After reading Tobold’s post I was riding a train of thought with regards to innovation in MMOs when it hit an analogy on the track and the whole thing was catastrophically derailed. Here, for your morbid delectation, is the sensationalist news report from the site of the wreckage.
MMOs are like cheesecake.
Like cheesecake, MMOs are built upon a bland but generally acceptable base. There are a few people that enjoy the base alone for what it is, but I think it’s fair to say that most people expect their cheesecake to have a thick layer of sickly soft-cheese goodness piled on top of it; as long the base exists and is not offensive or overly complex in itself while supporting the topping, most people are happy.
The problem with innovation these days is that people seem to want to evolve the base of MMOs. Changing the base is difficult: it currently works, it’s proven to work, and generally there’s not a lot you can do with biscuit or sponge that will make it a lot more exciting. So what we will end up with is MMO cheesecakes with bases made of ham, crayon, or tinsel. And because it takes so much effort to change the base, as well as the base ending up as unpalatable, there will then only be a very thin layer of topping because there wasn’t any time for anything more, which only serves to make the odd base all the more stark in contrast.
What MMOs need to succeed is a good topping; lots and lots of topping, and it is with the topping that you can innovate most easily and successfully. You can layer your topping with different flavours that complement each other; you can go for a generic vanilla flavour that appeals to most people, or specialise in more exotic flavours that will draw in a smaller subset who will stay loyal to you for as long as you provide that specific flavour.
World of Warcraft is an incredibly thick vanilla cheesecake with a choice of different toppings, the most popular being a sort of chewy toffee that requires a disproportionate amount of jaw action to get through compared to the soft-cheese below.
Warhammer Online, on the other hand, managed to create a half-biscuit half-baked-bean base, with a desperately thin layer of prawn flavoured soft-cheese mixed with prunes and topped with pine needles.
Some companies have experimented with the base a little with success – CCP for example – but the base is still fundamentally that bland reliable entity that it has always been: it’s the topping that makes the game what it is. Realistically there’s only so much you can do with the base before you are no longer creating a cheesecake and are instead creating a trifle which, as we all know, is perfectly analogous to RTS games. Or maybe it was CCGs? I forget.
If you want to attract MMO players, you have to make a good cheesecake.
(Cheesecake-related post disclaimer/reminder. If you click the image link near the top-right of this page and buy a cheesecake, I get the satisfaction of having made you fatter. If you believe this taints my views and reporting on cheesecake, your opinion would probably be improved with a big chunky slice of baked golden biscuit base, topped with layers of thick creamy soft-cheese, sprinkled with chocolate flakes, and served with a generous helping of double cream.)