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In Defence Of Themepark MMORPGs

Posted by Stropp on April 11, 2011

A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away… oh wait. Let me begin again. A long time ago, early in my gaming career, I bought a little game called Warcraft 2. It was my first Real Time Strategy game. I played through both campaigns, then went out and bought the expansion pack. After that I looked around for other RTS games, and over time found and played Command and Conquer, Red Alert, Starcraft, and other several other RTSes. I simply loved the whole resource gathering, base building gameplay style. I couldn’t get enough of it.

Then one day I went out and bought another Real Time Strategy game, I can’t remember what it was called, but it thoroughly disgusted me. There was no resource gathering. There was no base building. The player was provided with a fixed number of units and had to complete the mission with just those. I didn’t complete the first mission. I felt conned because I didn’t get what I expected to get.

All of a sudden, there were heaps of these kinds of games on the market, and they were replacing the old-style RTS. At least it seemed that way. The commentators were proclaiming that these games improved the RTS concept by getting rid of the resource gathering design. I didn’t feel that way. In my mind, these games weren’t Real Time Strategy games because they lacked the basic functionality. Namely, resource gathering and base building.

Now I see it a little differently.

These two styles of RTS are completely different. The only real similarity between them is that the player controls units on a map and sends them against an opponent. But the basic style is that of a strategy game, and since the action occurs in ‘real time’ rather than turn based, it’s appropriate to consider both styles as sub-genres of Real Time Strategy.

So these days when I hear criticism that the MMORPG genre is stagnant and how games like Rift aren’t different enough from WoW I find myself wondering if many of these commentators aren’t missing a fundamental point.

 

Games like World of Warcraft, Rift, Everquest 2, Aion, and others that many disparagingly refer to as ‘Theme Parks’ are a single variety of MMORPG. Others like Eve, Perpetuum, and Darkfall fall into a second variety of MMORPG, mostly refered to as ‘Sandbox’ games. Simply put, the MMORPG genre has at least two sub-genres: themepark and sandbox.

Some players will prefer one type of game over another. Just as I prefered base building resource gathering RTSes and couldn’t stand the other kind, (I even hated those types of missions in WarcraftC&CRed Alert) there will be people who prefer themepark over sandbox, or vice versa. Some players will enjoy both styles of gameplay. However, most people will prefer one over the other, even if they enjoy both.

To state that Rift doesn’t change the style of gameplay that was developed in WoW sufficiently enough and then complain about it, is akin to complaining that Starcraft is not sufficiently different from Command and Conquer. Both games are themepark style MMOs with no real sandbox elements, to get upset about that doesn’t make sense. What is being suggested, by these complaints, is that developers should not be making new themepark games.

The simple fact of the matter is that Rift, Aion, and World of Warcraft all implement a style of game that people want to play. Complaining about it doesn’t change that fact that if a themepark MMORPG is made and doesn’t botch up the launch, then people will want to play it. It also appears that more people want to play a themepark MMO, than a sandbox MMO.

Unfortunately, big companies are only interested in developing MMORPGs that will provide a decent return on investment. Coupled with the huge investment required to develop a AAA MMORPG, these companies are only willing to invest in gameplay styles proven to generate that ROI. That means, for the foreseeable future, the predominant development of MMORPGs will be of the Themepark variety.

So when someone complains that Rift is too much like WoW (for example) they are simply saying that they would have prefered the developer create their MMORPG under a different sub-genre. That’s like suggesting that “When Harry Met Sally” should have been a wartime action movie, rather than a romantic comedy. (Although, I suggest any romantic comedy would be better as any other type of movie genre!)

Tell me what you think.

Themeparks Vs Adventure

Posted by Stropp on July 6, 2010

Wolfshead has just posted his second post on The Emasculation of MMOs. As usual his arguments are very well thought out and contain a lot of good points about the state of the MMORPG genre. However, I really do think that he doesn’t truely understand people and their motivations.

Early on he states.

I daresay the majority of people who enter MMOs today would prefer to be immersed in a virtual world of adventure than deposited into a theme park of amusement and fun if offered the choice. Sadly, that choice is not available in today’s market. Instead the player just follows along the predetermined storyline that the quest designers lay out in front of them. Never questioning, never deviating from the golden path.

I daresay that he’s right that some people who enter MMOs would prefer the adventure, but the majority? No, unfortunately humans love the easy way.

Just look at the number of people who go on, lets say, an adventure camping trip as opposed to going to Disneyland for their holidays. The theme park attendee numbers vastly overwhelm the wilderness sandbox folks. Despite the absolutely amazing things you can do in nature (an off the trail horseback ride in Alaska’s Denali National Park with just me and the guide was one of the most marvelously memorable things I’ve ever done) the sad fact is most people will spend all their holidays staying in motels and going to Disney and Six Flags. If they ever do something adventurous, it will probably be only once.

It ends up being simple economics. All companies, not just game developers, will go to where the market lives. And, the bigger the company, let’s say Blizzvision, the more compelled they are to reach the biggest market possible. Hence Blizzard will continually refine World of Warcraft to meet the expectations of casual gamers who want their games to be fun, and not an adventure.

This is also why the big game developers aim for the status quo of MMO design. They’re after the casual segment. They can’t afford not to aim for the casuals.

The good news is that there are plenty of small niche adventure businesses out there that target the much smaller market. The guide who took me on the cross country horseback ride was in the process of packing up for the winter and moving down south. He targeted a small niche market out in the boonies that made him a good enough living to run that business on half a years revenue. Would he have made more money offering pony rides in the Disneyland carpark? Maybe, but the risk of being put out of business by the big company would have been higher.

In the same way, there are game developers that are targeting the niche MMORPG market. CCP for example with Eve Online. It’s no Blizzard, but it’s happily making good money running a sandbox game that players love.

Perhaps that’s where the immediate potential for change in the MMORPG market lies. The niche developer, not the giant game publisher.

And, one other thing. I’ve also been to Disneyland, Universal Studios, and other theme parks, as an adult. They were fun and engaging and I had a great time.

So are theme park MMORPGs. What’s wrong with fun?

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