Friday, October 30, 2009

Is World of Warcraft Ruining MMOGs?

There’s no doubt that the game is changing the scene, and since its launch in 2004, the industry has taken many drastic turns. There are players who are utterly frustrated with today’s games, and yearn for earlier days, when playing solo through the entire level range was not an option, and players were forced to group if they wanted to progress. Forced grouping and slow leveling created a strong community, and many of these players now feel that that community feeling has been lost in today’s titles. Read our article, 'Bringing Back the Community through WAR' for more thoughts on the evolution of community and online gaming.

The bottom line though, is that massively multiplayer games need to be massively multiplayer, that is, they need subscribers, and lots of them.

Blizzard recognized this early with World of Warcraft, and in an attempt to maximize their subscribers, they made the game accessible. Accessibility not only meant it could run on virtually any home computer, but it also meant the game had to be an option for players who didn’t have hours at a time to commit to look for a group, or camp a rare spawn in order to get a quest item or equipment that they were after. Blizzard gave players the option of being able to play solo through the game, offering something for everyone, whether they had all day to play, or just a sporadic hour here and there.

While that model did prove to be extraordinarily successful, and the game quickly soaked up a lot of players from older games, as well as lure in millions of new players. But some of the older gamers resented that. Suddenly their thriving communities began to dwindle, and the only options they had left were to play the more popular game of World of Warcraft or continue to play another game, where, like ugly people in Hollywood, the community was slowly thinning in numbers.

There is a divide in player’s thoughts of the changes, and Game Designer, Andrew Krausnick, recognizes it.

“The community growth and WoW's game play shift has been so pronounced that there has been a push back from the original MMO denizens,” states Krausnick. “Most non-WoW MMOs often require a higher degree of commitment or learned expertise and are therefore generally considered more 'hardcore.' These MMOs frequently have vocal community members who respond defensively to any perceived movement towards 'WoWification' with the cry of 'go back to WoW, noob' (or some facsimile thereof). And while a general example, it is endemic of an unfortunate divide in the community at large. If the new people that WoW has brought to our slice of the gaming world are going to be a genre-wide boom, then both our MMOs and our communities must grow to cater to a wide spectrum of users.”

The player boom is large, make no mistake. Sony Online Entertainment (SOE) was behind EverQuest, which was widely accepted as one of the largest subscriber-based games at the beginning of the millennium. In early 2004, SOE divulged an approximate subscriber number of 430,000 players in their press release of Champions of Norrath.

Today, World of Warcraft has reached in excess of 11.5 million subscribers. That’s a pretty clear indication of the sheer size of growth the market has seen in the past five years, and it’s had its impact.

Krausnick continues, “MMO players were once a relatively niche segment of the game playing population (much less the general population), but with the launch and general acceptance of WoW, our hobby has begun a full court press on popular culture. What we're going to see is a generation of MMO players not limited to what would be considered 'traditional' gamers, but covering a much larger demographic. These MMOers are perpetuating and expanding the acceptance of the concept of participating in an MMO as a hobby - freely spending their leisure time simultaneously for digital entertainment and as a social outlet, and that is a powerful thing. WoW has simply, in terms of both growth and cultural mind share, had an impressive impact on the MMOG community.”

So, with all of these new players in the market, and more coming in, the effect on designing games from the core greatly changes, as Krausnick points out. Developers not only need to recognize there are players from different schools of thought, but they need to develop a firm plan from the get go.

Jørgen Tharaldsen, Creative Producer of Funcom states that “it also means that the bar is raised for the other MMO companies, and I don’t envy any newcomers entering parts of this market for the first time. Whatever is made is compared to the current feature set of World of Warcraft, and that is no easy thing to match. So I guess the game is on now, how to out-blizzard Blizzard?”

That really is what the game has become. As much creativity goes into these games, at the core, they are still a business, and need to do smart business in order to keep the games running, or none of us would have any games to play at all. So, from a business standpoint, what is the key to making a successful MMOG? Tharaldsen answers.

“I don’t think there are any easy answers to that if you are playing within the traditional fantasy MMO field, but there are so many other approaches opening up now. As such, I think Blizzard has shown the way for the ‘early’ mass-market potential of the genre, and as the MMO genre grows it evolves into countless other, successful variations.”

Mr. Tharaldsen is not alone in his thoughts that Blizzard has set a high standard. Company after company has tried to figure out the “secret formula” to make a successful MMOG. Some have failed, and some have done quite well. So what’s in the secret sauce? Is it a Blizzard secret that they keep heavily guarded in an effort to ruin the market for any heavyweight contenders? Hermann Peterscheck, Producer of NetDevil, currently developing the highly anticipated Jumpgate Evolution, doesn’t think so.

“Is Coke destroying the soft-drink landscape?" he asks. "Is Pixar destroying animated films? I think people like to target the big winner and right now WoW is the big winner. As a developer I think it’s much more important to focus on why companies like Blizzard dominate in the arenas they compete in. People talk about the 'secret sauce' of companies that produce hit after hit. I don’t think it’s a secret at all. Hits are the result of lots of dedication and focus. World of Warcraft is successful because it’s an incredibly well made game. Blizzard will tell anyone that the 'secret sauce' is working hard, testing and getting all the details right. In fact, entertainment companies that dominate in their industries follow that same pattern, as do professional sports teams and music groups. I honestly feel that Blizzard earned their success with WoW. Sure, maybe they had good timing, maybe they were lucky… but at the end of the day they made an awesome product. I would rather try and compete by making an awesome product as well.”

Competition is the name of the game, as Peterscheck points out. And with so many competing products now, players can really start to see some unexpected advantages. One gamer from our community, Anacche, recognizes this fact, and appreciates it for what it is.

“By raising the bars so high, it has definitely made the industry a tougher one to crack. If a game does not offer something amazing, everybody goes crawling back to WoW or worse still, the project fails either at, or even before launch. Those games that do manage to keep up however leave their followers in absolute awe.

“WoW has seen its fair share of competitors rise and fall, some have stuck around in the shadows, but in the end none of them have toppled WoW. The reason being that now you have to come up with more than just one new fantastic innovation (RvR, PQs, or Sex and Violence anyone?) to draw lasting attention. You have to match, or better WoW on each of its grounds - PvP, PvE Casual, PvE normal, PvE Hardcore, and then come up with your own innovations to top it and get the initial attention.

“After four solid years, WoW has shown that you also have to design your content with longevity in mind.

“In some ways, WoW's quality has made it unfairly hard on other developers. Some might call that a great wake-up call, some would call it monopolizing the market; everyone would agree, it's going to take something big to even nudge WoW.”

Whether unfair or not, the competition is there, and as Anacche explains, we are starting to see more and more innovative ideas come to our games. The competition and the massive subscriber base have pushed the evolution of online gaming forward at a staggering pace. We can take great satisfaction in knowing that the evolution is moving forward, which can only lead to good places in the end.

This growth is not unlike any other growth spurts either. While we face the puberty of massively online gaming, we can expect more bruises and pains along the way. These pains come in various forms, from incomplete rushed games trying to compete, to the afore-mentioned divide in the community at large.

“In short, the extreme success of WoW has both expanded and also divided the MMOG community, and the growth is certainly positive but the transition is not complete. It is up to both our community members and our developers to create spaces which are welcoming to broad audiences. It is imperative that we both promote a myriad of play styles as well as accept social atmospheres if we're going to make the most of this opportunity and deliver MMOGs to their birthright as truly massive entertainment,” Krausnick concludes.

So will we ever see a return of the old style of game? Probably not. Like childhood, it’s something we cannot experience again no matter how alluring it may be. But has World of Warcraft ruined MMOGs? It’s pushed us into a bit of a pimply, hormonal stage with plenty of conflict, personal and peer, but the question can only be answered by the individual player.

The direction of the future, though, is up to all of us as a community of gamers, developers and publishers to decide.

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