Don’t Renovate, Innovate!

This won’t take long.

I was reminded of BioWare’s co-founder, Greg Zeshuk, making the following statement;

“It [World of Warcraft] is a touchstone. It has established standards, it’s established how you play an MMO. Every MMO that comes out, I play and look at it. And if they break any of the WoW rules, in my book that’s pretty dumb.”

I must say I like World of Warcraft. The tail end of Cataclysm has finally come good, although it is a shame it took a bit of effort and thought to make the expansion actually feel right in the end. Mists of Pandaria, and all of the changes being detailed – account-wide achievements table alongside making mounts and pets also attach to your battle.net ID – make perfect sense to reduce the workload for players and make sure that people just enjoy the game, rather than be bogged down in grinding.

But there is a fundamental issue here. I don’t always want to play World of Warcraft. It is the same across the games industry – one person has a good idea, and before long a dozen knock-offs are in the pipeline that totally miss the point. The industry itself has become lazy and disillusioned; rather than innovate, many developers just renovate tried and tested formulaic concepts.

I don’t blame the developers so much in this. As I have said previously, the sad reality of the industry is that during the big sales periods – namely, the winter months – the publishers of the world want to get as many sales as they can. This means sequels, clones and knock-offs are an inevitable consequence during this period as everyone vies for the same market.

The problem is this; if everyone is gunning for the same market, then there is far less market share to go around.

The MMO world is a stark reflection of this truth. World of Warcraft has 10 million subscribers – and that figure isn’t really budging anymore. World of Warcraft players are HAPPY with World of Warcraft. They’re not interested in games doing it the same way, because why would you play a game that copies when you can play the original? The Old Republic, it is becoming clear, is losing subscribers because people are disillusioned with it. A lot argue, quite rightly, that Star Wars Galaxies was more innovative and interesting than a game that so desperately apes so much from World of Warcraft.

Rift is a good example of innovation; Telara is a busy, thriving world with constantly changing and evolving landscapes. Admittedly, I’d say that at times it feels a bit empty, but the technical polish and desire to keep evolving and changing with the seasons makes it a very strong release. That it also shipped in a releasable state, with relatively few major bug issues, helped secure it against its rival, whose expansion was not three months old when they decided to tackle it head-on.

Also, this year we will see Guild Wars 2, with a revolutionary new questing system that changes depending on time of day and what events are happening around it, and The Secret World – a world of mystique and intrigue, with a very left-of-field approach to character development that isn’t grounded in the traditional training of abilities. TERA is interesting not because it looks fantastic, but because the political landscape in it will change and adapt over time, changing the towns and cities as well as what can be on sale, encouraging players to get involved in how the world works.

And games from the past – Champions Online is still a fantastic, strong MMO that deserves to be played by everyone with any interest in the genre. Age of Conan, which was very guilty of aping World of Warcraft initially, is changing to break free of its shackles. Even World of Warcraft is changing, with an emphasis on the story and… well… war. Mists of Pandaria brings the Alliance and the Horde to blows. It wants to push the war part of it.

When people copy games, by the time the copy comes out, the original has had a sequel or two from the creators, who have done more to innovate on the concept than the clones. This is not the sign of a healthy, happy industry. It is the many chasing the few, where taking a risk is discouraged in lieu of copying the latest trend until it has been run into the ground (anyone remember the time mechanic cloning back when Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time was new and fresh?).

I know many in the industry long to be able to let their hair down and set their imaginations free. I know that this is a scary proposition for many publishers. They want to make money. They’re not interested in new ideas, fresh concepts – they want, and must focus on, the bottom line.

It is this fundamental confusion within the industry that needs some work. THis generation, we have seen so many games follow the leads of Call of Duty and Gears of War. I have nothing against either game. Really. But I don’t love them, and seeing people try and do the same or similar things just feels a bit depressing.

As a gamer, I thrive on new things. I love new things. I especially love CLEVER new things. I want to be entertained – not continually feel like I’m treading the same plots, the same mechanics, the same camera angles and the same weapons and combat and cover systems over and over again. I want and need to be thrilled, inspired and enthralled. That is what I feel gamers love about games. The escapism, the freedom and most importantly, the imagination.

I am hopeful that things are changing. But to beat World of Warcraft, you can’t just copy it – you have to better it, you have to make a game that in every single regard trumps every single component. You can’t dress the same game up in different clothes – we’re not stupid, and as has been evident in the MMO space for years, we don’t stick around when we feel we’re being conned.

Innovation is more than a nice idea. It is an essential component to the industry.

Which is why, when people talk about the new X-Box generation having a controller that is suspiciously close to what Nintendo unveiled last year at E3 for the Wii-U, I sigh a little.

I’m all for new controllers. But if the Wii proved anything – and the PS Move confirmed it – is that you can’t simply just copy someone elses idea and market it as new.

We can see what you’re doing, industry. And we’re not buying it. Sorry.

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