Innovation in the Mainstream?
Day in, day out, the MMO world is filled with discontent – where is the innovation in MMOs? Where are new ideas? Players feel that the developers are just spitting out the same game template, day in and day out. Almost every game is called out as a “WoW-clone” at least once (you all can argue the validity of those claims!). And this week, user vajuras, author of the blog “I Have a Dream,” addresses this issue in his blog.
Vajuras starts off by defining the MMO terms of “mainstream” and “innovation.”
“Mainstream,” explains vajuras, “is using an established intellectual property and 'tweaking' your game for mass appeal. That simple. Never expect innovation in a 'mainstream' title whereas the Game Designer's hands are tied by the Producer and share holders. What are these new Mainstream MMOs doing now? Mythic is using Warhammer Online. Funcom will be using the Conan license. Cryptic is going with Marvel Universe. SOE is going with DC Comics. And guess what you will be hard pressed to find one single idea that has never been implemented anywhere before. These mainstream developers are purchasing the big IPs and making sure they play it safe to please their investors. Oh rest assure: Levels, Classes, Instances, Raids, and such will be in full force here.”
“Innovation is much more likely to come from independant developers or has came from them already(see Id Software, Asheron's Call 1, Pirates of the Burning Sea, CCP/EVE Online, The Chronicles of Spellborn, and Epic Games/Unreal, Cryptic/City of Heroes).”
Now, most MMO gripers that I have seen complain about the lack of innovation in MMOs as a problem with the designers, a flaw in the game, and a lack of courage to try something that might not work out. Vajuras, however, feels that this lack of innovation is for a completely different reason:
“Mainstream titles do not need to innovate at all.”
As mentioned above, the mainstream MMOs have their IP and that’s all they need. “Lord Of The Rings Online?” vajuras points out, “They didnt need to innovate they have the LOTR license for a reason. Electronic Arts has been using the 'mainstream' marketing model for years and so has Activision. I know I personally feel soulbound to buy every Spiderman title I can get my hands on. Like many other spidey fans I am simply looking to recreate my experiences with the original Spiderman/Venom game that came out on Super NES back in the day.”
What about the big MMOs that aren’t based on an existing IP? Well, everyone has to start somewhere. While the Warcraft series were not MMOs, they were video games that created an IP; vajuras points out EverQuest and EverQuest 2 as perfect examples. “Everquest 1, sure they needed to innovate to establish their IP. But Everquest 2 didnt need too and it didnt.”
So, the big guys aren’t making many changes. This is not to say that a non-mainstream, innovative MMO has no success. Vajuras points out Puzzle Pirates, EVE Online, Ultima and Starport as innovators in our industry.
While I agree with vajuras for the majority of his blog, I wonder if there aren’t other factors involved. For example, a lot of the “innovative” games that Vajuras mentions are older games – strictly speaking, there was so little done in the MMO space when Ultima and EQ came out that it was hard to make a game without being innovative. Nowadays, it’s a lot easier for the developers to follow the beaten path, especially when they have a good, solid IP that can back them. But it also probably takes a lot more bush beating to find the good ideas!
“And you know what the funny part is?” closes vajura, “Now the huge publishers like EA are now employing small sized teams to develop the new innovative projects (at least during conception phase). Isn't this irony? Even the huge mainstream publishers are realizing that maintaining a small, core team to establish an IP significantly reduces development costs and we get back to the good ole days whereas we always saw Innovation because every one was always trying something new.”