Death of a Genre

Downfall of a Game

One of the problems within the MMO community is that we seem to view each release as a zero sum game.  As such when something new comes out, it threatened to chip away at the player base of whatever game we happen to love and are currently playing.  When that game falters and begins to fail, with this point of view it becomes extremely hard not to take pleasure in that downfall.  The problem is this is an extremely toxic and dysfunctional outlook, and ultimately is what has lead to the current climate in MMOs.  For years companies have been chasing an illusive dream of trying to create another World of Warcraft.

This was an inherently flawed vision because really…  “mmo gamers” are a rather small niche in the market, and most folks who play World of Warcraft are not actually “mmo gamers”.  If you take a look at the size of the market before World of Warcraft, you saw a handful of games with sub-million subscriber numbers.  Before the launch of the first expansion World of Warcraft had boomed to be an over 6 million subscriber game.  This was not the conversion of all of these other MMO gamers, but instead the conversion of fans of the existing Warcraft franchise into the MMO genre.  The thing is…  these new gamers are there for a myriad of reasons, but none of them easily translate into a new franchise.

So as these new games launch they are essentially fighting over the same piece of pie over and over.  All you have to do is look at my immediate circle of friends.  A large chunk of them stuck with World of Warcraft, and it would likely take an apocalypse or the servers shutting down to pry them from it.  Another group has wandered away from the game each and every time something new and shiny showed up on the horizon.  Very few of these players stick around in any game for longer than three months, and more often they play their free month and then return to whatever the status quo was before the new launch.  I watched this pattern play out for both Elder Scrolls Online and Wildstar, and the games industry is finally realizing that this is going to happen for every single new game that releases.

Indictment of the Trend

The cancelling of Titan has been a far more contentious issue in the blogosphere than I expected.  At this point my point of view is that this is Blizzard admitting that the MMO genre has no more room for new players.  While there will always be a core group of players in World of Warcraft just like there is still a core group of players in Everquest, Everquest II, and Dark Age of Camelot…  that core group continues to shrink as folks either “grow out” of World of Warcraft as they find it no longer suits their interests, or simply run out of the copious amounts of free time it requires as they get that job, family, whatever.  I think they have done some really simple calculus here and determined that there simply is not enough of a pool of players to make a brand new MMO from Blizzard successful.

With World of Warcraft they have a decade long buy in from a large number of gamers.  They have literal years of memories and hard to acquire items to keep them chained to the game.  With a brand new IP, they are starting from scratch in the same position as all of these games that have floundered have been in.  Blizzard brand name recognition just isn’t enough to guarantee success, so I feel like it was a pure business decision that it just did not make sense to further dilute their subscription player base by trying to launch a new MMO.  As much as I love the clean subscription model, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to launch a new game with it.  After watching what happened to Wildstar and to a somewhat lesser extent Elder Scrolls Online, the market does not want any more subscription games.  So by launching a new MMO they would be converting at least a portion of their subscriber base of easy month to month money to far more dicey and less predictable free to play money.

No Joy Watching Wildstar

I find it impossible to find joy in the unraveling of Wildstar that I see before me.  I am not playing the game, so I am in essence part of the problem.  For whatever reason it was an accumulation of all of the things my BC era self said they wanted in a video game.  The problem is we gamers are notoriously horrible at trying to decide what we want.  “We” said we wanted a hardcore game like Everquest and a return to forced grouping…  then when we got Vanguard no one actually wanted to play that.  We said we wanted a hard core PVP game like Dark Age of Camelot…  and then when we got Warhammer Online no one actually wanted to play that either.  So I find it no suprise that when we said we wanted a return to the golden says of World of Warcraft raiding…  no one actually wanted that either when we got Wildstar.  The truth is we have no clue at all what we want until we actually see it and experience it.

The problem is that the MMO design ethic has been so wrapped up in trying to target what the public is asking for, that it has stagnated into a mire of “wow like features”.  A week or so ago there were a series of posts taking point and counterpoint on whether or not WoW has ruined MMOs.  In a way I have to say yes, but not through anything that they did on purpose.  World of Warcraft has been this juggernaut that everyone else is forced to content with whether or not they actually wanted to.  It is a gold standard that every new game is judged by.  So you either have games that try and out feature it like Rift, or out lore it like Star Wars the Old Republic… but each and every new release is at least in someway a response to the success that World of Warcraft was.  Without that outlier of success we probably would see a much more healthy MMO ecosystem…  albeit a ridiculously smaller one.

Death of a Genre

So I cannot take joy in watching Wildstar, or Elder Scrolls Online or any other MMO falter right now, because I see it as all being part of the same shared ecosystem.  When one of these games fails, it is in essence taking a chunk of players out of the pool that will likely never return.  So many of my friends have simply just checked out of online gaming for one reason or another, but the core thread among them all is they are just tired of the volatility.  The choice is either return to World of Warcraft and make due with the status quo, or jump from game to game to game getting a months worth of enjoyment at a time before the ultimate crash.  None of this sounds like a healthy ecosystem, and all of this is what is driving triple A studios away from the notion of even trying to do an MMO.

If you think about it right now…  there is nothing really on the horizon for gamers to latch onto.  There are a few boutique titles like Pathfinder or Camelot Unchained… that are super focused on a specific niche and that may or may not be at least partially vaporware, unlikely to actually launch with all of the features they are touting.  Then you have a constant spin of Korean titles as they have their own MMO renaissance that we went through several years ago.  However After the launch of ESO and Wildstar…  there is really no big western titles on the immediate horizon.  Everquest Next is the closest thing but realistically it is still several years from release.  The other games that are coming out are more akin to Destiny than they are to a traditional MMO.  So I can’t blame World of Warcraft for this current situation, because in truth it is our flighty nature that has salted the fields in our wake.   We are the reason why there is no fertile ground for a new MMO to take purchase.  It is because of all of this… that I can find no pleasure in watching yet another game fail.

11 thoughts on “Death of a Genre

  1. You’re noticing what Richard Bartle did a year ago (“The Decline of MMOs”), albeit in the context of a seminally successful MMO. (http://mud.co.uk/richard/The%20Decline%20of%20MMOs.pdf) I’m one of the people who no longer plays WoW and does not intend to do so. Having played for nine years, I can say that it brought accessibility to the masses and iterated on The Vision over the years, gradually turning a development philosophy that was wielded by developers like a hammer and turning into something that nowadays looks much more like a compass. Carbine’s most recent dev chat video is a testament to this (at least in word – we’ll see about deed): the balance of power has shifted in favor of players as the genre has matured.

    There’s an old quote attributed to Max Planck that goes: “Science advances one funeral at a time.” The current death-in-progress is the birth of a new age. Perhaps what we call MMOs will not exist as such in five years. Pay-per-minute games “died” and BBS door games were born; door games died and text MUDs were born; text MUDs died and prototypical graphical MUDs were born; the prototypes died and clumsy accessibility was born; clumsy accessibility died and fluid accessibility was born; and now fluid accessibility is dying…what will replace it? Perhaps MMO/FPS blends like Destiny?

    It may be that what we think of as MMOs are simply subsumed into a hyponymous form of gaming, much like how the text MUDs that used to be all the rage are now a quaint form of diversion probably best enjoyed in the form of a short flash game.

    As for Wildstar, I’ve said before that my optimism is cautious. I’ll personally be resubbing again shortly in anticipation of megaservers and the 100 pages of changes mentioned in their dev chat. The problem with Wildstar was that it put 2004 raiding on a pedestal in 2014. What players want is the spirit and psychological benefits of 2004 raiding without actually having to do 2004 raiding. They want 2014 raiding which means fluid accessibility and its forthcoming successor. The quit wall must become a ramp: in other words, flexible difficulty, flexible accessibility (they have already changed the attunement requirements), and flexible raid sizes. This is something WoW has done very right: flexibility and accessibility. They came along and kept iterating on that model and ruined it for all other MMOs. One can argue that they took it too far (e.g. pressing a button to get into a dungeon instead of having to form a group yourself – check out the dev response in this video to a question regarding whether they had ever considered servers for previous expansions: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FsGrcdOyyRQ&feature=youtu.be&t=30m8s)

    “Oh! But letting anyone raid isn’t hardcore!” It is in 2014. I’m of the belief that Carbine made a fundamental error in judgement with regard to the locus of dedication and amount of time available for commitment on the part of the types of people that would be attracted to their game and that their ability to maintain a viable franchise rests on the extent to which they are able to recover from their shortsightedness. I support them (cautiously), but I’m not betting the farm on it.

  2. “The choice is either return to World of Warcraft and make due with the status quo, or jump from game to game to game getting a months worth of enjoyment at a time before the ultimate crash.” This is very much how I’ve felt but it’s not about volatility, it about lack of content. I get very annoyed if I’m expected to pay my subscription to play the same content over and over again. I get bored. And then I leave.

  3. It’s funny, I wanted wildstar to be like the golden age of wow raiding, as you said… Except I mean Wrath of the Lich King.

    That was when raiding opened way up and was easy for everyone to get into, and also had the super hardcore progression game going.

    Wildstsr has one half of that only, and it’s the half that I can’t play because I now have kids. The accesable half is something they scoffed off. As a result, their 40 man raid that cost so much work to create has literally under 500 people playing it every week. That is an unmitigated disaster of wasted content while lots of players are bored.they listened to the forum users and it has cost them massively. At this point, I’m not sure I’ll play again, and I like the game. I just don’t feel that they want me and my new found casual playstyle around.

    It’s too bad for Carbine,, but it’s a self inflicted gun shot wound and they are being slow to react to the reality of how badly they got it wrong.

  4. Hey there Bel

    Your blog post appeared in my timeline along with Tenten’s excited tweets about his Dreanai Engineer (I had one too and was very fond of her) and it makes me wistful for WoW. And there lies a Thing, I think, which more recent mmo developers both cannot create but also seem to miss.

    One big reason WoW did so well initially was that it brought mmos to the mainstream, did it brilliantly and it was time. It’s simply that ‘lightening in a bottle’ moment. It played well, it looked great (for the time), it played on everything and it was amazing fun. And sadly, for those that came after, it’s not easy to recreate those perfect storms.

    SWG *nearly* did it but screwed up because Sony thought they needed to copy WoW to be a success. Actually, the two games were different enough that if they’d stuck to their original plan, I think SWG would be in a WoW-like position now. Idiots.

    It seems to me that mmo makers forget that whilst the hardcore ‘raider/pvp’ type of gamer looks like bread and butter, you need to cater to your other, perhaps more niche players to make your world ‘alive’. “It takes all sorts,” as my Grandma would have said, and she was so right.

    This essentially needs to include an Excellent Crafting System, an Excellent Trading System, Stupid things, RP things, things to do because you’re bored of Killing Stuff, things to Collect. All this needs to have kudos, so those players not raiding and PvPing can whip out their [Chestplate of Mats Which Were Hard To Get] at R0xx0r the Killerator and feel just as 1337 as them.

    But most of all, you need to give players reason to ALT and Explore. WoW does this brilliantly.

    Zone level overlapping and plenty of them gives you a reason to stay in the game and run about. Since WoW, not a single MMO I’ve played has done this, presumably because of perceived time/money constraints. However, from a personal point of view, if they’d given me more reason to make alts and continue my exploration, I’d still be paying my subscription.

    There’s another conversation I could have about ‘class balance’ but not here. In short, to me, balance can go hang. It’s boring.

    I think MMO devs AW (After WoW) have had a tough challenge, but they were too hasty in making their games and didn’t really ‘get’ why WoW has been so successful and long lasting.

    You need to give your players charm and wonder, as well as the ability to twat each other, or 100ft Bosses, over the head.

    *hugs and stuffs* T ^^ xx

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