Everything We Know About MMORPGs is About To Change. . .Or is it?

Posted: May 19, 2010 by Twitchdoctor in Exemplary Games, game design
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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.

  1. Justin says:

    The primacy of grinding for experience points reminds me of a very long article published over on Kotaku.com that was written by an American game programmer who was getting increasingly dissatisfied with Japan. Some of his criticism was aimed directly at Japanese culture, but at least one had to do with the relation of video gaming in Japan and other traditions (which is bigger than videogaming in Japan) (http://kotaku.com/5484581/japan-its-not-funny-anymore). In the Final Fantasy games, while you’re never exactly told how many hit points a foe has, whenever you score a hit, you see a cascade of numbers fall off the creature (reflecting, of course, how many HP you shaved off the enemy. You still have no idea if it did any good, though). The game is providing instant, addictive feedback (while he makes no explicit connection to pachinko, I imagine there might be one in terms of addictive, results-oriented behavior that avoids narrative or exploration.) (I may be conflating this a bit with the article about Mega Man’s difficulty in relation to modern games that are more geared toward immediate feedback).

    While I’ve never played an MMORPG (I just don’t have time for games anymore, much less games that have taken the most annoying aspect of RPGs and made it the focus of day-to-day play), I can imagine that this style of feedback plays a complex role in the the audience’s adoption of these games: leading at once to the feeling that the lowest common denominator of gamers are indeed duped into lower-quality experiences–or, worse, that by engaging in level-grinding/questing, the player themselves create the less rewarding experience by engaging in the behavior!

    Not sure which is which, though…

    • Twitchdoctor says:

      Yes, I remember reading that article. You see a lot of people making the claim–one often tinged with racist stereotyping and xenophobia–that “Asians” are particularly keen on the grinding game model. (Only a hop, skip, and a jump from there to the kind of stereotyping so prevalent in WW2: the soulless Asian horde, lacking in imagination, but very good at following orders, etc.). This stereotype of course ignores the fact that it was mainly Western players who made Everquest and then (initially) WoW such a success. Clearly there are just as many Westerners that are slaves to unimaginative gameplay and routinized behavior, if we wanted to see it in those terms!

      Still, culture obviously plays some influence on how people approach games and games. I’ve often wondered, for example, if the US preference for stultifyingly boring games like baseball, hockey, and indy car racing (games which, especially baseball, tend to involve an often arcane mastery of statistics) plays into the way many MMOs seem to turn into more of a spreadsheet manipulation experience. I’m perfectly willing to get out the old spreadsheet if I’m playing the economic component of an MMO. But if I find that my ability to participate in combat depends on me calculating damage resists to the fourth decimal place just to possibly gain an advantage on an opponent (if I hold my mouth the right way while saying the secret combat word) then I’m done with that game.

  2. DamarisM says:

    One thing about GW2 that may well help it’s longevity… It’s not financially dependent upon people sticking around. It’s model, in keeping with the original Guild Wars is that you pay for the game and / or any expansion material, but that’s it. No monthly fees. So people can buy it, try it, walk away and Arenanet will still have made their optimal profit. What that would mean in terms of the Dynamic effect though? Well the developers have already stated that the events are on a sliding scale. If even only one person (forgive the grammar, haven’t had coffee yet this morning) is in the area, the difficulty will slide down to be challenging but still theoretically possible for that one to manage. Realistically this means that like you have stated with Eve, and as with the original Guild Wars, if people didn’t like it they were welcome to sod off back to WoW and leave those who could not only get their heads around it but enjoy it.

    • Twitchdoctor says:

      Possibly, although I’ve been wondering about that. When the first Guild Wars was released NCSoft was, in many ways, a different company. Some of the background chatter around the abandonment of TR, for example, was that NCSoft was in the process of scaling back its focus on the US market in order to concentrate primarily on Asia. (Plus, as I pointed out, TR didn’t really fit with the core fantasy brand; based on his previous history they may well have been expecting that Garriott would make a very different kind of game that was more in line with their “kill the orcs” focus). But one thing I’m wondering now is what NCSoft gets out of this deal with Arenanet and this non-subscription based model. How do they make substantial amounts of cash? Obviously developers are in it for the money but also for lots of other reasons. Publishers, however, are only in it for the cash. The player marketplace was also very different when the first Guild Wars was released. People now, I would argue, have different expectations in terms of levels of support, updates, etc. This is one big reason for the subscription model. It’s not simply an attempt to wring more money out of people (although it is that) but because all that support infrastructure is quite expensive.

  3. paul says:

    I am counting on NCSoft counting on the core millions of Guild Wars fans who will embrace the new paradigm and pay the purchase and only fee to play the game online. I expect it will be very different to what we are used to and for that reason alone it will be fan-freakin’-tastic.

    I still have to check out Eve Online – though the idea of paying a monthly fee for a game I have already bougth does not sit well with me.

  4. Nico says:

    It’s too bad that you’re ignoring the 3rd “major” MMO about to be released before these two.

    In my opinion, that game would have fit this article well.

    • Twitchdoctor says:

      You going to keep us guessing? There are several MMOs that will likely be released prior to these two (although release dates are of course as slippery as a stockbroker’s sense of ethics).

  5. Nico says:

    Theres only one big budget MMO aside from these two that has some chance of success….

    Final Fantasy XIV.

    • DamarisM says:

      I think perhaps the point of the blog was revolutionary approaches and systems to MMORPG production and development and whether they’re viable long term with regards to player expectations and commercial viability. From that stand point, Final Fantasy isn’t really elligible for consideration I don’t think.
      FF is (as always) gorgeous and highly playable but while some of the mechanics change from release to release, they never really push the boundaries in terms of actual game play innovation… and why should they? FF is a Majorly successful franchise where millions would be upset and riot if the elements they knew and loved changed too greatly.
      In a blog that is about games that change to gameplay elements that challenge all we know and expect, I haven’t seen anything from Final Fantasy to indicate that XIV is going to step into that criteria. A new world, yes. New characters, yes. Complete revolutionary overhaul to mechanics, story development and character development? No sign of that yet (that I’ve seen anyway). Course I’ll still hanker for it… There’s no reason FF should change. 🙂

  6. Nico says:

    “FF is (as always) gorgeous and highly playable but while some of the mechanics change from release to release, they never really push the boundaries in terms of actual game play innovation… and why should they? FF is a Majorly successful franchise where millions would be upset and riot if the elements they knew and loved changed too greatly.”

    The problem here is that you apply the way single player FF’s work to how the MMO FF works. These are not similar games, at all.

    I could even make an argument that FFXIV is closer to WoW than it is to any single player FF. It is still an MMO, and it being MMO of the Final Fantasy franchise doesn’t change that. Just like WoW is not a strategy game, ad one could argue that WoW is closer to any other MMO than it is to WC3.

    Well, back to my original point. To be completely honest with you, and as objective as possible, things that XIV plan to be doing is something completely different when compared to GW2 and TOR. It tries to change the genre in it’s own way. That is why I think it would be extremely important for that game to be included in this blog post as well, if he wants to take a general look at the situation. Leaving out one of the major MMO’s being released soon is not a good idea in that respect.

    If you want, I can start listing the things that XIV is about to do differently (or at least in a non-traditional, yet not revolutionary way) and you will notice what I mean. It’s understandable that if you haven’t been looking forward to the game since it was announced and haven’t read every bit of news and facts regarding it it’s easy to come to the conclusion of yours.

    “Overhaul” to the mechanics, story development and character development- the info is there but you need to dig deep enough to find it.

    I’d just like to know what the author of the blog would have to say about those things- hopefully he isn’t dismissing it “just because it’s FF” or anything like that though. That would be irrelevant.

  7. Twitchdoctor says:

    I certainly would never dismiss Final Fantasy. It is one of the all-time great gaming franchises and it set the bar for deep, immersive storytelling (a bar that SWTOR, for example, is going to have to work pretty hard to clear). And I’m kind of relieved, Nico, that you had FF in mind; for one moment I was deathly afraid this was going to be another Starcraft 2 plug! There are quite a few similarities, actually, between FF and WoW in the sense that you mention: FF is able to draw on a rich lore from previous games, just as WoW did when it first came out, building on existing Warcraft lore.

    One of the reasons for writing this blog is so that other people will drop by and offer other perspectives on other games that they think are connected with these kinds of issues. You clearly have a more detailed knowledge of FF XIV than I. I do, however, have no doubt that it will be an enjoyable game. Some of the games in the FF franchise have been weaker than others but I’m not sure there has ever been a truly crappy FF game.

    Here are my concerns, however. For the purposes of this specific discussion, I feel it is important to distinguish between innovation in particular game features, and innovation in an entire category of game features. “Game Changer” is a cliche, but it actually captures pretty well what I am interested in: does a particular change that the developers are touting as “revolutionary” and “innovative” actually change the fundamental nature of the game being played? So, for example, there undoubtedly will be major changes in the new FF to the story and character development, as you say. But since FF is a story-driven experience, simply changing the story that gets told isn’t really a game changer. (Could it make for a fun and exciting game? Absolutely. One thing I’m definitely not trying to do here is say that games without major category innovation are bad games. You can enjoy a really good formula action flik, for example, even though it doesn’t do anything particularly original, it just does it all very well: that, by the way, is the Blizzard trademark). Whether the changes in game mechanics in FF are substantial enough to change the game entirely is at this point a bit of an unknown. From what I’ve read so far I don’t think they are, but you may disagree with me on that.

    I also acknowledge that I’m setting the innovation bar unreasonably high (there have actually been very few major game-changing innovations in the MMORPG genre especially, since Ultima and Everquest lo these many years ago) but that is because I’m interested in thinking about what would really push the genre in new directions (even if those will be new directions that many, many players may not want, initially, to go).

    A couple of examples. CCP’s decision to design EVE without any kind of conventional character avatar (as was, and is, standard practice). This is still a huge problem for many potential players (playing dress-up with your character is a huge draw for many of us). But it also opened up whole new kinds of gameplay; when your avatar is, effectively, a device (your ship), the game changes. Another innovation is actually one that was introduced for the first time in, I believe, Final Fantasy XI: the blind auction system. I love this system personally, but players are still divided about it, and were divided about it when Pirates of the Burning Sea introduced it. Tabula Rasa introduced an interesting cloning mechanic which, coupled with its branching career structure (and this also seems to be another idea that Bioware has “borrowed” for SWTOR) allowed you to explore different characters without all the tedious leveling up in the early stages. (Other games had played with elements of this, but no one else, as far as I know, put it together so elegantly as TR).

    But this also shows how very few games come up with genuine innovations. AOC, STO, Aion, Warhammer Online are all fundamentally the same, traditional, MMORPG. Their appeal is actually this similarity, dressed up in slightly different eye candy and with different gameplay elements that are really minor variations on established themes. On the other hand, a game that ditched the basic quest structure of the MMO would be truly innovative.

  8. Nico says:

    Thanks for the great reply. If you don’t mind, I’d like to discuss the subject a bit further, since I find the current situation quite interesting. 3 big developers, 3 big MMO’s.. lots of potential (to fail?!).

    Now, I am going to throw around some particular things that I feel XIV will be doing “differently” (loose term). I’d like to hear what you have to say about them. Sorry if I’m a bit longwinded here, but I feel that I can’t explain it well enough otherwise. Bear with me!

    -First, there is the character progression system. Divided into two categories, there are “Skill Ranks” and “Physical Levels”. Physical Leves (PL) raise as you kill monsters, depending on their strength. Each time you level up, you gain a set amount of points which you can use to raise your stats however you wish. Hp, Mp, Str, Dex, even elemental alignments can be modified this way. PL can only be leveled up once. Skill Ranks (SR) on the other hand raise as you use your weapon skills and the more you use them, the more skill points you get at the end of battle/synthesis/gathering process. As your SR gets higher you gain more abilities, skills and spells for your current weapon type. SR can be raised as many times as there are classes in the game, as every class has their own SR and some classes have more than one SR (for example Sword+shield class).

    -With the way these two methods correlate with each other, it creates an interesting clash to the progression in the game. Firstly, since PL can only be leveled once and SR’s can be leveled multiple times, SR progression is slower than that of PL’s. Secondly, there are No group size limitations where exp is concerned, which means if you kill a hard monster with 3 players you get the same amount of experience as if you beat the same monster with 10 players. Now, the dilemma here is that if you use 10 people to fight the same monster, it dies thrice as fast if not faster. That means you will indeed get more experience that way and your SR rises up faster- but at the same time, you get only one third or less the skill points at the end of battle, because you don’t get to use as many skills since the fight is not as long as before.

    The same way, if you fight a hard monster with two players and get a massive skill point bonus at the end of the long battle, your SR goes up at a much slower rate as well. Therefore an interesting and (IMO) different situation is created, where the ‘best’ way to progress is not to Power Level through the content as fast as possible, but to find a balance between killing speed and monster strength when both your SR and PL would raise at a decent rate, without one of them getting ahead.

    -Another aspect of the character progression system: The “classes” are divided into four subcategories, each with it’s own theme. The interesting thing about this feature is, that within different subcategories (and between them as well) all classes can share skills, spells and abilities with each other. There are only few limitations as to what skills you can switch between classes. When changing skills/spells between two subcategories, they lose some of their effectiveness. For example, if you equip a Conjurer spell “Cure” on the Gladiator class, the spell becomes single target instead of AoE, and it’s casting range is reduced. When switching skills within one subcategory, there are less (if any) limitations. Each class is a a kind of a hybrid as well, and there are less “pure” role archetypes such as tank, DPS or healer. To make the system even more flexible, you can change your class anywhere you want (as long as you’re not in a battle situation) by simply switching your weapon type to something else. Your Skill Rank is tied to your weapon type, after all.

    -In an addition to this, there exists a skillcap which means you can only set a number of spells or skills on your class at time. Each skill/spell has their own skill point cost so you can either equip fewer stronger skills, or more weaker, yet versatile skills to suit your needs.

    -Combat has few differences to it as well. Firstly, a big part of the combat is fighting against a group of enemies with a group of players, and it seems to be the major focus of the game. Secondly, your position and direction compared to your allies and monsters matters more than usually. When you hit the monster from side or behind, it takes more damage (same works for you). If you hit the monster from afar (with a lance for example), it takes more damage and can’t hit you as easily. Some spells are conal AoE so to get most use of them you have to position yourself so that you get most out of the AoE range. Some spells are self-target AoE meaning you need to run to middle of your allies and cast the spell there, and not just from the backlines. Some skills can pierce through enemies between you and your target, and one class has a “stance” in which if he doesn’t move for a while his attacks become AoE, meaning if he is positioned well his damage will double or even triple. I think that all of these features are be new and innovative.

    -There is a global cooldown shared between every action you do. Your attacks happen manually, and you can choose when to do them. In addition to this, your attacks get stronger if you choose to wait for an “effect gauge” to fill. It raises attack but lowers accuracy in three stages, and every second you wait you get one stage. Once it’s full and you choose to wait, it resets back to 0 stages.

    -There is a combo mechanic which lets players chain together attacks and create additional effects. Most players in the group can participate in them.

    -You can not recover MP through resting. Only by using few skills with extremely long recast times, using pretty expensive consumables or visiting an Aetheryte teleporter you can replenish your MP. While it may not sound such a groundbreaking change at first, I’ll come back to it later to explain how it will affect things.

    -The quest system, while not fundamentally changing the way questing works in MMO’s, implements some features yet to be seen. For example, most “leves” have a time limit. There are also 5 difficulties for every “leve”, and doing the harder leve results in better rewards as well. 1 star leve being the solo leve and the easiest, while 5 star leve is for 10+ players and is the hardest. The leves are also “phased” meaning while the quest happens on the open world, the monsters and other objectives are “instanced” and claimed for your group only. This is necessary addition because of the time limit; you wouldn’t want to lose the quest only because other people killed all your leve monsters. It takes care of the overcrowdness issues too.

    -And now, here comes the feature that I feel makes the most difference here: You have your group vs group combat, no MP regen and quests with time limit. This means, that your quest may tell you to go from point A (aetheryte) to point B (aetheryte) to point C (aetheryte). Between these points you have to kill quest monsters with your group while trying to conserve MP for it to not run out before getting to the next aetheryte, and dealing with the timelimit so you can’t do it using the safe way or you’ll run out of time. This is what creates a more tactical aspect for normal progression and I think it’s different enough system to warrant a mention.

    There are of course other differences I haven’t listed, but I think these are the main ones so far. While I don’t think there is nothing “revolutionary” in there, I am fairly certain some of those things are evolutionary at least. I look forward to your reply.

    Also, last comment.. I completely agree about your Blizzard comment. They do what they do extremely well.

    • Twitchdoctor says:

      Nico, no need to apologize for being long-winded. You’ll have noticed that I’m not exactly short-winded myself! It is interesting having all these MMOs coming out in the (hopefully) near future; I think all of them are actually primed to succeed, as long as people are prepared to think about success a little differently. There is a tendency for players (and companies) to think that if something doesn’t become as big as WoW then it isn’t a success. The problem is, of course, the amount of money you have to spend to create a halfway decent-looking MMO these days means that you need a large volume of sales to begin to make that back.

      I’d known about some of the features you are highlighting here but you provided a great description of some ones I wasn’t familiar with, so thanks for that. As I said previously, many of these features promise to make for an engrossing game, and it is obvious why so many people are excited about it. And, given who the developers are, you can pretty much bet these things will be implemented effectively.

      Some of these features, of course, have been implemented elsewhere. Combo attacks, for example, have been used in AoC, POTBS, and (in the form of a damage multiplier for chained attacks) in TR, and probably others by now that I’m not familiar with. Ditto with skill caps.

      The class/theme system that they are using for character progression is not, it is true, widely employed by most MMOs, where the standard approach is to lock you into a single lock-step progression. However, what you describe here is not unknown. It seems remarkably similar in many respects (not all) to the original Star Wars Galaxies. One thing I and many other people loved about the original SWG was that it took the bold step of ditching what even at the time looked as if it was becoming the standard “level up” character dynamic. Instead, you could build your character very much like a real person; maybe having one primary specialization, but knowing a little bit of all kinds of skills: maybe you wanted to be a brawler who was a chef on the side with a bit of medical skill and a love of fishing. You could do it. (Then of course they decided to try and become WoW, introduced “iconic” characters which came with pre-set level progressions, and players (who had whined that this was what they wanted) left in droves. Can you tell I am still bitter?). They even had one of the things you are talking about here: you could have some skills, but they worked more effectively if they were acquired and deployed as part of your profession. Anyone could have a ranger skill, for example, but if that skill was owned by a ranger it was more effective.

      The actual skill progression system you describe is great. How do I know? Because I’ve played something similar. In TR you earned two kinds of experience points: attribute points, and a pool of points that could be used for skills and abilities. Attribute points accumulated at a steady rate per level; skill points received certain bonuses to the regular accumulation rate at tiers. Attribute points could be used on any one of three major attribute classes; skill and ability points could be distributed across career specific arrays of skills and abilities. Leveling was, of course, based on XP, but there were penalties for killing creatures more than five levels below you; bonuses for killing ones more than five above you, and bonuses for killing sprees which provided an inducement to wade into large pools of enemies (choose that large pool unwisely, of course, and you were on an express elevator to hell).

      In each of the above two examples, are these systems exactly the same as what you are describing here? No, not exactly. But they are recognizably similar. Someone who had played TR, for example, would probably have little difficulty picking up FF XIV.

      You suggested that we think in terms of “evolution” rather than “revolution” and I like that idea a lot; that is, I think, most often how things progress, with baby steps.

      One other way I’d suggest thinking about these elements, however. One thing that seems to describe game development pretty well (as it does for a lot of elements of popular culture) is the idea drawn from music of a theme and variations. The challenge for a composer of a theme and variation piece is to ring as many changes on your original theme as possible, taking it as far away as possible while still having it be recognizably similar to the original (Mozart was a genius at this). That explains, I think, why there’s a strong resemblance between some of the features you’ve identified and some of the examples I’ve included above.

      A “theme and variation” approach to design can produce a lot of highly enjoyable experiences. However, it certainly isn’t revolutionary. Nor is it, in any real sense, evolutionary. After a while it can contribute to the feel that an entire genre is marching in place; what felt before like a fun intellectual experience (how much can this change and still be the kind of game I enjoy playing?) starts to look a little bit like recycling.

      Again, I hasten to add, that in no way am I suggesting this will make FF a lackluster game or, indeed, that FF is even doing this any more than any other game. Part of the skill of creating something new is also figuring out how to combine old elements in novel ways, and if FF can pull off the successful combination of much of what you are describing here, it should be great. And as DamarisM suggested above, one of the things that FF has working against it is in fact its own popularity. As a franchise becomes successful and long-lived, the permissible range of revolution or even evolution (without alienating your fanbase) starts to become narrower.

      All of this may also explain why some game design degree programs, which have previously focused primarily on engineering, programming, and design elements, have started to add more humanities looking courses to their curricula (such as the history of game design). If a profession is going to progress, you need practitioners who have enough historical knowledge so that they can know when they are re-inventing the wheel (and then either choose to go in a different direction or re-invent in the full knowledge of what they are doing). After all, if you are a painter, you don’t want to start jumping up and down claiming that you invented cubism only to have someone point to a Picasso hanging on the opposite wall.

  9. Nico says:

    One more thing I want to add: While single player FF’s have always been story-centered experiences, it doesn’t work that well in an MMO environment. Of course there will be quality stories in XIV, but they inevitably take a backseat while the gameplay comes on top. Thus XIV is really quite a gameplay centered game, like the rest of the MMO’s out there.

  10. Nico says:

    Indeed, I agree with most of the things you said. I have not much experience with Tabula Rasa myself, so it is great to hear how that particular game has so much resemblance with the upcoming titles being developed.

    First, I’d like to elaborate something. As for the combo attacks, I didn’t mean that a player can chain together skills to get varying effects (games like AoC already do this like you said), but that a group of players can each do a skill and the combination of everyone’s skills used at the right time is what gives those varying effects. It is a group enhancing feature more than anything. Now I’m not sure if other games have done this (FFXI actually had something like this, but not in the same way) but it’s just to clarify what I meant by that statement.

    Also, while SWG/TR has a very similar class system, you could still only level up once. While you could take skills from any profession you wanted, sooner or later you would cap out and could not progress any further on that character. This is only the case with character stats in XIV, while there are no such limitations to skills one person can have (although to prevent monopolization some kind of limit to the amount of crafting classes a character can have maxed will probably be implemented in the future).

    Now, what I’d like to think of, in terms of evolution or “change”, is that even while SE is not attempting to recreate the whole genre, the fact that they’re taking elements from many different games, changing them a bit while at the same time implementing several more “unique” features (such as no mp regen and positioning) makes the game more than a sum of it’s parts, in my opinion.

    For example, you have the 2-way character progression from TR, and many sandboxish elements from SWG, not to mention the way classes work, and on top of it you have the quest progression from more recent games, with few twists to it as well- and that is what would make the game unique in it’s own way. It is the first time that we have all these features in one game, after all. The aftereffects this kind of “blending” has may have some unforeseen genre-changing effects, even if alone these features are nothing we haven’t seen before.

    On the other hand, I think that if they can succeed in re-inventing the wheel, and change the genre more towards an interesting mix of old and new (and good sides from each, in the best case) then it could be considered an “innovation” in itself. It would be something we have not experienced before, even if a single feature alone is not anything revolutionary.

    Now, to touch on one of your statements, specifically “Someone who had played TR, for example, would probably have little difficulty picking up FF XIV.” I do not think that it is as simple as this. While I’m sure that the character progression system in XIV will probably be familiar to someone that has played TR, the other features such as global cooldown, less strict leveling structure and combat mechanics (especially the no MP regen system) will probably not be as familiar to him. That is why I think that to someone that has not played every MMORPG out there the game will have similarities and heavy differences, depending on which game he has played.

    I really like your “theme and variation” description though. I can only agree with it. I’d like to add another perspective to it, though.

    Now, what if there are several different “themes” that have been created during the short history of MMORPG’s.. and one company comes and takes few features from each of these “themes”, mixes them up a bit while tossing out some new ideas here and there and then releases the game. The features themselves are not anything revolutionary (or even evolutionary in some cases), but the way they have been set up is something new and innovative. It’s like taking few songs from Mozart, a bit of Jazz, Blues and Pop and mixing them up to create something unheard of. The tools used to create such song is nothing new, but the end result may very well be. Now especially if you, let’s say, liked Jazz but hated Pop, this song would give you a new perspective of Pop and maybe make you like it more when mixed with Jazz than if you only listened to a Pop song. Something like that.

    I also could not agree more with you that FF’s popularity is it’s biggest problem. It is painfully evident when you look at the recently released single player titles.

    However, I may be wrong about this but I think that the MMO “FF” franchise is still new, and has gained a different fanbase than that of the single player franchise. Therefore it is not in such a bad position where innovation is concerned as the single player titles are. While there has been a backlash for some of the features in XIV (even things like class names not being “traditional” FF names, which ironically is a complaint that comes from the series past- can’t escape it completely, I guess), it’s fanbase is still “new” enough to accept change and adapt to it. That’s what I feel, at least.

  11. […] it doesn’t look as if it will be doing anything revolutionary.  It is ironic that when I first wrote about this game I thought it would be less popular with people precisely because of its revolutionary […]

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