Tuesday, October 6, 2009

A Path to the MMO Revolution

Bloggers prattle on about mainstream, big money, big staff, mass-market MMOs. Only there is the stagnation so brutal and the gameplay so monotonous, yet the money is so huge.

But MMOs will not be redefined in this grand marketplace of titans. MMOs will be reiterated—progress has slowed. Now it is no more than a telephone game between big development houses. What developers misinterpret from WoW will guide the changes in the AAA MMO industry, not the visions of luminaries.

When there is (at least the perception of) big money available but a large and risky initial investment is required, market participants will aim to minimize all other risks. World of Warcraft has shown the market the revenue potential of MMOs, but, in the process, it has kicked risk-aversion into a high gear. Investors see WoW’s success and think that only WoW can be so successful, so they should reiterate WoW to capture equivalent numbers. The more deviation from the WoW formula, the more risk. This has slowed MMO evolution to a crawl. WoW is so big, so polished, and so old that other MMOs who aim to duplicate WoW’s success in a high-investment, high-risk environment will inevitably fail.

If you think it’s feasible to compete directly against a game that has 300,000 man-hours  invested (high quality man-hours by some of the best MMO designers and programmers in the industry) and has already captured the market, I have a bridge in Alaska to sell you. It ends abruptly in the Behring Strait. Maybe you’ll be on Deadliest Catch.

How can new devs combat the million-ton behemoth? By being more agile and keeping their eyes open. It also helps to stay as far away from the towering King-Kong-standing-on-King-Kong-in-a-Hitler-disguise as possible.

Agility means being small and quick. Through limiting the scope of projects, experimentation can take root. Developers can rapidly iterate on projects with small scopes, trying new features and honing old ones in the fraction of the time required by a towering monolithic AAA title. Project complexity rises exponentially with respect to the number of modules that must interact. Keep the number of modules small and you can make fairly radical changes without worry about the entire game turning into a flaming pile of debris. This small-and-sharp model for project design can be applied to each module in a game as well. When developers recognize the functional boundaries key modules, they can manage the complexity of module interoperation more efficiently.

Keeping your eyes open ensures that you don’t fall into the traps into which your predecessors tumbled headlong. Communicate with your community. Don’t promise what you can’t deliver. If you find you’re promising something you can’t deliver, let people know. Keep everyone informed and keep them excited. Pay attention to the design of other MMOs. Play other people’s games—and, more importantly, play your own game. Don’t add features that aren’t important. Make sure you’ve got one guy who has wrapped his head around the design trajectory of the game and the goals of the design. Make sure you’ve got someone who has their head fully wrapped around the lore. Make sure you’ve got a programmer that understands the architecture of the modules inside-and-out and can direct the general construction of the game. Etcetera.

Staying away from the Space King Kong Nazi Ape means do not try to directly compete with WoW. Find new mechanics and perfect them. Make a different game. Don’t be afraid to genre-bend, but don’t let genre-related marketing drive design. Don’t make a game that is a reflection of a game already considered fun; Make a fun game.

The games that act on the prerogatives set forward in this post will comprise the MMO revolution. The generation of MMOs that starts the revolution will be smaller games than we’re used to in the MMO field. They will be released early and patched often. They will evolve into fun games elaboratively. There will be no Great Leap Forward, but instead a series of rapid, modest steps. It’s easier to walk up a mountain than it is to leap to the top of it.


Foge said...

I would add one thing. Polish. Some of the biggest duds over the last couple of years failed because the games were only half done. Age of Conan had such potential, given that I absolutely love the IP. But, the game was really a big turd. Once you got outside of Tortage, and even some places inside, you could tell that everything was slapped together.

I think that Aion has done a great job. It is a lot of fun, even if it is a WoW clone. The biggest factor, though, is that the game feels really solid. The controls work. The graphics are fantastic. I have yet to crash, or have serious glitches, or anything like that. The crafting system is very solid (unlike WAR, which was complete crap). I feel like I'm playing a polished game, not a beta.

BTW, I agree that the world doesn't need more WoW clones. I would love to see a game with some of the features that you've discussed. I really do think that a company can make a profit with a game like that. It might not be Blizzard money, but if its enough to be sustainable that would be a big, big win.

Tesh said...

I think that cheap, effective middleware will be a key in the revolution. MMOs are expensive, labyrinthe beasties to cobble together. They are almost entirely out of the reach of a small, agile dev studio.

motstandet said...

Tesh said...
They are almost entirely out of the reach of a small, agile dev studio.

That is assuming the studio is the main source of content.

Tesh said...

Very, very true. In a more dynamic world where players generate the content, either directly or as seeds in a procedural process, things change considerably. :)