Come the Revolution
by Dave Rickey
Raph Koster recently posed the question: When will we see a true "Next Generation" MMOG? My response was "How will we know it when we see it?" What would distinguish a "Next Generation" game? If Camelot and Anarchy Online and Shadowbane are all part of the same generation as Ultima Online, EverQuest and Asheron's Call, then what would make a new game mark a distinct break from that tradition?
I don't know, but I wasn't satisfied by his answer: That a next generation game would build on and develop from the lessons of the current generation. That struck me as what we've been doing all along. Shadowbane tried to take the anything goes PvP of UO's "Dread Lord" era and make it the focus of a game, DAoC tried to integrate "Racewar" style PvP into a EQ style PvE game, EQ itself was a replay of Diku MUD gameplay in a 3D game environment, UO was an implementation of a different MUD tradition crossed with the Ultima universe. As you go back, the last place you can mark a clean generation line is back in the early 90's, when Shadows of Yserbius, the original Neverwinter Nights, and Dark Sun Online inaugurated the "Online RPG". Even that is arguable, since those games were traditional Computer RPG's with network connectivity and minimal server-side persistence. If you disregard those as an evolutionary cul-de-sac with no descendants and move forward to Legends of Kesmai, then there is a clear line of descent through incremental innovation from Bartle and Trubshaw's MUD I through Star Wars Galaxies. No generations, no revolutions, just evolution from primitive beginnings to steadily more sophisticated and complex creations.
There's a great desire in both the market and the industry to believe in revolutions, the game so new and different that it creates a whole new gaming experience unlike anything that ever came before. This paragon of imagination springs fully formed from the imagination of a true visionary, and immediately sweeps through the market like a firestorm, creating a new genre. This is more of a tradition of the single-player market than of online games, but the belief that such a thing will happen persists.
But has it ever actually happened, anywhere? Frequently, if you look behind the "revolutionary" game that broke out and defined a whole new genre and inspired dozens of clones, you find an obscure, primitive, and poorly-selling game that had many of the same basic features, but didn't quite get them right. Everyone can see the obvious links between Wolfenstein and Doom, but less clear are the links between both and Ultima Underworld, a fairly obscure and very unsuccessful Ultima spinoff that served as the inspiration for Doom, Thief, and Tomb Raider, each taking an element of the gameplay first seen in this failed game and defining a new genre with it. Many think Dune was the first Real-Time Strategy game, but I personally remember playing games like Command HQ and Harpoon that were obviously real-time and definitely strategy games several years before the phrase was coined.
Even The Sims, the ultimate "Revolution" game, has clear roots in the more obscure examples of the genres "God Games" and "Artificial Life" games. The simple fact is that most good ideas aren't all that good to start with. In their original form, they are crude, primitive, not much fun, and they don't really look like good ideas. They generally require a lot of adaptation and refinement before they are ready to do anything worthwhile. Yet we tend to ignore the primitive precursors, applaud the derivative and polished versions of the first commercially successful versions as "Revolutionary", and deride the following, even more polished versions as mere "clones".
The fact is, inspiration is cheap, and worth the price. Any halfway decent crew of hard-core gamers can sit down for lunch and come up with a dozen cool ideas before the check arrives, any of them seeming worthy of inclusion into a game. Most of them suck oddball notions that will never actually work. Most of the rest are decent enough, but not really anything new, just minor refinements of what has gone before. And a tiny handful are both good and original. But even that handful won't work very well in the form they are first conceived. The "jumping puzzles" of Ultima Underworld were seen as annoying, not at all fun, yet the very same game mechanic became the core of Tomb Raider, in a world that had been stripped of all pretense of roleplaying, character development, and only the most minimal of a combat system. Does that mean Ultima Underworld is a "forgotten gem", and somehow Tomb Raider, Doom, and Thief "stole" their success from it? Hell no, UU *sucked*. For all the originality and eventual greatness of the gameplay it had, ultimately the version of them that came together first just didn't have it. Only after those bits of gameplay were refined out and polished did really enjoyable games emerge. Game design incrementally evolves from one stage to the slightly altered next, and only when you ignore any game that sells less than 100,000 copies (in other words, 99% of them) does it look like anything more dramatic is occurring.
In online games, even this figleaf is denied to those who would be seen as revolutionaries. Old games don't go away, they persist. With a two and a half year gap between EverQuest and Dark Age of Camelot, in the single-player space Camelot would have been different enough to be seen as a distinctly different game, not an "EQ Clone with RvR". With an equal gap and even more difference, AC2 would not have been competing directly with AC1, to the detriment of both. But because so many thousands of people were still playing EQ and AC1, a large chunk of market space that would have been freed up was not, and an even larger chunk of mindshare. By the time EQ and Camelot got through taking ideas from each other, it was genuinely hard to say who was copying who, and nobody cared anyway. And the process continues; I have no doubt that EQ's version of player housing is in development as I write this.
So where do we look for the revolution? It won't come from the major developers; they have too much money on the line. And it won't come from the independants; they don't have enough money to follow through. A Tale In The Desert, for example, certainly has some very new and different ideas at its core, with its focus on social interaction and the implementation of every "trade" as its own mini-game. But the odds are that long before eGenesis can bootstrap that originality into an expanded and polished version, most of the ideas will cross-pollinate into other games. This is not any different from what would happen in the single-player space; what's different is that in online games when a game with a few thousand players originates ideas that eventually wind up in games from other developers with hundreds of thousands, people notice and feel something shady has happened.
So in the end the last ones up against the wall come the Revolution, are the revolutionaries (or at least those that would have been seen as the bringers of the revolution in another market). There is no Santa Claus, no Easter Bunny, and no revolution.