The Soapbox: If you want innovation in MMOs, stop worshiping polish

    
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Gamers often lament that the world of MMORPGs lacks innovation. It’s a frustration I share; this a genre that could be much more than it is. But I fear that the source of the problem is misunderstood. Many people blame developers for lacking creativity, but I don’t think that’s the issue.

The problem seems to me to be that innovation isn’t rewarded, and that’s largely because of one problem: Most people won’t play an unpolished game.

“Polish” doesn’t have a strict definition, but I think it’s a case where most people know it when they see it. A lack of bugs, good balance, systems that fit together, and so forth. Games where everything flows just right.

Those are all good things, and I’m not saying that polish isn’t something we should want in our games. It’s a positive for sure. But it isn’t necessarily everything.

Here’s the problem: Trying new things is messy. Almost no one gets anything 100% right on the first try. As a result, innovative games are almost never entirely polished. Yes, once in a blue moon you will find a game that is both very fresh and very polished (Portal comes to mind), but it’s incredibly rare. I could probably count on one hand the number of games I have ever played that provided new ideas in a highly polished package, and none of them is an MMO.

The reality is if you want innovation in the genre, you have to be willing to put up with games that are rough around the edges.

All too often, though, I find that people aren’t willing to put up with an unpolished game, even if it’s full of fresh, unique gameplay. Easily the best example of this is my all time favorite MMORPG, The Secret World. Nearly everything about it was different: its deck-building horizontal character progression, its unique contemporary horror setting, and of course its wildly innovative investigation missions.

But all you ever heard about was how the combat was bad. Putting aside the fact I think most of the arguments against the combat are spurious, even if the criticisms had been valid, that does seem to a bit of a petty reason to write off such a unique and special game.

You see this over and over again. People give up on games over even small imperfections and go back to playing the generic but polished big name titles.

While not as inventive as The Secret World to be sure, I think Anthem can be another example of this. It may not have been revolutionary in its field, but I would argue it was at least evolutionary. The three dimensional gameplay and combo-heavy combat was a fresh and interesting take on the looter shooter genre. And yet it was lambasted over what were ultimately some fairly small and very fixable problems. Yes, the endgame was a bit lacking, but that can easily be expanded with time. People gave up on it so quickly that it never had a chance to recover.

Meanwhile, games that play it safe are usually rewarded by the community.

I am always torn between acknowledging that Final Fantasy XIV is well-made and deserving of success and feeling like it’s the embodiment of all that’s wrong with the genre. It’s the definition of playing it safe. It has few if any new ideas of its own; at best it just further polishes things that already worked well in other games.

That’s fine really, and I’m not saying it doesn’t deserve to be a popular game, but a lot of people seem to hold it up as a real paragon of the genre, and I don’t think they should. We should expect more from our games than executing old formulas effectively.

This brings me to another point I want to make: Polish is often as much a product of success as it is the cause. While mismanagement can also play a role, often poor polish is just down to a lack of money and resources, which wouldn’t be an issue if more people supported these games. Therefore, people giving up on games because they lack polish can quickly become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I think there’s this misconception that the biggest games in the genre are also usually the most polished because their polish led to their success, but I think that’s often another case where the meritocracy myth rears its head.

Take Elder Scrolls Online. It was actually really rough at launch. Over time, it recovered, but it was aided in this by the fact ZeniMax is a big company with deep coffers and because of the massive name recognition and brand loyalty that comes with the Elder Scrolls name. A smaller company launching a new IP doesn’t have those luxuries.

That doesn’t mean we should just accept any garbage that developers shovel out, of course. There’s a difference between the certain jankiness that inevitably comes from trying new things and a game that’s just plain poorly made.

Where it gets tricky is the games that fall into the gray area between. Magic: Legends is a recent example of a game whose messy launch can’t be entirely explained away by the messiness that comes from trying new things. It’s buggy, lacking content, and generally rough. It simply launched before it was ready.

And yet even as I acknowledge its error, I do find myself hoping ML pulls through because it is trying new things. Its deck-building and equipment collection mechanics are an incredible breath of fresh air in a genre that normally has tunnel-vision on treadmill numerical progression. ARPGs are a genre starving for new ideas, and ML delivers them, however inelegantly. For me, for now, it’s worth it to forgive the flaws, but I can see how some people might feel otherwise.

On the other side of things for me is Haven, another game that tried to bring in new ideas but botched the execution. For me, unlike Magic: Legends’ foibles, the flaws in Haven outweigh its positives, but I know some people still appreciate it.

At the end of the day, there’s no objective cut-off for how much jank is too much. Everyone has to decide for themselves when the trade-off is worth it. It’s hard to balance the desire for new ideas with the desire not to give developers a free pass for sloppy work.

But if you’re feeling like the world of online gaming lacks new ideas, it may be time to rethink your priorities. Because I don’t feel like there’s a dearth of new ideas. To me it just seems there’s a dearth of people willing to support those ideas.

And if you don’t feel it’s worth it — that polish isn’t worth sacrificing, ever — that’s fine too. This is all just entertainment; there’s no right or wrong way to enjoy video games. But don’t complain about the genre stagnating. If you’re not willing to take a chance on something new and weird, you can’t really expect publishers to be, either.

Me, I’d rather throw my lot in with the ambitious yet janky. I’d rather games that shoot for the moon and fall a little short than games that clear the bar every time, but only because they set the bar low.

And if you’re craving something fresh, consider expanding your horizons before you declare there’s nothing new under the sun.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively OP writers as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews (and not necessarily shared across the staff). Think we’re spot on — or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!
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Narficus

Lord British’s Shroud of the Avatar: “Why not neither?”

Turns out, the whole “classless system” wasn’t made very well so now the elitists are asking for the Holy Trinity. No innovation besides what the management can lift from other IPs and popularize as their own – truly the Ultima legacy.

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Danny Smith

“stop worshipping polish” “polish doesn’t have a strict definition” i feel this particular ‘either or’ soapbox is coming from a place of frustration rather than reason.

The Weeb formerly known as Sray
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The Weeb formerly known as Sray

There is a distinct feeling of “these are games I like that weren’t successful, so it’s has to be the fault of the players” going on here. All of the games cited as examples in this article had issues that weren’t the fault of players.

I understand the feeling of wanting to blame the consumers for the failures of products you like. A personal example: I enjoy Stadia, I’d like to see it become successful, and it makes me angry every time I see a hatchet job by someone who’s clearly never tried out the platform; but Stadia’s problems aren’t the fault of some YouTubers who being mean to it. I can fully admit that Google has botched almost everything imaginable from targeting the wrong audience, to the glacial rollout of promised features, and platform availability (why the hell did they launch it on phones before Android TV?). A mature perspective to take when a product you like flounders is to take a step back to see what went wrong, then talk about what the producers of that product did wrong, and what they could have done better so that the next guy who tries it might have a better idea of how to do it right.

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Axetwin .

Why do people keep acting like this is an either or thing? I’m more than happy to try out new systems even if it means it didn’t mesh together well. I mean, I have thousands of hours in GW2, and that game is the epitome of “this sounded good on paper, but was terrible in execution”.

But if we’re talking about buggy games. Then no, I don’t support that, and I refuse to worship at the alter of “unpolished games are actually better than polished ones”. This is why Bethesda and CDPR have been allowed to release buggy game after buggy game (yes, the Witcher 3 is STILL super buggy). Look at Wildstar, I played in the open beta back before launch, saw a ton of bugs. Ok, fine, it was beta bugs were expected. I then picked up the game again when it went f2p, and every single bug I found in the beta was STILL in the game. That is inexcusable.

I will never stop holding developers to a high standard because someone has to. Otherwise, they’d just be showered with “your game is perfect, the bugs add to the charm, don’t listen to the haters”. Innovation doesn’t mean we have to sit back and accept whatever we’re told to accept.

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kjempff

If you want innovation, stop worshipping graphics (fidelity, polish, realism, whatever you want to call it).
If the developers sensed that players want good game systems and game design over perfect graphics, they might switch their attention and resources there instead – Right now graphics use way too much of a game budget.
Personally, onc I played a game for a little while my mind has filled in the blanks and imperfections of the graphics, toony characters and world become natural and so on. This is why I still play old games that are good, why diablo reskin with the exact same game underneath doesn’t excite me much, and flashy action combat is lost on me unless it also has depth (spoiler hardly any has).

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Rndomuser

If you want innovation, stop worshipping graphics (fidelity, polish, realism, whatever you want to call it).
If the developers sensed that players want good game systems and game design over perfect graphics, they might switch their attention and resources there instead – Right now graphics use way too much of a game budget.

What you said is nonsense. First of all, you don’t know how much of game budget is used by artists to create beautiful environments and spell effects and attractive character models. Second of all, spending more budget on graphics is very beneficial for developer and for EVERY PLAYER regardless if players care about it or not – beautiful graphics allow developers to attract more players even at development stage (though short gameplay videos), especially players who care about making their character attractive, especially players who don’t mind spending real life currency on optional cosmetic items, the currency which can be used by developers to further improve EVERY aspect of gameplay, including for people who are only interested in killing same mindless AI enemies over and over (game developers can add more of those mindless AI enemies with slightly different attack patterns for people who like bashing those dumb AI bosses). Especially the kind of players who, for example, cannot outfit themselves in real life with attractive outfits because they may be lacking enough money or may be criticized by relatives in real life that “it’s not appropriate for a person of your gender/age to wear this”, or cannot easily change themselves into an attractive female in real life or an attractive fantasy race such as humanoid catgirl and who would really appreciate if the game’s artists spend extra time to give them this ability which they cannot enjoy in real life through beautiful variety of character models of different races and genders and beautiful cosmetics for them, including wide variety of pets (which again, some people cannot get in real life). There may also be the case of people wanting to enjoy beautiful, realistic environments in the game because, for example, they cannot afford to visit such environments in real life, due to their disability or again the cost of such travel, who would also appreciate if game artists would spend extra time to create a huge variety of beautiful environments to visit in games.

But hey, with some people it’s all about “me, me, me”. “I am perfectly healthy person who is perfectly satisfied with the ability to look in real life the way I want to and don’t enjoy beautiful characters/cosmetics/environments in game, therefore no one else should be allowed to enjoy having a variety of beautiful characters/cosmetics/environments and neither should developers waste their game budget and time on that”. Typical Massively comments ;-)

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Jim Bergevin Jr

That still doesn’t belie the fact that there is a large segment of the gaming community that puts too much emphasis on form over function. I cannot count the number of times I have heard people complain about lack of innovation, or wish developers would do C and D with their games instead of A and B. I would then point them to games that do provide what they are asking for, wrapped up in excellent mechanics and gameplay, and the first words out of their mouths are I’m not touching that, the graphics look ancient, then they go right back to complaining.

Those games, as a result do not become very popular, so no one else takes those good ideas and expands upon them. Hence, we see none of the stuff we want in larger games. But damn, that tree sure looks awesome!

Now should we have to settle for either/or in terms of graphics or innovation? No, but we also have to understand that better graphics does eat up development time and resources. In addition to that, the more powerful your graphics, the more powerful the end user’s machine has to be to effectively run the game, even at minimal settings. You are then significantly limiting you playerbase. We see most innovation and quality gameplay out of indie studios because they simply don’t have the resources for bleeding edge graphics, so they can focus on mechanics and design.

The Weeb formerly known as Sray
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The Weeb formerly known as Sray

Video games are a visual medium, and that means how a game looks matters.

Yes there is a large portion of gamers of that will not touch games based on their looks. And yes, occasionally because of that innovative games get overlooked. But overall, provided your game is not visually offensive, li-fi graphics will usually be overlooked if the game is itself is good. However, overlooking lo-fi graphics and finding an audience are two different things.

Developers today should also know that it’s not enough to make a good game and hope that it gets discovered. You can’t dump your little game onto Steam with nothing more than a Twitter announcement to your 17 followers, then sit there and hope that someone like Jim Sterling comes along to give you a glowing review during a let’s play. Indie developers have to network with the community and get their games into the hands of YouTube and Twitch personalities that can help it get noticed. And that doesn’t mean having to shell out 100k to Ninja to get him to play your game on his stream for a week: there are thousands of small audience streamers who play game with lo-fi graphics to show how fun they are to an audience that is less interested in graphics. And those streamers will play those games and sing their praises for free, if they’re any good. It’s not enough to just make Undertale or Stardew Valley: you still have to find a way to make people know that it exists. Coincidentally, that’s why Undertale and Stardew Valley became hits, and “Indie Game with a cool idea that no one ever played #3742” didn’t.

And finally, it’s not up to you, me or anyone else to tell a gamer what is viable criteria for choosing what games to play. There are a lot of gamers, particularly in the PC space, who shelled out thousands of dollars on high end machines specifically to play games with beautiful graphics at their highest possible settings. You don’t get to tell the guy who dropped a small fortune to grab a Ryzen 5950X, GTX 3090 and 32 gigs of RAM that he should be ignoring how a game looks. Like I said at the start: it’s a visual medium, and that means how a game looks matters.

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Jim Bergevin Jr

I don’t disagree. However, I will call out the hypocrisy and BS when gamers claim there is no innovation when, in fact there is, and they just choose to ignore it because of looks.

I love top notch graphics as much as any one, but I also know that any and all great games are such because they go deeper than the skin, and more often than not, the best games aren’t necessarily the prettiest.

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tentimes

In your case it is obviously about “me, me, me”

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Kickstarter Donor
NeoWolf

Why would you assume when people speak about Innovation they are talking about graphics? Innovation goes deeper than that to the ideas and concepts and features of the games its not a reference to the window dressing lol

For example how many MMO’s use the same races, variations of the same classes, the same holy trinity class and combat design, levelling as progression, the same base features and combat functionality, the same basic UI layout etc..etc.. its ALL rinse and repeat. There are very few new ideas being put out in MMO design anymore its all what is “safe” and has been done a million times before.

It is not a graphics issue lol

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Bryan Correll

Putting aside the fact I think most of the arguments against the combat are spurious

I’m sure there are people who genuinely hated the combat, but I always had a feeling that for most it was just what people collectively settled on complaining about because their real reasons for disliking the game (its difficulty and weirdness) were things they didn’t want to admit.

And if you think SWL’s combat is an improvement you’re delusional or REALLY hate tab targeting.

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ghoulas

No I think most of people hated the combat system. And the SWL “improvement” was poorly implemented. To addition they added a grindfest to the game.

I loved Secret wold loved the climate, aesthetics but combat was utter trash and after I finished story line I had quit, and just like the other 90% of playerbase to never return.

And yes you can expect innovation and polish, You can have ann innovative unpolished system in a full polished game and not use innovation as an excuse to not do the standard things correctly.

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Axetwin .

I have no problems with tab-targeting combat, and the combat in TSW sucked hard. It was the one thing Legends improved over the vanilla game.

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Bryan Correll

Well, I was being hyperbolic. But I really do despise pretty much all the changes that were made.

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Rndomuser

Me, I’d rather throw my lot in with the ambitious yet janky. I’d rather games that shoot for the moon and fall a little short than games that clear the bar every time, but only because they set the bar low.

Me too, I don’t mind if initial ambitious game is buggy with some unfinished but still present mechanics, I’d rather play that and financially support that than a highly polished but boring game with little gameplay variety and low population because of that. Problem is, game developers are still afraid of doing that – making more ambitious games, with more gameplay variety for more people with different gameplay preferences while giving equal importance to all of gameplay types (instead of, for example, only focusing on PvE or PvP). They still would rather make a lazy clone of existing games in irrational hope that “players of original game which we are copying will for some reason leave that game and start playing our game even though we don’t offer anything new that wasn’t already used in original game”.

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Adam Russell

project gorgon is a good example of extremely unpolished but a lot of depth. Many will miss it because of ugly graphics.

There is an article in ArsTechnica about a game tentatively called “AI Dungeon” where the entire game is AI generated based on user text. Unfortunately they have run into gamers driving the AI into sexual content, and worse. But if they can get past that illegal quagmire I think that will be the future. New content generated based on user inputs.
https://arstechnica.com/gaming/2021/05/it-began-as-an-ai-fueled-dungeon-game-then-it-got-much-darker/

Actually its a wired.com article reprinted in ARS. I wont link to wired though.

EmberStar
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EmberStar

I tried to give The Secret World a chance. Repeatedly. I wasn’t turned off by the combat. I was turned off by the complete moon logic of the “investigation” puzzles.

jimthomasUS
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jimthomasUS

Frankly the combat and enemy ai was even worse than W:AoR

jimthomasUS
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jimthomasUS

The “Blame the Customer” argument is a non-starter.

Build your game. Manage its scope. Deliver polished systems and mechanics based on your skill, creativity, and budget.

p.s. ESO was actually brilliant at launch. It only sucked when it turned into a store front.

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Kvarin Sunermidst

Hard disagree. ESO disregarded nearly everything that the IP stood for. It was a generic mmo with an Elder Scrolls skin. They fixed this over time (somewhat) but it could’ve been a much more innovative experience as an mmo, had they just stuck with the core tenets of the Elder Scrolls series.

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jealouspirate

I unapologetically prefer polish. A highly polished, well executed game is almost always more fun for me than a janky innovative one. I’m patient, there are lots of games to play. I don’t mind waiting for a polished version of whatever new innovations come out.