MMO Design Ramble

I’ve got a lot of thoughts written down about the MMO genre waiting to be formed into articles, and with each passing year the collective pile of thoughts gets bigger and messier. What turned into a simple forum reply ended up being a giant ramble containing some of my thoughts and inquiries about some basic problems that seem to plague the western MMO industry currently.

A member of a forum I frequent asked about any MMOs using skill systems recently. Apparently Star Trek Online is using a skill system, which afaik is the highest profile game to do a skill system in a long while. Too long.

Honestly, the “diku era” (or frankly, the WoW era at this point what with the new role of quests and all) has to be coming to an end sooner or later. WoW isn’t the only big online success, and most of the other successful online ventures are wildly different and see fairly equal player retention. And most of these aren’t based on leveling or progressing roadblock statistics at all. It’s just a matter of time before developers begin realizing that copying WoW is folly and learning from their mistakes (however many of them need to happen, heh).

Frankly it’s a shame it hasn’t happened yet (not a global change, mind you – just one game to go out and try something new I mean) and it sort of speaks volumes about how big of a problem design and implementation is in the MMO industry, let alone creativity itself. It’s pretty amazing when we’re so devoid of new and interesting features that we begin salivating over something as bland as public quests. Quests that are specifically designed to be done with other players. In a genre that boasts being “massively multiplayer”. Brilliant! And it only took us until 2008 to think of this.

With designers being tossed around left and right, being called saviors one moment and scapegoats the next, they seem to be the easiest target to blame, but is it always solely their fault? I can’t imagine there hasn’t been any good ideas but rather that they all just get shot down due to being “unproven” or having an unknown development time or some such. I’d love to get a behind the scenes look of any given MMO’s development process, like what happened to an extent with Vanguard before it switched over to SOE (although that wasn’t on the best of terms).

Deadlines are another thing that interest me, as it seems WoW is pretty much the only MMO to come out recently that was allowed to take its time and become as well developed as it needed to be. Of course Blizzard is well known for this development style and continues to apply it in both patches and expansions for the game. It seems these days everything else is just developed as “quick, we have a deadline to be as good as WoW in one year! Hurry!”.

Failure after failure just leaves me with a ton of questions. Why do we end up with such below average games? Is it the design to begin with, or is the design solid and rather production is the root of the problem? Do deadlines stifle creativity? Do the poorly implemented features not get changed post-launch because it’s too expensive to replace them (that, while poor features, are indeed implemented – another major problem in MMOs as one loosely constructed feature can be the downfall of a game as all features are extrapolated exponentially over the course of the game)? Are these facets contributing factors to a poor launch/subscription base, thus creating an ongoing downward spiral towards inevitable failure?

Maybe producers need to just take their time and not immediately jump on the hype train the minute the developers have a single piece of artwork, thus forcibly accelerating the development process. Maybe the foul way betas are handled recently (i.e. as a marketing tool) is a contributing factor to the downfall of recent MMOs. As one gamer looking in from the outside, it just seems like a big tangled indiscernible mess. I’d love to talk with some industry veterans about what it’s like on the inside.

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