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.

15 comments so far

  1. Ysharros on

    Friday. Can’t think. Brain leaking.


    But I did read it! I agree with everything because I’m too beat to form a coherent thought of my own. If I remember, I’ll come back and try to do better. 😀

    • foolsage on

      Beer, indeed. I can’t argue against that. 😀

  2. […] rest is here: What CAN be “new” in MMOs? « Fool's Age Share and […]

  3. […] 18, 2010 by Ysharros New? There is no new in MMOs! During the recent discussion here about “what’s new in MMOs“, evizaer raised an interesting […]

  4. Tesh on

    Perhaps using the rather largish RPG framework to bracket the issue isn’t terribly helpful. MMORPGs take a very narrow slice of RPG game design and iterate endlessly on the same old tropes, mostly combat and leveling as you note. Building an MMO around social interaction and mystery solving (no levels, no combat) would be well within the RPG standards, but radically revolutionary given the current MMO market.

    I’ve not read many people asking for revolution in the RPG design at large, but many I’ve read are tired of the narrow slice of that design that MMOs have wound up in.

    • foolsage on

      Yeah, I hear you. I’m torn honestly. On the one hand, using the definitions I provided, it’s hard to even imagine a true revolution in MMORPGs, since almost everything conceivable exists in the precursors. It’s perhaps more helpful at times to speak solely of the genre in and of itself, ab initio; otherwise nothing will ever be especially new, as I pointed out.

      My pet peeve is that designers (and, well, marketing people more often) speak about so many MMOs as being “revolutionary” when really they are nothing of the sort; they’re merely slightly novel iterations of existing patterns. This all started from a desire to push back against the hype. 😉

    • Tesh on

      Heh, I well understand the impulse to push back against the hype. It’s not like I toe the design line all that well, and I’m certainly not the typical consumer. 😉

  5. Brian 'Psychochild' Green on

    Want to see a radical change in MMORPGs? http://assemblee.wildshadow.com/

    Keep in mind that the game was made for a design competition. The game was designed and implemented in 1 month made from assets (art and music) created in a previous month. It’s also mostly a proof of concept at this stage, and I’m not sure that this could be turned into a commercial game easily.

    You can perhaps argue that this still isn’t revolutionary because it has echoes of Diablo and other games, but compared to typical MMORPGs it is something different. I think we can do more, it’s just that the obvious paths are iterative. It takes a lot of rule breaking to do something revolutionary.

    • foolsage on

      Ha! That was entertaining, I will grant, but I don’t see it as original. As you noted, it’s very similar to Diablo… and in another sense, it’s basically the same as most any DikuMMO, only with 2d graphics and less customization. I didn’t play much so there might be more to it. Different, yes, but not revolutionary.

      You’re quite right; in order to revolutionize any industry you have to break rules and violate assumptions. I fully admit that I’m too deep into the RPG industry to see the walls of the box, which prevents me from readily thinking outside said box. If we limit our view to only MMOs (as opposed to RPGs in general) it’s easier to think of how things can change, but as noted, most of those changes will likely be small steps. That’s not a bad thing though. A series of small steps can take one to a very different place, after all.

  6. evizaer on

    There is a lot that can be done in themepark MMOs alone. I made a post recently about an idea I had for a timetravel MMO. Though it’s mostly a reorganization of traditional mechanics and not a complete reset, I think it has much to offer.

    A more radical change can be seen in my Discard Mutants concept. Though this game may not be a particularly great MMO as I have it specified there, I can imagine, with some tweaking, it could be a radical change from the norm in the MMO world.

    Atlantica Online was more innovative than most mainstream western MMOs: It worked primarily with a party instead of with a single character, and it had explicitly turn-based battles where spacing and position are important. This isn’t a revolutionary change from some RPGs of the past, but it’s certainly something we don’t see often in MMOs.

    • foolsage on

      I posted a reply to the timetravel idea in the original thread; that’s not new since it’s essentially (mechanically) been done already in City of Heroes, albeit with a different conceit to explain the mechanics. The end result is the same though.

      I like the Discard Mutants idea but that’s not revolutionary; even the iterative changes therein are all fairly close to what has come before. Take one part Eve, one part Ultima Online, one part Anarchy Online, mix in a liberal dose of Gamma World, add amnesia (a tried-and-true RPG convention), add requirement for food and drink, add permadeath. That’s definitely different from the mainstream MMO of today, no doubt, but it’s all founded in stuff we’ve seen in RPGs already (actually, it’s very much Gamma World as an MMO). Again, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea (it isn’t), just that it’s not the revolutionary change I was asking for. But then I question whether the revolutionary change I’m asking for is even possible, thus the thrust of this article.

    • evizaer on

      So you want an MMO that does not involve inhabiting one body regularly. A game that has no perceivable world that is similar to our own. A game where the character does walk, fly, ride, or do anything else that people can do.

      Well… I think you’ve just defined yourself out of virtual worlds entirely. Perhaps an extremely abstract strategy MMO would suit you, but even then you’d complain that it has the vicissitudes of an abstract strategy game and is, therefore, not revolutionary.

      If you only count revolutionary as “that which we are incapable of describing in relation to anything else in the genre”, then you’re preventing anything from being revolutionary through your definition. Without references to the genre, the game isn’t in the genre. You can only classify games into genres because they relate to one another. By defining revolutionary change as a game that does not relate at all to other games in the genre, you are specifying that a revolutionary game in a genre is not in that genre… which is contradictory. Your definition of revolutionary, if I’ve got it right, can never be satisfied not because of some insufficiency in the mentality of designers and programmers, but instead because the definition contradicts itself.

      Perhaps you could better define revolutionary change as a change that indelibly effects all other games produced later in the genre. A revolutionary change is a significant change that is noticeably a departure from ways of the past, though it may not be entirely different and unrelatable. It’s a change the radically effects the way players approach the game.

      • foolsage on

        I increased the depth of quote levels available to simplify discussion. Sorry it wasn’t enabled before.

    • foolsage on

      Hmm. None of those things are necessary; a revolutionary change would by its nature need to be substantial but not unrecognizable.

      I’ll grant that my definition of revolutionary was pretty strict, but I think yours is even moreso. I don’t think revolutionary changes can’t be described in relation to other things; I do however think that they need to be a) novel, and b) substantial.

      Kuhn’s description of paradigm shifts in “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” is helpful here. It’s morning and I’m feeling lazy so I’ll cut and paste from the Wikipedia entry for paradigm shift here: “The term “paradigm shift” has found uses in other contexts, representing the notion of a major change in a certain thought-pattern — a radical change in personal beliefs, complex systems or organizations, replacing the former way of thinking or organizing with a radically different way of thinking or organizing.”

      Defining revolutionary change as “a change that indelibly effects all other games produced later in the genre” doesn’t capture the requirements of being a major and radical change.

      I think Tesh’s point is well-taken in this context; it’s perhaps overly restrictive to only consider MMOs in the context of all RPGs here, since that does make true revolutionary change (paradigm shifts) nigh-impossible. Exploring MMOs as a distinct subgenre allows more freedom for major and radical change.

  7. Wiqd on

    I wish I could say more than I already have, both on my blog and others’, but at this point I’m so tired of discussing things that will either not ever see the light of day, or will show up 5-10 years down the road when someone else will claim they’re revolutionary.

    There’s no room for indie designers in the MMO world. I think the most anyone could do is make an indie RPG built around the idea of possible making it into an MMO one day, should someone option it.

    I mean, Tesh and I have gone over so many different things that would be innovative ideas in an MMO that it’s pretty crazy. A few things:

    Inheritance through character lifespan and death.
    Story progression on a per server basis that includes Permadeath penalty on certain main bosses.
    Living / breathing world that incorporates real markets with real player-run stores and governmental rules on player city sizes.
    Cross-media platform, much like Sci-Fi’s MMO / TV show, only with actual interaction WITH the TV show.
    RTS combat style approach for large scale sieges / PVP
    More intricate combat systems that focus more on weapon and magic skills than assigned weapons or spells.
    Classless / level-less characters.

    I’m sure there’s more we’ve talked about and I’m not delusional to think everyone will like the ideas, but that also means I’m not delusional enough to think everyone will like my MMO. I’m fine with an MMO I make not being WoW or having WoW’s numbers. The bad thing is, the people with the money aren’t.

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