WildStar hands-on: Is innovation overrated?

Mike Donatelli, design director for Carbine's upcoming MMORPG WildStar , isn't exactly your friendly neighborhood developer. The games community could probably use a bit more folks like him. Back during PAX Prime, he tells me, a casual raider complained about how WildStar seemed designed to keep him from getting top-tier gear without joining a 40-man raiding guild. "Then don't play," Donatelli said. "We try to make it open so you dip your toes in and see if you like the game, but sooner or later you're going to have to commit."

It was the kind of thing I'd expect to hear from an MMO developer in 2003; in this age of placating the dispersed and finicky playerbase, such frankness seems all but suicidal. And here's the thing--it wasn't just talk. Obvious displays of affection for the good ol' days of MMOs popped up again and again during a recent hands-on preview I attended in San Francisco, and I can't say I didn't feel a surge of nostalgia myself. But can WildStar succeed with such a design when so many of its competitors are focused on moving away from the old models?

My playthrough took me through the opening tutorial stages for both the Exiles and the Dominion factions and, later, some higher-level dungeon content I'm not allowed to write about yet. It was fun enough, particularly with its brief Pixar-styled cutscenes that occasionally pop up between quests, but the experience nailed home just how little innovation there truly is on the world of Nexus.

Carbine may have switched out specific number requirements for quests in favor of progress bars, but the "kill and fetch" quest was anything but dead on the besieged Exile mothership I battled through. The combat places a heavy emphasis on movement and area-of-effect abilities, yet the animations recalled the tab-targeting of earlier years in spirit if not in practice. Forty-man raids with rep grinds? That only marks the tip of the familiar elements in store here.

Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. According to Donatelli, that familiarity is intentional. "I hate reinventing the wheel for the sake of saying we did something different," he says. He used the auction house as an example, emphasizing his desire to tweak familiar models. "We say, 'This is how auction houses function in many other games, now let's see how we can add searchability to it and ease of use.'"

WildStar occasionally seems to push this philosophy to its extremes, as I can't recall a time when I didn't feel immediately familiar with its systems while playing. Even my time with the new Engineer class comfortably reminded me of my Hunter in World of Warcraft, and I quickly adapted to its idiosyncratic tweaks such as temporary armor and working with two pets at once. WildStar does have its innovative elements, but on the whole it seems content with taking the familiar EverQuest template and updating it with the best tweaks over the years and scrapping the worst.

Normally I leave these events with excitement for some flashy new feature that aims to "change it all," only to feel that excitement fizzle as I jump into the many hours demanded by a full review playthrough. I've thus learned to distrust those feelings, and it's worth noting that I felt no such excitement here. Rather, I left WildStar feeling as though I'd just finished playing a comfortable MMORPG--in other words, the games I tend to come back to after the rush of experiencing some new innovative feature in another game has worn off.

Perhaps Carbine is on to something here. Donatelli himself acknowledges that the WildStar team is more concerned with the evolution of the genre rather than firing off revolutions, even though he says "I hate using those words because I feel like it's such a dodge." After all, the most popular MMO on the market fits that comfortable paradigm, even though it suffers from the accumulation of questionable design decisions over the years. WildStar, however, is starting with a clean slate.

Could this be what we've been looking for all along?