Innovation or History?

Tobold, my favorite MMO-player everyman, recently posted a short piece on the value of combat targeting. He seems pleased that the developers of both Darkfall and Age of Conan tried to do something new with combat, but notes that the lack of targeting in Darkfall especially doesn’t do the game any real favors because it is too easy to exploit.

But here’s what interested me: if you happened to still have the boxed version of the original Asheron’s Call 2 game published by Microsoft, it includes a keyboard shortcut sheet. Look at the bottom left of the key map and you may see that the left Ctrl key maps to “Wild Swing”. That was an untargeted attack that could hit multiple enemies.

AC2 had a complete physics engine that made this feature easy to implement, but AC2 didn’t launch with this feature. It was cut, albeit too late to change the first batch of  box inserts, because — just as Tobold notes — it created too many exploitable scenarios.

But now that Age of Conan and Darkfall are doing it, untargeted combat is considered “innovation”. If you want some more innovative features, maybe your next MMO will have one of these crazy ideas:

  • Real physical projectiles that can be dodged by strafing from side to side (both AC1 and AC2)
  • A constantly evolving storyline that alters the face of the game world, adding and destroying stories, quests, cities, even landmasses on a monthly basis (both AC1 and AC2)
  • A variable-length jumping system, where holding down the space bar longer makes you jump further (AC1, complete with puzzles that require you to use it well)
  • The ability to travel quickly around the world, while still providing a sense of grandeur and rewarding player knowledge, by mastering an elaborate network of teleport portals and spells (both ACs)
  • The ability to improve skills by spending your XP on them (both ACs)
  • A “trickle down” guild system where new players automatically feed XP to higher-level members of the guild, thereby encouraging guilds to grow large, and to take care of their lower-level members (both ACs)
  • The ability to inscribe your name and a paragraph of text onto every item you own (both ACs)

And on and on… I could list dozens more. AC1 and AC2 had tons of features, large and small, which differed dramatically from other MMOs at the time — while still remaining recognizably MMOs. Were all these innovations successful? Hell no. Many of them were design failures. But they were innovations.

The point here is not that AC1 and AC2 were more innovative than other MMOs. Every big-league MMO in existence has had scores of unique features. Sometimes they don’t get noticed because the designers don’t do a good job explaining why the feature is awesome. (Often they aren’t really that awesome anyway.) Sometimes the company’s PR department fails to trumpet the feature, usually because they don’t understand it or why it’s a cool innovation. Sometimes the game sucks in so many other ways that the flaws outweigh any new features.

So here’s my point: any twist on an existing mechanic you can come up with, any obvious combination of MMOs and other genres, I can pretty much guarantee you that many MMO designers have already considered it. They may have already implemented it in some game you’ve never heard of. Hell, they may have implemented it in a game you have heard of — do you really keep up with all the game systems in all the new games and new expansions?

But unfortunately, innovations and new features don’t automatically make MMOs successful. Being “new” doesn’t make a feature good.

Innovation isn’t the key to fun. Fun is the key to fun.

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11 Responses to Innovation or History?

  1. Yeebo says:

    Commentators that whine about lack of “innovation” are generally whining about the lack of MMOs that cater to their tastes. If they really cared about innovation more than anything, they’d be playing Arden, Endless Forest, Puzzle Pirates, or any number of truly experimental MMOs.

  2. Sandra says:

    It’s not just commentators, though. Tobold merely makes a decent foil. :>

    The truth — and one I think we failed to convey here, more’s the pity — is that MMO designers (and more to the point, company leaders) often worship at the altar of innovation without giving serious thought to the innovations they’ve already engineered and how well (or poorly) those worked out (and why).

    I used to have frothing fits when people at Turbine would talk about our need to innovate. (Although to be fair, I also had frothing fits when they talked about our need to fall in line with EverQuest if we ever wanted to be successful.)

  3. Tesh says:

    Ah, yes, the “Innovate or Die” corporate line, where “Innovate” means “Do what Blizzard does, but with moar boobs”.

  4. Steven says:

    Im seriously missing something in MMO nowadays. Played a lot of different MMO’s that all seem to share a same boredom at the end.
    Played AC1 and AC2 with much more fun and happyness then any of the later games though, but in generally I miss the X-factor which I at the moment can’t describe (I wish I could). I’m actually really missing AC2. AC1 is still cool, but is just not really looking up-to-date anymore and even there I miss some stuff.
    Played ofcourse WoW (still playing every now and then actually) and played also DnD Online and Lotro, as well as the Funcom Age of Conan game. The Age of Conan game came closest actually to something new (not innovative) but didn’t catch the magic that was required.
    Have also played a few free to play games such as Rappelz, Perfect world, Chronicles of Spellborn (Dutch company btw) and Runes of Magic but they all seem to offer a lot of fun stuff.. but still miss that one X-Factor that makes the game playable for everyone and gives a replayability factor.

    The missing factor is definitely on a gameplay level, not on the graphic level. Everybody is making games with excellent graphics and think that they will make it on the market. That is one of the mistakes being made. Gladly discuss more on this subject ;) but I will leave it to this today.

  5. Markus says:

    I agree with you Steven, i can’t say that any game (MMO) has in anyway “inspired” me that much. I had high hopes for Age of Conan with all the talk about combos etc but the game wasnt even close to ready for a release so it gave a bad taste in my mouth and at the same time the combos made the PvP unbalanced.

    Could be that i’m so biased as an old AC1 and AC2 player that i can’t let go of the freedom and fun of those games (especially AC1). I absolutelly loved that i didn’t have to rely on others if i just felt like going hunting for a while.

    I don’t know, im not a games developer, just a computer science student, but if someone combined the great things from AC1 and the great things from WoW they could be on their way to something really unique… but maybe it’s just a daydream i’m having haha.

    P.S. Who came up with the idea of a “skilltree”? I know AC2 had one, just like WoW has it now. D.S

  6. obi says:

    “But now that Age of Conan and Darkfall are doing it, untargeted combat is considered “innovation”. If you want some more innovative features, maybe your next MMO will have one of these crazy ideas:”

    you know I’ve been telling people for YEARS, that all of these “new innovations” that most major MMO companies have been doing aren’t innovations, they are stolen from SoE, turbine, sierra, Just to name a few. But people rave it and give credit where credit isn’t due.

    hell Blizz even claimed to “innovate storage inventory”

    like hell… Mud’s had Storage/inventory

  7. Babs says:

    I suppose I’d be lynched for saying that text games did tons of game things that haven’t been implemented by MMO’s yet – except for that cool thing called graphics. So I wont’ say it. So there =D

  8. Eric says:

    Text “game”? Reading’s work, not a game! :P

    MUDs are actually a great place to dredge up new game ideas, because implementing them is much cheaper than the GUI version (which tends to require a bunch of art and so on). And honestly, I’d love to just make and run MUDs if I thought I could make a living at it…

  9. Slickriptide says:

    I always find it interesting when game does something innovative and doesn’t really recognize that they created an innnovation.

    For example, I’ll point at City of Heroes. It’s had some truly unique innnovations, like the sidekick system. However, it has one particular innovation that even today, the devs don’t seem to understand just how valuable it is.

    Namely, badges.

    If you haven’t played CoH, it’s simple. Badges are simply markers of doing things in the game. Exploring the game world, learning about the back story, accomplishing various kinds of milestones. Most badges give a toon a title to display under its name. Some also count towards “accolades”, which are groups of badges that combine to award a benefit of some kind.

    The WoW players in the audience are saying “Hey, that’s Achievements you’re talking about!” Which is my point. At the time that badges were first introduced into CoH, it was kind of a neat way of introducing some history to the setting, and give the Explorer types something to do. I doubt the devs could have predicted that badge-collecting would develop into its own sub-culture within the game.

    Now, CoH may not be the first,but I’m not aware of any previous attempts at this sort of thing and I’ve played a lot of MMO’s over the years. Whether they were truly first or not, they set the trend and EQ2, LOTRO, WAR, and, just recently, even WoW have all incorporated some variation on the idea.

    My point has to do with the way that NCSoft, the originators of the idea, still treat badge-collecting as a kind of mini-game in some ways, whereas when Blizzard embraced the idea, they embraced it whole-heartedly throught every aspect of the game. Further innovation at this point is coming, and I expect will continue to come, from other games that are viewing it as a “new” system instead of an old established game system.

    One example – While Blizzard is stingy with the titles, using them as rare awards in comparison to NCSoft who make nearly every badge a title, Blizzard took a different tack by recognizing that the real glitz of an achievment system is that other people know what is that you’ve achieved. Blizzard lets you link your achievements in chat, view them in the Armory, and most importantly, they announce them to the world at large and to your guild channel.

    Where City of Heroes treats badges as an award system for learning the backstory of the game and participating in game content, WoW treats achievements as a social system for building recognition and status within your community.

    Innovation doesn’t mean just coming up with something new and enjoyable. It also can mean taking an established system and using it in a new way to accomplish something the original system didn’t accomplish well. I think it says something interesting about the philosphies of the design teams that WoW took this approach where City of Heroes has had badges for over four years and nobody every seems to have considered that something as simple as announcing badges over a supergroup channel might have a community-building effect.

  10. Jeromai says:

    Or perhaps City of Heroes doesn’t buy into the Achievement-oriented, Keep-Up-With-The-Joneses-Or-Else mindset that WoW espouses. Announcing loot drops or badge attainments publicly just fosters that kind of mentality. Works for one game but not for others.

    Personally, I’d profess to be different from the majority of MMO players seeking innovation when they really mean fun. Or successful. Or popular. Or addictive.

    When I say ‘innovation,’ I really am looking for something different and I do play varied MMOs to experience different systems. I used to mud-hop in the same way to comb through various MUDs and see what neat new ideas had evolved from various ancestral roots.

    Some games I unfortunately missed the boat on, AC and EQ and UO to name the big ones, but I’m now hopping through a series of less-popularized or F2P MMOs seeing what they’ve done differently (ATITD, Wizard101, Saga of Ryzom, Vanguard, etc.)

    Explorers of neat systems like me come few and far between, though, and we don’t keep very well. Once we get bored, we’re off again to find something else new and novel. :)

  11. Babs says:

    If pitching pennies or flicking marbles across the floor are a game, then so are MUDs. So nyah nyah, Eric =P LOL!