Wednesday, August 13, 2008

I Believe The Word I'm Looking For Is WAAAGH!

With the release of Warhammer: Online only a month away, the MMO blogosphere has given itself almost entirely over to that topic. Can WAR dethrone WoW? Will you play Order or Destruction? Just how deeply cut were you cut by the decision to omit key classes and racial capitals at release? With their stock price tanking, game drowning in bugs, and now, a real next-gen competitor arriving, how long will it take Funcom to commit mass-suicide, Jonestown-style? WAAAAGH!

Myself, I'll undoubtedly try WAR. Chief among the reasons is that most of my clan intends to play. I've not seen us all together since SWG, and even then we weren't on the same side. The O.G. Bria group finally meeting up in one game, one guild is too tempting to pass up.

Second reason is that writers need subjects. As a major MMO release, WAR is one. Evidence thus far suggests that this will be a quality title from people who know what they're doing, and I want to see what the hullabaloo is all about.

Plus, it should be interesting to see how my Pentium D and 7800GTX fare. You know, for Science. By interesting, I probably mean pathetic. I'm betting it will be a bit like throwing a housecat into a den of lions, and seeing if he can hang with the pride.

I intend to play at 400x300 resolution, and to keep my rig inside a small refrigerator. I'll also be dialing in the textures to ascii emulation. Hopefully it'll look as good as Ultima III, and I think I should be able to get about 10fps in empty buildings at 3am.

I can live with low-end settings if it means playing with the crew and experiencing the world though. Sure, it'll sting, but I can't build a box for this game.

Still, when I think about what it will be like to play WAR, a shiver of excitement does not run up and down my spine. I don't even come close to walking into a telephone pole, or to babbling excitedly on forums or blogs. Why is this? Simply put, I'm elfed out.

It's the genres, stupid

Here we go again with another cartoony, massively-multiplayer fantasy world. Sure, it looks to be perfectly realized. Not only that, the Warhammer universe is incontrovertibly one of the beloved, Grand Old IPs. It must be cathartic for Games Workshop to finally see this done.

Regardless, the virtual worlds that we play in have fallen into the habit of looking pretty much the same. The progression of MMOs seems akin to the evolution of a species. Progress is glacially slow, and can appear nonexistent unless you glance away for a generation or two. Only then do you notice that short, clublike tails are being phased out in favor of longer appendages, as the species spends more time in the trees.

The back pages of the evolutionary chart are littered with failed projects that branched to nowhere. Auto Assault? Eaten by wolves. Pirates of the Burning Sea? Unexpected meteor shower. Over in Cajamarca, Eve: Online is prospering. In another thousand years, they'll be discovered by Pizarro and his merry tribe. Hopefully they will fare better than the Incas did. I've fatally mixed that metaphor by combining species evolution and the progress of societies, but you get my drift.

Point is, companies make what sells, because MMO development requires a king's ransom. Innovation is not first on their list of priorities; profit is. This is obviously also true for the game industry as a whole, although I'm hardly the first person to write that. Perhaps the 90th.

Tobold, over at the excellent Tobold's MMORPG Blog, has a piece entitled: Follow The Money. Essentially, he argues that the above is true. For our purposes, we might consider the prevalence of sequels and the homogenization of MMO genres as parallels:

There has been a lot of criticism towards the game industry, accusing them of being unoriginal. Sequels, sequels, everywhere. Diablo 3, Starcraft 2, GTA 4, Halo 3, The Sims 3, Far Cry 2, Fallout 3, not to mention the annual versions of various sports games. Why can't game companies be more original? Because game companies are doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing, making the games that players want, and the players don't want original games.
So profit is king, and this means that one wants to use proven ideas that have suceeded in the past. Two genres get preferential treatment: fantasy (currently defined as cartoony fantasy), and science fiction. And it appears to really, really help if your title is an IP license.

Since WAR is both a fantasy game and a licensee, it was inevitable. So was Conan, which had the additional appeal of being gritty and somewhat adult-oriented (a previously untapped market). Too bad it sucks.

Science fiction games also hold significant market power, although it pales in comparison to fantasy. The last major sci-fi MMO not to fail utterly was SWG, and it had the advantage of membership in the most commercially sucessful franchise of all time. I exclude Eve from the discussion because it is a niche game. I don't believe that it is considered as a model by major developers. At least that's how it looks from over here.

What about other genres? Forget it. Never with commercial success in the mainstream, and rarely elsewhere. Note that I am not suggesting the failure of these titles is due solely to genre. Shortcomings in design or playability have a lot to do with that. But perhaps the margin for error is slimmer.

Non Sci-Fi & Fantasy MMOs By The Numbers

I was curious about this, so I took a look at MMORPG's impressively exhaustive Gamelist. It contains 223 (I think!) titles, and appears to cover the whole gamut: everything from past games to those that are still in development.

Of the 223 titles in the Gamelist, just 63 are non-fantasy. And of that 63, 39 are sci-fi. This leaves 24 MMOs that are not either sci-fi or fantasy: just about 10%. Ouch.

When I filtered for non sci-fi or fantasy games that are in either development or beta, I came up with four titles. Four. Champions Online, DC Universe, The Agency, and something called Football Superstars. How many sci-fi or fantasy titles share that status? Seventy-five. I'm not certain if I consider Hello Kitty Online a fantasy game, so perhaps we should go ahead and amend that number to seventy-four. Just to be conservative.

What's my ultimate point? I look at the MMO genre as a whole, because the bloody thing fascinates me. I wait for innovation, and am usually rewarded with imitation. If I'm lucky, it will be imitation done well. But the whole thing reminds me of Microsoft versus Apple in the 80s. Take someone else's stuff, and repackage it for commercial gain.

It doesn't have to be this way. Raph Koster has a metaphor that works better than anything I used above:
If I say to you, “do you want chocolate ice cream?” you probably say yes. If I say to you “do you want more chocolate ice cream, this time with sprinkles on top?” you probably still say yes.

If I say “by the way, there’s also this mango sorbetto,” you may or may not try it. But you aren’t going to ask for mango sorbetto without prior knowledge of its existence.

Players know what they want from what they know. And they don’t know what they want from the unknown. For all I know there’s a fantastic dessert eaten only in the Philippines that would rapidly become my favorite dessert ever.
Let us hope that somebody is brave, because I know I would eat what Raph is cooking there.

Til then, see you in New Eden and WAR.


Rob M. Errera said...

As far as WAR vs WoW goes, it's tough to say how much sway Wrath of the Lich King and achievements will go. I'm guessing far. It will be a long and bloody war.

jeffe said...

There is a beta and I am in it.

cue the black helicopters.

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