As I’m playing through Faxion Online from UTV Ignition Games, I find myself wondering why it’s mostly these smaller companies pushing the envelope in the MMO world. Now I’m fully aware that UTV is a fully-funded publisher of games, with a growing stable of software at its disposal. It’s not exactly two guys in their basement, after all. But UTV isn’t Blizzard, EA, or BioWare. And I’m somewhat confident (without any real-world knowledge) that Faxion didn’t cost the company anywhere near the amount of money that something like The Old Republic is costing BioWare. My hypothesis, and maybe this is just common sense, is that the lower the cost of development the more likely the game which comes out will be something other than the norm. It’s up to these smaller companies, with their smaller budgets and smaller teams, to make something big that will change the way we play.
But then it’s up to us to judge them, play the hell out of them, and it’s us who determine whether what’s in these smaller games is worth clinging onto. My only worry is that the comparative scope of these less star-studded experiences will not attract players in droves, and instead we will continue to put our money towards more well-groomed but less innovative products and thereby sealing our fate to play the same damn game in a different wrapper year after year. It’s easy to justify: why should I support something that’s obviously of lower quality, when I could pay the same amount of green for something that (mostly) works like it should and has fancy voiceover work?
Now, I’m not shirking the games on the horizon which we’re all destined to be jazzed about. I’m looking forward to The Old Republic as much as the next person and I know full well it carries on in the tradition of many MMORPGs before it. I’m just wondering why the Herculean task of changing the genre seems largely left up to the small studios with smaller wallets, while the Big Boys™ play it safe and innovate on the small scale only, constantly in fear of losing share value. Perhaps I’m answering my own question though. Larger publishers and studios have a lot more to lose if they spend tens of millions on a game which isn’t a proven concept.
Even as I’m writing this I know there are a few games (at bare minimum) which are going to challenge my assertion. Guild Wars 2, The Secret World, and ArcheAge are titles with some very unique ideas on paper. We’ve seen them in action as well to a point, and it seems with our very limited experience that both games are doing what they can to shake up the scene. There’s a lot of weight on their shoulders though. Think about it. Guild Wars 2 has had the highest “Hype” rating our site’s ever seen for the longest time. The Secret World is steadily climbing. And let’s not forget the huge wave of early hype ArcheAge is riding either.
Guild Wars 2 has the whole “no subscription” angle cornered. Everyone understood why GW1 was free after the initial purchase, but people’s jaws dropped when they found out that GW2 was going to be much more “worldly” in scope and still retain the same stance (albeit with an added cash shop to help drive revenue). On top of that though there’s the “everyone can heal!” aspect, the massive dynamic events system, and so much more. Everything ArenaNet announces seems to have people wondering why no one’s thought of it before.
The Secret World is building steam thanks to the cryptic hints of Funcom and the slow feed of information surrounding the game’s many twists. Sure classless systems have been done before, and sure three-factions have been done before. But a modern and macabre setting is altogether new, and so is the heavy focus on puzzles, riddles, and mysteries that players will solve to drive the story. Funcom knows there was a time when MMORPGs were more about exploration and wonder than purely killing and leveling, and if all goes according to plan TSW will remind us why that’s a far better way to play.
And of course… ArcheAge. I recently played in the game’s Korean CBT3, and while I barely scratched the surface and couldn’t understand a damn word on the screen, I knew there was a lot to be optimistic about with Jake Song’s new game. As I understand it, the early levels are a more guided and quest-based experience to help players grasp the game’s many different systems and later on the world opens up and the true sandbox style of play comes out. Players will actually have to work to build houses, boats, and other structures as well. There will be wide open spaces to explore, plot your towns, and of course make war on other players. The whole game is supposed to give every player a way to play how they want. That’s a mighty big claim, but it’s looking like one the team might live up to early on.
And these are just three of the upcoming games which carry the weight of innovation for the immediate future. They’re all three high profile and hotly anticipated. I’m not forgetting titles like TERA or games that are further out. So many of the upcoming games are trying to do much more than the usual for this genre, but simply trying won’t be enough. They need to succeed. They need to make those of us who are jaded by unpolished and uninspired releases feel like there’s hope once more for the MMORPG. And that’s a much larger task than any sort of technical software development. The titles coming out in 2011 and 2012 are charged with rejuvenating an entire subculture of gaming. It’s not exactly a position I’d like to be in, but I sure as hell hope that those who are can manage to pull it off.