WoW Factor: A self-defeating genre

    
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When leveling alts was already the plan...

Remember when World of Warcraft launched? I sure do. I remember when the game’s developers strapped into a helicopter and broke into the building of every game’s development team and forced them to change their code to more closely align with what World of Warcraft was doing, instantly transforming Warhammer Online into a close clone of their own game. And then there was that time that stores stopped handing out copies of Star Wars Galaxies to potential players, with a cleverly disguised installer that made people think they were going to be playing a Star Wars game right up until the character creator. “Hey, that’s not a twi’lek! Oh, well, as long as I’m here…”

Wait, that didn’t happen? Of course it didn’t. That would be absolutely ridiculous. But you wouldn’t know that from listening to the narrative told by some portions of the MMO fanbase.

I was not brought into the space of online gaming by World of Warcraft, but I have been playing it for a very long time, and I’ve seen oh-so-many stories blaming it in an oblique way for the current state of the industry whilst neglecting the huge amount of evidence that points in a completely different direction. While I might not be happy with many of the decisions that Blizzard has made over the years with the game, painting it as the villain in the grand history of the genre is missing some pretty obvious cues and ignoring what I think is a truism: If it hadn’t been WoW, it would have been something else.

Ain't nothing half as nice as getting draenei, by the by.The Star Wars effect

I’m sorry to say that the internet seems to have eaten it over the past several years, but there was a fascinating article I read a while back on the real state of the blockbuster movie culture. You can blame Titanic if you want, but blockbusters really hit the scene with the launch of Jaws and, more notably, Star Wars. The idea suddenly hit that films could be visual spectacles, that you could amass huge ticket sales on individual movies, that making a production full of bombast and special effects and terrible dialogue was not a shortcut straight to the bottom of the B-movie barrel. Collectively, the filmmaking world flipped out, and I hear even that American Graffiti guy got into the action.

So studios wanted blockbusters. But that was hardly the fault of Star Wars itself, a film that had an insanely troubled production and very nearly didn’t get distributed. I’m reluctant to call it anyone’s fault at all. A paradigm shift took place, just like when Babe Ruth hit a baseball for the first time or when The Beatles stepped off a plane. Or when World of Warcraft launched.

If you look at the games released in close proximity to World of Warcraft, you’ll notice that they share a pretty close structure. Guild Wars and City of Heroes are my usual points of nearby reference, and both of them follow (or followed) a quest-and-go structure very familiar to anyone who cut her teeth on WoW‘s initial experience. But you can’t call them clones of one another; they all launched too close together and were deep enough in development that the structure must have been informed by an outside source rather than by one another.

I’ve gone on the record before saying that if it hadn’t been for World of Warcraft, it would have been something. A game was bound to take the world by storm, and you can see the pieces arranged nicely in those close contemporaries. These games were built based on what players wanted at the time, even if people changed their minds after the fact.

The hook brings you in

Make no mistake, the populations flocking to WoW when it launched were composed of MMO players tired of heavy grinds, unstructured spaces, and attention to real-life details that no one really wanted replicated in the online space. But the idea persists somehow that if WoW vanished tomorrow, suddenly (insert preferred title of choice) would gain an influx of players because everyone would realize how shallow and unenjoyable the game really was — that WoW steals players who would otherwise be playing sandbox games or open PvP games or whatever.

This is pretty obviously ridiculous. The popularity of World of Warcraft and the unpopularity of, say, Mortal Online are two unconnected points. Removing one would not bolster the other.

What WoW can definitely assume credit or blame for is massively raising awareness and interest in the genre of online gaming. You may not like the style of game that it aims to be, but claiming that it’s not an MMO because you aren’t waiting for a boat for four days or given the option of spending the entire game as a farmer is like claiming that Mega Man isn’t a platform game because it doesn’t star a dude named Mario. If you can’t understand why people flocked to the game when it launched, you’re probably not the right person to discuss whether or not it succeeds or fails at its goals because you don’t understand those goals in the first place.

There's a lot to be said about how Burning Crusade redefined the baseline, but that's for another week.The runaway success of the game has definitely altered the development of many, many titles. Again, though, that’s not on WoW. Star Wars Galaxies losing subscribers (let’s say directly to WoW just for argument’s sake) and then making sweeping changes that pleased basically no one just means that there were a large number of people playing the game for something they weren’t getting, and the studio then decided to close the barn doors after the horses were out. It was poor decision-making, but it shows a breakdown in a thought process first and foremost.

Games that radically altered themselves as a result of a runaway success or games that refused to acknowledge why that runaway success took place, in other words, are to blame for their own failings. I’m sad to see so many games bill themselves as throwback sandboxes because that implies not bothering to understand why the genre has changed and moved forward, focusing instead on an idealized version of the past that never actually existed.

My days of having WoW as my first and foremost love have passed, certainly, and I’m very critical of some staggeringly poor choices that have been made in the game of late. But it’s a groundbreaking game, and there are a lot of staggeringly good choices that have been made over its history. If you can’t understand why it was the first blockbuster MMO title or what that meant in the larger scheme, that’s on you — not on the game itself.

Feedback, as always, is welcome in the comments below or by mail to eliot@massivelyop.com. Next week, I want to talk about design slide and how WoW has wound up on a weird arc that’s led almost back to the same place we started from. By the way, I’m making use of WoW’s new in-game Twitter integration to do in-character tweeting as the urge strikes me, so check out @TruceSMV if that seems like your thing.

War never changes, but World of Warcraft does, with a decade of history and a huge footprint in the MMORPG industry. Join Eliot Lefebvre each week for a new installment of WoW Factor as he examines the enormous MMO, how it interacts with the larger world of online gaming, and what’s new in the worlds of Azeroth and Draenor.
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ntellect
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ntellect

WOW is good because its a quality made game and includes the things people like to do when playing online that is cathartic. Leveling, Dungeons, gear grind, PVP… WoW has it all, makes it convenient and is polished.  The game is still solid.  Liking it or not is a matter of opinion not fact.

What I would love is someone to add that same commitment of quality to an updated version of a sandbox.  Don’t give me what we had because there were flaws.  Give me what you would play if you had a sandbox.  But I digress… as that requires passion for the genre to begin with.

MewmewGirl
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MewmewGirl

Observer98 It’s almost as if you didn’t read this article at all.  As was written here, if WoW didn’t do it, someone else would have.  Everything was set for a fundamental change that was about to happen.

You’re blaming WoW for being good and popular.  You may as well blame the Internet Service Providers too since they were helping more average people get online.

You sort of remind me of this one guy on TV who said he should be able to sue McDonalds, because they make their burgers too good and make you want to buy and eat them and they shouldn’t be allowed to make them that good.

The game industry and internet were all picking up speed and users.  People were super ready for a change from what games existed.  Everything was poised for a new big MMO to come out and become super popular.  People voiced what frustrated them about the games of the time and what they were looking for and WoW had most of that pure fun people were looking for.  WoW didn’t force anybody to leave their old games, you all could have stayed on them if you felt they were so great and kept your same communities.  

That you blame WoW for releasing a game that was what people were yearning for at the time and was good, it’s semi baffling to me.  The people that weren’t happy with your old games left it for something new.  If it wasn’t WoW, it would have been another coming out soon after as people won’t leave a game they are happy with.  Maybe you were happy with the old games, but others were not.  There were reasons they migrated.  You’re upset at WoW for coming out and being good and drawing in too many people?  For being too accessible?   Are you the type of person that wanted to force things to stay as they were and not progress?  To force people to stay and play games they were only playing because nothing else existed?

Anyway if you take the time to go searching, you can find smaller games with tight knit communities now today.  That probably wasn’t the case back at the time WoW had just released but net gaming has expanded a lot since then and there are lots of gems hidden around out there that aren’t super popular but have very close communities and different gameplay experiences.

Gylnne
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Gylnne

lanessar Gylnne c71clark ah I see. Took a sandbox and threw out the sand. Dumb:P

nightbeard
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nightbeard

I think it’s reasonable to expect those things. Wow launched with every feature ever quest had that mattered. They added in the honor system pretty quickly after launch then alterac valley. Iterations like group finder and cross realm functions came as real services to their customers. People forget a subscription fee is paying for a service. Not just content.
Wow has above and beyond services to let is community play together. I group cross realm with friends all the time. I am always in a group qeue. If an mmo doesn’t have features I want then yes I won’t pay for it..just like I wouldn’t buy a car that didn’t have what I want. It’s not my job to support a company that designs something I don’t like.

nightbeard
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nightbeard

Yeah they totally should have never done anything to improve the game and left the frustrating aspects in. It worked so well for champions online.

Observer98
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Observer98

I remember classic WoW as being a good solid game.

I’ll just never forgive WoW for swamping the smaller almost cult MMO audience that used to form communities in game with millions of players who could have cared less.

I’m reminded of how D&D used to have a smaller cult following of predominantly college students circa 1970s.  That turned into a huge mass market of millions of little kids in the 80s under the influence of TV & movies that to put it mildly diluted the D&D experience.

vinicitur
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vinicitur

Evade2015 I’ll add one thing to  that. No one else but Blizzard has the budget to just try something and then scrap it if they are not satisfied. This is also an issue when people do not understand that you can’t have everything  on a limited budget. Blizzard had 10 years to get to where it is today so how does anyone expect for a new game to get there overnight especially when they don’t have an unlimited budget like Blizzard.

Elikal Ialborcales
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Elikal Ialborcales

Best article ever.
I was there, when SWG was hit by WOW defectors. I was there, when the SWG community constantly declined moving away to WoW. LONG before the NGE. I have said it for years – and got enough bashing over it – that a lot of the stuff in the old MMOs were just hardships without fun or without adding any value. For example boss camping. Or sitting down in EQ1 for 5 minutes to see your mana bar fill up again. NOTHING of that was fun or added to the gameplay experience.
WoW was sucsessful because it offered by and large what people wanted. But the small niche extremeists simply don’t understand that not EVERYONE wants to play a MMO like having no real life! Standing 15 minutes waiting for a shuttle was just a huge ass waste of time. Some even sugarcoat the pre-CU SWG. Good grief, the pre-CU was downright the worst combat system I can imagine. Or they seriously used to rant when SWG added Jedi. Seriously? Making a Star Wars game without Jedi was the fucking dumbest idea ever!

I don’t understand people always say, SWG was so great before the NGE and all was well, if only not WOW had come and ruined it all. That’s the most ridiculous interpretation of the events I can imagine. I was there in those days, and people ranted a lot about SWG. WoW just did away with a lot of mindless tedium. I was used to 4+ hours boss camping from Everquest II, and I will never forget, when I got into WOW, the first named mob “the Hogger” was killed and respawned 2 minutes later, I cried tears of joy and swore never to return to fucking Everquest.

Evade2015
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Evade2015

The problem with WoW is players expect new MMO’s to be equal to or better than what WoW is today, and not of what WoW was 10 years ago.
When Wow first released there were no BGs, no rating no pvp currency or pvp gear. Actually, aside from the fun factor, there was no incentive to pvp at all at launch. It would take more than 6 months of development before warsong and Arathi Basin emerged.
Back then, players accepted it and gave blizzard time to make their game because the only other option… Eq 2 and swg didn’t have any of that either.
Now a days it would be suicide for a triple A mmo to launch without BGs, arena, pvp gear.
This can be said about almost all other aspects and systems like Group finder and raid content.
Blizzard was able to launch and make money while developing and perfecting these systems without losing subs while new MMOs can’t release their product or make money until those systems are developed.

SmugglerinaYT
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SmugglerinaYT

Good article – this deserves a follow-up.  Obviously lots of folks have deconstructed the WoW-phenomenon.  Searching “why is World of Warcraft Successful?” generates a number of articles that span several years.  My own take is that Blizzard had an IP that had already been in place for years and had a relatively untarnished reputation compared to other IPs that would have supported a good fantasy MMO (both WotC/TSR and GW are drama magnets, and LOTR hadn’t had its resurgence yet).  So they had customers, they had a reputable IP, and most importantly, they had a nostalgia effect.  Thousands of kids grew up having LAN parties where games like WC2, MechWarrior, and other games had kept people up for days at a time.
I agree that if it hadn’t been WoW, it would have been a different game, but I don’t think it would have seen the success that Blizzard saw, and it would have been a different genre.  What a different landscape it might have been had a RTal Mekton game, a FASA MechWarrior, Harmony Gold Robotech, or Bandai Gundam game had set the status quo.  We might be seeing a saturated SciFi market with companies trying to break out into the fantasy space instead of the other war around.
But it wasn’t.  I’m glad that Blizzard saw tremendous success.  Personally, I wish they took a slightly more Google-esque approach to the industry.  A Blizzard summer of games, supporting indie and/or student development, would be pretty amazing (maybe they do that already, but I haven’t heard).  The one thing I will say is that as a juggernaut in the industry Google and Apple seem to take the responsibility seriously.  A modern gaming industry should do the same because promoting a healthy gaming ecosystem benefits everyone.