on WoW. The sheer number of players has created a deforming force in the industry, something that has to be responded to consciously in order to stop making games that copy large chunks of what WoW has done.

So how does that happen? We're starting to see it change already. Several games have come out since WoW that were strict reactions to the changes wrought by Blizzard's monolithic success. We're starting to see games (of which RIFT may be the first -- time will tell) that have tried to uncouple what the game has done right with the features that just happened to be part of its design.

Star Wars: The Old Republic has explicitly taken several cues from WoW. Guild Wars 2 hasn't overtly stated that there's influence from the game, but it's more than likely. RIFT not only has clear similarities, but it's even called them out on several occasions. But all three games are also taking aim at regions in which the current MMO blueprint has flaws, from narrative to dynamic events to party systems. It's a step in the right direction, at the very least.

Unfortunately, the damage has been done, and it's going to be a long time before we see something start coming out of truly left field. The design rut has lasted so long because WoW is still making embarrassing amounts of money, and even if one of the aforementioned games (or all three) winds up being the game that finally knocks its predecessor off the pedestal, the expected blueprint is now ingrained in our minds.

There are some elements that WoW has brought into MMOs that are unambiguous positives. But the result is a distinct sense of homogenized products, the idea that most MMOs are separated by genre and art style rather than by distinct game mechanics. That, more than anything, is the real negative that's been wrought upon MMOs as a whole -- they've become almost interchangeable. And if you can't make a game distinct and endearing in its own right, is it really surprising that so many games wind up with subscribers who drop out after a couple of months? It's just the same old song and dance.

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!

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