Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Imitation Rut

[This is a partner post to Psychochild's post "The Innovation Paradox".]

Today on “things you already know if you’re paying any attention to the MMO scene and this blog”: the MMO scene is in an imitation rut. So few MMOs have done anything profoundly different; they rehash others to a significant extent and often fail in the rehashing. The patterns have been set since Ultima Online and Everquest, modern games just have better graphics and rearranged deckchairs. There has been very little change in kind, and large changes in magnitude: WoW multiplied quests, games like Darkfall and Spellborne reshuffled combat, Aion amplified graphics, Fallen Earth and Vanguard expanded crafting, Guild Wars pushed instancing, WAR cranked up themepark PvP. But where have we gotten? Recent MMOs weaved a few innovations into the fold, but in general the framework is exactly the same. Progress has been glacial.

I feel like MMOs are in the early stages of development as an art. We may soon start seeing masters rise in MMO design. Until then, we might need to satisfy ourselves with imitation and come to live with frequent failure.

Here’s a roadmap of an individual’s journey from interested spectator to master:

  1. Be aware of it. You play games and have opinions.
  2. Criticize existing works. You understand enough about how games work to form and express a valuable opinion about any game you play much.
  3. If you can start practicing the art—you start making things. You imitate stuff that you think has worked well with the deluded impression that you can improve it easily. Here you don’t really know much about how the art works, but you think you do because you’re too incompetent to understand your poor judgment. (Incompetent people vastly overestimate their abilities; see Think Twice by Michael J. Mauboussin among others.)
  4. You understand enough about the art to realize that you’re making crap, but you keep going. (See Ira Glass on storytelling.)
  5. Through understanding and using various techniques, you become an expert. You know many things and make complicated systems to exhibit this knowledge. (See Zed Shaw.)
  6. You become a master. Your understanding becomes so ingrained into who you are that you basically have no technique. You intuitively do whatever is necessary to accomplish your goal in the simplest, most efficient fashion.

The MMO space has collectively not moved past step 3. It appears very few individuals have touched 4 and 5.


  • MMOs are so big and complex that sizable teams are required to design them. These teams are pulled down by the majority of designers, the designers who don’t have much experience due to the relative youth of the industry and wouldn’t be capable of great success even if they had more experience.
  • MMOs are difficult games to design. Most of the problems you’ll face while designing an MMO have no simple answer.
  • No one can hold an MMO’s entire design in their head. There are so many moving parts, so many rules, so many little details. Even a vague notion of the layout of the design takes quite some time to understand. So perhaps the complexity forces the institutional learning process to a crawl.
  • The institution is closed. There’s not a lot of information publicly available that interested parties can consume in order to become initiated in the dark arts of game design. The institution wants to keep its secrets as they are, safely stashed away where no one but the chosen few can profit from them. We’ve started to see this falter, but it’s a slow process.
  • The social side of MMO design is less well-understood than the mechanical side. And we so often see games fail in the mechanics—the side they do understand. The interaction of the social and mechanical is not apparent or understood by enough designers, either.
  • The industry is young. It takes approximately ten years to become a master of an art. The MMO industry is not much more than 10 years old. Perhaps some of the old text MUD guys have had the time to become masters, but have they been practicing design enough to get there?

Where’s the change going to come from? It’s hard to get excited and make things when the business model is broken and the games are too damned big to make well without an institution behind you. Eventually, masters will rise, the floodgates of communication will come open, and game design will advance exponentially. Until then, we wait and eat the gruel we’re given—some of us will be satisfied, while some, like me, will be waiting eagerly.


Tesh said...

Add to the list the lack of good middleware and cheap MMO design solutions. If WoW's engine were cheaply licensed, or even open source, it would be a very different market.

One step down a further tangent, if Blender were easy to use, not the UI nightmare that it is, you'd see more people tinkering with 3D. As it is, low level 3D self-education is with programs like Bryce, which really doesn't come close to Maya or Max.

Of course, that's assuming that MMOs have to use 3D assets, which isn't necessarily a given.

Logan said...

Tesh makes a good point...

i had hoped with software like Hero Engine and Big World, that we'd see more games branching out and trying new things. it seems from what I've read about these 2 pieces of software, (Hero Engine especially since it has a lot more info about it available) that they have all the basics already built-in. so it would seem like the basic necessities would be easy to come by, which would allow developers more time and resources to really try and innovate and bring new things to the table.

without software like this, a company has to build a proprietary engine and redo all the basics themselves, which leaves a lot less time and resources available to innovate.

just check out Hero Engine's website... ... assuming it works as well as they say it does, why on earth would devs NOT use it? programs like this allow devs to get right to the fun and innovative stuff without having to first re-do all the basics, which is basically just copied from other MMOs... hence new devs must imitate before they can move on to innovation, and my guess is the time, money, and patience has run very low by the time they're done imitating, which leaves very little room for innovation.

i firmly believe programs like this play a HUGE role in the issue.

Brian 'Psychochild' Green said...

I got distracted complaining about poor game journalism. My innovation article will come later.

First of all, I've never bought the whole, "the industry is young" argument. We can stop and study and learn. I think the bigger issue is developer ego. It's very common for people to think that they have the secret that catapult them over everyone else. For example, 3DO thought that by making their own IPs (like Army Men), they could crank out games and keep fans of the IP interested. In essence, they thought that if you like Army Men, then you'll by just about any crap with Army Men plastered on the box. They forgot that it takes making good games to keep people interested.

But, everyone has their own killer idea, and the game industry is paralyzed with artificial secrecy. Nobody wants to talk to anyone else, and everyone has their own cool idea they'd rather make than work with someone else. Ego gets in the way of a lot of progress, I think.

Tesh wrote:
lack of good middleware

I disagree. It's been a long-standing goal to create a generic engine and use it to create multiple games. Even Meridian 59 was originally created to do this.

The problem is that your game is going to want something to set it apart. Even people who license graphics engines spend a lot of time changing and customizing it. I was talking to an acquaintance of mine recently who talked about working at a company where they had the same basic engine running different games. He commented that sometimes fixing "bugs" in the engine found in one game caused really wacky changes in another.

Middleware doesn't allow novices to make masterpieces, it gives a starting point for an experienced developer. Middleware is a "one size fits all" solution in an industry we want more innovation in. Similarly, there is no "make art" button in an art program, and there's not going to be a "make awesome MMO" button in a middleware solution, either.

Logan wrote:
assuming it works as well as they say it does, why on earth would devs NOT use it?

I worked on a project that was going to take a RTS-like economic game and turn it into an MMO. Because it had RTS-like controls, we didn't have a central avatar to control. We looked at the HERO Engine as a possible technology to license. When we asked if we could do the type of game we were designing, there were looks back and forth and the people demonstrating the game admitted that they didn't know. (It either did at the time or they added that ability later, I found out.)

Technology makes a lot of assumptions about how a game is going to work in order to work its optimizations. If you violate these assumptions, things don't work so well. If you want innovation, the last thing you want is middleware dictating that a game has to be a certain way.

To use an ever-popular car analogy, middleware is like a Hummer. Sure it can drive you to work, hold a lot of groceries, and let you go off-roading on the weekends, but if all you want is to cruise the back roads and feel the wind on your face, then perhaps you might prefer a motorcycle instead?

It can be a lot cheaper to operate, too. ;)

Logan said...

i don't have any personal experience with Hero Engine, but from what i've read, they seem to say that the whole package is easily customizable and modular. so you can use what you need, get rid of what you don't, and integrate your own unique features where applicable.

i realize it's probably not that simple, but at least it's a step in the right direction.

"Middleware is a "one size fits all" solution in an industry we want more innovation in. Similarly, there is no "make art" button in an art program, and there's not going to be a "make awesome MMO" button in a middleware solution, either."

you're absolutely right about what middleware is... but i would disagree and say that good middleware actually HELPS innovation. by giving developers a head start, or a spring board if you will, it allows developers more time and resources to think about how they are going to innovate and set their game apart, they don't have to worry about the little mundane stuff like Inventory, basic UI elements, chat systems, etc:... just look at all the common things that players EXPECT in MMOs today (things that everyone takes for granted but without them a game would fall apart)... now imagine if all that stuff was already basically done for you, or at least that stuff is now much much easier to create.... now the devs have time to concentrate on the really important stuff, the innovative and interesting new things that they can bring to the genre.

just look at any other industry.. lets say furniture for example... today there is a ton of innovation in the furniture market... but what if before you could design a chair, you had to first design the screws that would hold it together, then you have to come up with a process to bend the metal or form the wood used in the structure of the chair, then you have to create a process that allows you to sew fabric to the chair and all the little bits and bobs that entails.... by the time you finish all the mundane things and get around to actually designing the chair, you're out of time, resources, and motivation to actually make anything innovative.

this is basically the way MMOs have been made for the past 10 years... and without solid middleware (think screws, sewing machine, etc:...) then the innovation is going to continue to come very slowly.

there is no lack of innovative ideas, there is a lack of time and resources to bring those ideas to fruition. good middleware can play in important role in providing the time and resources necessary to make innovative games.

evizaer said...

Why does this have to devolve into a middleware discussion? Seems like each time I talk about why it's hard to innovate someone whips out middleware and waves it around like one of those inflatable tube-things they give everyone at basketball games.

Middleware is like laying a foundation for your house before you architect the thing. You're stuck with the boundaries already laid out if you don't want to spend an inordinate amount of time altering the core. If you really want something interesting, you're going to have to spend so much time altering the engine that you'll forget while you chose middleware in the first place.

Actually, none of us know enough about current middleware to have a real discussion about this.

And if it is so great, why don't we plenty of games around that use it and wow us?

Tesh said...

Brian, I'm well aware that there's no "make art" button. I *am* an artist, after all. That's why I mention Bryce and Maya. If Blender were as usable as Maya or Max, but at its cheaper pricepoint, it wouldn't be the Solution To Everything, but it would mean more people could get in there and start experimenting. The barrier to entry wouldn't be startup funds, it would be talent and capability (which may be developed en route, even).

There's no magic "Make MMO" button, but if you reduce the cost to try to make one, you would get more people figuring out the technique and the nuts and bolts of design on a live model, rather than theoretical armchair design, or waiting for a lottery win before they can even start.

Sure, there will always be engine changes for different projects. We are always updating our engine. Even so, it's perfectly possible to take a bare bones engine and make something good out with it. It may be trite to point out RPGMaker, since so many people put together tripe with it, but it really is possible to make a good game with the tools out of the box. It's just that it requires work and talent, not an expensive program.

Looking at it a different way, throwing hundreds of millions at an MMO studio isn't guaranteed to produce anything good, either. Bigger, shinier and blingier, maybe, but not solid game design.

Bottom line, my point is that cheap tools make for a more meritocratic environment. Sure, that also means we get more crap *coughiPhonegamescough*, but it also means more experimentation and a better evolution pace are possible.

It does mean more niche products, and modest expectations. As long as the industry is always swinging for the fences, relying on venture capitalist vultures or big publisher largesse, we're going to be stuck in the imitation rut. It's simple economics.

We've seen some games like Fallen Earth and Darkfall experiment lately, and Three Rings has done great things with Puzzle Pirates for years. They are smaller projects; no DirextX10, no voice acting, more esoteric design, modest scale and profits. I'm just extending the logic further down the food chain to open the doors even more, to see what comes out.

Tesh said...

evizaer, perhaps we don't see these projects that wow us because we're not looking for them. The market seems to want the rut, and if we just follow the big players, well, we're in the rut, too, pontificating about the outside world without looking around. Maybe it's time to see how Gatheryn is doing. Or Love, perhaps.

Beside that, is a discussion of middleware really a devolution? You postulate that the industry is closed and these games are so big that they can't innovate. Middleware eases both of those concerns. If people don't have the tools to experiment with, what hope is there of experimentation?

Tangentially, the "indie" scene is big in the industry at large right now. Why not in MMOs? The barrier to entry is simply higher, and until that changes, the rut will still have inordinate sway over what designs hit the market.

evizaer said...

Love is definitely the kind of game I'm looking for. The industry would never make Love. You need one guy with a real handle on his art to do something like Love and make it work. You need brilliance and vision untempered by vicious costcutting and impossible deadlines. Not EVERYONE should or has the capacity to operate that way, though.

I think the it's more important and beneficial to understand and counter the assumptions behind the current MMO paradigm (basically themepark PvE, most often open-world). Through middleware, you can make games faster with the old assumptions that were so damaging to begin with. The middleware just streamlines the implementation of the old assumptions, because otherwise it would just be a 3D engine and some very generic server software at the very most, two tools you could get easily get elsewhere.

Logan said...

i dunno about you Eviz, but i'd definitely rather have a solid foundation to build my house on than try to lay the foundation on my own.

almost all innovation comes from building on already established principles (just try and think of something that was TRULY original and didn't just build on something else... it's tough)... just like in your house example, do architects mess around and try and reinvent how the foundation for a house is laid? hell no! they don't want to mess with that boring stuff that nobody notices, they want to get to the creative stuff as quick as possible! they take that foundation and put something interesting and innovative on top of it... why would they want to waste time laying a foundation when it's already been mostly perfected, and nobody really notices it's exactly the same with game designers and middleware.

thanks for the example, it works much better than my earlier attempt to use chair design.

evizaer said...

The point isn't that I would re-conceive the idea of a foundation--doing that in a game would probably mean giving up on existing media like computers, boards, cards, etc. and making games that involve the use of a tuning fork and an aged sheep.

I was talking about modifying the foundation as it was laid. To add extra space on the first floor or in the basement would cause me to mess with a bit of the work done by the guy who laid the foundation. I would have to then learn about putting a foundation together and then do it myself, which ruins a portion of the time-savings.

The innovation I'd like to see involves messing with the foundations that middleware would lay if it were useful.

Brian 'Psychochild' Green said...

Tesh wrote:
I *am* an artist, after all.

That would probably be why I picked a art-related example. I like the "'make art' button" example because that's what digital artists say to traditional artists who look down on digital art; my GF is into fantasy art so she's seen a lot of such arguments.

if you reduce the cost to try to make one

There are plenty of ways to make a game for cheap if you want. People have made simple little games all the time. Making a text MUD is hardly rocket science. I think most people who claim to be interested in experimentation are secretly more interested in making something that looks like a more standard MMORPG. But, I got my start in text games when it was the only option, and I was able to test out some of my ideas just fine.

I still don't agree with your argument, though. I see middleware as similar to paint by numbers. It starts you out in a specific direction and limits your options if you want to go with it. Sure, maybe I can learn about color composition and paint mixing while I paint in the lines. I don't even have to paint the colors the kit says I do. But, I'm not going to create the next masterpiece hung in the Louvre with a paint-by-numbers kit.

Bottom line, my point is that cheap tools make for a more meritocratic environment.

Again, it sounds nice but it hasn't worked out that way in reality. The two platforms you mentioned, RPGMaker and iPhone, haven't exactly set the world on fire. Yeah, sure, maybe we have some people making games that wouldn't otherwise, but it hasn't redefined how we look at games (or specifically RPGs). Some might argue that the ton of crap we've seen from these platforms has obscured some of the true gems. I'd like to see the audience take more steps to help find the diamonds in the rough, instead of just focusing on popularity like in the iPhone App Store.

As long as the industry is always swinging for the fences, relying on venture capitalist vultures or big publisher largesse, we're going to be stuck in the imitation rut.

That's more a topic for my post. :) Coming soon! I promise!

Honestly? I'd love for you to be right, Tesh. I just don't see it as being possible, even if we have awesome middleware.

Tesh said...

I'd like to see the audience take more steps to help find the diamonds in the rough, instead of just focusing on popularity like in the iPhone App Store.

So perhaps the problem is still with the audience. Is innovation economically viable? If not, what impetus is there to indulge in innovating?

Garumoo said...

There's a time and place for everything, including middleware.

Anyone at stage 3 (above) would benefit greatly from middleware. And if there were more working with a common tool set then both the problems of "The institution is closed" and "The social side of MMO design is less well-understood than the mechanical side" would be well addressed.

Middleware isn't so useful for anyone at stage 5 and 6 .. but those are few.