Stargrace over at MMOQuests was recently very kind enough to respond to a comment of mine on her site about playing Vanguard. Basically my thrust was to ask what, if anything, VG would offer me that I’m not already getting from EQII. In fact, her response was so measured, thoughtful and reasoned that it merited an entire post. Indeed, she did a good enough job of selling me on her own passions for playing the game that I’m all but resolved to give it a try, although not immediately as I want to give the LOTRO 45-day trial a fair shake first.

One aspect of Vanguard that does interest me strangely is the diplomacy system. I’m all for innovation in the online gaming arena, and a card game conversation mechanic is something I haven’t seen since Republic: The Revolution – a much underrated, if a little unwieldy strategy game from a bunch of genius developers called Elixir a few years ago. There, conversation was handled with a basic form of stat-based card game, the results having effects on your rise to power in the former Soviet satellite. And I gather it’s much the same in Vanguard, minus the trip to a Siberian gulag if you choose to bribe the wrong person.

So it’s led me to do some thinking about innovation in MMO gaming – true innovation, not just refining what’s gone before. WAR’s public quests for instance, real-time skill training in EVE Online (and now, Football Manager Live), or just the entirety of Empire Of Sports.

By and large, innovation in MMO gaming does not work. Never has. Anytime anyone tries to break a mould with the genre, people stand up, applaud wildly, then sit back down and carry on playing WOW. Reason being that most of the time, the innovation (whatever it maybe) has been the driving factor behind a title, usually to the exclusion of everything else, so while the game’s innovative twist mechanic is refreshing, energetic and rewarding, the rest of the game – the majority of the user’s experience – is woefully under-developed and lacking in anything approaching fun.

Case studies here could include: Face Of Mankind, Dark & Light, Ryzom, Mythos (the original Microsoft viking one), Horizons (aka Istaria), Auto Assault. I’m sure I could dredge up many more, but the hour grows late and I think the point is made.

Now, I know they didn’t solely all fail simply because of their USP (unique selling point), but it’s key that they all tried to do something different and have all gone to join the big PvP server in the sky, while the more traditionalist MMOs have all lived on – trad games that started with a solid, recognisable skeleton and have slowly added smaller-scale innovations over time.

Consequently, I worry for the forthcoming crop of ‘innovators’ – The Agency, Star Trek Online, Stargate Worlds, to name but a couple – if it turns out that the worlds they’re being built on aren’t well planned, sturdy bases to begin with, before adding their ‘Look At Me’ factors into the mix.

To reassure me, I’d like to know if anyone reading has examples of MMO-based innovations/innovators that not only worked, but helped their surrounding virtual worlds enjoy a healthy player base?