Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Is there a cure for the diminishing returns of the MMO genre?

A bunch of new MMOs have recently been or are just about to be released. But there’s something missing in the reactions from the community according to Tobold’s post of yesterday.

The cheers aren’t convincing. The crazy “this-is-incredible-I’ve-never-ever-seen-such-a-freaking-awesome-game-before” atmosphere just doesn’t arrive. Well, there was an enthusiastic cry-out right after Blizzcon at the news about Cataclysm. A few of us Blizzard fanboys and -girls were jumping with joy at the thought of it. But even though it was inspiring, it wasn’t exactly revolutionary, was it?

Somehow, I get the impression that the MMO-concept, with all its potential to reach the stars, right now is stuck on the ground. The rocket makes noises, but for all the engineering and fuel that has been put into it, it just won’t take off.

Tobold asks: “What would it take for a game to break out of this circle of apathy and really get people excited?”

Diminishing returns
As a newcomer without any personal experience from any other MMO but WoW, I hesitate to comment on this topic. My knowledge of the genre and of computer gaming at all, MMO or not, is shallow and only recently acquired. So take it for what it is: a newbie perspective.

I think we’re dealing with the phenomena of diminishing returns. The longer you play an MMO, the more will it take to shake you up, and the quicker will the first rush of novelty wear off. And unfortunately this diminishing returns experience isn’t restricted to one game. If the patches and expansions in WoW don’t give you the kick they used to do, you can’t just switch to another MMO, expecting it to give you the same level of thrilled “exploring the unknown territory” as you got as a WoW virgin (if WoW was your first MMO experience).

Actually it came as a bit of a shock to me when I came to this insight after playing WoW for quite a while. In my innocence I had imagined that most things I encountered in WoW were unique for this game. The concept of questing, of levelling, the inventory management, the spellbook and actionbars, the gearing, the instancing, the way to fight monsters. I figured that all this stuff were Blizzard innovations and that the other MMO:s I heard of had other features that were completely different. I couldn’t imagine that those elements are around one way or another in any game – like the mandatory jumps and twists in figure skating. There are only ever so many you can choose between.

I’ve come to think that the activity of picking a MMO-fantasy game resembles to how you decide which breakfast cereals you buy from the supermarket. Some people prefer them with a lot of sweets or fruits in it, others want them to contain fibers. But in the end it’s all cereals. It’s not opion soup, it’s not New York Steak. A cereal is a cereal, a fantasy MMO is a fantasy MMO.

What may lie ahead
The question is: can you still break new grounds, regardless of this? Is it possible to develop a new MMO, which will give us the sense of wonder out of pure awesomeness?

Of course it is! If you ask me I would say that we’ve only seen the beginning of the MMO era. If you compare it to the development of the film industry, I believe that the MMOs of today are at the level of the Lumière brothers or possibly Charlie Chaplin. We have yet to see the equivalence of the sound movie or the colour movie, which will take the MMOs to a new level and make the present ones obsolete in comparison.

I don’t know what those inventions will look like. Being a Star Trek fan I can’t help fantasizing about holodeck characteristics. I dream about games where you’re absolutely immersed, transferred and locked out from the everyday world. I dream about endless possibilities, an abundance of scenarios. I dream about the day when we can use more senses than just our eyes and ears. I want to smell the virtual world, I want to taste the world, I want to feel the sensation of it to my skin (at least to some extent, tanking a monster might hurt a bit too much for my taste).

I want to explore strange new worlds. I want to encounter not only alien creatures, but real life human beings who I can love, hate and interact with. The presence of other players is the essence of what an MMO is about, what makes it different to a consol game. It what makes a visit to a theatre where anything can happen so much more interesting than watching a dvd on your own ever can be.

The need for creativity
Is there something in the line of my dreams in pipeline? Maybe. Who knows what’s going on in the most secret department of Blizzard, where their brightest brains are at work, forming the next generation of MMOs. I don’t expect them to deliver full scaled holodecks. But maybe they can come up with a tiny little step heading in the right direction?

Gaming companies need people who are efficient, professional and know how to make profit, that’s for sure. I agree with Tobold on this. But I think they also need some crazy visionaries, people who have the ability to think big, wild and daring thoughts, beyond the known boundaries. If all of them are rationalized away, we’ll end up with a number of MMO:s, each one a copy of WoW, no one adding anything essential new. And eventually it will be about as interesting as munching on a chewing gum that has lost its taste hours ago.

It’s up to the owners of Blizzard and other giants in the gaming industry to find a cure for the diminishing returns of the MMO experience. But it will require some investment. And the question is if the creative staff can find a way to make the economy accept the bill for it.

18 comments:

Flex said...

Diminishing returns seem to be a natural product of the player vs developer problem. I think they were even more obvious in the 40-man raiding days of early WoW.

The developers have restrictions on their ability to deliver new content; the scope of new areas, game rules, balance, lore, quality and testing all have to be accounted for if the overall product is to remain consistent. The amount of time taken to generate a single new quest (/zone/...) is therefore far longer than the time it takes to play that quest.

How do we then scale players' ability to complete new content? Aha... you guessed it, diminishing returns. In the old days, a 40 man raid instance with a 7 day non-extendable reset made the barrier for entry into the next level of content higher and allowed the developers time to generate the next patch (which then would scale down - nerf - old content to rebalance progression).

But this is just one extreme - something like Second Life, with its user-generated content is another. And works just as (or more) poorly.

So perhaps the game of the future - the one that offers a depth of gameplay far exceeding the current bundle of MMOs - is something in between. Or different altogether.

Or maybe it's real life?

Tesh said...

A good chunk of the posts on my blog are about making a better MMO, often from the ground up. I'm grossly underwhelmed with the existing crop and current trends. Wizard 101, Puzzle Pirates and DDO are good fun still, but yes, the genre needs to move forward.

I'm just tired of wishing, hoping and theorizing. Changes in the industry are SLOW. After all, there are still millions playing and paying for WoW every month. What impetus is there to change?

Elnia said...

"A cereal is a cereal, a fantasy MMO is a fantasy MMO."

I don't agree. WoW is different. But the big difference doesn't lie in the prograsmming, it lies in the community. Like no other game before it and maybe like no other game after it WoW has developed a very diverse and robust community. How many Warhammer blogs are there? How many UO blogs were there? What is different and unique about WoW is the community. I wonder if it can ever be replicated.

Azryu said...

I felt this was related-

I was reading the new post on The Twisted Nether Blogcast about who they are going to be interviewing this coming friday, and I went to their site and read quite an amazing post.

A part of this post felt like it should be shared here, its's about WoW, Aion, and MMO's in general:

------------------------
"Not much else to say here. Both games share a lot in common. They have great lore, stunning and memorable characters, and they create worlds of imagination in which we as players can sink into for hours. All the ingredients are there for an amazing game, now if only the children would give it a taste.

The one thing I find myself saying all the time to people when they ask me, “Rick, what’s Aion like?” is this:

“Remember in December of 2004 when you first installed the World of Warcraft and you felt like you were looking at the most beautiful and amazing game to date? Addictive and exciting and full of mysteries you were yearning to uncover? Zones yet to explore, epic weapons and armor and vicious monsters and evil that had to be faught? It’s like that all over again. Aion feels like WoW used to.”
------------------------

To see this post and everything else, his website is:

http://www.spooncraft.com

Larísa said...

@Flex: I know other bloggers have advocated it... was it Wolfshead perhaps? Anyway I think you need to use the players themselves much more for creating content.

I had never thought about the lockouts as a way to give the developers some space. But it makes sense.

@Tesh: millions, yeah, but those numbers are as many times pointed out heavily inflated. A great number of those "11 million! wow players are players in china, hardly paying anything and currently not even playing. I think the potential for mmo:s is far bigger than the current playerbase.

@Elnia: are you certain about that? I follow a few general MMO-blogs and sometimes I check out their blogrolls. They link to just as many LOTRO, War and Aion blogs as they link to WoW blogs. I also think that the communities attach to each other, there aren't any distinct bondaries.
Even though PPI is very WoW related I think it's still drifting towards being a general MMO-blog sort of. Like many other blogs do.

@Azryu: I quoted and commented on that blog post a month ago. Read my take on it here:

http://www.pinkpigtailinn.com/2009/08/why-i-hope-melting-iceberg-will-hold.html

Hirvox said...

I watched my brother play Aion, and while I appreciated the fluff like the alien landscapes, new fauna, detailed animations and so on.. he was still killing ten foozles, selling vendor trash and returning quests.

Personally, I'm looking forward to Guild Wars 2. I've never played Guild Wars before, so I get both the new game mechanics and the new setting. That strategy worked pretty well when I moved from WoW to Eve.

Zaph said...

I just made a post about a possible future of WoW (or maybe I was just day-dreaming out loud), Virtual Reality. Not quite holo-deck style, but maybe Lawnmower Man/Tron style. I believe the technology is there, just not a business model that corporates would buy into.

zetter said...

On a smaller scale we get this from some of member in the guild. They find the magic of WOW diminishing and nothing even new expansions really fills that as it is newer things but more of the same.This is especially prevelant from people who cant do end game stuff like raiding.

Nothing really catches you like that first time in an MMORPG you know nothing about the world and everything is shiny.

Even moving to the new MMORPG if its fantasy its been done before and a lot of games now pinch each others ideas as they have a proven track record so the newness and getting used to the new game is further diluted.

Zetter

http://zetters.blogspot.com/
tree related musings

P.S you look after our Tessy the Shammy over there you hear your getting a great person :).

Hatch said...

Unfortunately, Blizzard never creates a new genre or idea from whole cloth; instead they take the ideas of others and improve and polish them into the gleaming stars we love. Add on that Activision CEO Bobby Kotick says Hydra will appeal to a "broader audience" than WoW...

I think what we'll see is a super-accessible action-MMO tailored specifically to consoles. It'll combine ideas from games like God of War and GTA for the combat, and be set in a more "accessible" world, most likely a gun-filled near future version of our own world.

It will be cool, given Blizzard's track record. But they won't be the innovators.

My question is, will it take a leap in technology, or a leap in creativity to bring the genre into "color or talkies"? Does the idea already exist, but isn't fleshed out? Or is it something we can't imagine because the technology doesn't exist yet? Or is it just that no one's thought of it?

Elnia said...

@Larisa. Yes, I'm very sure. How many other games have a forum with five million registered members? None. Yes, there is hype around Aion. A lot of it paid hype. There is always the rush when something new comes out. But nothing has stayed around like WoW. I'm not saying that EQ2 and LOTRO don't have fans or a community. Even assuming the numbers are inflated an that WoW only has 5 million members in the West, that is still more than 5X what LOTRO has. Size does matter whether one are talking about Mt. Everest or MMOs.

I do think WoW is different. Sooner or later someone will come along an out do WoW but I'll belive that when I see it.

Tesh said...

Oh, I know those numbers are inflated, and that they don't represent more than a relatively narrow slice of potential game design. I've argued that myself before, and I don't disagree with it.

I'm just pointing out that many people are happy with the status quo, and more importantly, investors want a piece of Blizzard's pie rather than to try something risky and innovative. The harsh reality is that a typical "AAA" MMO is expensive to make, and needs a critical mass of players to recoup costs. That puts you squarely into competition with Blizzard, which is a losing proposition.

WAR and AoC have demonstrated that, while EVE trundles on in its own niche, doing verywellthankyou.

The little guys like King's Isle (Wizard 101) and Three Rings (Puzzle Pirates) have started small and build modestly, finding an underserved niche and servicing it. That's roughly the "blue ocean" strategy that made the Wii successful. These niches won't have lots of publicity or cutting edge blingy graphics, so they won't have tons of players, but they are out there.

In short, there already *are* different MMO designs out there. There have been for years. That WoW is still the most successful owes to a variety of factors, but key among them is inertia. It's hard to change the direction of the mainstream. There are plenty of MMO tributaries to explore out there, more all the time. Far too many just want to grow up to be Blizzard (and run into diminishing returns because the market is saturated with that type of game), but there are several who do their own thing, and are better for it.

Short story long, there *are* options out there, but as long as people keep sending $15/month to Blizzard and ignoring the other options, we'll keep seeing new games, driven by investors, trying to replicate WoW.

Tesh said...

...which is to say, as Wiqd and I have bandied about more than once, I think there is a lot of potential in the MMO genre, and many, many interesting things that can be done that have little or nothing to do with existing designs. There is not a lack of imagination out there. There is a lack of money and a lack of player interest. (Games are businesses, after all, and if nobody is buying, even the greatest design in the world will languish and die.)

A good suite of inexpensive middleware (like the Quake engine) would go a long way to increasing diversity, too. The Hero Engine might get there, but for now, it's still expensive and a bit rough around the edges.

akiosama said...

Larisa,

It's an interesting idea you bring up, about the diminishing returns of game design in general, and specifically MMO-gaming. Use, refinement, and reuse seems to be a norm within game design (and, to be honest, most production industries), and very rarely does something come along and shake things up at the foundations. Those things that do, generally, start something huge.

I believe what it comes down to is twofold - right now, imitation outweighs innovation - many of the new games coming out mimic many of the features that made WoW so successful, and while that is a good thing, it diminishes much of the 'innovative' feel of many new games, and that the community behind WoW is a juggernaut that has to be factored in, as this affects the accessibility of the game's content and ideas, and enhances much of the social aspect of the game.

While I'll leave the community aspect for a post on my blog - it's far too long to post here, even with your amazing patience, Larisa - the imitative factor seems to be a Catch-22 for the gaming community. People want to see something new, yes, otherwise why consider buying a new game and switching to it and starting over? People also want to see something familiar, so they're not necessarily having to learn how to do common actions all over again.

(How did the familiarity factor in with EQ - the classic - and WoW - the newcomer at the time to me? Two-button mouse movement. Games with this are rate far higher than games without, because I don't like to be forced to use a system that's less comfortable to me. Granted, now that I'm using a G13 with a thumbstick, maybe even this will change?)

The problem with familiarity however, is that it makes players compare with the original. When I play a new game, I find myself always asking "How does this feel compared to WoW?" I've tried a few of the newer games, LOTRO and WAR being the major ones, and while each had some positive new aspects going for it, neither felt as comfortable as WoW, nor were they innovative enough to make me want to try it long enough to get more comfortable.

And so you have it. The diminishing returns. It seems to stem from the fact that WoW has become the baseline by which many measure the game from - and the more people who see the game as imitation of WoW and not innovative enough, the more solid WoW's hold on the MMO community becomes. And the community is a major factor in the success of an MMO. Without the community, an MMO is a lackluster single-player or network game, rather than the Massive Multiplayer experience it's designed to be.

While I'm firmly entrenched within the WoW experience, currently, I do hope that a new game might come along to make me change my mind, for variety's sake. However, it will take quite a lot to keep me from going "Huh, this isn't that much different from WoW," and going back to my end-game ready characters, my guild friends, and my familiar setting. It's this familiar and communal experience that will be the hardest thing to combat, because a game cannot do that - it's up to the players to decide it's time for a change.

Thank you for yet another very thought-provoking topic, Larisa. =D

My 2 yen,

Akiosama

Tesh said...

Akiosama, you mention "end-game ready" characters. What if a new game offered "end-game" play right out of the box? No more grinding for months to get to the fun at the end.

I can't help but think that the "the game starts at the endgame" mentality is a big part of why new games are strangled in the crib. Players accustomed to the endgame mentality don't want to go through the leveling grind again.

Would skipping ahead short circuit that effect?

akiosama said...

Tesh,

I think that would be a possibility for adapting the game to be more endgame friendly - except I firmly believe that development of the character, from beginning to end, is a cornerstone of the MMO game genre. Especially within a game like WoW, where there are multiple ways for characters to bet tweaked (talents, abilities used, and gear) that the idea of what's properly end-game becomes a tad subjective as well.

Take, for example, the PTR. When I ran a couple characters on the PTR, I was endgame ready right out of the box. I had all the skills, could write up any talent spec I wanted to use already, and had epic gear and gems across the board.

What ended up happenening? I ran the character for a night or two, just to see what that class could do at Lv. 80, as my own character of that class is only in his 20s, and then went back to playing on the normal server.

Why is that? I think for me, there's a learning experience and a bit of an attachment created to building up a character rather than just being handed an 'uber-character' so to speak.

I agree that to many, "WoW starts at lv. 80." I've seen it, and I don't think it's the best way to do it - I personally get a little bit irritated with characters who are high level that don't know the basic functions of their characters.

(I've run with Lv. 80s that don't dismiss pets when jumping off ledges, a Lv. 60 priest who barely knew what PW:S was, and a Lv. 80 Druid healer that couldn't find a HoT at all - all products of boosting, level-granting, and/or playing simply by rote.)

I'll agree that the game "re-began" at level 80 for me, as well, but that's not to say that the first 79 (or in my case 24 - my 80 is a Death Knight) weren't important in learning how to play my character properly, it's just to me the difference is that the sub-80 levels are my classroom, and Lv. 80 and beyond is my 'real world'.

And I think you'd lose that if everyone started at 80. Getting to 80 is somewhat a rite of passage, although that rite is getting a bit easier. I do think that the game has more appeal if you have to earn your skills and perks, rather than being given them.

What I do wish for, sometimes, would be the ability to start a character at a level higher than 1 if you already have a character of that class at the level being chosen. You'd still have to earn much of the gear, and you'd still have to work to move forward, but at least you wouldn't start at the very bottom again with that character class. Most of the preliminary leveling is to learn the game system and the character class, and if I'm running an 80 Death Knight on Server A, going back (unless voluntarily - I've known people who prefer the leveling to the endgame) to Lv. 55 on Server B is kind of a yawner, past the interesting starter quests. I'm sure it's even worse for classes that start at Lv. 1.

But you're right, starting over - on a new server, new character, or new game can be frustrating for veteran players - I think that circumventing the level up process is a short term fix, though - I think those players would probably get more fed up trying to weed out all the true beginners from those who skipped leveling because they're MMO veterans. Making the content interesting during the leveling process - which is what WoW had over EQ - is much more the key to making the character building process more successful.

My 2 yen,

Akiosama

Tesh said...

Aye, that's what I'm leading into. Make the *whole* game interesting, not just putzing around in raids at the level cap. I'm all for a very narrow power band and interesting content for all playstyles and differing levels of challenge, never gated by level. If someone can jump in on day one and have a blast with veterans and contribute significantly, it would go a long way to making adoption of new games easier. If you have to work through a long leveling grind to get to the point where you can play and have fun, you're likely not going to bother.

(Yes, some people like me love the leveling content and couldn't care less about raiding, so I'm not talking about making your game "raid only", just to offer the "endgame" playstyle out of the box for those who want to focus there.)

I'm not convinced that you need a 500 hour learning curve. I picked up the Death Knight mechanics at a friend's place in a few minutes, and I've just played the WoW trial a few times. It's not rocket science. The overwhelming bulk of the "leveling game" isn't about learning, it's about repetition. (And makes no adjustments for different learning paces.)

Anonymous said...

I totally agree on the "diminishing returns" problem. In fact, I find this to be true in a lot of cases. For example I read a lot of books so I'm not easily content with just any storyline. I can abandon a book just because I didn't like the main character (even if the plot was interesting), or because I don't like the writing style.

It's like that with a lot of stuff, not just games, books, music or movies. It can be a bore to try to find something that suits you, but when you do the experience becomes that much more rewarding. On the other hand though, the world have never been so big before... now you can write a book and get published even if you suck at writing or have uninteresting ideas. Take Myspace for example. How many millions upon millions of "artists" are there? And 99% of those probably won't appeal to you, whether you think they're shit or that they just don't evoke emotions in you. You have to filter all that out to find something you think is good and sometimes you think "hell, this isn't awesome but it's good at least" even if you've killed Yogg-Saron/Anub'arak a thousand times already.

It's sad but revolutionary stuff doesn't appear every decade. But then again, maybe the problem lies more in overconsumption than in the creativity of our peers... "There's a very high price to pay when you try to overindulge."

Larísa said...

@Hirvox:Well: Yeah, Aion seems to be pretty much the same. I'm a little bit curious about what Star Trek will bring to us, but considering how similar the MMOs seem to be, I don't expect too much of a revolution.

@Zaph: I DO believe amazing stuff is awaiting us. Maybe not exactly as we imagined. But incredible enough. Just think about how I used to be fascinated by the communication devices in Star Trek... long long before anyone had a cell phone... Little did I know.

@Zetter: I'm doing what I can to make Tessy feel at home with us. Looking forward to see what impressions she has, I guess it will come up at the blog at some point.
And about the first impression: indeed it's special. The sad thing is that you can't quite understand how special it is when you're into it. You realize it afterwards though.

@Hatch: no, I guess you're right. Blizzard won't break the ground, just polish it and bring it to the masses. Does the leap in technology already exist? Hard to tell from a not-so-educated perspective, but I wouldn't be surprised if it isn't already there. The ground research is done, it needs to be put into an application. My guess.

@Tesh: oh, now I get it. Yeah. I agree. The diminishing returns is probably connected to the WoW phenomena and the eagerness to copy it. Not much of incentives for innovations.

@ Akiosama: your two cents are golden ones as always. I won't comment on your comments this time, but they were great read and added a lot to this post. Thank you so much for all the effort you put into it. It's really appreciated!

@Anonymous: yeah, diminishing returns isn't just a phenomena of MMO-gaming when I think about it. It's there with everything else too. Maybe it says something about the consuming oriented era we're living in. Do things as quick as possible and then head for the next kick... and the next and the next, while every kick seems to last shorter and shorter.