The MMO genre has many unique aspects that separate it from other gaming genres, with perhaps the ability of fans to shape future content being among the greatest. Everyone has at least some idea of their perfect game, and while no game will ever match 100% to that idea, the MMO genre at least gives you the opportunity to voice your requests and perhaps see actual results. If enough people request a feature, and that feature is technically feasible and won’t have major side impacts, a good dev team will listen and attempt to please their fans. From beta onward, fans have multiple channels (emails, forums, fansites, blogs) to submit feedback and take part in the future direction of a title.
And while there are indeed many avenues to take when trying to voice your opinion, one will always be superior to the rest: your money. When you initially purchase a box you are telling the company you think what they are selling is interesting enough to drop some cash on, and for each month you subscribe you are giving the dev team a vote of confidence. When you re-subscribe because of a new patch or expansion you are again saying you support this change/addition. And ultimately, when you unsubscribe, it’s the most direct and clear way of telling a company that what they are offering is no longer acceptable or of interest to you.
And with the above as a base: If you bought Aion, you are telling NCSoft and the genre as a whole “more of the same please”. Paying the $50-65 up front, and any months after, and you more or less give up your right to complain that the genre is boring, that no one is trying new things, and that too many games are just shallow time-sinks that apply a fresh coat of paint to the same themepark and rides.
If you are happy with what Aion and games very similar to it offer, no issue, enjoy. But if you log in and realize you are doing the same kill ten rats quests with fairy wings and pretty colors, grinding the pre-cap game to reach the complete 180 that is end-game, and that you wish it did not all feel/play so similar that you can guess what is around the next corner, you have only yourself to blame. At no point did Aion claim to be anything but the Asian interpretation of WoW. That, from day one, was exactly why it was created, to give the east a version of WoW but with some aspects tweaked to account for cultural differences. Once the game got ‘big enough’, it was, ironically, ported over to the west with some westernization thrown in. But again, and this really is the key here, at no point did Aion ever claim to offer more than a 2009 version of what is fundamentally WoW, and when you spent your money on it you are asking for exactly that.
One issue I see related to all this is with how the average fan approaches the genre with unreasonable expectations. We expect something as complex and unpredictable as an MMO to not only be completely new, but also work flawlessly on day one. Yet short of 10 year development cycles and crazy budget numbers, that’s just not going to be the case (and even with those it’s still not a guarantee that what gets created will be worthwhile, see Tabula Rasa). It should be clear that if you are refining an established formula, like WoW did with EQ1, and Aion has done with WoW, more time can be spent on polish. You go into it knowing what’s going to work at the core, rather than hoping your players react how you expect them to.
Take Ultima Online for example. Before the games release, the developers expected players to play a certain way, and so they created a living ecosystem that would react to player behavior. Kill too many sheep in the local area, and the wolves would get more aggressive in their search for food. Kill the wolves, and the local dragon would start attacking people to get his meal. It was a living world that reacts to the players, and a great system on paper. Once live, players killed all the sheep to grind for wool, killed the wolves to grind sword skill, and quit because they did not like getting killed by the dragon or because the sheep did not respawn fast enough. A month or so after release, the system was scrapped and replaced with the now very familiar static spawn system, with all the hours put into the previous system going poof. Had the devs been able to predict such player behavior, all that time spent designing the ecosystem could have instead been spent on polishing animations or network code.
Blizzard saw what worked in EQ1, saw the flaws, and designed WoW to be what EQ1 would be after years of player feedback. It’s much easier to fix flaws when you are working from the ground up, so while EQ1 devs did their best with what they had, Blizzard was free to make the changes needed at the root of the problem. They knew players liked PvE a certain way, they knew directing players worked, and they knew gear was a great motivator, all because they had seen it work for years in EQ1. As a result, very little of their dev time went into things like the UO ecosystem, things that would ultimately be scrapped, and that leaves a lot of time/resources to polish what you know already works, while also not launching with potentially broken system. (Which is not to say Blizzard would not have their own ecosystem-like mistakes: how many different PvP systems has WoW gone through?)
MMOs that try drastically new things, be they Tabula Rasa, EVE, DarkFall, or Fallen Earth, have many uphill battles compared to clone games. For starters, they are much riskier to fund and launch simply because you don’t know if your formula is even going to work, and hence usually don’t get as much money up front. No amount of polish would have saved a game like Fury because its very idea was just not very good (but you can’t be sure until you try. Why does Counter Strike work so well and not Fury?). And even if your core ideas are solid (EVE) you still might have to scrap sections of the game to make everything work, and all that takes away from polishing. Not to mention your fans will notice the systems that don’t function perfectly, and in what is now a highly competitive space, those mistakes could doom a game from the start. The ecosystem might not have worked in UO, but back then fans of MMOs could either play UO or not plan anything, and that’s clearly not the case today.
Finally it comes down to player preference. For me an MMO is indeed always a work in progress, both in the amount of content it has and also it’s very design. As players enter the world and interact with it in the way they do, the world (devs) reacts accordingly, and round and round we go. To me themeparks are flawed (in terms of what an MMO should offer) because due to their on-rails nature, the players all more or less follow the same path, doing the same things. Your options are so limited, your path so guided, that far less dev time is spent reacting to what the players are doing, and instead simple ‘more’ is added to the end. I’ll always trade some polish in for a new, fresh living world, even if it means I’ll die to an angry dragon from time to time.