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Desires and Compromises - 1: The Gameplay Generation Gap

Here we go, another one that has ended up too long for a single post. I was about half way through when I realized this would probably make for more than one post. This time I am going to explore a little on the theme of MMO gameplay, how it has evolved and how that interacts with both modern gaming expectations and the technical limitations and potential of the genre.

As always this is a discussion piece, hopefully there will be some good questions for you all to mull over at the end of these musings, as I wonder what your preferences might be on these observations...

The thought for this post was sown when quite a few people in the office started playing Vindictus, one of the latest Nexon games to reach the western market. I had played a little of the beta periods, and while the Source engine based physics added a fresh element to the game-play it also, for me personally, lacked some of the elements I personally look for in an MMO. I did however, see how appealing it was to many people in the office...and me being me, that means I start thinking about the why and how, and that transforms into an overly long blog post or two.

The game is a good example of quite a few of the subjects that I have written about here over the last year....how do we evolve gameplay in MMOs...what compromises do we have to make to do certain things...there are lots of good and interesting development reasons why a game like that, is made in the format it is, and we will get back to that example a little more in part two. It made me think about the desires of players, and the compromises we are often faced with as developers. That in turn made me go back to a favorite pastime of mine, analyzing (and possibly over-analyzing) the changes in what developers have sought to accomplish in games...

...so first I want to embark on a short(ish) but important history lesson that might just highlight why this subject presents some interesting challenges for the genre.

A Short history of the last decade and why it effects MMO development

If you can, think of the years of 1998 and 1999. If you have been playing online games that long I want you to cast your minds back. Lets think of the two or three major titles back then, in Ultima Online, Everquest and Asheron's Call. Cornerstones of the genre, all still running, and the games that effectively dictated many aspects of the traditional template for an MMORPG. Great games all of them, each in their own way, and the first introduction to online gaming for many of us.

If you weren't playing games that far back, this might still be interesting. While it might not be relevant to how you see MMO gaming, it might give some insight into the experiences of those of us who have, and with whom you play each and every day in your virtual world.

Playstation 2 was still a year away, the XBox and the GameCube hand't even launched yet. The latest generation of consoles with their hard drives, DVD and Blu-ray players, motion sensors, and camera integrations were all merely twinkles in the eye of research and development minds at Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo. Final Fantasy VII was the latest game in that series. Counter Strike was still just a popular mod for the original Half Life. Halo was still two years away. Baldur's Gate was just getting it's first expansion and Bioware had only made two games as a studio.

It was a long time ago relatively speaking and games have come a long way in terms of what they offer the gamer...

...which means gamers, and their expectations, have also come a long way since then...

We have had bullet time, cover mechanics, zero gravity game-play, even portals added to the mix...entire genres have been developed and re-imagined in that time. We have gone from Command and Conquer through Total War to Company of Heroes in RTS games. Shooters have experienced everything from Deus Ex, Half Life 2, Halo and Gears of War. Adventure games had disappeared somewhat until they started reappearing on the current generation of console arcades and re-issues. It is kind of hard to wrap your head around all the developments we have seen in that time and how very different the games that blew us away in 1999 were to those that have the most impact today.

...ten years has been a very long time in gaming...

...but has that been true of MMOs?

In those days, the experience offered by an MMORPG wasn't all that fundamentally different from that offered from many other titles or console games,if you really broke it down. They were fun and interesting within the confines of what we expected from a computer game. Sure, they were slightly slower paced, but they shared very similar mechanics to their single player cousins. Running around Norrath in Everquest didn't feel all that different from running around a first person shooter of the time. Playing Ultima Online didn't differ that much from Baldur's Gate in terms of core mechanics.

The gameplay experience in those games didn't vary all that much from the experience offered by many of their peers in other genres. Other than in pacing, you couldn't really argue they offered a worse experience 'because they were an MMO', and in fact in some ways they actually felt more exciting and fast paced due to the lack of a pause option or a quick-save utility. For many of us this was the first time we felt that excitement...in many ways they were the best experiences of their time in gaming for many of us...

Compare that to now...

The brilliantly cinematic and interactive experiences that are created for a modern console title have evolved tremendously from those early first generation console titles. Now some might argue that core gameplay has lost some depth along the way, as developers constantly aspire to better accessibility, but it is hard to deny that the form of games has come an awful long way. The experience of playing a great game, is much more visceral than it was a decade ago. You can argue that the mechanics might actually be simpler, but there is no denying that playing something like Enslaved, or Red Dead Redemption feels very different from playing World of Warcraft, Aion, Age of Conan or whatever your current favorite MMO is.

Now you are more likely to hear some be apologetic for the mechanics of an MMO, because they simply don't match up to the best console experiences. While people still, rightfully, acknowledge that the social experience of an MMO can make for great moments and a fantastic experience, there seems to be a general acceptance that this happens more despite of the mechanics of an MMO rather than because of them.

The point being that single player games, and in particular the fast evolution of console technology, has powered a radical shift in the game experience for the average gamer. The games that we play on a console now offer a much more dramatic experience (at least the good ones do) and that in turn raises our expectations as to what kind of experience a 'fun' a game can provide.

Likewise, on the other side of the comparison, MMO titles offer something that many single player games can't match. They gave us our first massive worlds to explore, and the first time we had a truly shared game experience across the internet.

So how does that effect MMO development now?

This is something I will dive into in a lot more detail in the next post...but for now, it is well worth considering how the development of the industry as a whole has impacted MMO development in terms of what we strive towards, or maybe more importantly, what we think players want us to be striving for...

So question time now that I have brought it up. Are you more interested in the more dynamic, cinematic experiences being incorporated into actual MMO gameplay? Has the UO / EQ template that was so well refined by Blizzard started to tire on you? Or, like a good classic game of chess do you feel those tried and tested mechanics will continue to be sufficient to hold your attention through the next generation of games?

There are a lot of things to consider here, and hopefully raises some interesting thoughts. Thoughts we can look at a little more and elaborate on in the next post.





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