Friday, October 19, 2007

Star Trek Canon vs. MMORPG Gameplay

Originally Posted by AaronH:
And the final issue is the idea that the MMO genre doesn't currently allow inovation. Honestly, if you believe that you should take a look around. There is hordes of innovation, is all you ever hear is WoW clone, but in reality, how many WoW clones are? How many aren't WoW clones? How many are cut and dry carbon copies? How many try to expand into new areas? This is the nature of most media arts, it is evolution not revolution. And frankly, when a game comes along that works, you never hear the cries about how it is a cheap knockoff of that other game, or how it stole ideas from various other sources, is all you hear is "Great game, so originall" when inreality, if you take the time to look, you can trace its lineage back to boardgames most of the time.
Your point that everything stands on the shoulders of something else is a good one. Most stuff is evolutionary, and probably should be.

But is the MMOG industry really as innovative as it could/should be? I'm not as convinced of this as you seem to be.

To try to boil down my perception on this as much as possible, for me it comes down to seeing MMOGs as being different in an important way from most art, most commercial products, and even most games. These massively multiplayer online game things aren't just any old kind of product -- they are worlds.

I can't look at MMOGs in this way and not see almost limitless opportunity to create places and things and events and interactions that no one has ever seen before, that no one has ever even imagined before. The range of expressive freedom offered by our newfound ability to create highly detailed persistent virtual world games is, in fact, revolutionary.

So the question arises, are the people making MMOGs taking full advantage of this opportunity? In fairness, I think the answer is obviously no, they are not. Making the minor tweak here and there to the same few bits of MMOG gameplay that have come before does not even begin to tap into the potential of MMOGs.

Does this mean I think developers are to blame? Not entirely. In large part -- as developers themselves (such as Greg Costikyan) have consistently pointed out -- this is because it costs too much to build worlds that really feel like worlds. At $10-50M and four or more years per major MMOG, the risk of failing to recoup that investment is too high to permit anything but tentative tinkering with the last formula that appeared to work.

Bearing this in mind, I have to disagree with the view that there's plenty of innovation in the MMOG industry. I don't think that view holds up when we consider the potential of the medium, and how little of that territory has been explored thus far by MMOG developers who, with only minor alterations, have largely copied each other's class/level/combat/aggro/loot gameplay.

Happily, there are some signs of enthusiasm for confronting this problem of risk in creating new worlds. Multiverse was an important start to this process. More recently, Raph Koster is absolutely to be commended for putting his reputation (and probably some of his money) at stake to try a new approach. Metaplace is designed at its core to reduce the cost-based risk of world creation by spreading the risk over many developers. I don't know if this approach will work, but I'm proud to see that there are some developers who are willing to acknowledge the lack of variety in MMOGs and are directly doing something about it.

I don't necessarily think that the developer of a Star Trek MMORPG should be expected to go that far. Even so, it does seem to me that Star Trek Online's design could help advance this process of exploring new possibilities in the creation of gameworlds by being more than just another class/level/combat/aggro game. Raph is blazing the trail leading into unexplored MMO territory, but he can't draw the new maps all by himself, nor should he.

Star Trek Online will be a massively multiplayer persistent-world game based on a license that is all about seeking out new worlds and new civilizations. If that isn't the right MMORPG to offer a substantively enhanced vision of MMOG gameplay, what is?