Your Next: Subversive Elements

Is appearing traditional the most innovative thing an MMO can do?

The world is such an unfathomable place, and people populate the heart of its endless mystery. In my country, a political party that represents the interests of less than ten percent of the people got about a third of us to vote for them and now they’re running the show. Never underestimate the importance of selling an idea

In the brutal political landscape of MMO forum PvP we are known for flapping our gums about the need for new approaches and ideas in the medium, and we also know anything that deviates from established models is met with major resistance. It’s a fascinating quirk of the human brain that we seem to be able to hold these two positions simultaneously.

Yes, 1984 is one of my favorite books, why do you ask?

While innovation is important to keep things fresh, keeping design and presentation within a cultural context that players can understand is equally important. If you go too far off the script, the product can be too unconventional to appeal to the established market. I’m not advocating that everything stay the same, but while it’s certainly not impossible to break through with something unique there’s an upper limit of ‘uniqueness’, after which it loses attractiveness.

With a new game, it seems that shooting for different but still recognizable is the best bet. If you’re setting out to create something that feels very different, such as EverQuest Next, how can this be reconciled?

EQN is positioned as a reaction to the entrenched norms of MMORPGs; the desire for the game to be different has been put front and centre from day one. So how does it balance this desire with the need to be approachable and culturally resonant?

If you wanted to make a subversive MMO, what would it look like? 

Showing players what they expect to see, but challenging their expectations when they interact with it is a good place to start. Undermining the learned responses that make us feel like we’ve mastered a game before we even set foot out of the starter zone.

What expectations do we have as participants in a fantasy world? A hero, plucked from obscurity, goes on an unlikely quest to save the world/galaxy/arbitrary proximity from the evil that threatens it. Also, sometimes we’re expected to exact revenge for the deaths of characters we were never given a chance to care about, especially in East Asian MMOs.

That’s all well and good, but it just isn’t the best fit when potentially millions of players have to be plucked from obscurity simultaneously. Some games like DC Universe Online and The Secret World have a good stab at making it work from a lore perspective, but that still doesn’t help much when it comes to narrative. The personal story is one of my gripes with MMORPGs, and one area that a game could immediately differentiate itself. At this point I would welcome a little cold indifference with open arms, which is basically how I imagine it feels to live with a cat.

The main obstacle to truly opening up the world and story is the idea of linear progress, where every step in one direction takes us closer to our goal. Punctuation in the story is always a full stop and a new paragraph, carefully hung on a three act structure as if a virtual world was served best bound like a book. It’s the simplest solution, but one that holds a game back rather than reinforcing its core. Even the fact we have one clear goal and a fairly streamlined path to get there is going against the grain. Yes, it works for an analogue story, but it’s letting so much potential slip away.

What if the structure was changed so that the path looked more like an MC Escher painting? What if the ‘correct’ road to take was based on your perspective? A narrative that can loop and double back and seem to twist in its dimensions as you experience it seems like a much better use of an online world than what can be achieved by using the structure of an analogue medium.

It also seems like an impossible dream, of course, but one worth shooting for. EQN is aiming in the right direction by asking questions like what if all we could do to make progress was what seemed to be right? What if we could make mistakes? What if we could fail? What if we could make the ‘right’ choice but be thwarted by other players who were also trying to do what was best?

Like time travellers or well meaning space explorers, what if our meddling had an effect we could never predict? How would it feel to realize you were wrong, despite your best intentions?

To be honest, I have a feeling this would be going a little too far. We’ve been trained to expect and desire a linear and unimpeded progression, and the backlash against consequences would be severe. I find the irony of this more than a little depressing.

Players will bristle with righteous indignation at the idea of an MMORPG sharing similarities with another, but when the chips are down only what is established is embraced. Anything that offends the gods of progression is an abomination.

Innovation is hard, and selling the change is a big part of that. This is why I prefer the term subversion to innovation; change is necessary but it can feel like convincing a child to eat their vegetables. The benefits of eating right are invisible, but the cookie jar is its own reward.


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