Innovation. It’s become a buzz word and coincidentally the least innovative topic for an MMO editorial. I am not going to argue that MMOs need more innovation or that too much innovation puts off potential players. We’ve all been down that road. Today, I ask: why not throw out the rulebook of what MMOs “should be” and start over?
Earlier this month, Malcolm Gladwell (yeah, I went there) wrote a piece in the New Yorker called “How David Beat Goliath.” It looked at how people who, on paper, should have no chance to compete or maybe even have no idea what they’re doing can topple bigger competitors. The key, he argued, is that often these people don’t come in with the same assumptions as “experts” and thus completely change the game they’re playing.
He gave the example of a girl’s basketball coach who had never played or coached basketball. He didn’t understand why teams basically ceded half the court and implemented a full court press, a method of defense where the team without the ball applies pressure all over the court. Other teams got angry because that just wasn’t how basketball was supposed to be played. Still, that team of girls, many of whom had never played basketball, went on to play in the National Championships for their age group. They didn’t know what they were doing and thus ignored assumptions of what they were “supposed to be doing.” The result was victory.
On his blog, Raph Koster then noted that perhaps Gladwell’s article might be a fantastic lesson in game design.
Reading both, I couldn’t help but think that MMOs above any other kind of game fall victim to this. We’ve all tossed the word “WoW-Clone” around. Gladwell’s piece should be required reading for any small company that is afraid to try something new.
I’m not talking about innovation. It goes beyond that. I will say, flat out, that the next giant game, the game that is to WoW as WoW was to EverQest, the game that transforms some small company into a global powerhouse, will be a game that totally ignores what MMOs are “supposed to be.”
Ignore everything. Even games that try to be innovative still employ basic conventions of MMOs, because they’re “supposed to.”
Who woke up and decided every MMORPG needs to have a D&D-esque character development system, or even a UO-esque one for that matter?
Who said that MMOs require hot bars?
Who proclaimed that it’s not a proper MMO unless you have quests?
Blizzard took a formula that almost all MMOs had been using for years and distilled it down to addictive perfection. Love or hate WoW, it’s a polished, polished title.
I fully understand why it has millions of players, even if it’s not my cup of tea. To me, I’ve been there and done that. I loved Dark Age of Camelot back in its heyday. WoW was nothing new to me.
It’s no coincidence that on hardcore MMO sites, like this one, WoW is not the most hyped or trafficked game around. It’s not that it’s bad, but veteran MMO players don’t have the same love for it, simply because we’ve all seen some variation of it before.
The WoW community has always been a bit apart from the larger MMO community. Based purely on the number of subscribers, WoW articles should statistically annihilate every other game on this site, but they don’t.
A huge percentage of people who truly love WoW, I’ve always believed, do not know or particularly care about this whole world of MMOs out there. They’re WoW players and that’s it.
WoW succeeded because it took an established formula, applied their vast resources and made an absolutely pitch perfect version of it. EQ had enough flaws and years under its belt that a similar game was able to topple it. With WoW, that’s just not the case.
So, let’s see someone throw out the rulebook. I want to see a game company come in and approach the basic premise of a video game that allows thousands of players in a single world simultaneously from an entirely new direction.
At its root, that’s all an MMORPG is and that’s all it should be. No one will take on the WoW behemoth by playing their game. The only way to reach that level of success is to forget what you’re supposed to be doing and approach the problem from a brand new direction.
The recent history of video games proves Gladwell’s argument. Look at NHL 08 and 09. EA, of all people, threw out the rule book on how hockey video games, or even sports games, were supposed to be played. Instead of press face buttons, like players had for decades, they made all the stick movements come from the right thumb stick. The result? The most critically acclaimed sports game in years.
Not enough proof? How about the Nintendo Wii. Like it or hate it, it sells. Nintendo brilliantly looked at the console market and instead of fighting Microsoft and Sony head on, made an entirely new way of playing video games. The result? Now everyone is going to copy them.
So what is the bright idea when it comes to MMOs? No clue. The truth is, I’m too close to the problem, just like most people reading this. I have my preconceptions and I accept that.
But, if you’re a running a small upstart MMO company and you dream of WoW numbers, read Gladwell’s piece. If you are content to iterate on previous ideas, or even innovate in a set number of ways, you may make a good solid title, but you have a very low chance of getting their kind of numbers. It’ll take someone willing to risk doing something completely out of left field, something entirely new, to become the next global phenomenon.
Risky? You bet. But eventually, someone will give it a whirl and reap the rewards. Let’s hope they do it soon.