Opinion: Quilt, Not Blanket
Combat has been the traditional “bread and butter” of MMOs for…I dunno. As long as they’ve been a thing? It’s not just MMOs, though, as combat is a fairly simple concept to grasp and implement (relatively speaking, of course), and is a natural fit for a “game”. Games are contests between two or more sides. There may be a single prize awarded to the winner, or maybe the goal is simply to best the other player(s). Combat – more specifically, conflict – is a situation that encompasses many emotions like sadness, anger, surprise, and excitement, and conflict through games is something that it seems everyone understands, thanks to the worldwide passion for sports as well as an uncountable number of analog games like poker, craps, Monopoly, and the bane of my existence, Pictionary (don’t ask). Combat in video games is a natural fit, because in the end, one player or side is victorious (either PvP or PvE), and the other side is dead. Conflict is a known and expected literary tope that provides a backdrop of almost all game worlds. In these worlds, the participating in the conflict through combat means there’s no ambiguity, as the winner feels the rush of endorphins and the loser is enraged enough to either try again, or to quit in a fury – something that sounds to be 180 degrees from what a company looking to increase retention would want to engender, but that fury can lead to an emotional attachment to the game in it’s own right.
When looking at the MMO genre from a higher vantage point than what a single game represents, the argument of “sameness” surfaces. As often as people call them “World of Warcraft clones”, it’s what consumers expect “different” to mean, and what maybe the developers mean “different” to mean. Which perspective is more important? Well, each side would argue that their definition is the more valid. People who make these games have to make the best decisions they’re able to make within constraints (i.e. what investors are willing to take a chance on). Players are the ones who are going to spend the cash to buy the game, and then maybe to pay a sub, or to spend cash in the cash-shop if they like what they see. If I was forced at gunpoint to make a tally, though, I’d have to say that, as the ones who are asked to accept the final product, the consumers have the edge. If they don’t feel that Next Big MMO really brings anything to the table that Big MMO They Are Already Subscribed To doesn’t have, then there is zero reason for them to jump ship. “Tiny” differences aren’t enough to make Next Big MMO stand out anymore, and players are making that known. It’s totally anecdotal, but there seems to me that there are more people who are fence-sitting or are flat-out shunning some recent and upcoming titles like TERA, Guild Wars 2, The Secret World, and The Elder Scrolls Online. Just a few years ago, the hype around these games would be an unassailable tidal wave of fanchild slobber, but it seems more and more people are just willing to leave them alone.
Although it’s unfair to lay the blame at the feet of a single mechanic, I keep thinking that if these games offered players more choice – more real, honest choice – outside of combat, that they could be more attractive to this hardened segment of MMO veterans who can get combat anywhere, in any game. The idea that “you can have it in any color, so long as it’s white” went out in the 1960s, but MMOs are still telling us that “you can make your own experiences in our world, so long as it’s through combat”. There’s always a little asterisk, of course, because all games have crafting and the ability to play the auction house and other “nth-tier” systems that fill crevasses of down-time when the design doesn’t expect you to be mashing hot-bar buttons and collecting boots from wolves for some laze-ass NPC. I’m sure that legions of players never engage in those nth-tier mechanics. Some are probably A-OK with the constant combat focus, and others never engage in crafting because, quite frankly, it’s not worth it most of the time. Beyond crafting there’s…what? More combat. It’s not that I’m advocating for a dividing line between systems that can never be crossed. There are those who wouldn’t craft even if it were a full-fledged system (like in EverQuest II or Vanguard), but there are also those who would probably appreciate the opportunity to engage in combat on Monday, crafting on Tuesday, and other systems on the other days of the week in order to keep their experience interesting.
Most current or future MMOs are like blankets. They’re uniform in construction and texture, made with the single thread of combat, but embellished with other design aspects that are advertised to entice us and to “differentiate” one blanket from the next. Maybe what we need is an MMO quilt, something that’s less uniform and more diverse – honestly diverse, where nth-tier systems are “real” systems, and not just expected add-ons. We should stop thinking about crafting as “downtime busy-work” or “time-sink while chatting” and more as an opportunity to give players a choice in how they want to spend their gaming sessions. Crafting is just one, known-quantity example, of course. Housing is another that’s well done in some games, done “ok” in others, but is absent in most, to the great sadness of many. Beyond those examples is uncharted territory that has to be a veritable gold-mine of alternative game-styles that have yet to be explored – probably for fear that untested systems would spook investors who are already wary of the letters M, M and O.
At this point, though, the implementation of the MMO genre is stagnating, driving away MMO fans who still love the idea the open worlds with unrestrained social opportunities in an always-on environment, but are simply tired of the inevitable outcome heralded by the “Fauxhawked Developer In Trendy T-Shirt” videos that promise (r)evolutionary design while showing impressive cinematics and playing soaring orchestral music. I think that it’s a good thing that players are seemingly becoming resistant to The Hype, but I’m worried that the signal is being read by the industry that the audience no longer cares about the MMO genre, which will force investors to move their money elsewhere – like into mobile – instead of using this as an opportunity to take real chances with changes that players might be asking for in a bid to win them back.