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Saturday Debate: Innovation or Upgrade: The MMO Dilemma

Staff Writers Dan Fortier and Carolyn Koh take opposite sides of the issue of The MMO Dilemma, to innovate or to upgrade.

Innovation or Upgrade: The MMO Dilemma

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in this editorial are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of MMORPG.com, its staff or management.

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There are lots of varied approaches to take toward any project. Whether you are building a house or designing an online game there are still important choices to make that will effect what kind of future the final product will have. As with most things, it's far easier to stand on the shoulders of your predecessors and build upon what they have accomplished and learn from their mistakes rather than forging your own trail of innovation into uncharted territory. Using the house analogy, it's much simpler to use a tried and true blueprint that has proven it won't fall apart at the first stiff wind rather than crafting your own architectural style.

As far as MMOs are concerned, how much effort should go toward implementing and improving current/existing features versus expanding the horizon and inventing new technology and content that will improve the genre? It's a difficult question and one that is the focus of this week's debate between Dan Fortier and Carolyn Koh.

Carolyn Koh:

I think a lot rather depends on that nasty old specter, the root of all evil, the one named Money. How deep are your pockets? I'm going to argue this from the practical stand point. I have bambini to feed and a mortgage to pay. Office rent, employees, benefits, and an investor with finite dollars. I've sold the idea of Killerbunnies MMORPG and now I have to deliver. Innovative new technology to improve the genre? No, I don't think so. The MMORPG market is still in its infancy and we are hardly using the technological capability available to us. Improvement is the way to go.

Dan Fortier:

: No one is forcing Devs with light pockets to jumping the MMO arena. At some point game developers have to stop seeing the MMO industry as a get rich quick scheme and realize that there is a reason that people pay you monthly for your game. WoW didn't do anything but take a bunch of already used features and make it relatively simple and bug-free, but at some point you have to move forward and do something that breaks the mold a bit. I'd personally rather see the focus moved away from eye-popping graphics and toward a deeper game experience that you can't get by simply mixing and matching current features, I don't buy the excuse that new features are 'going out on a limb' either. There is such a thing as 'natural progression' and it doesn't mean re-skinning your models for DX10. Breaking new ground doesn't mean reinventing the wheel either when all we want is another outlet for our game habits. Mini-games, for example, have been a staple many offline game for years, but few to none of the current Devs have even tried to integrate fresh ideas into their games.

Carolyn Koh:

Wait, I thought you were talking about inventing new technology and content features? You're arguing my point for me. Welcome to the dark side my friend! Mini-games are in MMOGs. They aren't common, but they are there and often integrated into a quest. I've always enjoyed those particular quests ~ EverQuest had a few and the very first quest in Dungeons and Dragons Online requires you to solve a puzzle. That's a current feature that I think should be utilized more often and improved upon.

There are Devs out there with light pockets that did wonderful things for the MMO arena so I don't buy that argument. The most well-known one is (was) Mythic Entertainment. They're in EA's deep pockets now, but that does not negate in any way what Dark Age of Camelot brought to the table - massive RvR battles, siege engines - an MMO first.

WoW is successful because they used the same old features but made it available to as low a common denominator as they could possibly achieve in terms of required hardware to run the game. A calculated risk that has had their investors chortling insanely all the way to the bank. Nothing wrong with that. It's still a hugely popular game, even with power gamers and those with bleeding edge machines. Why? Because the tried and true is fond and familiar to the gamer heart, the improved tried and true.

Another example: The concepts of faction and how they can be employed to greatly enhance gameplay have hardly been deeply explored. More often, they are viewed as a grind or stepping stones by players - merely a means to an end - that of better gear. Why? Possibly because it was designed that way? What if faction actually meant more? And some games are already exploring that. Two or three different factions in a city need not mean that you're flagged KoS in some areas if you raise one faction. What annoys a player more than anything is making an uninformed choice for faction, and then having to fix it later when spoiler sites come out with the end rewards.

Dan Fortier:

Dark Age of Camelot is a great of example of a game that added a completely new feature to the MMO genre without being in the pocket of a huge developer. I'm not going to drag out the point of the reasons that we don't see more innovation though. What we need are designers with not only a vision for a world to sell but also some kind of plan on how to make it work. If DAoC was made by NP Cube or some other group of incompetents do you think anyone would be copying their RvR style? It's obviously not enough to just pick a super-duper unique feature at random and throw it into a poorly designed game in order to make a successful game and advance the genre.

The most important point I'd like to make though is that you can improve existing features by developing unique features to complement the standard ones. Adding siege warfare and RvR, for example, made a lot of DaoC's standard features a lot more fun and worth doing. It turned a typical dungeon into a three way free-for-all and gave incentive for higher level players to develop strong teams in order to carve out a small empire for themselves where in older games (and a couple newer ones) you would have to settle for farming endless raids for gear that was only useful to look at. My point is that by pushing the envelope of new features you will create more creative ways for your players to enjoy the old ones. Top that!

Carolyn Koh:

Who me? I'll concede that point. I think we are both favoring the grey area where improvement and innovation overlaps - i.e. Is it new, is it improved or is it new and improved? Or is it just new packaging? Is Evian really Naïve spelled backwards? Sure, you know if someone were able to build an innovative and successful game on a shoe-string budget, far be it for me to belittle it. But I doubt there will be something truly new and unique without deep pockets to bring it into the MMO format... especially in the MMO format.

As our arguments are spilling over into each other's territory here, I'm going to leave it here with a couple of improvement "wishes" - 1. Improvement of the use of the Z axis in MMO combat, and 2. More "environmental" combat arenas like fighting in an underwater dungeon. Hmmm... that might also include wish no. 1 above. So, dear readers, time for you guys to weigh in. What do you think? Improvement or innovation? Or maybe even... improvement through innovation?

Carolyn Koh / Carolyn has been writing for MMORPG.com since 2004 and about the MMO genre since 1999. These days she plays mobile RTS games more, but MMOs will always remain near and dear to her heart.