A thought occurred to me the other day regarding World of Warcraft and the way that it deformed the MMO industry: People who are claiming that it’s the reason that the industry has changed so dramatically are right, but they’re not right about why or how.
If you’ve followed MMOs for long enough, you know that WoW was not, in many ways, the first of its kind in many places. It was not the first game with a soloable level experience, it wasn’t the first game to focus leveling around questing, it wasn’t the first game with instanced dungeons or the equivalent, and so forth. What it did was put all of that together into a bespoke package and experience that for many people was a heady and heretofore unseen blend of experiences that all worked together wonderfully, all at exactly the right time for it to explode around the world.
This led to a rush of new MMOs that were meant, in one way or another, to piggyback on WoW’s success. Yes, it took a little time to get there, just as it did with the rush of MOBA titles or the rush of battle royale titles or survival sandboxes or… well, you get the idea. The point was that big companies realized this could be profitable, and they rushed to blood in the water. None of this is new information.
Usually, analysis stops there, with a bit more grousing for the Good Old Days when people had to sit in camp spots and slowly pull to level or when every game was tortured in its complexity or filled with nonconsensual or (on occasion) for actual good games. (People who are grumpy about the march of time tend to miss things that ain’t coming back.) But the thing is that the failure of WoW copycats did send a message – just not the message that should perhaps be heard.
The lesson to learn is that what made WoW work right was a unique alchemy of timing, gameplay elements, and design principles. Rather than try to make a game that copied the surface elements of the game, developers need to understand what players are looking for that is not served by WoW and figure out how to capitalize on it. Some games did, in fact, manage it, which coupled with WoW’s decline is why we are now looking at the big five in the industry space.
But what a lot of people seemed to have actually learned is “MMOs aren’t profitable, WoW was, this isn’t worth the time or money.” And so the pipeline slowed down and trend-chasing moved into different directions.
If you think I come here to blame someone for this, I really don’t. It’s just a thing that happened and the way that the industry reacted after a major shift. And that got me thinking about shockwaves that the MMO industry is still dealing with, perhaps not necessarily as well as it should be.
Free-to-play, for example, is something that we’ve all collectively had more than a decade to absorb now… but it’s also seen very much as an inherently lower-rent venture and like some kind of failure. It certainly doesn’t help that all of the big five are some variant of buy-to-play or subscription titles, which shows that they managed to make it work. But what seems to happen so often is new titles come out assuming that this is the title that can make buy-to-play or subscriptions work again, ignoring that The Elder Scrolls Online – which is, I’ll note, one of those big five – makes its subscription an optional cost.
Like, seriously, who was it that thought Astellia or Elyon could ever support a buy-to-play model? What planet were you living on? These are games where the hope is that the gameplay and graphics grab you enough that you plop down some money after a while on an outfit, not ones where you put down money up front that you know right away you are never getting back.
Remember, none of the big five locks you out of trying the game for free in some capacity, usually with a pretty dang generous free trial. We live in a world where Fortnite and Genshin Impact are both already out and both of them are free-to-play. Yes, that “free-to-play” is a lie covering up predatory monetization practices, but that’s also the entire point. You put out the bait first; you don’t wait for a fish to politely hook itself and then say, “Once you get up here, we’ll give you a delicious worm.”
I’m not good at fishing, but I am pretty sure about this part.
But the industry still hasn’t really graduated to that point, and so we have people who are still chasing the dominant business model from years ago, disregarding that free-to-play has become the dominant model and has remained so for years. It’s probably not helped by the fact that the vocabulary we use to discuss these things are still fairly immature and involve a lot more debating about things like “pay-to-win” than actual predatory monetization or value for design.
Oh, and this is all complicated by the fact that we simultaneously have terrible institutional memory and way too much institutional memory. In the former case, you have people like Scott Hartsman, who in 2016 claimed there were only six MMOs before WoW, and while you could argue it was hyperbole, it’s still a really foolish statement to make even beyond its inaccuracy. It’s not that Hartsman is a bad guy or was behind a terrible game, just that there’s a lack of solid source work.
And when there is a strong case of history, often that’s just as bad. The bet right now for Iron and Magic appears to be trafficking on Richard Garriott’s name and hoping people ignore what happened to Shroud of the Avatar to buy into what looks like a kleptocratic scam that couldn’t even keep a functioning website up. If you liked Ultima Online, hey, great, but odds are Lord British was not actually the reason why you enjoyed the game. But the name has recognition and so there’s an assumption that this guy must know what he’s doing, and if he’s associated with NFTs, the project has to be legitimate!
It’s kind of exhausting.
As an entertainment medium, video games are pretty young; while Pong was not the actual first video game, it serves as a good reference point for video games entering popular culture. That makes games in general 50 years old, compared to over a century for movies. MMOs are about half of that, and they’ve always been an odd subgenre niche that’s difficult to classify and track.
But I think it’s still worthwhile and interesting to think about the ways that in many ways, the subgenre in question is still figuring some pretty basic things out and hasn’t yet been doing a great job with institutional memory. That doesn’t mean the genre is bad or the people making these games are being dumb. It’s just the sort of thing that’s interesting if you spend a lot of time thinking about MMOs as a whole instead of just focusing on the one or two you play and enjoy.