[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:
- Be aware of it. You play games and have opinions.
- Criticize existing works. You understand enough about how games work to form and express a valuable opinion about any game you play much.
- 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.)
- You understand enough about the art to realize that you’re making crap, but you keep going. (See Ira Glass on storytelling.)
- 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.)
- 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.