Today I would like to discuss something I see discussed frequesntly here and on every MMO site I visit. No, not whether Britany Spears will ever regain child visitation rights. I want to discuss a Game's Features.
Undoubtedly, far more goes into a game than simply whether or not fishing is available, mounts, buying a house, etc. The games are composed of challenge factor, community, support and far more. For this discussion though, I am going to limit myself to Features.
In my life as a Computer Salesman we called this F&B (Features and Benefits) - The Computer would have X Processor and Y amount of RAM. IN modern MMO's we talk about easy to use UI's, Quests throughout the game, housing systems, crafting systems, travel systems and we want it all.
The modern successful (read enough subscribers to justify roughly three years of existence and the possibility of at least one or more expansions) MMO's have all taken a buffet approach to the implementation of features. Each successive generation adding slightly more, a small innovation here, an ease of use tool there. All of these features quickly become part of the MMO vetrans expectations when examining any new game.
My question is as follows. Can this model be sustained in the long-term?
My answer. Not really. I'll tell you why I think that.
First through, we should have a basic list of what we are talking about.
Questing, Crafting, Mounts, Mounted Combat, Mail, Auction House, Banks, Housing, Guild Versions of all of these, Hobbies/Mini-Games (Fishing, etc), Talent Specializations (assuming a class based-system), Robust economy, Anti-Spam/Gold-Seller systems, PvP, Accomplishments (or titles, something to personalize), Robust character model generation (to personalize on a visual level) and a few mre I am sure I am forgetting.
Most successful MMO's (and I do not want to linger on that term too long and have this devolve into an argument about what is successful, let's simply leave it amorphous) are including some of these features and always have plans to incorporate the rest over a several year time period post-puanch. Things like in game maps, a simple and clean UI and varied and balanced skills have become so common place they are hardly features anymore (they are the silverware at the buffet to carry on the analogy).
Several of these features are HUGE undertakings. Crafting systems, to be really successful require hordes of code and in game support; Resources, recipes, facilities to craft, etc. That system alone could break a game if it doesn't have it and could take thousands of hours of programming time to implement. It should be noted how interdependent these features become. The crafting probably also relies on a functional economy and auction house (if you don't want a bunch of people standing around yelling in a global chat). These games already have a development time of at minimum three years, and we are seeing that become fast. All of the flagship titles of 2007 saw delays into 2008 (with all of them seeing even more delays recently). Why? Because they are all trying to be Buffets. They are all trying to incorporate as many features from the list above as they can, if not all of them. Add to this the fact that most of these games are based on existing IP's and require a gret deal of care as to not offend the fanboi's of the source material and gets even trickier.
Let me step back a moment. When you are considering taking a date, spouse, visiting sister (deep south only) out for a special meal, do you head to the local Hometown Buffet? No, of course not. You probably go to some overcosted specialized Italian restaurant or Japanese Fusion place. Why? Because these specialized restaurants do what they do very, very well and by offering a limited menu and charging a premium price, they are able to deliver a far higher quality level. The buffet just throws slop in a trough and lets the old people slowly gum their cardboard-esque food.
I believe in the next five (ten?) years you will see the same sort of evolution of the MMO industry. Smaller specialized (and dare I say premium priced?) MMO's will appear that promise extraordinary service and the highest possible experience of one type of or small sub-set of features. The larger Buffet MMO's will still exist, but they will be viewed as the buffet's now are viewed. A place to go to just shovel in mediocrity for people who don't care about quality.
Until Next time, Gum your fried chicken carefully.