Tuesday, September 08, 2009
Is Ultima Online a MMORPG?
Those of you who actually played UO will consider this a silly question. Ultima Online not only definitely is a MMORPG, it also is one of the more important milestones of MMORPG history. So why the question? Because every time a new game comes out nowadays, me or other commenters can't help but notice similarities between the new game and World of Warcraft: Combat is auto-attack plus abilities on a hotkey bar, gameplay is directed by quests given by NPCs with glowing symbols over their heads, there are classes, levels, and experience points, etc., etc. So sooner or later somebody is saying the words "WoW clone", and inevitably somebody else responds with "That is not cloning WoW, these features are all genre defining standards". Well, if these features define the MMORPG genre, then how come Ultima Online doesn't have them? How come A Tale in the Desert doesn't have them? How come Puzzle Pirates doesn't have them? How come that there are dozens of other games which are all recognizable MMORPGs, but which don't have that same list of WoW features?
The truth is that a MMORPG is a huge bundle of features, quality of execution, social factors, marketing, and so on, all playing a big role in the ultimate success of that game. And nobody, not even the game developers themselves, can tell you exactly which factors were important for the success of any given game, and which weren't. Thus while a good argument could be made that Everquest was more successful than Ultima Online because EQ had 3D graphics, the developers making the next generation of games weren't absolutely sure about that. So instead of trying to find the best possible feature of every existing game and improving on that, they simply copied most of the Everquest formula of auto-attack plus hotkey bar, quests, classes, levels, and experience points. Some year laters World of Warcraft came along, copied those EQ features, expanded on quest-directed gameplay and easy soloing, and factually became the new standard.
A game does not have to have auto-attack plus hotkey combat to be a MMORPG. It does not have to have classes and levels. And just because other games ended up with less subscribers, it doesn't mean that some of their features aren't actually superior to those of World of Warcraft. Some features of MMORPGs, especially combat, have become rather stagnant by repeated copying and cloning, with the majority of games still playing like Everquest, only faster. Game developers are missing the analytical skills to see which of the features of a successful game actually caused the success, and they are missing the creativity to innovate features that are still sub-optimal or getting old. Instead the "new features" we get are gimmicks like flight or voice-overs, which are supposed to make us forget that we are *still* taking that kill 10 foozles quest, targeting the foozle, and pressing hotkeys to launch various spells and abilities to combat it.
As long as game developers fail to either innovate, or to at least combine features from other games than just World of Warcraft, they will be open to charges of producing WoW clones. We can't just pretend that the features of World of Warcraft define the limits of the MMORPG genre. Remember Ultima Online!