It seems we had a busy weekend in the MMO blog world, fueled by an interview with Richard Bartle done by Michael Zenke over at Massively. As with anything remotely interesting posted on the internet these days, the responses to the interview, and the multitude of blog posts related to it, range from the ‘you’re an idiot stfu’ to ‘exactly what I was thinking’.
The real headline grabbing line of the interview is the comment “I’ve already played Warhammer. It was called World of Warcraft“, which when taken out of context or misinterpreted is all the internet needs to jump on the nerd rage bandwagon. When clarified (Bartle was talking about the setting itself), he is actually only 50% correct. Originally WoW was indeed the Warhammer setting without the official license (they lost that at some point in development), but only until Blizzard started putting their unique spin on the world. The Warhammer IP is lacking such gems as pretty evil elves, noble aliens that are descendents of the super evil alien guys, and a world where everyone (aside from said super evil aliens) is a good guy, just misunderstood. Even the undead are good guy freedom fighters, yay! It might be a world, but outside of a magic arena, there is very little war being crafted.
Bastardized lore bitching aside, Bartle does bring up an interesting point to someone who has been in the MMO scene since Neverwinter Nights; MMOs really are fairly similar now. Think about it, when Ultima Online came out, it was totally new. So new that the term MMO was a few years off, and everyone was a damn noob just logging on and wandering around (and getting PK’ed). Then came EverQuest, and how many people looked at EQ and said ‘eh, it’s UO with elves, who cares’? Right, no one. What you did hear was ‘EQ is carebear land, gtfo newbie’. Which was accurate, EQ was carebear land compared to UO, but more importantly, EQ was radically different than UO in almost every single way. While UO catered to the explorer and the killer, EQ was designed for the achiever and socializer. The final piece of the original ‘big three’ was Asheron’s Call. When AC came out, was it considered ‘EQ in a random setting’? Again, no. And AC had its own charm and gameplay that was again different than UO or EQ. The original ‘big three’ where all successful in their own way, and offered gamers at the time three unique choices in setting, gameplay, and overall game design philosophy.
Fast forward to 2004 and World of Warcraft, and you start hearing talk of ‘a more polished EQ’. Sure the setting was different, WoW brought a huge host of design changes that later became MMO standards, and above all it was a damn fun game, but it was not the radical change that UO/EQ/AC were when compared to each other. WoW followed the EQ formula, gave it a bigger budget, and polished it until it was done.
Finally, we have Age of Conan and soon Warhammer Online, two major games that from day one were being billed as ‘WoW but with feature x’. Which is not exactly a bad thing in terms of good MMO gaming from a pure fan perspective (readers know I’m dying to play WAR), but it does say something about the current trend in MMO gaming, and what the future might hold. With budgets as big as they are today, and with so much at stake financially, perhaps the days of great innovation are gone, and the best we can hope for in a triple A title going forward is the EQ formula + twist x. Look at any major trend that blew up, be it shooter games (Doom), sports games (Madden), or racing games (Need for Speed, Grand Turismo), and what do we see? Madden (insert current year), the same game as last year but with one new gimmick. Is it really that shocking that MMO gaming, which officially became ‘kind of a big deal’, has followed the same pattern of success?
Innovation is still alive and well, but you won’t find it in games with millions of subscribers. You will find it in games like EVE, A Tale in the Desert, Shadowbane, and countless other ‘niche’ games. And has history has shown us time and time again, the niche will be culled; the best features harvested out, and ‘polished’ for the release of WoW2. And like you, I’ll be there day one, like a good little fanboi, dying to get into beta.