Monday, April 16, 2007

Unfair to compare?

I have a subscription to a magazine on PC games, and since World of Warcraft became a best-selling PC game the print magazines also write about MMORPGs. In February that magazine reviewed Vanguard, and gave it a pretty abysmal score of 62 out of 100, with WoW having over 90. And in the text of that review the reviewer made some references and comparisons with World of Warcraft. So in the last issue there was a reader's letter complaining about the low score and the comparison. The reader stated that Vanguard was for a different audience than WoW, and couldn't be compared. And it shouldn't receive bad marks for features like corpse runs and endless grind, because Vanguard was for people who loved those features. The reader complained that comparing Vanguard with WoW was "unfair".

In response the editor said something that I very much agree with: You can't review a MMORPG in 2007 without comparing it to World of Warcraft. A game doesn't exist in a vacuum, it is part of a genre, and has to be compared to the standards of that genre and the best games in that genre. Now we can argue whether WoW is "the best" MMORPG, but that is just semantics. I think we can all agree that World of Warcraft at least sets a standard in the MMORPG genre, both in matters of gameplay as in matters of technical execution. Depending on your point of view World of Warcraft has "dumbed down" or "made more accessible" gameplay, which is a major reason of why it could attract so many players who never played another MMORPG before. And WoW undoubtedly raised the bar in technical execution. Yes, it still isn't perfect, there are some bugs, some lag, and some server problems. But compared to what the industry standards were before, the technical execution of WoW is much improved, and everyone now expects games to be as good.

Personally I don't give scores in game reviews, because a good part of a review is subjective. If Vanguard in its current form had come out in 2003, after EQ1, but before WoW, it would have received better scores. But even compared with EQ1 Vanguard has a lot of bugs, and visibly unfinished areas. It is prettier than EQ1, and more accessible. But judged by the standards of 2007 it fails to impress. It is too hardcore for the average player in the now much enlarged MMORPG audience. And it's technical execution is below current standards. Even in a parallel universe where WoW didn't exist, you'd compare Vanguard to something else, for example Lord of the Rings Online. And how ever you are giving scores in game reviews, there is no way that Vanguard would have ended up with a higher score than LotRO. But Vanguard would probably have scored higher in a world without WoW.

Comparing Lord of the Rings Online to World of Warcraft reveals another aspect of the story on comparisons. Up to now LotRO meets the standards for accessibility, as well as the standards for technical execution, that WoW set. Somebody who hasn't played WoW can start LotRO and enjoy it right from the start. LotRO is a good game in its own right, with or without comparison. But Lord of the Rings Online doesn't exist in a vacuum either. The comparison to WoW is more difficult, because it is more similar. If I had to give scores, I would choose a rough scale, and then give both games a 9 out of 10. But the temptation for game reviewers is to give one game a slightly higher score than the other, to make a statement on which of the two games is "better". And, game reviews working as they do, the probable result of that is that WoW will "win" this comparison, with LotRO being docked some points for being less original. "Less original" is the other side of the coin "meeting industry standards". Again LotRO would have scored higher in a parallel universe without WoW.

So should Sigil and Turbine wail loudely about their unlucky fate of living in a universe where World of Warcraft exists? Just the opposite, because they also profit handsomely from WoW. A rising tide lifts all boats, and in this case the tide is World of Warcraft. WoW increased the total MMORPG market size, especially in the USA and Europe. WoW famously sold more copies in Europe on the first day than the previous estimate of the total market size for that genre was. Between all the bad news from Vanguard you get to hear that it has 200,000 subcribers, which by pre-WoW standards would have made it a major game. The US LotRO open beta filled all of its 1 million beta slots, although its hard to say how that will translate into sales on release day and beyond. It is impossible to predict how many subscribers LotRO will end up with, but again it will be a large number in comparison to pre-WoW days.

Behind stable or rising subscription numbers of a MMORPG is a constant coming and going of players. Even if WoW is still growing slowly, millions of players have already left it, replaced by new players at a greater rate. Having acquired a taste for the genre, many ex-WoW players are now a lot more open to playing another MMORPG than they were before they played WoW. So while the games of 2007 might be losing review score points in the comparison with World of Warcraft, they are gaining access to a larger pool of possible players. And in the end money talks louder than review scores.

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