March 28 2010
Just about every discussion of MMORPGs these days brings out people who will argue that the industry is stagnant, that recent releases have been little more than unpolished World of Warcraft clones, and that the best games were old-school offerings like Ultima Online, EverQuest, and Dark Age of Camelot (in their original forms prior to any major updates or expansions, of course). Most will concede that WoW got something right, even if they don't agree the direction it's taken over the years. But have we really not seen any improvements in the genre in the last half a decade?
With games as with many other things, people tend to remember the good parts and forget the bad. Early MMORPGs left a lot to be desired. The technology at the time was borderline experimental, laggy dial-up connections were the norm, and developers were more focused on getting it all to work than making it enjoyable. Large numbers of players dropped out after the first few times they were ganked in UO, or after their first few corpse runs in EQ. Yet, for those with the perseverance, it was a unique experience, and your first encounter with a genre tends to leave a lasting impression. Even more so when it is accompanied with a relatively new technology.
As fond as our memories of some of these games may be, if we had the chance to go back (another EQ progression server, perhaps?), not many people would. Although no longer in their original (often buggy) state, most of these "classic" MMORPGs are still in operation. They have a lot of competition these days, however, and their populations seem destined to wither away.
Innovation and World of Warcraft
As the most successful game of its kind, WoW has become the target of considerable hate, and has even been called a bad influence on the genre. Successful games almost inevitably give rise to clones hoping to replicate that success. The history of the industry is a tale of newer games building on the strenghts of earlier titles, and avoiding their pitfalls.
Numerous games, both before and after WoW, have taken different approaches, with mixed results. For games like Eve and Guild Wars, it has worked, for Auto Assault and Tabula Rasa, not so much. People often ask, "Why don't they make games like UO or sandboxes like pre-NGE Star Wars Galaxies anymore? Where are the free-for-all PvP games with skill-based progression rather than levels?" These gameplay mechanics haven't really disappeared, they're just not very popular. If you follow games like Shadowbane (now defunct), Darkfall, and Mortal Online it's evident that smaller developers have always flirted with these concepts. As for the big studios, when they don't get the subscribers they were expecting with a title like SWG, they're understandably hesitant to go back down that same road.
Innovation only works when it makes a game more fun, and it usually comes in the form of many small things, rather than one big thing. It would be easy to argue that WoW itself has done more innovating, since its launch, than any other game on the market. Granted, it borrowed a great deal from its predecessors, but it has built on that extensively over the course of 2 expansions and countless updates. How many titles before it had in-game mail, auction houses, instanced PvP Battlegrounds, rendered flight paths, dressing rooms, arena tournaments, or interface addons? Many of these things are now considered mandatory in a MMORPG. Compare that to EQ, which didn't even have an in-game map when it launched.
Of course, WoW has also been accused of getting worse rather than better. Some people seem to think that it was at it's best prior to any of the expansions, or even the introduction of Battlegrounds. Sure, the old Hillsbrad push-and-pull had its moments, but it lacked any objectives, the sides were hopelessly imbalanced, and it tended to get very laggy. If that were all the game offered today, the player base would be probably a small fraction of what it is.
Things to Come
While there is no going back to the sense of discovery you had with your first MMORPG, the games continue to evolve and, despite occasional setbacks, get better. Perhaps more importantly, some efforts are being made to move away from typical RPG mechanics, which are at the root of a lot of the grievances. Planetside was never a big hit, but it still touched a large number of players over the years, and SOE is considering a sequel. We're beginning to get past the ubiquitous fantasy worlds, with games like Fallen Earth, All Points Bulletin, and The Secret World trying to employ new settings. You can also count on more attempts to blend MMOG elements into shooter, strategy, and sports games.
It's difficult to say whether new games will ever be able to live up to our memories of past titles. A friend of mine who once spent many hours with X-Com: UFO Defense (1994) a long time ago found it on Steam and decided to give it another try to see if the thrill was still there. Evidently it wasn't, because he was soon looking for something more recent. But it's always comforting to know that, thanks in part to digital distribution, it's relatively easy to revist some these classics, if only to see how far we've come.