I was reading a comments thread for some news on Realtime Studios recently, mainly concerned with Crackdown 2, but it did somewhat involve APB. The point is, though, that someone said that APB is going to be crushed by WoW, which should have been expected. It was, however, immediately confusing to me. APB is supposedly a GTA-esque game where you play either a cop or a crook, doing cop or crook things. How in any way is this related to slaying dragons as an elf/dwarf/etc etc? Well, I didn’t really think that, but I really should have. MMOs have been lumbered in together, for better or for worse, and I’m wondering why.
Perhaps the most obvious reason is that MMOs are (so far) all fundamentally based on the same mechanics. You have an avatar. You have skills. You use these skills to kill stuff while doing quests, and you have the option to do all this with other people. You level up, with decreasing regularity, the more you play. Everquest, World of Warcraft, City of Heroes, The Matrix Online, all of these are, at the most basic level the same game with a different skin. So it’s not entirely unreasonable to throw them in the same group together, and claim that one can be in direct competition to another. However, it’s not nearly as simple as that.
Setting does make quite a big difference to most people. I don’t think it’d be a huge stretch to claim that part of World of Warcraft’s success was down to the recent release of the Lord of the Rings films. People really loved fantasy at the time, so that kept the game alive and the steady growth since then is somewhat a result of that. Personally, I’m utterly sick to death of the high fantasy setting; I’m looking forward to something like World of Darkness or Champions far more than the next fantasy MMO. Again, though, I’m throwing them all into the same category.
There are deviants in the ‘genre’. EVE and Planetside instantly come to mind; they are the ones who have broken from tradition and done it in an entirely new way. EVE got rid of the levelling system and replaced them with skills while at the same time fuelling a brilliant PVP world that kept the game fresh when the developers had long run out of ideas. Planetside occupied itself with being a first person shooter in a PVP world, the natural evolution of the team deathmatch to include an entire world, rather than one level. Yet they are still tagged ‘MMO’, and supposedly targeted at the same audience.
Part of it is no doubt down to the way MMOs are funded. People can just about justify a subscription to one game, but more than that is either considered frivolous or too expensive. You simply don’t have enough time to claim value out of two subscriptions. It’ll be interesting to see if Guild Wars 2 can pull off being a non-instanced world without a subscription, because then hopefully that’ll scare some other MMOs into doing away with a questionable model. Regardless, the fact that most people can only afford one MMO at a time means that all of them are competing for the same people, so it follows that they are all in direct competition with each other.
The problem is that they are becoming more diverse as people try to attract people away from what has become boring and stale. They are going to become more and more difficult to categorise as the same thing as they do. I suppose the easiest compromise will to be to label them by the primary genre, then the MMO tag, such as FPS-MMO, or RPG-MMO, etc etc. I’m not a big fan of such labels, but it’d help target a specific demographic, rather than just trying to take on all 11 million WoW subscribers, as it’s become quite apparent that such a task is all but insurmountable.
I’ve often wondered what it is that keeps the WoW players playing for so long. I quit after I realised I was just doing the same things over and over and over again, week by week, in the mostly fruitless pursuit of items. The prospect, now, is utterly abhorrent to me, and I feel almost grateful to Blizzard for making me resistant to any form of grind again. Primarily, what I’m looking for now is a MMO that is fundamentally player driven, from the bottom up; I’d much rather be given a task by a person than an NPC. Again, this is digression, but it’s relevant digression. It’s the thing that MMOs do all share, that they’re just refusing to use at the moment; lots and lots of people.
EVE is perhaps the closest to what I’m looking for out there at the moment, but its learning curve is so vertical that even my brief forays into the world have been met with an entire lack of engagement. I enjoyed it, and it looked magnificent, but the whole world has become somewhat closed off to newcomers, at least in my experience, and this is tied into what makes it so brilliant, unfortunately. People have found their niche, and most of these niches are being filled. I’m hoping CCP can apply what they’ve done right in EVE to World of Darkness, as even though it may become dominated by large guilds and the like, the mere fact it’s not the wide open expanses of Space and instead filled with living(errr..), breathing(errr..) people will make all the difference.
The label of MMO is unavoidable in the current climate. They are still, for all intents and purposes, a novelty, and not the majority. Elements of them are seeping into the ‘mainstream’ games, but they are still very much their own beast, for better or for worse. Anything that is putting a large number of people in a persistent world is going to be called thus, but there is still an incredible amount of potential that hasn’t even begun to be used yet. And it’s the utility of that potential that is going to allow the genre to diversify and shed the all encompassing label of ‘MMO’.