At first glance, Trion's upcoming MMOG, Rift: Planes of Telara, looks like every other MMOG out there, only prettier. The classes are your standard mix of burly fighter, quick and fragile fighter, spellcaster, healer, etc. Questgivers have exclamation points over their heads. You walk around with the WASD keys, you turn the camera with your mouse, and you use the number keys to activate abilities from an action bar at the bottom-left side of your screen - with spell casts represented by a bar that fills up over time.
You know what? That's not a bad thing at all.
This isn't to say that there's nothing innovative about Rift, because the underlying gameplay systems - where dynamically-spawning rifts enter the world and modify the area around them, becoming hotspots for PvE and PvP conflict - are actually really cool. It's just that there are a lot of elements that you'd recognize in Rift if you've played any MMOG in the last five years.
But the reason that so many of these design elements are omnipresent is because they work. Why fix what isn't broken?
"If we have a bank in our game," said Rift Design Director Simon Ffinch, "It should work like a bank." It's a system that works well, and it's a system that players understand - trying to innovate there might end up confusing people who have come to expect a standard, and would take resources away from trying to come up with something unique for, y'know, the actual core gameplay.
Innovation is something that's become increasingly prized in our industry - at least, on the consumer side of things, anyway - and make no mistake, it certainly is important on some level. Innovation moves gaming forward, whether it's something as simple as limiting the number of weapons you can carry (Halo) or developing an entirely new control scheme (the DS, Wii, et al).
But while taking a chance and trying something new should be lauded, that doesn't mean the inverse is always true. Cliches are cliches for a reason - whether in writing or in cinema or in games - they're things that we've come to understand and accept as audience. In games, clichés can be useful tools, design elements that are already in place and don't need to be changed.
There are some clichés that just shouldn't be removed. In an action game, the left thumbstick will be used to move, while the right stick will be used to control the camera. The A button (on the Xbox) will be used to jump and interact with your environment. If you get a new item or ability, the new item or ability will be crucial to progressing in the story right now. In a fighting game, you will have green health bars at the top of the screen that are gradually depleted as you take hits. Doing a quarter-circle-forward will usually throw some sort of projectile. There will always be a huge, slow character who hits like a truck, and a lightning-fast character who crumples in a stiff breeze.
Even a genre as criticized for repetition and staleness as shooters - first- and third-person alike - has elements that don't need changing for the sake of changing. Yes, every other game seems to be based on shooting from cover these days, but why is that in itself a bad thing? People have been shooting from cover in games (and in reality, come to think of it) since the very beginning: Why wouldn't you incorporate that into your gameplay as a core element? It'd be like saying that shooters should stop using the trigger buttons to fire just because every FPS does it that way. Not using a trigger to fire a gun is just silly.
Ffinch is right: Why should an MMOG developer make a bank anything other than a bank? For all we crow about games needing innovation - and lambaste games for being same-y or run-of-the-mill - we forget that cliches exist for a very good reason: They just work.
John Funk was severely tempted to link TV Tropes repeatedly in this column.
[Ed note: John Funk has a TV Tropes problem.]