MMO Game Design Has Stagnated

It looks like today might be MMO day. Richard Garriott, progenitor of the Ultima games has delivered a keynote in which he notes that design of MMO games has not significantly changed in the 10 years since he brought out Ultima Online

Core gameplay elements are the same, and Garriott argues, the lack of innovation is cheating players out of a richer experience.

“Combat systems, character leveling that caused players to obsesses over ‘grinding’ and the misassumption that AI can be replace by player-controlled characters were the features he dismantled and accused MMO developers of being overly reliant on.”

I’ve only had in-depth experience with two MMORPGs, Final Fantasy XI and World of Warcraft (I’m not counting my trial of 9Dragons), and the sameness of the core gameplay is striking. I’ve put together a quick and dirty comparison of them below:

Activity FFXI WoW
Quests where you kill a certain amount of Enemy X(kill quest) Yes Yes
Quests where you find an item and bring it back to some character too lazy to do it himself(fetch quest) Yes Yes
Gaining experience points by killing things to get stronger and kill slightly stronger things, to get stronger to kill slightly stronger things (level grind) Yes Yes
Using the offal from the monsters you slay to create items (crafting) Yes Yes

Unfortunately, most of the activities in these games can be put into each of these categories. The NPCs don’t move and don’t change what they say or do in response to anything that happens in the game world, or if they do, it’s because of a fairly significant world event. This seems to be because even though there are thousands of players in a given server or world, they are all experiencing the same story. They are the hero going on epic quests to whatever end, most likely quelling evil. What happens when you finally defeat the Great Evil? Nothing, really. You get a cutscene, some loot (phat lewt, no doubt), some adulation by some NPCs and the Great Evil reappears for the next group of adventurers to try their hand at vanquishing it.

I’ve not played them, but games like Eve Online give the players the chance to play the economy, build companies, and the like. This is good for those who don’t necessarily want to stand in one place and kill goblins all day, it gives them something to do to break up the monotony. I also understand that Star Wars Galaxies allowed characters to open shops, create communities, and generally alter their game world, but since I’ve not played either it or Eve I can’t really say how much fun either of those things are. I do, however, like that they have activities that are slightly different from the norm. It helps keep the game fresh.

I understand that my view of these games is somewhat skewed, but the single design I would like to see changed is geared toward the single player. I quite enjoyed playing both of the MMORPGs that I did for the time I was a subscriber, but I’m strange and ran out of stuff to do, even though I didn’t get to the maximum level. I prefer to play those games either with people that I know in real life, though a pick-up party on occasion is nice, or to play them by myself. The big problem is that MMORPGs are developed around the concept of parties. You do everything in a party, you do quests, you slaughter native fauna (and sometimes flora), and you experience the bulk of the story all in a party. So if my group of regulars is unavailable when I want to play, my choices on what I can do are pretty limited.

The question then becomes, “Why are you playing a multiplayer game if you want to play by yourself?” The answer is that I like the game, I like the mechanics, and I like checking out the game world. The problem is that in real life I don’t have to gather a group of six people to slaughter sheep while I run to the store and fetch some milk, or chop some wood, or mine some ore. Yes, real life wilderness is teeming with wildlife, but there’s not some creature waiting behind every tree plotting to kill you.

Here’s to radical design changes.

Link! (via Kotaku)