Massively Overthinking: Do MMO players secretly just want ‘another WoW’?


Last week, there was a provocative discussion on the MMORPG subreddit about the genre. I don’t want to get tangled up in the whole argument about failed MMOs and why people play the successful MMOs that aren’t World of Warcraft, but I do want to home in on the overall premise: “I’ve become thoroughly convinced that people don’t want a ‘New MMO’ and want another WoW,” the OP maintains.

So let’s chew on that for this week’s Massively Overthinking. A lot of our writers have played WoW rather extensively, but of course, we also play a lot of everything else, since we’re focused on the genre and not on one game within it. In your heart of hearts, are you just looking for “another WoW“? And do you think most MMO players are doing just that?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): Not at all. What I’ve been enjoying about MMOARGs, especially Pokemon Go and my time with Walking Dead: Our World, is that they give you a way to connect to real-world places and people while offering online connections to support that. I need games that are more social, but WoW mostly felt “social” in that it had a high userbase. I feel like it’s a reason a lot of people go back. Objectively speaking, I haven’t been excited about a WoW expansion since Lich King, but many smaller MMOs attracted me due to features.

That being said, I do think there’s a big split in the MMO community. I softly suggest that there’s a large amount of people who started MMOs in WoW and have been looking for a new one specifically because that was their first, and that’s fine. That’s my relationship with my first MMO, Asheron’s Call. The difference is that AC was a small, niche product. There were very few people I knew IRL who played it, and I actually avoided some of those people because I enjoyed the game features first. I think that’s where some other people come from: they want a game with unique features they can bring people to, not necessarily just a game they can play with their friends. I’d go so far as to argue that there’s more of a “nostalgia” camp, where people are just looking for their old MMOs with updated graphics, and a “feature” camp, where people are looking for the next new/big thing.

Andy McAdams: My answer is a complicated, convoluted “Yes” and “No.” I’ll start with the easier of the two: No, I don’t want another carbon copy of WoW. I don’t want the “RPG on rails” experience that WoW has cultivated. I don’t want the “lol leet Raid/Mythics+ or GTFO Theorycraft the fun out of the game” mentality. I don’t want a world that’s dominated by combat as the first, last, and only activity in the game. If that is what we are talking about with “Another WoW” – then no, I don’t want that thing.

But while it’s true that WoW’s success is as much a result of circumstance as anything else, it’s most assuredly reproducible, and you need only watch the ebb and leaps of innovation in other technical genres to see the truth there. I’m a technologist by day, and I know some of the tech out there could completely turn the MMO genre on its head and move us into the next epoch of MMO gaming.

I don’t think Fortnite is genre-defining in the same way that WoW was because it’s not a sticky experience. It’s built to create and discard shallow, hollow, and temporary interactions between strangers. Unless Fortnite starts to innovate and be more than that, it will start to fade because anyone will tell you that relationships are the key to success in any business. In an MMO, a community will make (or kill) the game, and in some cases, resurrect the game.

I also reject the notion that WoW is horrible for existing because the genre around it let greed subvert their own creativity. Holding WoW accountable for the actions of others simply because WoW exists doesn’t make sense — if it had not been WoW, some other game that had became genre-defining would’ve launched us into the next epoch of MMO gaming. It would have looked different, but the impact on the genre would have ultimately been the same. It’s like saying that genre would have been better off if WoW had just had the good sense to be less good at what it did.

So why do I want a “new WoW?” Because the genre has been stagnating over the last five five years or so (but probably before that). I want a new WoW because the game we are playing today is fundamentally the same game we were playing 15 years ago. Sure, it’s got a new paint job, a new hairdo (sometimes with extensions), and this really amazing nail polish, but ultimately the core of the game hasn’t changed. The MMO genre needs that pivot point. The genre needs its next WoW-moment because without it, we’ll continue to limp along this path of antiquated ideas and gameplay loops that are successful more through inertia of players than any real enjoyment that they might provide. The potential for including things like machine learning for story telling, natural language processing into our NPC interactions, virtual reality, and blockchain to create truly unique one-of-a-kind items means that we could have vastly more engaging worlds and stories to experience with each other. That’s without even mentioning the less-sexy-but-just-as-important technical leaps around virtualization, performance, and the efficacy of both our home computers and server architecture. All of this achievable if we try.

That’s the WoW that I want; that’s the genre defining moment we need in gaming to push the envelope and start the next epoch.

Ben Griggs (@braxwolf): After reading Tyler’s response (below), I have nothing to add. Nail, meet head.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): Am I looking for a new themepark MMORPG that unwittingly derails innovation for a decade to come, that’s held back creatively by dated quest-design and copycat mechanics and the raid-or-die mentalities of its lead devs, a game that survives largely by sheer momentum and critical mass? Hell nah.

Am I looking for a creative MMORPG with massive money behind it that can blast the doors off the genre with innovation and polish, a blockbuster that will bring together players from all corners of gaming and be a cultural phenomenon and drag money and talent back into virtual worlds? Hell yeah.

I have no doubt some folks are looking for another WoW, and depending on which type of WoW they’re looking for, they’re unlikely to find it – which is why they keep ending up back in WoW. Which is, frankly, fine. Play what you love, people. If it’s WoW, just play WoW. Take each game for what it is.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): Personally, I’ll not be taking this one at the face value of “people want another WoW themepark” and instead go from the angle of “people want what WoW did in terms of refining existing MMORPG design decisions to an aerodynamic shape.” In which case, yes, I would very much like that.

There are a lot of great ideas from several different games that, if they were put together and polished, would make for an awesome MMORPG. I would love the combat of WildStar, the (presumed) guidance into PvP gameplay from Warhammer Online, and some of the crafting loops from something like Crowfall, the creativity and building customization of survival sandboxes, and the brilliance of Final Fantasy XIV’s dungeon and raid design all in a smooth, creamy sauce of one game.

If the question is asking if I would want another WoW-like themepark, no thank you. There were already too many titles that tried to parrot that. I don’t want more of the WoW formula; I want someone to use the WoW design ethos.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): I can’t speak for everyone, but I think the premise here is both right and wrong, and the big problem is tying it to World of Warcraft itself. Lots of people aren’t looking for another WoW simply because they don’t think of wanting more of WoW itself, but the fact of the matter is that there’s a certain group of roiling discontented players who are looking for a second WoW in the sense of “a new game that makes me feel what WoW did when it was new and surprising and ubiquitous.”

Because that’s the real issue, to an extent. Even as WoW the game is still there, a lot of people are looking for its replacement just the same, and they’re looking for it in a way that’s never going to be found merely because WoW was in many ways a product of its time and circumstances. A lot of the things that WoW did were done by other games before and after, but WoW combined a lot of those elements into one package that managed to slot into cultural ubiquity and become something that for a brief time almost everyone seemed to be playing. The quality of the game and its first two expansions are well-known enough that it’s almost ridiculous to even talk about them now.

And yet that was also a product of time, space, and circumstance. It was a cultural touchstone in a way that only a couple of MMOs had been beforehand, and it was universal in a way that games haven’t really been since. It was a moment in time that exploded, had an impact, and then receded.

Realistically, there have already been other WoWs in the sense of “online games everyone seems to be playing or have an opinion on,” with Fortnite and Overwatch and League of Legends all acquiring similar cultural cachet during their own time only to recede somewhat as the years wear on. But there are a lot of people looking for another game that will bring back that strange and ephemeral sensation of a game that really amazed them, and it might not even be WoW itself.

The problem? It’s ultimately chasing a time and a sensation, not an actual game. Even if WoW stopped being designed badly (and I’ve been talking about its design problems for years), none of those fixes would make the year 2008 again. Therein lies the rub.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): If we’re being honest, I think that there’s definitely an attractive factor to a new MMO being familiar and comfortable. World of Warcraft helped to cement a certain structure and design to MMOs that we know intimately at this point. So future games trying to lure in players who love and grew up on this sort of game have a balancing act: to not hew too closely as to be a purposeless MMORPG that will immediately get slapped with a “WoW clone” label but not drift so far away as to be alien in design and function. Iterate, evolve, but don’t throw out the stuff that actually works well, like an array of options, a high level of polish, an “easy to understand/hard to master” design, tight combat, artistically appealing worlds, and an appeal to fun.

MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): No freaking way. I can’t even stand the original and hate what it has done to the genre and developmental creativity, so there is no way I would ever look for another to play. In fact, the more like it another game is, the less I like the other game and the more I’ll turn away from it. Great games were ruined trying to be like it, and the possibility of good games are lost due to the constant attempts to be like it.

As for what most MMO players want, I can’t answer for them. What I can say is it seems when games do anything innovative (like players claim they want), it appears to backfire on most studios as players riot. If people want to play WoW, then play WoW and enjoy your game. If you want to play something different, then play something different. That is my plan. Now, it would be lovely if there were more things that were actually different.

Sam Kash (@thesamkash): So I think there somewhat is a desire for another WoW. I don’t mean that in the way that players want a game just like it. Obviously that’s not true, judging by all the failed clones. I certainly don’t want to play WoW. But what I do want is a game that really grabs players from all around and brings them together in a virtual world.

I want that hype and excitement. That experience of finding out that the friend or co-worker you’ve known for years and had no idea they played MMOs is actually a serious gamer when it comes to this one game.

It seemed to grab the attention of people from outside of just the MMO genre and made them gamers. At least that’s how it looked to me, and if we can have that again, I’d be pumped.

Tyler Edwards (blog): I don’t know about “most,” but I definitely think there’s a significant and vocal section of the population that just want WoW all over again, yes. The most obvious version of this is the people who keep asking for WoW 2, despite the fact constant revamps and overhauls make WoW’s current incarnation WoW 2 for all practical purposes. I think these are mostly people who are burnt out on the game nowadays, but want to recapture the magic they felt in the past. Classic isn’t enough; they want the joy of experiencing it all fresh again. They want the same game, but new. Alas, it’s an impossible goal.

Then there are those who are less hung-up on WoW specifically but are still hoping for another game that’s as much of a blockbuster, genre-defining hit. Unfortunately WoW’s breakout success was more an accident of history than anything else, so it’s very unlikely another MMO will ever equal it. It’s not a sign that the genre is dead or dying, but that it’s matured. It’s not new enough to make the same cultural splash again.

For better or for worse, I think Fortnite is the closest we’re ever going to get to a second coming of WoW; it’s been a genre-defining hit in the same way. That’s the only way you get mega-blockbusters like that: take a new genre, polish it, dominate the space, and become a cultural touchstone. There’s not really the same potential to build momentum in a genre that’s already established, with players entrenched in their various games of choice. This sadly leads to a lot of embittered MMO players with unrealistic expectations who treat every new game as a failure for not accomplishing what WoW did.

For my part, the last thing I want is another WoW. Not because I don’t like it, but because we already have a WoW. I want new games to establish their own unique identities, not waste their energy aping what came before.

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!
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