So, when talking about video games, and especially online type games, there is always the eight hundred pound gorilla known as World of Warcraft lumbering in the backdrop of the conversation. I don’t think anyone could have predicted how popular of a game WoW became – Blizzard certainly didn’t when they launched it with a fraction of their current server backbone. But even their frantic upgrading couldn’t have anticipated the seven to nine million players they currently collect monthly fees from.
I won’t belabor the WoW popularity discussion, as it has been done to death. Blizzard released a high quality product with a very thoroughly populated world that was easy to play and difficult to master. And more than anything else, they were able to largely hide the grind of the classic MMO behind the dressings of quests and instance runs. And when the grind couldn’t be completely hidden, it was at least directed and partitioned off into little bit sized chunks – no matter how you feel about having to collect eight lizard scrotums so that Dorko the Chef can make you his famous Lizard Dangle Crumbcakes, it’s no where near the monotonous dread of say, killing nothing but blue crabs for several real-time days worth of your life in Final Fantasy XI.
There are all sorts of reasons, though the sliding scale of involvement is clearly one of them. I know people who play just to tinker with alts, and that’s a reasonable way to play. I know people who play only together, slowly picking away at pairs or groups of characters to get them up to level 70. And I know people that take an alt from creation to outlands in a surge of grindgasmic power leveling. The game supports all of these play styles. It tells casual players that there is plenty for them to do, and it tells hardcore players that endgame content will (for various reasons) be their exclusive playground. And while both of those decisions pinch the players in the middle, it’s a full enough world to support them.
In short, World of Warcraft is a huge success. Too huge, for some people’s tastes. Especially other MMO developers. Because so far, no one has been able to make even a slight dent in Blizzard’s insanely large player base and market share. Sure, the numbers fluctuate, but it’s hard to attach those numbers to the rise of an alternate MMO. Part of the problem is that the gaming industry has an in-built fear of innovation. Of trying something different. A brief tour of your local GameStop will confirm that fact. For example, as Yahtzee recently pointed out over at Zero Punctuation, the Medal of Honor series has been going on longer than the actual second World War.
So when companies try to take on the MMO market (which means taking on Warcraft) their primary method of attack is to examine what is already on the market and try to make small improvements to it. In theory, that should work, since it’s how World of Warcraft was originally designed. Blizzard freely admitted that they were sifting everything good from the MMO market and dropping everything bad. The idea was to make WoW a highlight reel for the genre, and in that respect they largely succeeded. Of course, they’ve moved beyond that concept now, but there’s no reason it shouldn’t work again since the MMO market – and even Warcraft itself – has changed so much since the fall of 2004.
The problem is that it’s not working. Now, some of the blame lies on developers who have neither the time nor the budget to polish their offerings the way Warcraft has been polished. And many of the titles that come out are just not as good as Warcraft is, even when you consider the title’s faults and shortcomings. I was very ramped up for Tabula Rasa, and when I started playing it, I compared it to all of the other MMOs I’ve played. That it’s UI reeked of Star Wars Galaxies didn’t help, but in the end I found that most of its originality was just a crappier window dressing on the same old grind. Even the chat channels in Tabula Rasa were over-run with Warcraft discussions.
Here’s the thing. Even if you had the budget and the capacity to produce a game that was everything Warcraft currently is, but also 15% “more” Warcrafty, your product would still be a mediocre success by comparison. I heard endless hype that Lord of the Rings was going to bounce Blizzard’s cash machine on its head, and no such thing happened. I heard that story told before Tabula Rasa launched, and the game is a piecemeal slog at best. I am hearing the same thing about the new Conan MMO, and expect equally unimpressive returns. There are things that game developers just don’t seem to understand about Warcraft, so it’s up to me and my huge, huge ego to explain it to them.
1) The majority of World of Warcraft players are not deciding between Warcraft or another MMO. They are deciding between Warcraft or SportsCenter. Or Warcraft or drinking. Or Warcraft or watching a movie. Simply put, the vast majority of the game’s player base isn’t comprised of enthusiast gamers. That was the unexpected factor in WoW’s original success. These players will never be lured away from Warcraft to another similar MMO because there is no return on that investment for them. I’m willing to bet that better than 75% of Warcraft’s player base has never played another MMO, perhaps doesn’t even know of any other MMOs currently out on the market.
2) The gaming market does not need another shoddy remake of World of Warcraft. Please stop making them. Part of that problem is the fantasy setting (which has been done to death, and which is probably the only reason I gave Tabula Rasa the time of day). Part of that problem is the formula. And part of that problem is the pacing of the game – FFXI players who have tried Warcraft know what I mean here. Take a look at your MMO and, without employing any of the phrases used by your PR department, try to explain to a casual gamer why they should quit Warcraft, give up their army of alts and their progression (to say nothing of the group they play with) to play your MMO instead. Can’t do it? Then don’t make that game.
3) The next MMO to have a major impact on the gaming market will be decidedly different from Warcraft. And I don’t just mean setting it in space or forcing PvP or just some other lame re-hash of the current MMO parameters. It’s not as though Warcraft is free of faults and problems – it has plenty. But no MMO seems interested in capitalizing on them. In fact, most other designers seem unable to understand them at all. Yet Warcraft has enormous, troublesome issues that never get properly addressed by Blizzard because the rest of the game design prevents them from being so addressed. And by looking at these issues, our theoretical “next MMO” starts to materialize.
First off, Warcraft has been out for over three years now, and the character classes are in a constant state of flux. So much so that Blizzard seems to have given up trying to balance them, and instead chooses to purposefully overpower them rotation-style, so that every class spends part of the year overpowered and part of the year gimped by comparison. What started as a one-time “class review” to fix these issues has turned into a constant swing of buffs and nerfs, to the point where reading the next set of patch notes either elicits cries of joy or torrents of profanity from most players. Blizzard has turned this problem into a way to keep the classes feeling new and fresh, but in the end, it’s maddenly frustrating for many players.
Most of the WoW players I know long for more stability in their characters – especially those players that are more engaged than casual gamers and yet not hardcore raiders. This is a group of players that comprises a huge portion of the total player base, and is the target audience that any future MMO needs to entice. A brief scan of the WoWJutsu main page shows that less than 5% of the players in the game have seen the inside of Black Temple and Mount Hyjal, and an even smaller percentage have actually completed those instances. Even the previous tier of raids, Serpentshrine and The Eye, have been completely beaten by only 7% and 5% of the total player base. And in the next patch a new Sunwell instance is being released that will come after Mount Hyjal in the progression.
So what we have in World of Warcraft is a game where well over 80% of the player base – doesn’t get to the end of the game. In fact, they don’t even make it near the end. Admittedly, some of them just don’t have the skill required (we’ve all been in parties like that), but many of them lack either the blockable time or the sheer manpower necessary to seriously get into the raiding portion of the game. And for many players, joining a serious raiding guild simply drains the fun out of the game to the point where it becomes more stressful and less rewarding than their actual job – you know, the one they get paid for?
For some reason, Blizzard can see the difference between their casual and hardcore players, but they are utterly unable to see the players in between. Again, as WoWJutsu shows us, over 90% of the scanned 70’s have at least entered Karazhan, the first 10 man raid in the game, and better than 60% of them have beaten the entire raid. And while the “serious” raiders may scoff, that still requires coordination and teamwork for a group of players with no raid gear and probably little raid experience. I know firsthand that working in a small to medium sized guild, juggling players, schedules and real life attentions, many of those players are probably capable of much more, but simply don’t all have the time, or the matching hours, or in some cases the sheer number of best-case-scenario players to go after the larger content. But they are also uninterested in leaving their own guild to grind through someone else’s DKP system.
So even if you take that 60% of the player base that has completely cleared Karazhan, and remove from it the 15% that has made any serious dent in Serpentshrine or The Eye, you’re still left with almost half of the World of Warcraft player base that is likely interested in more actual game, but is kept from that content by the structure of the game itself. The players that are neither casual nor hardcore. The people who can’t spend Tuesday through Sunday raiding, but also yearn for more than welfare epics. So if you woud permit me a second list in a single posting, here’s what the next breakthrough MMO needs to feature in order to compete, on any serious level, with World of Warcraft.
1) First off, it needs to figure out how to deal with the grind, and in terms I can understand that means hiding it. Warcraft was able to disguise the grind with a lot of content, and no MMO that hands out randomly generated “kill this” quests (SWG) or, worse yet, has no questing system and expects XP parties to form and wander around killing the same three monsters for hours at a time (FFXI) is going to attain significance. Basically, the new product can’t be worse than Warcraft in any way – although it could easily be harder, since the middleground player demographic doesn’t need their XP spoon-fed to them. It just needs to be fun to attain. And while the Bind on Pickup and Instancing systems for loot helped WoW avoid much of the economic ruin that other MMOs have suffered, the randomness needs to be scaled back somewhat. Nothing kills the thrill of victory like the realization that no one present can use the loot, and as soon as that sort of group content becomes a grind in and of itself, it also becomes a failure.
2) Secondly, obviously, the mechanics and the UI need to work well. Warcraft opened the MMO market up to the modding community, and most of what works about the Warcraft UI was originally tacked on by the player base themselves. It’s a brilliant way to develop a UI (literally allowing players to decide what they want on their screens, letting them build it, and then just copying that design). But beyond the interface, obviously, the game content needs to be there. Again, this all falls under the major topic of “at least as good as WoW”, and is practically assumed over the course of this discussion. I’m looking at you, [insert Sony Online Entertainment product name here]!
3) Classes needs stability. Warcraft’s skills and talent points are an expansion from Diablo II’s talent trees, and that’s a fine source to draw on. However, Warcraft so badly mismanaged hybrid classes that it took an expansion and the planned obsolescence of all pre-expansion content to fix them, and anyone who plays the game can tell you they are not truly fixed. I know my hybrid started as a nuker, finished the old world as a healer, and is currently a tank, all according to the random whims of how Blizzard decided to shift the classes (and often their misleading descriptions). Compare the classes in World of Warcraft to the much more single-serving classes in Final Fantasy XI, and the difference is clear. And while I think FFXI has far too many DPS classes compared to its tanks and healers, those classes all perform their tasks in their own interesting ways and with their own unique styles.
4) There also has to be some way to make tanking and healing more rewarding tasks, a problem that no MMO has truly resolved yet. Bluntly put, tanks and healers have more difficult jobs than other classes in any MMO on the market, and yet they get the crappiest rewards in terms of gear and progression. About the only thing going for those roles is that they are in demand – because so few people enjoy performing them. When is the last time in any MMO that, when asked to join a group, you checked first to make sure they had enough DPS classes? In WoW, that is laughable. In FFXI, that’s tooth grindingly obnoxious to even read. And the truth is that I don’t know how to solve this problem. You can’t give tanks and healers the same damage output as DPS classes, at least not at the same time. Maybe role shifting mechanics need to be part of tanking and healing. But if you don’t give them damage capabilities, they will always be seen as less desirable roles. Even in non-MMO games, tanking and healing roles are seen as being less fun (join a Team Fortress 2 game at random – the team that wins always has Medics, but you never see people knocking each other over to play the class). The closest I’ve ever seen an MMO come to this was City of Heroes, but even that title had a long way to go.
5) Endgame content has to be accessible to smaller groups. Not under-geared groups, and not groups short on skill, either. But I contend that the number one reason for middleground players not reaching endgame content is the player requirement, plain and simple. If you want to raid big, Warcraft will always be your game. And yes, there are some encounters that were only engaging and possible because of the size of the raid. But again, there’s already a game that fields those encounters, and it is called World of Warcraft. A game that allows smaller groups of players to enjoy endgame content at their own pace, on their own schedule, and without recruiting a stable of random strangers will attract the many middlegrounders that are tired of gearing up newer players or grinding alts out of boredom. And it’s not as though there is no model for this style of play. Heroic Dungeons in WoW hinted at this concept, but didn’t go nearly as far as they could have. But that was by design.
Now, some people would accuse these ideas of taking the “Massive” out of “Massively Multiplayer Online”. Well, accuse away, because the idea doesn’t bother me in the slightest. I know the best times I’ve had in any MMO I’ve ever played were cutting through instanced content with my closest group of gaming buds and leveling up small clusters of characters in static parties. To be honest, the best time I’ve ever had with any MMO was taking my first character up from 30 to 60 at the same time as a friend of mine. Then, of course, we reached the outer whispers of endgame content, he specced Prot, I specced Resto, and we more or less had to travel in different circles to see the next stage of the game. At which point we both largely stopped playing.
But that’s my point. I think most players, and certainly all of the middlegrounders I know, would rather play with the five to ten people they like the most than with the twenty-five to forty people who are online the same nights they are. What separates MMOs from other genres of gaming is the concept of cooperative play towards a greater persistent goal. The current way most MMOs are organized deters or otherwise prevents many players from reaching those goals without sacrificing at least some of the aspects of the game that they value most. Remove the brick wall from between your player base and the game you’ve so lovingly crafted, and players will thank you for it – to the tune of $15 per month each.