Friday, June 8, 2007

Star Trek Canon vs. MMORPG Gameplay

Originally Posted by Periphas:
i dont think it is their [Perpetual's] primary goal and therefore, things such as interiors and decorations for them etc will be seen as icing on the cake rather than a piece of the cake itself.
I wish I could disagree with you on this, but I can't.

I've come to believe rather strongly that developers are leaving money on the table by defining "MMORPG" to treat exploration and (ironically) roleplaying as necessary evils at best, rather than as the two best sources of long-term, community-supporting gamers. Fortunately the capitalist society we live in insures that some developer will come along to reap the benefits of serving this increasingly underserved market.

Unfortunately it costs upwards of three years and $20M to make a decent AAA title MMORPG these days. A developer who designs a game to attract multiple player types stands virtually no chance of getting that game implemented and published, because it's the publishers with the cash who are certain that anything other than destruction/looting/leveling is mere "icing."

So yes, I'm aware of the gulf between what Star Trek Online is likely to be and what I personally believe it should be. On that basis, I figure I have three choices:

  • Accept what I'm given without question.

  • Complain bitterly and incessantly.

  • Offer constructive suggestions in the hope (but not expectation) of influencing the design slightly toward my vision of gameplay.
I'm not a fan of either of those first two options.

Originally Posted by Jaedon Rivers:
when does it becoming generic? What defines a generic game here? Could it be less of an actuality, and more of a mindset? (the assumption of something being generic due to similarities with other items of its class)
With respect, I think your question is a little bit unfair -- of course there's no such thing as a "generic MMORPG," but that's not the concern. The concern is that there's a set of features that most past MMORPGs have implemented, and that developers are inappropriately designing new games to have those features as though simply doing so is enough to make a game popular.

During World War II in the South Pacific, the U.S. airdropped supplies to the servicemen stationed on many of the small islands. The native villagers on these islands noticed that every so often, servicemen would begin making strange sounds and waving brightly-colored sticks. Soon thereafter, boxes full of all manner of interesting and useful objects would fall from the sky.

Then the war ended, and the troops left. But the villagers remembered what they'd seen and heard. And so they reenacted what they'd seen and heard, hoping that by doing so they could cause cargo to once again appear.

It's awfully tempting to see similarities between these "cargo cults" and game developers, some of whom seem equally convinced that simply imitating the main gameplay features of successful MMORPGs is enough to make their own game successful.

That's my understanding of the anti-generic argument. The idea is that developers shouldn't be copying features of existing MMORPGs as though doing so has anything to do with making a game popular. The goal should be to understand a game's likely audience and offer features that those people will enjoy, whether anyone else has ever implemented those features yet or not.

Of course that view has to be tempered by the reality that money people insist on copying what's worked before in order to minimize risk. That's why Spiderman 3, Shrek 3, and Pirates of the Caribbean 3 all showed up at your local multiplex.

But those films would never exist if some smart money person hadn't had the guts to greenlight the original Spiderman, and the original Shrek, and the original Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Somebody looked at the filmmaker's understanding of the likely audience, and looked at the crazy new idea for convincing them to part with some of their money, and realized it was a good shot even though nothing like these movies had been done before.

Star Trek Online has a chance to be a Shrek of the MMORPG world. But that is far less likely to happen if it is deliberately designed to be similar to other games that have already captured subscribers. Too much sameness gives people no reason to switch.

And that is why I continue to advocate for a middle way. Give people a game that has some of the usual MMORPG features... but do something seriously different, too. Don't be satisfied with a percentage of the current population of gamers when the Star Trek license means potentially creating tens of thousands of new gamers by offering Star Trek-specific gameplay.

If shaking up the Star Trek franchise by killing off Spock (TWOK) and putting a Klingon in Starfleet (TNG) were Good Things, then let's see some smart developer similarly rattle the cage of the MMORPG industry by refusing to be bound by all the current conventions of the genre.

Easy for me to say, of course -- it's not my money at stake. :)

But if I had the money, I'd be putting it where my mouth is right now.