MMOWTF: Flair Follows Function
Weekly MMORPG.com columnist Dan Fortier tackles the subject of complexity in MMORPGs and how flashy new features can sometimes be a hindrance to a smooth game.
Editor's Note: This is an edition of a weekly column by Staff Writer Dan Fortier. The column is called "MMOWTF" and will look at some of the stranger or more frustrating events in MMOs as seen by Mr. Fotier. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of MMORPG.com, its staff or management.
Sometimes when watching game play videos or reading some design documents for an upcoming MMO that we are interested in, it is easy to forget that some of the most important elements that let us enjoy a game are the things we don't experience while playing. These are the things we take for granted while immersed in an online game like being able to play without constant crashes or stuttering graphics that move like a mailman in a coma. When a game is buggy or unstable it doesn't matter how great the graphics, quests or storyline are because we can't enjoy it properly without a stable game. The old adage that "Form follows function" applies in this case and I'm going to take a quick look at some of the reasons that stability is one of the most overlooked and elusive elements in game design.
Part of the reason that MMOs are gathering a steady following among gamers today is their complexity and depth compared to offline action games. While there are several single player RPGs that have done a great job of weaving replay ability with fantastic game play, they still fall short in reproducing the dynamic (and often annoying) aspect of unpredictability that multi-player games have. This complexity comes at cost however, and many great ideas have fallen short of release because they became too expensive or cumbersome to complete. Only a game that could offer thousands of hours of game play could justify a monthly fee and many developers must feel intense pressure to shoot for the Moon when it comes to designing their Opus Magnus MMO idea.
Simple mathematics tells us that for every moving part or system you integrate into a game or project, the complexity grows nearly exponentially. Every new feature they pile into the back of the designers introduces more and more things that can and will go wrong especially under the scrutiny of tens of thousands of players over a games development cycle. In a mad dash to top a competitor's goodie list, it's easy to get in over your head when putting together the Frankenstein monster that modern MMOs have become. Screw in a bolt there and a piece falls off somewhere else. Before you know it, he's been stuck my lightning and he strangling the life out of you!
When it comes time to hype a product, stability and optimized code don't get much notice and I can't imagine we will ever see an ad like "The Most Stable MMORPG You've Ever Seen!" or "Discover the Freedom to Forge your own Destiny without Crashing to Desktop!" in our lifetime.
That is not to say that smooth game play isn't an important factor in the games that people play, but when it comes to those design meetings and publishers ask, "What is going to make your game sell?", I suspect that most Devs would balk at trying to pitch a simple well-tested product rather than boast a half dozen innovations/gimmicks that will be sure to grab a slice of the MMO pie.
Part of the issue is that for some reason, the perception is that every new game has to steal subscribers from existing games. With that mode of thinking, why would you make a game with fewer features than a game that your target audience is already playing? World of Warcraft proved you don't need to steal people from other games in order to be successful. You don't even need to have the backing of a major IP (although it helps) in order to be a success, just make a game that works and is fun to play. As with most things in life though, it's much easier said than done.
I would much rather play a game that was well thought out and run by Devs who were committed to building their game as they go than roll the dice on a innovative Picasso that keeps falling off the wall. Let's hope the legacy of half-broken behemoths that are slowly turning to fossil fuel before our eyes are a warning to the game makers of the future.
Looks like my time is up this week and the warden is tapping his watch again so I'm headed back to my cell. Drop a note in the forum topic with your thoughts and bake me a nice hacksaw cake if you get the chance. I'll be back!