Monday, June 9, 2008

Theft or Innovation?

Tobold has an article up on an achievement system for WoW. The intriguing part isn’t this system itself, but some insight that Tobold shares about his thoughts on the whole “copy-cat” thing that happens when an MMO “steals” another MMO’s idea.

Tobold wrote:
“[The MMORPG] genre has a pool of features which are either expected, or optional. Every game grabs a lot of features from that pool, that is why they all belong to that same genre. And then sometimes one game adds new features to the pool, and if that feature works, it becomes part of the standard features of the genre. Who introduced which feature is only interesting to historians, and it isn't always the game that had the feature first which automatically has the best implementation of it.”

Heartless had some additional thoughts about innovation in the comments on Tobold’s blog. For your point of reference, the “Public Quests” that Heartless refers to are a mechanic that is planned for Warhammer Online (WAR). Public Quests are essentially group quests in which you are automatically teamed with others in an area. The comparison has been made to Battleground queues except these would be PvE in nature and I assuming non-instanced, so you need to travel to the area for the quest and so forth as usual. They also aren’t “cross-realm,” so presumably groups that work well together would want to do more Public Quests together.

Heartless wrote:
“MMOs do not change in leaps and bounds, and innovation is a slow, iterative process. However, I think the lesson that we learned with WoW is that enough small changes can smash the doors wide open for this industry. Suddenly, changes that seem small are refreshingly new and exciting on a large scale. That is where I am with Public Quests. WoW brought the idea that there needs to be rhyme, reason, and direction to a player's adventures in a diku-inspired MMO. What WoW didn't do, was give rhyme and reason for people to work together until it was absolutely necessary to support long-term development of group-required content. WAR is just putting players together far earlier in the game, with reason and direction on how to work together. It may seem small, but trust me, when you put players in situations where they can freely work together, without feeling forced, magical things happen.”

Both Tobold and Heartless key in on a central idea that I couldn’t agree with more: Competition Breeds Innovation. In order to compete, you need to bring something fresh and exciting to the table. The first implementation of an idea is often not the most successful implementation, but it’s vital that it take place in order to give birth to the idea in the first place. As Heartless states, this can be a slow painful process.

Polish, if you will, is it’s own form of innovation. WoW gets a lot of criticism for not being innovative and stealing ideas, but the reality is that they did innovate – just on top of the ideas of earlier competitors. Sometimes innovation leads to dramatic evolution. In most cases, however, it’s a much slower process. It often takes a company that perfects the ideas of someone else in order to see the industry as a whole take a step forward.

A lot of my own blog entries have dealt with the issue of innovation. In particular, I have been very vocal about getting rid of the holy trinity and introducing a durability system where gear breaks.

I would say that getting rid of the holy trinity of Tank-Heal-DPS would take some pretty hefty innovation. In fact, I would hazard to say that the first implementation of such a change would most definitely would not be the best one. By contrast, a broken gear durability system has been done – it just hasn’t been done as successfully as it could and could use some Polish.

Of course, part of the problem with an existing game is that you can’t just tack on innovative ideas to an existing system without risking the possibility of breaking the whole thing. First, you almost guarantee that it will lack the Polish the rest of the game enjoys because it was an afterthought. Second, radical changes are unfair to the people who went through the game under the original rules. This is largely why ideas like mine (broken gear, the anti-trinity) could never be successfully implemented in WoW.

That’s part of what worries me about the direction I feel Blizzard headed. It’s certainly more feeling than factual, but it seems like they are trying to compete with WAR , AoC and possibly even LoTRO by tacking on some of the competitions innovation to Warcraft. As Tobold also wrote in that entry, “These sort of systems only work really well if introduced right from the start, grafting them into an existing game isn't quite that easy.”

Edit: MMOG Nation has an article on innovation up as well that is worth reading. It has a bit of a different perspective on innovation and really illustrates why perhaps a smart company should keep quiet on what they are doing until the last possible moment. The WAR hype machine has been anything but quiet the past few months. It’s articles like this one that are giving me that “feeling” I described in the previous paragraph.

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