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Archive for May 31st, 2007

Today I’d like to focus on a common problem that gamers, particularly MMORPG players, have been citing in the computer game industry — namely, that the industry is producing stale, carbon copies of previous games, minor tweaks on prior successes, and is being very unoriginal with what is coming out in the near future. Some have proposed that the industry has lost its creative juice, and is running dry of originality.

I don’t think the industry is “dry”, in the sense that there’s nobody creative out there in the business of trying to make games. Instead, I think what happens is the process of game development is costly and so investors and those holding the purse-strings naturally gravitate toward that which seems, to them at least, to be less risky. In this case, it is less risky to produce a game that follows a proven and successful formula (the basic EQ/WOW formula) than to try and create something innovative that is totally unusual.

And to be fair to the purse-string-holders you can’t blame them. After all, if they made something totally unique, it could be a hit, but it could be a huge flop. On the other hand, if they copy WOW, they can be assured that probably enough people will try it and like it that they can at least make back most if not all of their initial funds outlay… so the chances of a catastrophic loss (such as investing $10 million and making back less than $1 million before sunsetting the servers) are minimized.

Of course, I’d submit that the chances of a massive success are also minimized, because once you’ve “Been there/done that” there is less chance of a breakout success. But again, investors tend to be risk-averse, and real creativity is risk-prone. After all if you aren’t producing a game that is similar to ones you know people like — if it’s totally new and original — then people *might* like it, but you really will have no idea until the game is in later stages of development and it might potentially be too late (with lots of money down the hole then).

I think there are in fact lots of unique, interesting, creative design ideas out there, in that lots of designers and budding developers have them. But the chances of getting them funded are very small… because if they are unique, cool, creative, and interesting, they are risky, and the investors don’t like that.

Of course to the end user, this does make the industry seem rather dry and stale, because all we see are the projects that are funded to completion. The super-nifty ideas that would be awesome if someone would just believe in them, but never get any funding — we never get to see those.

It’s the same in other creative industries. How many novels are out there that are wonderful, but nobody will take the chance of publishing them because they are so creative, and the author untested, that you can’t be sure the publication costs will be recouped by sales? Same thing in the computer industry. The more “out there” the idea, the harder it is to get funding/backing… which means you have a “weed out” process that sadly weeds out the wrong thing — getting rid of originality, rather than weeding out lack of quality.

There is one thing we, as players, can and I think must do (and I hope we do it). We can encourage and support oddball, creative, but fun projects. When a cool new game comes out with a totally different schema, instead of deriding it and flaming it because it doesn’t play just like what we are used to, we need to take a step back and ask if the game is fun on its own merits, regardless of how familiar it seems. After all if in 1935 (or whenever it was published) Parker Brothers had said Monopoly was “too different from checkers” and refused to publish it, look at how much fun millions of people would have been missing out on ever since.

The key as a player is, if you like Monopoly, NOT to expect every other game in the world to play just like Monopoly, but instead, try new games and be willing to enjoy Trivial Pursuit or Scattergories for themselves, not for their likeness to Monopoly.

Sadly too often the MMORPG fan base however does just the opposite. You can blame lots of people at SOE for what happened with both the Combat Upgrade and the New Game Experience, which were major changes to the fundamental game engine but the truth is this — the fans, many of them, had a very hard time accepting that SWG followed a fundamentally different game model than the other MMORPGs at the time (other than perhaps Ultima Online). Hundreds of thousands of people wanted it to basically be EQ with an SW skin, and when they found out it was not, they criticized the game, not for being fundamentally flawed in its own right, but for not being enough like what they were used to in EQ. (This is not to say that the launch version of SWG was without flaw, but rather, that some of the complains, and many of the most explosive arguments, were really based on the difference between SWG and the other “traditional” MMORPGs like EQ and DAOC, and not about the game itself on its own merits.)

You can find other examples in the MMORPG industry, such as the Saga of Ryzom, which like SWG follows a somewhat different game model, and pretty much every day on the Ryzom forums both at mmorpg.com and at Ryzom’s own website, there is at least one active thread where when you boil it all down, someone is compalining that Ryzom does not act exactly like every other traditional MMORPG (WOW, EQ, COH), and therefore is flawed. Again it’s not flawed because it’s internally imabalanced, but because it does not play enough like the older games.

With this kind of feedback it is not hard to see why game development companies are gun shy around truly unique and original ideas. We can’t directly make them change, but we can, as players be more open minded about things, so that when new and innovative ideas come out, we don’t immediately shoot them down for not having the exact features of a pre-existing game.

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