We want a Revolution (Theme Park vs Sandbox, Part 2)

4 01 2012

See the semi-related part one here. Semi-related because this article isn’t really weighing them against one another; it’s talking about them both and the net they’ve fallen into.

Way back when I started this whole blogging-thing again, I talked about what it meant to be revolutionary in video games. I enumerated what few games I felt were truly revolutionary, in that they either created a new genre or forever changed their respective genre. These kinds of games are rare by nature due to the rarity of truly new and good ideas. Ingenuity is less about science than it is about luck.

Every single platformer is, in a way, the same game. Sure, Mario now rides dinosaurs and other creatures, can fly, and partially take on the forms of other animals, but he’s still using whatever set of abilities he has to navigate his way over an obstacle course. Braid is really Mario sans power ups…with that one exceptional change where time warping turns those simple obstacle courses into full-on puzzles. How often do we see such a change? Ingenuity is especially rare; that’s why we value it and remember the times we encounter it.

When you say that Rift, WAR, and SW:TOR are simply WoW with new paint, you are actually criticizing nothing. You are lamenting the pure and simple fact that ingenuity does not come frequently or easily. Consider that each of those three titles added something to the theme park MMO genre, just as WoW did before them. At a glance:

  • WoW added massive amounts of quest content and shifted the “massive raid” scope from very large numbers down to the “one to two dozen” range.
  • WAR added game-spanning achievements (which, while not their own innovation and grossly over-marketed, saw a sudden surge of achievements in basically every other MMO).
  • Rift added dynamic regional events and integrated co-op play better than any MMO yet.
  • TOR added voice-overs and branching class story-lines.

Am I the only one that finds it funny that while we often see “[That game] is just WoW with a new paint job,” we never see “Dark Age of Camelot is just UO with a new paint job”? (Even saying it facetiously and prior to publication, I already feel the hate burning for me in a thousand reminiscent gamers.) MMOs are in this remarkably weird zone because of WoW. WoW has grossed more money than any other MMO, ever, by such stupid leaps that nobody could have predicted just how far it would go. It’s success was a decisive blow to “Meh-MOR-Pah-Gahs”.

Here is my baseless assertion (where basis is suspicion, it’s baseless) for the day. When you’re trying to convince investors “This MMO is a good idea, pay my team for 1-3  years while we build it,” for a long time investors were saying “Well, it will need to do X where X is [whatever we currently perceive WoW as having did which made it so successful], or we won’t pay you.”

And so, titles like WAR and Rift each got massive and needless additions to their actual game…like quest content.

Imagine WAR sans said quest content. WAR as strictly PVP maybe wouldn’t have had the initial surge of subs it did, but could have been a better designed game (all of those resources on quests instead allocated to the pvp game) and had more staying power even with it’s smaller subscription base. That’s been Rift’s purported model all along: stick to their guns and cater to a “smaller” (in the order of thousands instead of millions) population. EVE has done this for a long time. You don’t need a billion subs to be successful; but you might need to seem like you can net a billion subs to convince certain investors to back you. So it’s not impossible, but when a small studio comes up with an idea and a big ol’ scary monster like EA decides it’s a profitable idea, they buy it and throw a crap ton of needless “additions” on to it, strong-arming some lil’ studio into converting their “next EVE online challenger” into a “probably doomed to fail WoW challenger”.

Revolutionary is only in the vocabulary of these big ol’ scary monsters as a marketing term; it’s there to make the game seem attractive to the peasantry. (That’s us.) Of course, in our  peasant-lingo, revolutionary means something different. It means something important. It means that a game is interesting enough that – while we still may fire up Masters of Orion 2 or Super Mario World to breathe in that old and beautiful air again – this revolutionary game is enough to shake us out of those old habits and make a new one: the game becomes a new part of that old and beautiful air.

So if you click that link at the top of the blog and you look at those games I asserted as revolutionary, you might think to yourself “I can see that” and I bet definitely you can call to mind games that you found to fit that ticket, even if you were the only one. It’s part of your air, after all. Your old and familiar. Your very own benchmark by which you measure all other games.

For some people, WoW is their benchmark. Not because of the stupid amount of profit, but because they enjoy it. That’s really the trick, isn’t it? There’s some metric of which we are largely unaware, but we all kind of know it’s there. There’s only one road to shaking people free of their fixation: it’s some function of how long a game has lingered, how interesting additions to it have been, and what else is out there. Of all the factors in that function, the one that sees the most amount of discussion time is the last one: the What’s New category.

People are looking for a revolution – because they see that as the only way WoW will go away – and so they’re starting to see it everywhere. We all get very guarded about it, but we saw potential for it in WAR, in Rift, and now TOR. But, honestly, WoW is such a main stay, none of us really know what will actually shake people loose from it in mass.

Funny thing about ingenuity. It’s rare. And often we don’t recognize it for what it is until long after it’s gotten it’s grip.

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