So let's move on to the here and now.
If we accept that there has been a kind of 'lag' between how gameplay has developed in gaming in general, and how far it has come in MMOs, we then have to ask how we approach that. Do we need to address it? Is it actually not a problem? If we do need to address it, then how do we tackle it?
..and do we currently have the technology to be able to do any of it?
The compromises of an online space.
Designing an MMO is, due to the limitations of current technology, often as much about compromise as it is anything else. We know we currently can't match those cinematic console experiences every time. Just consider the length of the average console hit these days, the playtime alone would constitute what players expect from their first week playing an MMO title. I have talked before about my hopes that the genre will diversify into more interesting and compelling forms of the genre. That isn't an easy task as we all bring expectations about what an MMORPG 'was' and what an MMO 'should be'...and we aren't all of the same opinions...
The desires of MMO gamers...
As developers we are of course always asking ourselves about what we think players want, and are looking for, and what we can do to provide a compelling experience with the tools we have available.
You see, I think there are two seemingly cohesive drivers at play here, that are actually not as compatible as players would like, given the limitations of our current technology.
- The Gameplay desire: On one hand there is a real desire for gameplay to evolve and 'catch-up' with the single players experience and inject more fun, pace, interactivity and immediacy into the experience. We know how cinematic a game could be thanks to those single player games, and we yearn for our MMOs to follow suit.
- The Massive Meaningful World desire: Then we have the thing that makes an MMO different - the fact that they offer a fully realised online world for us to explore, live in, and have adventures in. That, for many players, is the true appeal of the genre. It is a shared experience with other players, a real community, a world they can believe in. Furthermore, as we move towards a new generation of online gamers, they want an evolution here too. They want worlds that are truly intractable, where their individual choices and actions have a direct impact in the game world. To have a game world that genuinely changes.
These two things can actually end up being mutually exclusive with our current technology. The risk we run in designing MMOs is often that we want to please both these desires and we end up compromising both of them to some degree.
Desires of Designers
You then also have a shifting and emerging amongst those designing MMO titles, and that is a greater emphasis on story. Now I have spoken about this before at length, so won't go into it in too much detail again here, but at a top level the design of the genre has also evolved.
Many of the early titles were more about creating worlds than specifically guiding a player through them. Some will argue back and forth about whether the currents trends are a step forward or a step backwards (it largely depends on your subjective opinion on what an MMO should be), but it is hard to deny that a more structured approach to quests and setting have meant that designers focus a lot more on telling a story, or a set of stories, that they intend to be experienced in a more linear fashion than any of those earlier titles had.
This adds yet another desire into the mix.
So let's take go back to the practical example I mentioned in the first post.
Vindictus (or Mabinogi Heroes, as it is known in Korea) is a good example of a title that does really well focused on one of those desires at the expense of the other. The gameplay resonates well with some veteran MMO players (many of our designers included) because it is inherently more fun and immediate to play through due to it's use of the source engine and physics. It plays a little bit more like an action RPG than your average MMO, and the addition of physics gives it that more dynamic feel. Evolution of combat mechanics is a good thing for the genre, and for those who have 'been there and done that' experiencing anything new has an inherently greater effect.
It is fun to hack, slash and bash through your opponents, and with the physics system provided by the Source engine, it makes for a much more involved experience than you find in the more traditionally inspired games.
The side of effect of having that dynamic gameplay means that the gameplay is broken up into instanced episodes. The hubs operate more as a gaming lobby than as an explorable world.
Likewise, the 'combo system' nature and immediacy of the combat means that the palette of abilities you collect and use aren't quite as extensive as you might find in the more traditional model.
Then some players question those elements based on their subjective belief of what an MMO should be. Does it qualify as an 'MMO'? Some, who have both those desires listed above, will argue not. Given that it is effect a small team instanced co-op experience, if you share those desires it is easy to share that point of view. It doesn't have an open world to explore, it is heavily instanced, and doesn't let you fully customize your character (there are preset class / sex / appearance combos)...all of which are things that many would say are required for them to consider it as an MMO. That is where that second desire comes in, and is used to detract in some way from the game
Most of those things though are compromises that have to be found in order to bring that gameplay to the table. We simply don't have the technology yet to allow players that kind of interaction in a fully open-world, non-instanced, setting.
All that doesn't make it a bad game. In fact it is well designed game with a fun gameplay experience...which starts to lead us to the question behind this post.
Do you accept games that compromise in one area if they provide a good experience in another aspect?
We often seem to focus on what a game isn't rather than what it is, just because it is loosely categorized as an MMO title. For the genre to evolve though we will mostly likely need to embrace both of those key desires separately.
There will be games that will drive forward the gameplay desire, and make new and interesting combat mechanics in an online space, but maybe to achieve that they will have to be more heavily instanced, or not focus as much on an open world.
Likewise there might be games that strive for that open world, a huge game space for people to explore and discover. That might have to come at the expense of more innovative gameplay though.
The idea of having a more dynamic world might also require more compromise, it might mean you have to accept more simple mechanics so that the world can be more expansive or dynamic.
Personally I think there is space in the genre for titles that cater to all variety of those desires. A game that decides to focus on just one area can be just as good an MMO experience as one that tries to tackle all of them. It will just be different...and different isn't always bad...
So what is your preference?