While working on MMOs, there were a few design tenets that “everyone knew”. They were the pitfalls you tried to avoid, the things you had to include, the concepts of structure and pacing that were how you knew you were designing correctly.
I understand where they come from. There’s a risk in breaking from the established norms, and as projects get bigger and more expensive, the risks are severe. That being said, I can’t think of very many best-in-class non-sequel games in any genre that have been massively successful without diverging significantly from the established tenets of the time. Even the very well-established series will reinvent themselves periodically to keep things fresh, and the ones that don’t change things up enough tend to flicker and die.
Sometimes these divergences come from technology. Assassin’s Creed was build on crowd AI and active movement concepts that weren’t seen anywhere beforehand. Ingress wouldn’t make sense without the cell phone as a gaming platform. Super Mario 64 wasn’t possible until the first fully 3D consoles were available. The first MMOs were built on this amazing idea that players could connect to an ongoing, persistent world and play with their friends easily, amid hundreds or thousands of other players doing the same.
Sometimes, the divergence is in how you experience the game. Thief took the first-person shooter genre and made it into a game about avoiding combat and avoiding enemies. Portal took the same genre and turned it into a puzzle-platformer. Adventure games and dungeon crawlers merged together into the modern single-player RPG. These evolutions happen between technological breakthroughs, generally– they’re the kinds of games you see when a console generation is mature, or when technology is relatively stable.
The difficulty here is risk. There’s a big problem when a type of game is unable to explore its potential because it’s too risky to do so, and there’s a very real risk of sameyness when the only things changing in a genre are the trappings. Adventure games and JRPGs both went through this, with the formulae going largely unchanged from game to game, and both have gone from popular, relevant games to tropes. There’s a constant fear of deviating from type when making a game, and some genres are more restrictive than others.
A lot of this comes down to verbs. Consider the verbs that constitute gameplay in a point-and-click adventure game. There’s “click on environment”, “talk to NPC”, and there’s “use item in inventory”. The outcomes may vary, but by and large you’re clicking on something in order to trigger an animation and either obtain an inventory object to move forward or otherwise trigger a progress flag. Talking to NPCs has a similar effect. Movement isn’t really gameplay, though it pretends to be, and the visual novel genre does away with movement entirely.
MMOs are similar. There’s “fight enemy”, there’s “click on object”, there’s “use inventory item”, sometimes there’s “talk to NPC” (though this is often a single block of text that you may not even have to read), and there’s “move” (sorta). “Fight enemy” is the most robust of these verbs by far, and everything else pales in comparison. Movement is rarely fleshed out beyond just running around, though occasionally there’s roll dodging. Even jumping, while usually present, often is dismissed as a viable gameplay type because “players get frustrated by jumping puzzles”. That last would hold a bit more weight with me if there weren’t so many incredibly popular jumping puzzle games, not least of which is the most commonly known video game character in the world.
Digging deeper, it’s a fidelity problem. First- and third-person action games have a lot of verbs– Grand Theft Auto is immensely popular in large part because there’s so much you can do. The verbs in that game feel varied and different and fun. Skyrim is similar– there’s enough depth in the various things you can do that you feel like you have a lot of freedom to do a lot of different things; it’s not just “fight enemies”. First-person platformers come in a variety of flavors, despite the “FPP” being a niche (platformers) of a niche (non-combat first-person action games).
I beat the drum about MMOs a lot, but one of the things that hasn’t increased even as the fidelity of the games has increased is the number of verbs. It’s still “fight enemy”, “click on object”, occasionally (but more often now) “talk to NPC”, and “move (sorta)”. We know we’re playing an MMO when we see hotbar combat, and fields of monsters, and gear/level grinds. It says a lot to me that Destiny made as big a splash as it did, despite its many well-known-to-MMO-player issues. It was a different way of experiencing both the FPS and the MMO, and drew from both pools.
I’m not convinced that we’re going to see a conceptual divergence in MMOs that leads us to the Next Big Thing. One of the advantages that the FPS has is the very strong middleware– the myriad game engines built for making first-person action games that are accessible and generate good games. MMOs lack that– each one has to be built from the ground up, even when using middleware, and it means that just getting a game off the ground is a herculean task. There’s no room to take risks, and as a result a lot of the MMOs out there feel like they’ve been cut from the same cloth.
Virtual reality might be the technological jump MMOs need to have a breakthrough, but I’m not yet convinced that’s going to be as big a technology as everyone seems to hope. Perhaps I’m just cynical from having lived through the same excitement in the ’90s. I think an MMO that keeps the core of the genre– play in a big world with your friends– while otherwise vastly diverging in how you actually experience it might pull the genre forward. I think that would drive a lot of players away, but it would also bring in players from elsewhere.
Until someone takes a big risk and has a solid foundation and resource pool supporting them, though, it’s unlikely that we’ll see anything like that anytime soon. It’s a very barren field for up and coming MMOs that are likely to make a big splash, compared to just a few years ago. I have a lot of fond memories of the rise of the MMO, and I mostly feel like there’s a gameplay experience I was able to have once that’s missing now. I’d like to have it again, but that window may have closed. We’ll see.