MMO evolution is in a stage of elaboration. The game mechanics in RPGs have reached a stage of development where we generally know what works, though the specific applications of single-player and tabletop RPG mechancs to the MMO vein are still a work in progress. Elaboration shows in the fact that each successful game offers players more to do than the last. The standard activities in MMOs are each being built with increasing intricacy. This intricacy is aimed at producing the highest probability of the players having fun and getting what they want. Camping mobs was supplanted by quests, static quests were gradually replaced by instances and, perhaps, will later be replaced by Guild Wars 2’s “Events” system.
Elaboration is a process that relies on familiarity, because without a simpler form from which to build, creation results. A raw creation is an unproven attempt which has a significant chance of outright failure because the outcomes of implementing a creation are significantly less predictable than the outcomes of implementing an idea that has been tested and elaborated upon for several generations of games.
Think of the evolution of certain apes several millions of years ago. Did the evolutionary process yield survivable, successful creatures by flailing about and coming up with radical new ways to solve problems that were already somewhat solved? You can clearly see the similarities between chimpanzees and gorillas, the differences between the species aren’t vast swaths of new features on a similar basic vertebrate structure, the differences are elaborative changes that built on past partial successes and honed the features of the individual apes for survival in specific environments.
There are two ways to utilize familiarity to effectively elaborate game mechanics:
- Use unfamiliar methods to achieve familiar goals.
- Achieve unfamiliar goals by using familiar methods.
There are two other permutations of goal and method familiarity that I did not list above. Neither of them afford a designer noticeable advantages in a scenario where elaboration is the guiding evolutionary pattern. Using familiar methods to achieve familiar goals is better described as “cloning” a preceding game. Using unfamiliar methods to achieve unfamiliar goals is almost assuredly creation and not elaboration.
The goals in MMOs are quite standardized. The metaphor is of living in another world as a being with extraordinary abilities. This means that the goals players will have, in their most abstract forms, will be very similar between games. The game designer exercises their abilities in designing the necessary sub-goals that can lead to the achievement of abstract, standard goals.
The methods of achieving goals in MMORPGs are the game mechanics that the designers implement to mediate the interaction of the player characters with the game world. The tools designers to interact with the game world are very limited in the popular style of MMORPG, so elaboration can easily lead to gameplay that is significantly more fun. We’ve seen MMOs get more fun over the past ten years, and that trend should continue. Designers need to mind the gap between cloning and elaboration.
After getting through all this abstract talk of elaboration, the question becomes what exactly is familiar to players.
What cases can you think of where good familiarity factors have aided elaboration to create great mechanics? World of Warcraft is the first to pop to my mind—that explains its wild success. What about the rest of the market, though: which games do you think elaborate and which simply clone?
I’d love to hear cases where unfamiliar goals combined with unfamiliar methods have led to success, as well.