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E3 MMORPG Lunacy

Each year I go to E3 and each year I am dismayed in various ways. I used to harbour resentment at the vast expense in creating noise and spectacle for essentially two important clients; the Walmart buyers, and the press, but I’ve relaxed on that front. If you need to throw $5M away to impress these important folks, so be it. In past years I would roll my eyes at yet more beat-em-ups or platformers or other expensive console games that all looked the same, of which only a few would have a snowball’s chance of success. Whatebbs. I confidently expect the console and retail business to be completely disrupted over the next ten years, to the point of anihilation or complete transformation for the dinosaurs walking the halls of E3.

This year I had a somewhat new experience; that of seeing 10+ brand-new MMORPGs that were all pretty much indistinguishable from one another. Each one of these projects has a budget of $10M+. Each one has incredible graphics with a swanky engine. The characters are beautifully modelled, high-fantasy and often anthropomorphic. Yes, Tiger-Man, you look very cool with that battleaxe. Each one has the same user interface of incomprehensible panels of tiny text and flaming icons. Although I’m sure they are all designed by smart folks to have their own intricate and unique details, each has apparently the same basic gameplay, down to the same ‘-20’ bling bling hit points that pop up over the poor hapless goblin/frogluk/lionwing/krog/alien lizard thing as you pummel it into glittering transluscent fade-away.

This is madness. For all their high production values, I feel that none of these new games looked as good as WoW. All the fanboys were still crowded around Burning Crusade. Maybe the overspill and churn from a 2.5M subscriber business (discounting Chinese subscribers, that are worth ~10% of US/EU/Korea) is worth scrapping over, but is it auspicious and wise to all bring exactly the same weapon to the fight?

I went through my requisite couple of years addiction to goblin-whacking on Essex MUD in 1982, and I’ve never managed to get excited about levelling much in the modern age of MMOs. Perhaps I am missing out. Perhaps I don’t understand the beauty and distinctiveness of each of these games — I will readily admit that I’m not as immersed in these games as I could be. But I maintain that this level of investment in what appears to be me-too design is foolish. Even Webzen’s WIKI, which looks kawaii and fun, is all about wacking clowns with swords.

Please, if you can get the check for $XX Million to make an gigantic MMO, do something different. Perhaps it’s not possible; often it seems that only fantasy games succeed, but at least you’ll be able to say that you tried. You might just hit it big and reach outside of the existing, heavily-exposed and saturated demographic to find a nice juicy new audience just ready to experience MMO fun.

There’s a thousand flowers still to bloom in the MMO space. Let us please start planting something other than whack-a-goblin RPGs.

9 Comments

  1. sloejack wrote:

    That’s a pretty sad state of affairs regarding upcoming MMOs. For what it’s worth I too am tired of the seemingly generic high fantasy setting MMOs but the setting is just the paint on the walls.

    In the text days I was a big fan of the TinyMU* engines, most specifically with MUSH. I think the big attraction was that an environment existed for folks who just wanted to show up and play, as well as a tool set for the folks who wanted to expand the world. One of the things I think lacking in MMOs today for the most part is the ability for players to actually impact/expand the world in which they play.

    UO and SWG as an example allowed player housing but other than over populating areas of the planets/map with largely abandoned housing isn’t what I would call expanding the world. Based on the things I’ve read, I’m hoping that at least from a story line perspective players will have a meaningful impact on the world in Vanguard SoH but I’ll believe it when I see it.

    Personally, I wish Microsoft would do more with the Shadowrun license they have and publish an MMO built around that setting. How can you go wrong with high fantasy, post-apocalyptic, high-tech roleplaying? :)

    Tuesday, May 23, 2006 at 11:55 pm | Permalink
  2. Lobosolitario wrote:

    Does this remind anyone of the 90s, and the huge amount of money thrown away on Command & Conquer clones?

    Wednesday, May 24, 2006 at 8:20 am | Permalink
  3. Lobosolitario wrote:

    “Personally, I wish Microsoft would do more with the Shadowrun license they have and publish an MMO built around that setting. How can you go wrong with high fantasy, post-apocalyptic, high-tech roleplaying?”

    http://ng.neocron.com/ 😛

    Ok, it has good points, but at the end of the day, good games are all about good implementation, the actual content is subject to that implementation letting you experience it.

    Wednesday, May 24, 2006 at 8:24 am | Permalink
  4. vgsmart wrote:

    Since I work with a publisher (Tri Synergy) as one of my clients, I was at E3 this year impressing the press and… bum bum BUMMmmmmmm looking at MMOs.

    See, the method for life is continuous incrimnental improvement. In the past companies did this themselves. They would build a product or service offering and offer incrimnetal improvements. An MMO COULD operate the same way… but it doesn’t (yet). Yes, many MMOs do all sorts of things to try to ‘improve’ their game over the space of however many years they last… but few actually make any inroads into improvements = more players.

    Instead the industry works like this:

    Company 1 releases an MMO with a big guy with an axe.

    Company 2 releases their mmo. Bigger guy, bigger axe.

    Company 3 releases their game. Huge guy, Huge sword. Swords are the new in!

    And so the end result is people miss the whole point of an online experience-which is inherantly social in nature, by confusing the treadmill effect with a feature.

    It’s come down to the fact I can define every MMO I looked at during the show by TWO features.

    You’re telling me there’s only TWO features that make MMO X different from MMO Y!? Yes, that’s exactly what I am telling myself… because that is how it is. And worst of all, of the 3 that have reciprocated interest in publishing they all share the same stupid features!

    MMO 1: “action based” combat system, PVP Heavy.

    MMO 2: “Action Based Combat System, PVP Averse.

    MMO 3: “Classic” based combat system, PVP Heavy.

    Each one of them tries to boast the latest incrimnetal improvement: What is it?

    A user influenced world. Yes, happy day, I can build a castle in one, I can slay a monster that will never respawn in another, and I can destroy someone’s village in another. The fact is they’re all claiming that they’ve got the future in their hands because they’re the only ones doing it.

    Amazing. Idiotic, but amazing.

    Impress me Daniel! Bang Howdy had better live up to the reputation you’ve now created 😉

    -Joe Lieberman
    Owner, VGSmart Marketing
    (www.vgsmart.com / http://vgsmart.blogspot.com)

    Wednesday, May 24, 2006 at 11:10 am | Permalink
  5. CapnCleaver wrote:

    > Impress me Daniel! Bang Howdy had better live up to the reputation you’ve now created

    Heh, thanks. Bear in mind, though, that Bang! is not trying to be a virtual world, or even really an MMO (although we hope that thousands of people will play). I don’t have a good acronym for what it is, yet. The best I can say is ‘casual multi-player pick-up game’, or ‘Korean-style Casual Game’.

    Wednesday, May 24, 2006 at 11:18 am | Permalink
  6. CapnCleaver wrote:

    Bruce Woodcock over at MMOGChart posted a great run-through of all the MMOs at E3 this year. If anything, I think his analysis reinforces I think my point still stands; he tends to talk about the differences between combat systems and in some cases theme, rather than fundamental gameplay or genre distinctions.

    Wednesday, May 24, 2006 at 4:23 pm | Permalink
  7. Darniaq wrote:

    The key is to get past the front end of the genre. WoW is great at bringing in new players, but anyone who’s been around since before EQ1 has already played it. Many times over.

    I saw a number of interesting titles at E3 that were very much not WoW. Sure Age of Conan or Tabula Rasa may bear some resemblance to a typical diku-inspired experience. But both of these titles show, finally, a willingness to get beyond the same WASD+Action button XP-based Tolkien-esque themed experiences I’m so tired of.

    Ya just gotta get past things like WoW, Vanguard, EQ2, GW, SUN, and the dozens of piddly little titles hoping to leach off of WoW expatriates much like they tried to, or their predecessors did, off of EQ.

    There’s more games now than ever, of still appreciable breadth. If you haven’t tried titles like Eve, ATITD or Planetside, forget what you’ve read and check them out.

    It’s certainly better to give each of them a week than to hope someday somehow a company like Blizzard will be inventive.

    Wednesday, May 24, 2006 at 6:02 pm | Permalink
  8. boogiepanda wrote:

    Unfortunately,

    You can’t seem to convince the corporates that taking a risk by doing something new is better than taking a risk by doing the same thing as everyone else and hoping what you make it better…

    I don’t know about the other MMO’s but in Wiki’s defense what Webzen had at E3 was a very limited demo and as far as I know it was the first playable demo to date. I’m also very much tired of the constant march of sameness. WoW is at least a highly polished game that caters to a wide range of play styles. Most MMOs don’t even have that. But WoW isn’t really ground breaking, just a solid product.

    Tuesday, May 30, 2006 at 8:53 am | Permalink
  9. Behind Curtain wrote:

    I’d really be interested in what you think of Pirates of the Burning Sea. I’m assuming you had a chance to see some of it’s (alpha? beta?) at E3.

    Thursday, June 8, 2006 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

4 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Massive Multiplayer Reviews on Wednesday, May 24, 2006 at 1:44 pm

    E3 Article…

    Interesting review of E3:This year I had a somewhat new experience; that of seeing 10+ brand-new MMORPGs that were all pretty much indistinguishable from one another.
    Each one of these projects has a budget of $10M+. Each one has
    incredible graphics …

  2. Darniaq » Blog Archive » Where is the massive? on Monday, May 29, 2006 at 6:05 pm

    […] Yet it’s also part of the inspiration for this post, like ATITD, like SL, like any game that isn’t about rehashing a theme within a rehashed game mechanic. I see people like Daniel James (of Puzzle Pirates) railing against the inequities of MMOs. I understand where they’re coming from. But while he has a valid critique of the genre, I think he’s also too focused on the mainstream offerings. That’s not where the innovations come from. I expect invention from Blizzard as I much as I would from the local Top 40 radio station. I’d hate to think that the entire breadth of MMOs is measured by the playing of a few of the hot selling titles. It’s great what WoW has done for the genre, but man I hope people don’t give up on the genre just because they hit 60 and realized they didn’t want to spend 3 hours a night in Molten Core. But again, I understand where he’s coming from. […]

  3. […] Naturally the Capn remains aghast at the budget requirements of (presumably) Trion and Red5. Excuse the play on the name, but to an investor, to me it looks like this; if you’re okay with putting down $10M (out of, say, $40M) on red 5 then waiting four years or so to see if the roulette wheel comes up, great! You might win big (especially if you can do that scream thing like in Run Lola Run, ~6.40 mins in)… but this seems like a odd kind of bet for a venture investor to make. As Gus Tai says in the article, VCs have historically shied away from such content bets because they realise that they are not publishers and do not have the skillset to make judgements about what might succeed in the marketplace — let alone the marketplace four years away. Anyway, I’ve blogged about the insane competition in the MMORPG market before. We’ll see who is left on the battlefield… in a few years. […]

  4. Azaroth’s Blog » Ding, Gratz. on Tuesday, February 27, 2007 at 10:44 pm

    […] Obviously he doesn’t have much time for blogging, since this front page post was actually created on March 23rd of last year, but Daniel James posted on his site decrying the vile swamp of cookie cutter multi-million dollar MMOs he saw at E3. Now, Daniel is a nice guy. But I’m not sure he’s getting it. He’s both ahead of and behind the times. […]

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