We Need A Mutant MMO

One of my favourite courses from University was one called ‘Evolutionary Computing’. It taught us how to devise programatic solutions to problems by mimicking the process of evolution (Creationists, avert yon eyes).

For our coursework, we had to devise a program that used an evolutionary algorithm to solve the following problem: divide 1,000 ‘weights’, each randomly weighing between 1kg and 1,000kg, into 100 bags so that each bag weighed exactly the same (or as close as possible) to each other. It was a long time ago so my memory is a little fuzzy now but it had to be done by creating a ‘population’ of bags of weights, seeding them randomly, defining parameters of what constitutes ‘good’ and ‘bad’ fitness and then ‘evolving’ them over thousands of generations, culling the bad and mating together the good. You start with a random pick and you end up with the perfect solution in a matter of minutes.

So what’s this got to do with the MMO industry? Well, there’s been a lot of talk about innovation and evolution amongst bloggers, most recently and aptly summed up and commented upon by one of my favourite bloggers Brian ‘Psychochild’ Green. I would recommend reading his excellent post entitled ‘The Innovation Paradox’ – it far more elegantly sums everything up than I ever could about current thoughts from gamers about evolution and innovation in the MMORPG industry.

However, I wanted to add the following point to the debate: mutation. I think we can all accept that MMORPGs are evolving and providing some sort of innovation however I personally feel that the rate of which seems to have declined over the past few years. We now see evolutions of minor features, like guild windows, instead of sweeping and grand gestures that drive the industry forward. Mutation, the anomalies which bring radical changes and ideas to the table, are necessary in order to challenge the status quo.  As I was taught on my Evolutionary Computing course, without mutation your gene pool will stagnate and cease to diverge and you will never reach the optimum solution.

I think that’s what die-hard MMO gamers, such as myself and Keen and Graev, are looking for – a mutant MMO. We need a game that’s radically different from what’s currently on the market in order to excite us and stimulate new growth. It may fail completely but if it succeeded, it could radically change the way future games develop.

Evolution is based upon the principle of natural selection and survival of the fittest. MMORPGs are evolving and the fittest are surviving yet what we’re lacking is mutation. Mutation increases divergence and the ultimate chance of success. To put it another way, if we don’t start seeing some mutations soon, we’ll end up with a lot of inbred MMOs.

[Update: Andrew from Of Teeth and Claws pointed out the flaws in my analogy here in a great article entitled MMOs: Living games. Highly recommended reading.]

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12 Comments

  1. Andrew says:

    For our coursework, we had to devise a program that used an evolutionary algorithm to solve the following problem…

    The term you’re looking for is “genetic algorithm”. These are a great way to determine (or at least approximate) the solution to an otherwise intractable problem.

    I think that’s what die-hard MMO gamers, such as myself and Keen and Graev, are looking for – a mutant MMO. We need a game that’s radically different from what’s currently on the market in order to excite us and stimulate new growth.

    Mutations are generally small tweaks that, in large populations over a long period of time, add up to make something different from the original beast. I’m not sure your analogy really works here though – a game like WoW has slowly acquired mutations and now resembles something different than at launch – but it’s not “radically different”.

    To get something “radically different” you need to throw away the template and just engage in some pure innovation. This – btw – is the antithesis of anything someone like Keen wants though – he frequently talks about innovation being a bad thing. (He does, however, like incremental improvement.)

    • Gordon says:

      Interesting stuff, thanks :) I thought mutation was more of a random element, necessary in order to keep the gene pool fresh. I imagined the features in WoW have evolved through a process of trial and error in order to create a better, fitter product rather than sheer mutation. My thinking – although the analogy may not be correct – is that we need some more randomness and radical innovation in order to achieve the radically different ideas which may challenge the current MMORPG status quo.

  2. One of the issues I didn’t touch in my already lengthy post was how there are a lot of different types of change that we could discuss. Your “mutation” concept is basically innovating within a familiar framework. Except for in comic books and cheesy cartoons a turtle can’t mutate into something completely different. A mutant turtle is still a turtle. But, mutations can help it adapt and change to meet needs in the environment.

    It might also be interesting to note that the most common mutation is cancer. Often not a good thing.

    Personally, I’d like to see more games questioning the fundamentals to give us more interesting games. But, the more common approach seems to be to tack stuff on top of existing proven gameplay; that is, starting with a WoW-influenced base then trying to add feature that may not quite fit.

    My thoughts.

    • Gordon says:

      The principle behind mutation (I guess – need to check with a real biologist :) ) is randomess. As you said, it’s often not good but it’s still absolutely necessary in order to stop gene pool stagnating and inbreeding.

      I guess my analogy is kinda similar to your concept of questioning the fundamentals – if we just keep evolving what we already have in small iterations, we will never achieve a refreshing take on the current solutions. What we really need to do is take a step back, take some risks, and try some larger variations in the hope of success.

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  4. Tesh says:

    Aw, and here I was thinking this article was about taking the TMNT Palladium tabletop RPG IP and making something in the MMO space with it. Pfft.

    On topic, though, I’m all for some baseline mutation. That’s what I write about often enough.

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  7. I’m looking for something with an “evolutionary leap” to it as well, that’s “radically different”. In effect, think of all the standard norms within MMOs today and imagine if you created a game without some of those standards. A good example that I always use is character levels. It’s pretty much the norm today but what if you created an MMO without character levels, what would happen? In effect, think of all the issues that character levels cause (i.e. social barrier between friends, splintering of pvp population, etc) and imagine those issues gone. At the same time though, issues arise from the solution itself. How would you help people get over this radical paradigm shift of not having levels within an MMO? How could you create the content so it’s still engaging? And so on…

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  9. [...] on by an excellent article by Psychochild, Gordon recently wrote an post connecting MMOs to genetic programming in which he asserted that these large games needed to [...]

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