The MMO market today is one of iteration, often at the cost of innovation. There are those who argue that MMO developers are at fault for attempting to replicate systems and mechanics that have been popularised by other titles in the field; it’s certainly true that developers and designers often choose to follow the well-trodden path set out by others, but is that because they lack imagination, or could gamers be responsible – almost entirely – for the current stagnant state of the genre as a whole?
Aside from a few novel and niche titles that often launch into obscurity, the MMO genre is one rife with homogenisation. Each new title that comes to the fore has pandered to the same tired and generic formula that has been in play since EverQuest’s release over a decade ago. World of Warcraft has set the standard for that formula for the last 8 years, and there are few signs that its dominance is going to wane any time soon. If we look back and really scrutinise MMO titles of the past decade, we can see that there have been few willing to take any steps away from the mantra Blizzard has enforced over the genre. Even with their slight alterations and superfluous additions to the status quo, titles like Lord of the Rings Online, Age of Conan, Warhammer Online and Star Wars The Old Republic are guilty of sticking tooth and nail to the road set out before them by SOE and Blizzard. It’s worth noting that they’ve all suffered for it; 3 out of 4 of those titles are now F2P, and Warhammer Online is all but dead in the water. Even Guild Wars 2 – with its “we’re really different” sales pitch – represented a step away from the genre busting, mould breaking ambitions of Guild Wars, in favour of a more homogenised “World of Warcraft” affair.
You would have thought that with every subsequent failure, the next game in the queue would learn some lessons. Sadly that’s not the case, and often titles find themselves failing under the same terms that beleaguered their predecessors. “No dungeon finder?” is an oft chanted criticism of new titles, closely followed by, “there’s no content at end game.” These assumed faults and missteps are attributed to tired development teams, put down to a lack of time, or are covered by a myriad of other excuses and charges; I think there’s more to it than that. Gamers are quick to blame the development teams for the failures of their games, often accusing developers and designers of insulating themselves from the comments and criticisms that their fans have to offer; again, I think there’s more to it than that.
Gamers demand many things from MMO developers, transparency being chief amongst them. We want to be included at every level of development, from the conceptual phase right through to launch day. More importantly, we want our words and our opinions to have an impact on the direction these games take. When Star Wars The Old Republic first appeared in the wild in 2008 (yes, it was that long ago) it was laboured by a moderation team that refused to facilitate key aspects of the community surrounding the game, not least the discussion of the direction the MMO would be taking. Eventually, under an unquantifiable weight of community pressure, they relented, and the official forums were subsequently filled with pages and pages of criticisms, comments, wish lists and demands. For every demand, there was a gamer (or a hundred) who thought they knew best. It shouldn’t surprise us then that former Bioware developers have gone on to say that the noise generated by the community actually made them feel bad about the game they were making.
Whether or not Star Wars The Old Republic is a bad game, it should be clear to any MMO aficionado that MMO communities have a huge role to play in the development of the games they champion. In turn, they place huge burdens on the people hard at work designing and developing those MMOs; these teams are expected to have particular types of content and systems in place simply because the community demands it.
You don’t really get that sort of behaviour, or interaction, in any other area of the gaming market. Whilst developers will often engage fan sites and communities on a marketing level, it is less common for developers to include the community in the actual conception and development of their games. Take The Elder Scrolls, for example: Bethesda certainly play ball with the myriad of fan sites gathered around their colossal RPG franchise, but they definitely didn’t include them (to any major degree) in the conception and development of Oblivion or Skyrim. Whilst Bethesda will work with mod developers (in a very “hands off” way, having experienced this myself), and often take the good ideas presented in modifications for their own downloadable content, they don’t entertain or involve those developers – or anyone else in the community – in a direct (or, arguably, meaningful) way. It seems they are sure of the games they wish to make, and involving the community any further would merely add noise to their ambitions and ideas.
MMO developers would do well from studying Bethesda’s example, as it’s clear to me that the influence communities have over the genre is disproportionately large. Players are, as mentioned, quick to blame developers and designers for the failures of the genre, but there is cause to believe that perhaps it’s the level of engagement that we as gamers demand of MMO studios that is causing a large swathe of the problems these titles seem to face. We demand end game content, so developers make games pitched at end game content. We demand dungeon finders, so developers make sure those dungeon finders are in their games. We demand loudly, and developers feel obliged (perhaps even bullied) to deliver.
Of course we’ll never stop demanding (as that’s what consumers do best) so there is only one thing for it: MMO developers should stop pandering to the demands of gamers, and start having more confidence in the ideas that they come up with, ideas that don’t necessarily operate with the boundaries of our expectations. Perhaps then we will have a vibrant, varied and rich MMO genre in place of the stagnation we enjoy now.
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This article was first posted on December 3, 2012