Tuesday, February 19, 2008

How to out-WoW World of Warcraft

The New York Times recently had an interesting article on the sea change in video games: hardcore games are out, casual games are in. A completely silly Guitar Hero game easily outsells state of the art FPS Crysis or Bioshock. Far more people want to wiggle a Wiimote than get to grips with the 20 buttons on a XBox or PS3 controller. And World of Warcraft, which is much simpler and easier than its competitors, rules the MMORPG market.
Put another way, it may be a sign of the industry’s nascent maturity that as video games become more popular than ever, hard-core gamers and the old-school critics who represent them are becoming an ever smaller part of the audience.

That is not so unusual in other media. In most forms of entertainment there is a divide between what is popular with the masses and what is popular with the critics. Plenty of films get rave reviews but never make it past the art houses. Plenty of blockbusters are panned.

The reasons for that seem fairly clear. Film, books and music (and food, for that matter) have been around long enough to have developed highly sophisticated cognoscenti whose tastes have little to do with the mass audiences that still drive those markets. Food critics have as much sway over Red Lobster as book critics do over Danielle Steel.
And this is exactly why we haven't seen a WoW-Killer yet: All the announced new games are more hardcore, shooting for "more critically acclaimed than WoW". If you want to make a game that sells more copies than WoW, you have to forget about what the gamers tell you they want. You need to go for the non-gamers, make your game even more accessible than WoW. Here is one possible recipe:

1) Production values as high or higher than World of Warcraft. The "industry standard" of what is "acceptable" in bugs and server downtime is still abysmal. A WoW killer needs to be virtually bug-free, and up 24/7. The graphics don't need to be stunning, but the artistic quality needs to be high. WoW's attention to minor details is a big part of it's success. 3D graphics, not cheap 2D browser graphics though.

2) Even easier controls than World of Warcraft. Which brings us to the first point where the gamers will start howling: Every class in that WoW-Killer game needs to have significantly less spells and abilities. Even a high-level character would be able to pack all of his possible spells and abilities on a single hotkey bar.

3) Even slower combat, with no twitchy components whatsoever. To keep it interesting the combat must be a bit more strategical and interactive: Pressing the *right* button must be more important than pressing it fast. More visual input, where you need to watch what the monster in front of is doing to decide what your best cause of action is. Less numbers and theorycrafting.

4) Elimination of class "roles", but not of classes. The tank/healer/dps division of labor has to go. There should be no aggro-increasing abilities whatsoever, no classes with better damage absorption, and no classes with better healing abilities than the others. Basically every class would be a different flavor of dps class, and all healing would be done with some version of potions and bandages, available equally to all. Thus no more "LF2M healer and tank", any combination of classes would be equally viable for grouping. And there would be no more classes that were required for grouping, but less good in soloing.

5) No talents or specialization. Thus no gimping or best builds or templates, a mage is a mage is a mage. You can't choose anything wrong, because there is nothing to choose.

6) No "end game" whatsoever. When you hit the level cap, there isn't much left to do, no raids, no PvP. Instead when you hit the level cap with a standard character, you unlock one or two new character classes in a fixed order, which you can then level up to the cap again to unlock even more classes. The unlocked classes aren't any more powerful than the starting classes, just more "cool". Ninja, anyone?

7) Far more social options than World of Warcraft: player housing, with houses also serving as shops for player-made wares. Guilds being organized as player-run cities. Sidekick / Mentoring system to play with players of different levels. Guild achievements measured in trophies and other "fluff", no epics. Contribution to guild achievements not depending on your level, no more "need to level up to reach the fun part" gameplay.

8) More different sub-games. Not just adventuring with a combat game, but alternative activities like crafting mini-games, or a collectible virtual card game like the Vanguard diplomacy system.

Now some of you are going to shout that they would never play such a game. Which is totally okay, because you are a gamer and aren't the target audience anyway. The game isn't supposed to be good from a game critic point of view. It is designed to be accessible for the mass market, the many millions of people who still consider World of Warcraft to be too complicated. The millions of people who play free browser MMORPGs in 2D graphics, and who would love to play a game which had as high production values as WoW, but was more easy to play.

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