Tuesday, November 15, 2011
What is an MMORPG? One would think that after over a decade of playing them, and over 8 years of writing about them, I would have a good answer to that question. But I don't. The problem is not to look at any specific game and decide whether I would consider it to be an MMORPG or not. The problem is to imagine how much the existing games could change, and still be an MMORPG. I was pondering that question after reading not one but several bloggers writing about playing both Skyrim and the Star Wars: The Old Republic (beta) this weekend. Although they were more or less restrained by the SWTOR NDA, it was rather clear that everybody considered Skyrim to have a more believable, immersive, epic world than SWTOR. I believe them.
What I have problems with is jumping from the Skyrim vs. SWTOR comparison to a conclusion about the future of MMORPGs. I do think that SWTOR is a logical consequence of the evolution of the MMORPG genre from Everquest to World of Warcraft to now. But by being so typical, SWTOR ends up being not at all exceptional, not pushing the envelope. I tend to think about all the MMORPGs as being points in an imaginary cloud, the possibility space of MMORPGs so to say. The cloud encompasses all the features of all possible games that I would consider MMORPGs. On the outer edge of that cloud are atypical games like A Tale in the Desert, Puzzle Pirates, or Wizardry 101. And games like WoW or SWTOR are smack in the center of that possibility space.
What I observe is that many people look at this center, and not the edges of the possibility space. They point at World of Warcraft and Star Wars: The Old Republic and say: "This is what an MMORPG is!". I believe they are wrong. And more specifically in this case I don't see any reason which would prevent the possibility of a hypothetical "Skyrim Online", which would have all the immersion of the existing Skyrim plus the massively multiplayer online features that would make it an MMORPG.
I am well willing to chant with you the often repeated lament of how game companies are more likely to target the center of the possibility space than to try and push the edges of that space outwards. But I don't think that it is already time to give up all hope. There are still games on the horizon like Guild Wars 2 which will be very different. And it is likely that the center of the possibility space will become so crowded after SWTOR is released that it forces competitors to do something different to survive.
While Skyrim having such a big open world is certainly nice, it has to be remarked that big open worlds are a current trend in single-player games. While MMORPGs have on average become more theme-parky, single-player games have become more sandboxy over the last decade, with GTA playing a big role in that development. And while it might not necessarily be Skyrim Online, it is quite possibly that a company with a strong single-player brand makes an MMORPG in the future, and that this MMORPG will have an epic open world because of that being what the company knows best. Just like SWTOR inherits many of the features of previous Bioware games, a company currently making epic open world single-player games might produce an epic open world MMORPG in the future.
I don't expect SWTOR to provide me with more than a few months of fun, because I expect it to be too similar to other MMORPGs in the center of that possibility space cloud. I will probably burn out quickly, because I've played too many too similar games in the past. And I consider it possible that I am not the only one who will have that experience. And over time this might cause a shift in the MMORPG market. I still have hope for MMORPGs that are very different. Just look how many different combat systems single-player RPGs of the last couple of years have, while too many MMORPGs are using a combat system that hasn't evolved much since Everquest. There is room in that possibility cloud, and that room gives me hope.