In a recent developer blog, Colin Johanson, Lead Content Designer for Guild Wars 2 asserts that their new dynamic content system will fundamentally change the MMORPG genre:

MMOs have become extremely popular, but the genre has done little to evolve over the past decade. Generally MMO players explore an unchanging, persistent game world, leveling up by performing quests which do not change the world in any way once completed. It’s time for the genre to take the next step, and explore the idea of a truly dynamic, living, breathing persistent world where the player’s actions really make a difference, and everything that occurs in the game world has cause and effect.

I’ve really been enjoying the Guild Wars 2 developer blogs.  I like the use of the cartoon strips to poke fun at some of the hoary practices of traditional MMOs (in the blog providing an overview of the combat system, for example, players are all set to pitch into a bar fight but then are reduced to standing around trying to calculate their relative damage and attack stats; I wept bitter tears of recognition).  The GW2 developers’ analysis of the problems with current MMOs is considered and, for the most part, accurate.  The design they are proposing in response sounds great; everything about it (with the unfortunate exception of it being set in a fantasy realm, but I could possibly suck it up and deal with that) sounds like exactly the kind of game that I would love to play.

However, I don’t have a lot of faith that this kind of game will prove sufficiently popular to last very long.

It is really interesting to me that at this point you have MMOs being developed around two major IPs each with a design philosophy that is in marked opposition to the conventional wisdom evident in the design of most major MMOs currently out there.  Moreover, each game is being developed by a company with a proven track record for creating popular, innovative games with a strong following; these are teams that have the chops to make these visions a reality.

Bioware’s development of Star Wars: The Old Republic is focusing heavily on immersing players in a compelling individual story to a degree that is unprecedented in MMOs.  Guiild Wars 2 is attempting to do away with the traditional quest-grind by creating a dynamic play environment.  Rather than being told that a village is endangered by attacking orcs (or the GW mythos equivalent) you’ll arrive at a village and find it under attack.  You can choose to defend it, or not.  Maybe even to side with the orcs.  If the village falls, the orcs will fortify it, enslave the populace, and use it as a base to start sending out raiding parties against nearby travelers and other villages.

Both games are, in essence, attempting to craft an experience for players that is both personalized and makes them feel like a full-fledged participant in the world rather than an observer who pokes NPCs with no more thought than they stab at the buttons on their keyboard.  There are some obvious risks with each strategy.  For Bioware, the problem will be how to leverage an intense single-player experience into the social element of MMOs (things like crafting and player-versus-player require you to be immersed not just in your own story but to interact with someone else’s).  For Arenanet the challenge will be how to sell this vision of a dynamic world that solicits constant collaboration to the numberless horde of players who already treat multiplayer games as if they were a single-player experience.  In each case the design philosophy goes well beyond the standard attempt to position a game as being better than the competition: the design differences are so fundamental, the developers claim, that their games will be not just better, but better because they are radically different.

That, however, is the problem.  When I look around at the world of MMOs I don’t see that “radically different” has been a winning strategy with players or, perhaps more importantly, with publishers.

The more I’ve learned about the development of both SWTOR and GW2 the more I’ve noticed that there is a ghost at this particular MMO banquet and the name of this Banquo is Richard Garriot’ts Tabula RasaTabula Rasa died a horrible death after little more than a year of being available for live play.  It was certainly not a game without its share of problems but in comparison with other MMOs the problems with bugs and delayed content elements were relatively few.  What is intriguing about Tabula Rasa is that in hindsight it starts to look an awful lot like the primitive ancestor of both SWTOR and GW2 in many ways.

TR featured, for example, a dynamic environment where players could respond to unfolding events outside of a quest framework (alien drop ships would appear and deposit assault teams, friendly and enemy fire bases were constantly in contention).  It also featured an attempt to develop an ongoing narrative for each player.  Lastly, a few of the quests were designed to create tough ethical choices with consequences.  The end result was a game where you could grind away killing aliens all day, if that’s what you wanted, but where it was equally satisfying to drop in for an hour of carnage.  All of these elements were certainly primitive in comparison with what Bioware and Arenanet are attempting; indeed, TR‘s major fault may be that it was too tentative in its implementation of all these ideas.  But out of the MMOs I’ve played, TR is the only one (apart from the original Star Wars Galaxies) that I still find myself thinking about and missing.

Whether or not TR was a direct influence on Bioware and Arenanet’s games is hard to determine; canny designers are obviously going to be checking out one another’s work on a regular basis, and any designer would probably be a fool to completely ignore a new MMO by Richard Garriott.  Perhaps there was just something in the water at that time.  After all, Pirates of the Burning Sea also features a storyline for a player’s character (although minimal in comparison with what Bioware is proposing) and an environment that alters in response to player actions (the entire world is in a constant state of realm versus realm conflict).

What can’t be disputed is that the game was not popular, although just how many people were playing it is difficult to determine.  It seems, however, not to have been dramatically less popular than, say, EVE or Pirates of the Burning Sea a year out, and those games are still alive.  Arguably the game was just too much of a hybrid for the tastes of most traditional players.  However, like EVE and Pirates it was a worthy experiment, attempting to do something different with the MMO genre, and it deserved to be given time to see how it might develop and possibly build a following.

That it wasn’t allowed to do so, however, has everything to do with the fact that it was published by NCSoft.  With the singular exception of the City of Heroes franchise, NCSoft does not do experimental.  It doesn’t do Sci-Fi.  And it certainly doesn’t do niche.  If EVE, whose success is undisputed, were published by NCSoft, it also would have had the plug pulled on it after a year.  What NCSoft does do is fantasy, fantasy, and more fantasy.  In fact (again, with the odd exception of CoH ) they have basically been publishing variants on the same game for years, with different names and graphics (and no, being able to fly around does not make Aion the exception here).  But it isn’t fair to blame NCSoft entirely here.  They do what they do because players love their games.  Millions of players willingly sign up for grindoramathons that are basically Tolkien with the names changed to protect the innocent.  What is worse, from a design innovation point of view, is that NCSoft’s games are only a graphical re-skin and a global stat re-balance away from being exactly the same as every other fantasy game out there.

So, we’re left with two possibilities here.  Either millions of people the world over are all helpless dupes of sophisticated MMO marketing campaigns; or, a fair number of people actually like playing this kind of game.  Moreover, when presented with alternatives (TR, EVE, Pirates) players stay away in droves.  I’m sure a lot of people will be there at the launch of SWTOR and GW2, but I just don’t have any faith that the majority of them will stick around, especially if the developers stick to their guns and resist the cascade of whining from players who want to make these games like every other game they’ve played and are so comfortable with (that is one thing that I appreciate about EVE: when players complain about the fundamental game dynamics, the developers’ basic attitude is: “Don’t like our game?  Fine, fuck off back over to WoW”).  The vast majority of MMO players have proven, by voting with their dollars, that they don’t want something new and radically different: they want to play GrindQuest: The Grinding Crusade.

But, I hear you say, these games will be different.  They are not like those niche properties that you mentioned, these are games with built-in fan bases.  Well, unfortunately MMO history says pretty clear that it is all too easy to screw up an IP with a “guaranteed” fan base *cough* Star Wars Galaxies *cough*, *cough* Age of Conan *cough*, *cough* Star Trek Online *cough*. . .

. . .excuse me, didn’t realize that was going to turn into quite the coughing fit that it did. . .

If I appear to be a naysayer concerning these games I don’t mean to leave that impression.  I’m excited about both these games: indeed, the worst outcome I could imagine is that they launch simultaneously.  Which would I choose?  The design framework for each looks very exciting and in each case does seem to promise something that we really haven’t seen before (at least–memento mori Tabula Rasa–in such a highly developed form) in the world of MMOs.

For the success of a radical experiment my money would be on Star Wars: The Old Republic, for two reasons.  First, their radical innovations don’t seem quite as radical as those of Guild Wars 2 (it seems, for example, as if SWTOR will still be following the traditional quest mechanics).  Secondly, SWTOR is not published by NCSoft (although at this stage the publication and distribution mechanism is unclear).  If the expected numbers of players don’t show up, or if they show up and then abruptly leave in a huff, Guild Wars 2 could have a very short life.  And that would be a shame.