Rants tag

Rants, ruminations, and rambling remarks from my mad, muddled, meandering mind.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Gaming Genres: Evolutions or Revolutions

Axel Night left a comment on Thursday's post "SWTOR is Too-Much/Not-Enough Like WoW":
I think part of it is we've really narrowed ourselves into this situation. If we look back at games like Ultima Online and Phantasy Star Online, how much did they have in common? Now do the same with World of Warcraft and The Old Republic. The latter have much more in common. I see arguments of "it's a copy of WoW/no it's different, stop comparing them!" But they're all really running together, in terms of core mechanics.

Rather than create new games, we've established a formula. And as elements succeed, they become static aspects of that formula. Developers of new MMORPGs ask "what can I improve" or, if we're lucky, "what can I change," but that core template remains. I have multiple friends who say, "I won't play an MMO if my character can't jump." That has become a thing! One of countless things that, as new refinements and polishes are added to this not so mini sub-genre, bloat our expectations and narrow our gaming experiences until they're these mammoth, unmanageable projects all designed to be near identical.

And now I have a Boba Fett inspired bounty hunter protecting me by shooting me in the head with his healie-pistols, because the game has to have healers. But it's nothing to worry about. He can jump. 

I like healie-pistols. Actually I haven't seen that mechanic, so I don't know about the animations, but it makes as much, if not more, sense than mystical magical healers, a la . . . every other game I've played but STO. I wonder if the insistence on being able to jump stems not from WoW or any other MMO, but from Mario games (a genre unto itself).

Anyway, you make good points, Axel. SWTOR is part of an established genre, UO and PSO (never heard of it) were not. Much like in the 90s, when we had a bunch of "Doom-clones" (including Dark Forces), but no one talks about the fact that Doom is really the second FPS. Wolfenstein came out first. It was Doom that codified the genre though. And modern FPSs have evolved into MW3 and HALO. Who really knows what MMORPGs will look like in 10 or 15 years

We can argue whether or not MMOs are going in the right direction in their evolution. It's really a matter of taste and opinion. Perfect example: I've seen people express the opinion that these games should have "Perma-death." Easy resurrection cheapens the roleplaying experience or something. They even go so far as to say it's bad design. Now let me doubly digress.

 Actors love death scenes. Why? They're memorable, they tug at the heartstrings of the audience. They make people cry. They're great. Audiences? Hate them. They're not thinking about the great acting job; they're thinking that their beloved character just went to way of all life and they're sad, or mad, or both. Maybe it brings our own mortality into sharp relief, and we're uncomfortable with that. It may be great Art, but often it is horrible movie making.

But we keep coming back for more, well some of us. In Star Trek Generations, the android Data installs an emotion chip into his neural matrix, leading to a series of funny and scary incidents. One occurs in Ten Forward where he a has a startling reaction to a drink Guinan serves him.
Even though he hates the stuff,  he wants more. In a contained story, we can accept the death of a character, sometimes.

In our own story, not so much. We become very invested in the character. Let me reassure you, Dear Reader, World of Warcraft would not be nearly as popular if people's characters died as easily as they do and never came back. After all, we have that dynamic in real life. How many people are actually willing to risk their own necks for a real adventure? Not many. That's part of the fun and appeal of these online games, they give us the illusion of adventure with real no danger, other than bad posture and carpal tunnel syndrome. With perma-death in the game, players would grow as cautious with their characters as they level up as they are with their own bodies as they age in real life.

Now, you could make the argument that it should be harder to kill a character, and then you can make death permanent. OK, but you still have to figure out how to convince the player that maybe fighting that dragon isn't such a great idea right now. So the character has to be defeated and removed from the situation without killing it. LOTRO does this with "Morale." SWTOR doesn't call it Death; the character is "Defeated." Cryptic compromised with players who wanted death penalties in STO by creating "Veteran" and "Expert" modes with greater penalties and rewards, but leaving the basic mode without a death penalty. But these are evolutions of the concept. Not revolutions.

These evolutions have come to define the genre. And despite the doomsayers and self-appointed erudites who say that this or that element of the MMO genre is "bad design"; Blizzard, BioWare, and several other games developers have several million little green reasons to argue otherwise. You can call it dumbing down the genre if you want. But sometimes designing what the people want, as opposed to producing what you think is best, is the difference between producing a Mustang, and producing an Edsel.

The beauty of "running together, in terms of core mechanics" is that the learning curve on each new game is not so steep that it becomes a barrier to entry for the player--or the game into the market. There will be some who say about a new game, "It's not different enough from the game I've been playing to warrant shifting my time and money." Others--who are tired of the story/end-game/whatever of the old game--will be able to jump to the new with a minimum of pain. This is good for new games and bored players. Some will say flaws in the genre are propagated across multiple games, but I think many of the stated "flaws" really just reflect the personal preferences and desires of the gaming "elites."
A lot of players want some kind of revolution in the MMO genre, but not most players. The problem with revolutions is that what you have after the revolution--almost by definition--can no longer be in the same category as what went before. Ultima Online was a Revolution, SWTOR is part of an Evolution. And by the way, Revolutionaries often suffer perma-death.


  1. To me the history of the FPS provides a contrast that illustrates how damn whiny MMO fans can be. Very very few FPS have been vastly different from their ancestors/ piers, and yet no one ever seems to complain about it. Heretic was really not that different from Doom II, but I played and enjoyed both. Half Life gets credit for pushing the genre forward, but apart from adding cinematic storytelling to the existing FPS formula, it really didn't play all that different from Quake or Doom. No-one playing shooters at the time was the least bit confused by the controls or basic weapon mechanics. I'd argue that was a good thing for the popularity of the game, and thus the development of FPS as a genre.

    MMO fans, are very different creatures from FPS fans. Not all of them (or likely even the majority), but many of them seem to get pissed every time a new high profile MMO decides no to set the gameplay conventions we are used to on fire. Evolutionary steps will not satisfy them in the least. They want every new MMO to be just as different from existing MMOs (or at least the current market leaders, WoW, Rift, and now almost certainly SWTOR) as EVE is different from WoW.

    BTW PSO = Phantasy Star Online. It was freaking awesome, but it's a bit of a stretch to call it an MMO. I suppose it was to about the same extent that Hellgate London was (that might be more familiar to you).

  2. I wonder if there is a vocal segment of the FPS fandom that wants different types of games.

  3. I'm with Yeebo 100% here; a good 30% of my articles in past months have harped specifically on genre and how MMO players don't seem to really grasp it or, if they do grasp it, they eschew that comprehension for favor of complaining.

    Reviews and critiques of video games by non-professionals are sort of in the same vain as non-professional reviews of computer hardware. When shopping for a good PC, you need to keep one thing in mind while perusing reviews: people who's devices have failed them are more likely than people who's devices work to log in and bitch about it. Of course the device, the manufacturer, the brand, and even the idea is tragic and horrible...when it doesn't work for the person at hand. They don't like it, so they take their time to vent about it.

    Thus, when considering reviews, you really have to weigh each positive review as far more worthy than negative ones. If a system is so good that it inspires the user to jump onto a reviews site and rave about it, that's somewhat more meaningful than somebody complaining. Naturally there's no hard and fast metric here, and other than my meandering experience I have no statistics, but that is really what I think.

    People like to complain. Elder Gamer and other industry professionals tell us that - by and large - people who state "Change this facet of your game or I'll cancel my account" very, very, very rarely actually cancel their account. They really just want to try and leverage their one perceived vote (their wallet) in an attempt to get what they think they want.

    You don't like WoW? Don't play it. (That's my solution.) You think games in its same genre are bad? Time to switch genres. There are solutions to these gripes and they are easy ones. It's not solutions they look for though, I suspect.

    As for whether there's a vocal subset of the FPS fan base, not to my knowledge; they have a well defined and functional genre: shooting, cover, weapons, VOIP, vehicles are mainstays. Every FPS has to have them, without question. MMOs in both the theme park genre and the sandbox genre have their own mainstays (you know, defining them as genres) but the MMO community overlooks it.

    I'd be curious to see some meaningful statistics as to why.