Gimmicky Features, Promises And The Things That Really Matter In MMOs
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gave us hundreds of hours of voice overs and cutscenes but they also gave us boring classes, unimaginative races, outdated talent systems, a disjointed virtual word, limited PvP and, by all accounts, a shallow endgame.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.