MMOs and Limited Innovation

With Star Wars: The Old Republic’s subscription numbers down by roughly 400,000 and the response to Zenimax’s Elder Scrolls Online announcement tepid at best, it seems that MMOs have lost the power to grab and hold our attention. Even Blizzard’s Mists of Panderia expansion seems unlikely to draw back the millions of ex-World of Warcraft players finally liberated from their addiction. Yes, Bioware, Blizzard, and numerous other MMO publishers still turn a profit, but the allure of MMOs has faded dramatically since WoW peaked at over 12 million subscribers. Nevertheless, plenty of studios continue to wade into the genre, realizing that even minor innovations in the tired MMO formula can spark success.

Do we just get tired of MMOs because of the time that we commit to playing them? A triple-A single player game can take as few as six hours to complete, while leveling an MMO character to a game’s level cap could take many times longer. Surely we can dip into an MMO briefly and still leave within a month quite satisfied. Bioware’s explanation of the Star Wars exodus calls those who left the game “casual” players (why the loss of casual players in such numbers should be nothing to worry about is left unclear in that explanation). The assumption is that MMO flight is a natural occurrence as players, after a month or two of enjoying their experience, grow tired of the world or move on to other games.

Surely a portion of this explanation holds water. I play many games myself and rarely commit to one play experience for very long. However, we can look at plenty of multiplayer games for examples of communities that return time and again to the same experience. I have played League of Legends off and on for the past two years and have yet to grow tired of its two maps. Of course, not everyone who tries out a multiplayer game sticks with it for so long. Even so, we necessarily measure an MMO’s success by its number of concurrent players and subscribers because its very existence is predicated on continued long term play and strong community building.

Yet it is this need to maintain such high numbers that causes the adoption of genre formulas. A new MMO cannot buck the dominant trends too violently lest is scare off traditional MMO players and draw middling numbers at launch. After launch, attracting new players becomes increasingly difficult as the barrier to entry grows because of player leveling gaps. The Blizzard quest and class model has also garnered such success with its habit forming gameplay that veering too far from the norm seems financially unsound. Instead of a truly genre-bending experience, we get slight innovations on the same tropes.

None of this is to criticize any MMOs currently on the market. Star Wars: The Old Republic remains a success for the time being, and I know several players who love the game’s rich universe and effective storytelling. Trion’s Rift also maintains a hefty amount of adulation for its dynamic quest system — and rightly so. These subtle changes to a solid formula enliven play, even if the rest of the time is spent in a fundamentally similar gameplay space as numerous competitors.

“The Ultimatrix”, Penny Arcade, 2 May 2012

Take TERA as another example. I have been playing Bluehole Studio’s “action MMO” frequently since En Masse brought it to North America earlier this month. En Masse clearly took great care in translating TERA from its Korean origins, and the game absolutely shines. The combat system in particular deserves all the accolades that it receives. While many of its predecessors implement a point-and-click lock-on targeting system, TERA demands that players actually aim at targets. Enemies and BAMS (Big Ass Monsters) move around the battlefield frequently, forcing players to stay on the move. In turn, healing has never been more engaging. As a Mystic, I have to track all of the traditional mana, health, and debuff states of my allies, while also dodging incoming attacks and aiming at the correct friendly targets in time to save their lives. After experienceing TERA, other MMO gameplay seems so boring.

Even so, TERA is still built upon a devastatingly tedious quest system of fetch quests and pelt collection. Some of the most offensive quest givers simply ask players to give messages to NPCs standing just a few meters away. The majority of this I brush aside, desperately clinging to combat that still feels wonderfully fresh. I have become so desperate for a novel MMO experience that seemingly minor differences make the trite all but disappear.

The MMO space needs to see a sea change that may never come. Yes, CCP’s EVE Online still floats out there in the blackness of space, but they exist on the raggedy edge of the genre, defying all the established norms, accessibility be damned. While far from release, many have already equated Elder Scrolls Online with World of Warcraft and not in a good way. The Secret World seems daring — at least in its setting — but the silence surrounding that game and its fast approaching release does not bode well for any of us. Millions of people play MMOs on a regular basis, but it feels like we are all plowing the same field. The demand for a compelling MMO experience still exists, and whoever can successfully shatter the mold completely will reap a mighty reward indeed.