Every other day there seems to be a new MMO coming out that promises something “innovative” and “exciting” yet when the covers come completely off, the game looks and feels exactly like that other game. You know the one. The popular one that makes all kinds of money. The UI on the new game will often mirror the older game exactly, and even the controls, item systems, combat systems, and story may mimic the other game almost entirely– except for a few tweaks here and there, of course. It’s almost like game developers scramble to find the most popular games and do a bunch of copying and pasting. It’s never that simple, but you know what they say– if it looks like a duck, sounds like a duck, and gets water all over the place– it’s probably a duc– er, MMO clone.
Now, don’t get me wrong. MMO “clones” aren’t inherently awful. There’s a reason why that popular game rakes in all that cash, after all. Why break what isn’t broken, right? Sometimes we really do like the systems and features of a game and just want something, well, a little different. A new start. A new setting. That’s completely understandable.
But then there are those other times. The times when we actually really want something different. Those are the times when we walk away from a new game frustrated. Not every game is going to please every person, but it’s a little disconcerting when the number of obvious MMO clones outweigh the number of truly innovative MMOs. I suppose it’s part of the reason why so many PC gamers are turning to indie/Kickstarter projects. Sometimes indie developers pull off innovation wonderfully, and that effort needs to be applauded.
What it boils down to at the end of the day is the fact that MMO gaming is increasing in popularity so quickly that developers are finding that it’s beneficial to spread seeds in as many crop circles as possible. “If folks are tired of fantasy, let’s give them ninjas!” “Everyone likes robots. And boobs. Let’s give them both!” I may be eluding to a couple awful F2P MMOs. You know the ones– their ads are hard to miss. With the booming current population of MMO gamers, it’s only natural that we’re given more and more options every day and that a large percentage of them kind of suck. It’s one of the side effects of having a larger gamer population to pull from. Along with anal jokes in every single game’s global chat system and some interesting issues we’re seeing with socialization.
Developers spreading seeds in multiple settings/styles/genres isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. Some developers pull it off pretty nicely. Look at Trion Worlds, for example. Yes, you could say that RIFT is a pretty close copy-and-paste of World of Warcraft. Most of us knew that when we started playing, especially given Trion’s advertising campaign. We started with the obvious quests, the obvious raids, the obvious Expert dungeons, and the obvious pets, achievements, dwarves, elf people, turtle mounts, and “let’s save the world!” storylines. It was all extremely standard. Still, the game is still around. RIFT is arguably getting pretty niche in some regards, but its development is still going strong and so is its community.
There’s also the fact that Trion added content to RIFT that took the game a step above World of Warcraft in some ways. The development team took a copy-and-paste basis and added in dynamic content, then later on added in additional features that livened up the game quite a bit such as instant adventure, cross-server travel, chronicles, and player housing (also known as dimensions). Let’s not forget Trion’s quick pace with content updates. Now look at what WoW players are getting in Warlords of Draenor. Yep– player housing and dynamic content. And quicker expansions.
The big shot developers aren’t immune to this copy-and-paste MMO clone effect. Ideas spread like wildfire within the industry, and as long as developers out there are willing to take a chance on innovation, all of our games can turn out better in the long run. Just because a game starts off as being rather unoriginal doesn’t mean it will always stay that way. Innovation doesn’t happen overnight, and that’s okay. MMOs are all about worlds that change, after all.
Trion’s recently-announced Trove is also a good example of this. At its core, Trove is a copy-and-paste of Minecraft and Cube World with some extra goodies tossed it. We all know that. Still, let’s take a look at the big picture. There’s a whole lot of possibility in an adventure MMO that’s easily modifiable and offers plenty of ways for players to also manipulate and modify that world. With how quickly gamers are running through content these days, there’s definitely room for content that can be designed by the players and can be rapidly changed without developers needing to spend months hiring art departments and staring at whiteboards. Why not let players help create content? Why not cycle the worlds and dungeons in order to give players something new?
The whole cube-based style may turn a lot of gamers off regarding Trove– and that’s completely understandable– but the premise and goals of the design team are commendable if you ask me. I support Trion’s “let’s experiment and ask questions later” approach to developing games because it’s a little risky. It’s also innovative under the right circumstances. Trion makes a lot of mistakes– just ask anyone who played Defiance at launch– but by the end of their next staff meeting, the team strives to better their games and listen to their playerbase.
Innovation doesn’t always come down to rewriting everything from the ground up. Innovation can happen in baby steps. This is where most of the fly-by-night, boob-and-robot F2P games go wrong. A game needs some innovation. It also needs to move us forward both in the matter of content and concepts– never backwards. There’s a good reason why Blizzard never agreed to the whole “Vanilla WoW server” idea players kept pleading for back in Cataclysm. Game development should always look to the future and to what’s next around that pixel-covered horizon.
Path of Exile is another great example of innovation in small amounts. Yes, it’s an obvious clone of Diablo II. So much so, in fact, that everything from the UI and those nifty health/mana globes to the enemy system, item stat system, difficulty system, shrine system, graphical style, loot system, static gender class system, and even the barter-based trade system is pretty much a copy and paste of Diablo II with a few adjustments.
Here’s the thing, though. The game works extremely well for what it is. It’s kind of like going back in time to the Diablo II era with a shiny new toy. The extremely huge and open-ended passive skill tree? Golden. The skill gem system that’s completely customizable? Awesome. Even the flask system is better than anything Blizzard did with consumables in Diablo III.
Sure, Path of Exile isn’t perfect. It gets a little boring after a while, especially after the “ZOMG huge skill tree” novelty wears off. For being a somewhat indie project, however, the game is pretty dang impressive, especially given all the copying and pasting. Innovation doesn’t have to happen in gigantic amounts. As long it happens, it can help create a better game. Blizzard is making a ton of improvements to Diablo III in its first expansion from the sounds of it, and that is most likely at least partially due to the response that Path of Exile received while it was in beta. Developers learn from the experiences of other developers, and that’s often the most we can hope for.
It’s impractical to expect developers to stop creating MMO clones entirely. Copying and pasting of features and systems will always happen to some degree as long as MMOs remain popular and within the mainstream entertainment eye. When you take this fact into consideration, it begins to matter less and less who copied who and why. What matters more is that developers are being innovative, looking toward the future, and designing content, features, and systems that not only inspire other developers to better their own games, but to make all of our games better for years to come. Innovation is key. Not all games come out of the gate as the most awesome and 100% innovative games ever, but the fact that there is innovation will set the bar higher for the future.