The Catch-22 of MMO Design
There has been a lot of armchair game design in the MMO blog community over the last week or two. Some folks have tried to figure out exactly what the “next generation” MMO will entail, while others just want to talk about their idea of a good game. However, despite the different inspirations for all this design talk everyone seems to have one thing in common: adding difficulty and removing transparency from MMOs. But is it possible for an MMO to add complexity and still be successful?
Earlier this week Blessing of Kings posited that a huge factor in making a virtual world more “real” is inconvenience. Your big name WoWlike MMOs have been moving away from inconvenience — automated group finders and teleports and what have you — and in turn a large number of people have become dissatisfied with the lack of story, player impact on the world, and immersiveness in recent games. In fact, there’s been a groundswell in the MMO navel-gazing community lately towards sandbox games like Wurm Online where livin’ ain’t easy and as a noob you are likely to be eaten almost immediately by a small woodland creature. (I tried Wurm once and after 45 minutes I was still in the tutorial trying to figure out how to rub two sticks together for fire. It is the definition of Serious Business!)
This kind of inconvenient game isn’t for everyone, of course. There is a reason that World of Warcraft hit 11 million subscribers, and it’s not because we had to walk uphill both ways in the snow to keep from being eaten by a rabbit. People — arguably the majority of people, based on past industry analysis — shy away from inconvenience in their MMO. Putting aside whether this is yet another symptom of our impatient living and missing sense of community in the real world (hint: it is :P ) the fact is that thus far the subscriptions have demanded convenience.
So what if a game developer decides to go their own way and create a challenging sandbox that will appeal to 10% of the current MMO playerbase? I’ve spent most of my life arguing that “popular” does not equal “good”. I could talk all day about unpopular-yet-amazing indie games and movies and art. The hitch, though, is that these things are a single-player experience. The most perfectly designed MMO in the world would be an abject failure if only 10 people ever played it. The whole point of the genre is to be Massively Multiplayer!
The MMO industry is by its very nature beholden to popularity and getting the widest audience possible. More people = more multiplayer. It means a more lively economy, more community, and a larger collective experience. Even as an experienced MMO player I find myself gravitating towards whatever game has the most people, and I really should know better by now! (I hear that Vanguard, for example, is actually pretty cool for old school players but my first thought when considering it is always, “Yeah, but does anyone play that?”.)
For an MMO to be considered good by it must by its very nature be popular, and for it to be popular it (arguably) has to be convenient. Ultimate convenience, in turn, is considered by many to be the sign of a bad game. We can’t win!
The phrase “paradigm shift” is cliché by now but… it seems to me that the MMO industry and those who love it could use one right now.