What CAN be “new” in MMOs?
During the recent discussion here about “what’s new in MMOs“, evizaer raised an interesting point that I think merits further thought: aren’t all the “innovations” in MMOs really just small iterative steps along a fairly clearly illuminated preexisting path? That is to say, what truly new ideas could possibly exist in MMOs?
MMORPGs grew out of computer RPGs of course, which in turn were based on pen-and-paper RPGs, which in turn were based on folklore and mythology, and augmented with real life experiences. Whether we’re recapitulating the hero’s journey or just trying to get a bit stronger, whether we’re haggling with a merchant or vying for social status with our peers, everything we do in role-playing – whether pen-and-paper or on a computer – is based on preexisting ideas. We model stories that are of interest to us, as well as pursuits that appeal to us, but in every case those ideals and pursuits are rooted in things we already know.
Looked at another way, what does true innovation look like? There are two types of change, really: iterative and revolutionary. Iterative changes exist within existing paradigms, while revolutionary changes require a new paradigm. Almost all innovation in all industries is really just an iterative improvement over what already exists, and for good reason; people understand what already exists, and they know where they stand relative to it, and they can relatively easily understand small changes. A good example of iterative improvement is taking a keyboard and making it wireless; this is a simple change, and one everyone can understand and appreciate. The keyboard itself doesn’t change at all, nor does how we use it really… we just have one less cable to worry about. Now, a revolutionary change might replace the keyboard with another input device altogether, and people would be reluctant to switch over unless it were a clear and compelling improvement… actually, even then people would hesitate. We’re creatures of habit after all, and most people are resistant to change at a deep level. Change means unpredictability, and that means loss of control, which is dangerous – which is why evolution has reinforced the desire to control one’s environment by maximizing predictability.
It’s easy to imagine some iterative changes in MMORPGs. We can quickly come up with lists such as fully dynamic worlds, greater player agency, content that isn’t predominantly geared towards combat, etc. All of those things exist already in pen-and-paper RPGs. Want a classless game, or one with no levels, or one with no gear? Those exist already in RPGs. Want permadeath, or player extensibility of the ruleset, or sublimation of all game mechanics to narrative? Those exist already in RPGs too. Want a game that allows you to be a vampire cowboy astronaut, or a caveman? Those exist already in RPGs.
But what would revolutionary change really look like in a role-playing game? Well, by definition it’d have to be something that doesn’t already exist in the field. That’s complicated though given the heritage of the MMORPG as described above. What doesn’t exist in folklore or myth, or in real life, yet would be recognizable or comprehensible enough that players would be interested in trying it? Or in a more concrete sense, what do we WANT to do in MMORPGs that we can’t do in RPGs?
I simply don’t know.
I posit that all MMORPGs can really aspire to is iterative change – incremental steps with small improvements based around the core model. Now, I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding what the core model really is: not the DikuMUD pattern that we all live with in mainstream games, but the simple concept of inhabiting a character and experiencing that character’s life vicariously in whatever setting he/she inhabits, in conjunction with other players doing the same. When reduced to this minimalist definition, what real room is there for revolution? Changing the setting isn’t revolution. Changing the rules isn’t revolution (unless they change in a way that hasn’t been tried). Changing the graphics and sound and interface certainly isn’t revolution.
RPGs were in a sense a new type of game, but in another sense they’re just an extension of the role-playing common to children in every culture. Ever played a culturally insensitive game like Cowboys and Indians? Ever run around pretending to shoot people with your finger? That’s live-action roleplaying, my friend. Gygax and Arneson just took the concept that already existed and codified it, taking rules drawn from wargaming to provide a framework. Honestly though, even the root genre itself, the venerable RPG that underlies the MMO genre, isn’t revolutionary.
I don’t mean to suggest though that this is a bad thing. Iterative changes can still represent real progress. We’re unlikely to improve all that much on the basic game of chess, but it sure is convenient to be able to play against your computer if you can’t find a partner. Solitaire hasn’t really changed much but people can play it without cards now on virtually any electronic medium. EQ2 is a huge improvement over EQ, even though every single change was iterative and none were revolutionary, in the strict sense I’m using here.
What can we hope for, then? Well, the good news and the bad news is that MMORPGs are likely to continue much as they have been. Designers will continue to find iterative things to experiment with, but most will try to make their games similar to existing ones. It’s going to take a while before the average mainstream MMORPG has a focus other than combat, for instance… that’s a very large iterative change, but it’s still conceivable and even likely. Game worlds are likely to slowly grow more dynamic over time, as well… allowing players to effect greater influence on their environment… but it’ll take time. Iterative steps have the advantage of being fairly easy to imagine and to a certain extent foresee. Revolution though? I don’t think we’re going to have any in MMOs. I don’t think it’s possible.
That’s an odd thing for me to say. My day job, as I’ve mentioned before, is VP of R&D at a medical devices firm. I design surgical tools and nuclear medicine instruments for a living, and innovation is central to my success. In almost every part of life, I continually think of ways that things can be improved, and there’s almost always room for both iterative and revolutionary change. For me to speak out saying there’s no potential for revolution in an industry feels like a failure of imagination. But I think my knowledge of RPGs is too large (I even coauthored a few D&D supplements back in the day) for me not to give them credit for having already covered almost everything we can conceive of. There’s a lot of room for change and improvement, but all I can see is iterative change. The potential for revolution escapes me here. But then, hey, maybe someone else has a good idea for how to revolutionize role-playing, rather than just tweaking what exists. I’d be very interested to hear it.
“You say you got a real solution? Well, you know, we’d all love to see the plan.” – Lennon & McCartney, “Revolution”
Edit: I know I’m setting a very high requirement for designs to be revolutionary, but then I grow frustrated with the continual claims by designers that a given idea is revolutionary when in fact it’s just slightly different from what came before. It’s ok to be innovative by tweaking things instead of overthrowing the existing order. Our culture seems to value the concept of revolution a lot more than the reality of it though.