Gimmicky Features, Promises And The Things That Really Matter In MMOs


Class stereotypes in this image? Don't be ridiculous.

Watching the latest video from Carbine Studios about Wildestar (see below) made me realise two things: one, Jeremy Gaffney sounds eerily like Alan Alda from M*A*S*H and two, developers really like to sell us gimmicky features with the claim that they’ll radically change our MMO experience, rendering everything that came before shallow and obsolete. Whether it’s mechanics like ‘battlefield control’ in Wildstar or the ‘missing 4th pillar of story’ in SW:TOR or the incredulous manifesto from ArenaNet that Guild Wars 2 is literally going to reinvent the entire MMO landscape (I can’t wait to find out), we really do get promised a lot of fantastical guff.

Admittedly Carbine hasn’t been too bad with their marketing hype but I always feel a pang of disappointment when development studios focus their attention on trying to sell us gimmicks that usually turn out to be rather lackluster. Either they end up not be as useful or fully implemented as we were initially led to believe or, in better cases, they just become a feature that enhances the game but doesn’t alter its core all that much. Sure, random public quests in RIFT are cool, cutscenes and quest selections in SW:TOR are fun and combat combos in Age of Conan are a blast but the reality is that they just don’t affect the fundamental game or its longevity all that dramatically.

Likewise, the big negatives of focusing too much on gimmicky features and making ridiculous promises on the back of them is not only that the consumer ends up feeling a bit deflated and let down but that the essential gameplay mechanics often suffer as a result. Yeah, BioWare gave us hundreds of hours of voice overs and cutscenes but they also gave us boring classes, unimaginative races, outdated talent systems, a disjointed virtual word, limited PvP and, by all accounts, a shallow endgame. And these are the things that really matter in MMOs.

Not that I’m saying we shouldn’t strive for innovation, don’t get wrong – it’s these little jumps that push the genre forward and make each game unique. What I would like to see though is developers (or, perhaps more accurately, their marketing departments) being a bit more modest and restrained in the promises they make and also for them not to forget about the more commonplace gameplay elements that actually make an impact with the audience.

Personally, I’d like to see more MMOs get back to basics and focus on the core components that truly matter. Interesting and diverse classes, balanced and tactical combat, thought-provoking talents and customisation, well itemised gear, emotional gameplay, interesting lore and deep, layered immersion, these are all the things that make or break a game, not whether or not dialogue is spoken aloud or if random events pop up every so often. I don’t think RIFT is successful because of its dynamic events gimmick, I think it’s successful because it’s a well designed and thought out game. And not to flog a dead horse but Blizzard barely did anything innovative with WoW, instead they just focused on refining the core game mechanics and look at where it’s gotten them.

I don’t think every MMO needs some sort of shiny and ultra-special USP and I don’t know why development studios insist on trying to force them upon us. I’m looking forward to Wildstar because of the setting and art direction more than anything else. Being able to interact with the environment once in a blue moon isn’t the ‘groundbreaking’ feature that’s going to either get me to buy the game or keep me playing it six months after launch.


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  1. bhagpuss says:

    Don’t you just filter out all the marketing hype? It’s no different to the hype for movies, books, tv shows – any entertainment product in fact.

    No-one really knows why any one book, film, tv show or video game clicks with the general public when dozens of others that seem remarkably similar don’t, so everyone just shouts as loud as they can in the hope that they’ll drown out the competition.

  2. Tesh says:

    Ah, but how do you market core competency? “The game is really solid, we promise” isn’t much of a bullet point sales pitch.

    • Klepsacovic says:

      Plenty of products are marketed for their quality and “it works” aspect than anything particularly flashy. These tend to be more utilitarian than games, but it’s not entirely outlandish that players could be attracted to a game that promises to run well on a variety of computer and have stable servers, given the problems that have become running jokes over the years. I’d point to WoW, which for a while I really liked because the basic graphics ran well on my oldish machine, despite not having any particularly revolutionary gameplay.

    • Gordon says:

      Very true. Maybe it isn’t so much what they are marketing but the fact that the end result never lives up to the hype.

  3. Ahtchu says:

    LOVE the art direction and style to this, as well as the fresh take on combat. I have nothing against tab-targetting, mind you, but this is nice too.

    I think the ‘gimmicky feature’ that I buy into is the one where the developer is enjoying the product they are making, and that enjoyment rubs off on the consumer. If it looks and smells like it was built to compete in the marketplace, I’ll pass. If it looks and smells like it was a joy to make regardless of the market, I’ll play.

  4. João Carlos says:

    I played GW2 BW1, stress test and BW2. I too watched the manifesto video. IMHO, for what I saw at beta, they are fullfilling the promises they done at the manifesto video. And that makes GW2 a game that players will need time for adapt to it. Trying play GW2 like a WoW-clone will not work, but we will see a lot of people critizing GW2 just because it is not a WoW-clone and not make the same all other MMO do…. and that same people will too say MMO is stagnant… nothing new under the sun….

    My advice, try get a free beta key for next BW and see GW2 for yourself.

  5. Totally agree with you: Rift is doing many things right, and that is the reason why it’s survived in this highly competitive market. The ‘random’ Rift encounter are not just a feature though. They are just one facet of Trion’s highly dynamic engine which allows them to change the game world effortlessly. The more I think about it the more I believe that Rift is the most promising MMO out there.

    • Gordon says:

      RIFT has it’s gimmicks or features or whatever you want to call them and I agree, they are good but ultimately I think it’s an excellent game because of it’s core components more than anything else. Dynamic events without a compelling world or gameplay to back it up would’ve been nothing.

  6. Pai says:

    I 100% agree that extensive voice work is such an overhyped and extraneous feature. Same goes for ‘cinematic cutscenes’. Neither of those things are what matters in the core of an MMORPG, and all they do (imo) is take money and time away from building the parts of the game that matter.

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