A frequent point of debate on TWIMMO is my opinions regarding certain kinds of games. I’ve played mostly themepark, PvE-focused games not because I think they’re necessarily the best kind of MMOs out there but because they’re generally the most refined, most fitting types of experiences that the current slate of MMOs offer.
I think that an issue many new MMOs have is that they come up with one or two, possibly new and interesting concepts, and, rather than building a game around those ideas, they try to take the standard MMO framework and apply those concepts to it – and then are surprised when it doesn’t work perfectly. This is a little related to my notion that different types of games – MMOs vs. single-player RPGs vs. pen-and-paper RPGs – aren’t one in the same and shouldn’t be treated as such, but more related to entries within one genre.
Wherein I start getting Hyundai spam in the comments
Here’s the analogy I like to use: I drive a Hyundai Elantra. It’s not new (far from it), but even if it was, you wouldn’t say to me that you could fix it up, change a little bit here, a little bit there, and then enter and win the Indy 500. Yes, it’s a car, yes, it has four wheels and an engine, just like an Indy car, but there’s no amount of tweaking or modifying you could do to “fit” it into an Indy race and expect to do well.
Rift was the most obvious recent entry into this “just tweak a little and hope it’s enough” club. It’s basically WoW with dynamic events (and a different skill/class system, but that’s not quite relevant to this discussion). The problem is that by splitting the focus of content between the rifts and the themepark/dungeon/leveling grinding, people are more likely to stick with what they know – that being the latter – than to try and really branch out and try the new thing. The dynamic events don’t feel all that interesting – at least they didn’t to me after my first month or so – because they just felt tacked on and virtually unnecessary to the rest of the game.
In other words, they felt like just fitting a spoiler onto my Elantra and declaring it ready for the Indy 500.
Guild Wars 2 took the dynamic event concept one step further, and continues to refine it, but it’s still lashed to a themepark-ish feel, with regularly spaced hearts and other map points to tag and dungeons. Some days I feel like I ignore and run past more DEs than I actually complete, because I’m on my way to some other objective.
I know why this is done, of course, and a talk I heard with some GW2 devs before the game came out, essentially confirms it: People expect MMOs to be a certain way, and if they do something different, it can be a huge barrier to entry. That’s why most MMO makers are extremely hesitant to offer a base game that’s any different from the usual, instead opting to just make a couple of tweaks to the formula and hope it feels different enough – while also feeling the same.
But I think the industry is getting closer to figuring out that this approach is on its last legs, that people are getting tired of essentially playing the same game with a new skin, and that something truly different is needed. We’re seeing it with recent games, like Guild Wars 2, and upcoming games, like EverQuest Next, and if someone can get that “new formula” just right, it could be huge.
Rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic
So why do I still play themeparks? Why don’t I play more sandbox games, games with open-world PvP, corpse-looting, permadeath, and the like? It’s not because I’m a wuss or a carebear or I just plain don’t like PvP. It’s because too many of those kind of games have taken a standard MMO framework – they’re not necessarily WoW clones, but many have leveling, dungeons, and all the usual elements – and simply grafted on one of the above-named elements to make it more “hardcore.” And I firmly feel that that approach simply doesn’t work for most people.
As a counter to that, an example of something that does work, in my opinion, let’s look at DayZ – not exactly an MMO, but close enough – which my TWIMMO companions were surprised to hear I liked (or at least like watching and would like to play if the friggin’ standalone would ever come out). That has full open PvP, permadeath and corpse-looting – “but Jason hates all those!” Right?
Here’s what DayZ doesn’t have: leveling and a gear grind. When you die in DayZ, you’ve lost, at most, a couple hours of “progress,” and maybe just a few minutes. You didn’t spend a month leveling your character and another two months getting all the best loot – not to mention, if you’re like me, the half an hour or so you spent in the character creator. If you did, and then died and lost it all, you would, more than likely, quit the game, rather than start from scratch again.
A lot of people seem to think that current MMOs lack that kind of punishing content, real consequences for death, and so on. I wouldn’t entirely disagree, but I also think you can’t simply expect to be able to graft those sorts of things onto existing games and have it work. You can’t just say, “If WoW had Hardcore Element X, it would be great and all the carebears would have to suck it up!” More likely, they would all pack it up, along with many of the self-professed hardcore players who don’t have time for all that, and the game would go out of business within a year.
If you want to run the Indy 500, you don’t soup up an Elantra. You build a completely new car, from scratch. Yes, there are a few basic automotive tenets to still hold to, but in the end, you wind up with two completely different cars. Nobody would mistake one for the other.
The Next hope
Where does that leave us for the future? EverQuest Next is certainly an interesting title, as SOE seems to have a pretty good feel for this concept and appears to be doing just that: building the game from the ground up. They’re obviously not just WoW-cloning it, and not asking an Elantra to do an Indy car’s job. From character progression to content to crafting, and probably more we don’t know about, they look to be on the right track, theoretically, to produce an actual groundbreaking game.
Naturally, there are debates about how “hardcore” EQN should be, and SOE fuels some of that with their surveys, and it’s something we debate on TWIMMO from time to time, like the one time we talked about how you might be able to smash another person’s structure to acquire building materials for your own. I don’t think a completely unlimited, free-for-all environment like this is a good idea, because if you spend hours on a building just to have someone come along and destroy it, why would you ever spend that time building another one? Or why would you go to the trouble of mining materials when you can just steal them from another player? It completely subverts two of what I perceive to be the core elements of the game – gathering and building – and makes them extremely unattractive, all just to support the notion of catering to “hardcore” gameplay.
Now, if there’s some way to “save” your building so that you can rebuild it fairly quickly, even with some cost or penalty, then that’s another approach SOE could take, but that runs counter to the vocal “hardcore” crowd. There’s probably a balance SOE can hit, but it will never satisfy some people.
And that brings me to my final point: It’s not always the fault of the developer. Far too many people think the only way to play an MMO is through a hard trinity-based, don’t-stand-in-the-fire, point-to-point, level to max at top speed, dungeon, raid, rinse and repeat cycle. Guild Wars 2 suffered from that mentality, The Secret World suffered from it, and EverQuest Next might also. I guarantee, abso-fucking-lutely guarantee, that within a month of EQN coming out, no matter how good it is, half the Internet will be screaming about what an abject failure it is because it doesn’t play exactly like WoW, especially if “there’s nothing to do at max level.” The other half will be loving it for that exact same reason.
It’s not just who makes the car, but who drives it. You wouldn’t drive an Elantra like you drive an Indy car, so maybe people would be happier if they didn’t try to play every MMO like they play World of Warcraft.