One of the ways to streamline game development is to have an engine that you use on several projects. The shared code base makes maintenance on the games easier, and future development faster and cheaper, since you start with functional components.
The Unreal engine has served as a nice middleware engine for game development for a while now. MMO game design really could use something along the same lines. MMO coding is a monumental process, with a great many kinks and loose ends to chase and iron out. Each company that tries to being a complete title to the market might be working with some internal code from other projects, but they are still doing a lot of work to make a product ready for the rigors of MMO maintenance.
A more modular design for the MMO genre as a whole might serve to make games better across the board, much like standardized components reduce costs and spur innovation in many manufacturing industries. It’s like a “thinking outside the box” exercise; you build a box with standardized components, then give everyone their own copy of the box, and let them go crazy with the parameters they are given.
In MMO terms, if ArenaNet or CCP were to license out their server architecture software, or if Blizzard or Mythic (Turbine’s AoC engine is too stupidly high end to be MMO practical) were to license out their graphic display engine, other companies wouldn’t have to construct those pieces of the project, and could spend a greater portion of their budget on little things like game design, writing and art. You know, the “fun” stuff.
Of course, these chunks of code wouldn’t be offered for free. Blizzard has a cash cow in WoW, but they could also have a cash cow in their engine components. Every company that reduces costs by using an engine would be another revenue stream, especially in the subscription-lease world of MMOs.
To some degree, this might produce a cookie cutter effect between games, but we already have games like Runes of Magic and 4Story trying to be WoW. Everyone else is a little more veiled about it, but rare is the company that offers something radically different from WoW with a similar level of quality. (EVE is really the only one that comes to mind.)
It really is baffling to me that there isn’t such an engine out there on the market yet. (There may be some server side stuff on the market, or even other components, but I’ve not shopped for such, so maybe I’m wrong in thinking that most devs are doing it on their own.) I’m not certain, but I suspect that the Unreal guys made a fair bit of coin for their work, and it’s not as though all of the Unreal powered games are just cheap clones. I actually have heard of MMO devs using the Unreal engine itself on MMO design, so this concept isn’t unheard of. I’m just not sure that the Unreal engine itself can be bent far enough to serve MMO purposes. Perhaps it can, we’ll see.
There’s also the risk that a licensee will make a better game than the engine’s parent game. I suppose that’s something to be concerned about if you’re the engine maker. Still, if you’re just selling the engine, not the vehicle or the paint job, the onus is on the other guy to make a great finished product. If the end results are competitive, well, all the better for the health of the market in the first place.
No, this isn’t a unique idea, nor am I the first to bring it up. This is mostly just something I wanted to get down in text for reference, and to see what comments it can provoke.