Sunday, March 29, 2009

Can there be other games after WoW?

The open Sunday thread was dominated by a discussion on whether future MMORPGs could get over a million subscribers in a market dominated by WoW. Mark asked: "When the Knights of the Old Republic Star Wars MMO launches, chances are it will sell a million plus copies in the first couple of weeks. What will it take for BioWare and EA to hang onto 75% of those customers beyond the free month? This is another way of saying, can anyone compete with Blizzard, or does competing with Blizzard mean your realistic goal is sub 500,000 subscription numbers?" Well, change the names and the numbers, and you'll have exactly the same discussion there was in 2003, where several games had tried and failed to surpass the success of Everquest. We all know what happened next. I can't say whether it will be SWTOR that will be the next big thing after WoW, but I *do* know that there will be a next big thing one day. There is no way for World of Warcraft to still be the dominant MMORPG in the US/Euro market in 2015.

The general pessimism on the future of MMORPGs comes from various factors, most of which are due to a lack of imagination on the part of those who do the discussion. Most bloggers and people discussing on game forums, and I'm not excluding myself here, suffer from the illusion that the ideal MMORPG is the one that caters to their particular preferences. But experience shows that people spending time reading and writing blogs and forum posts are already more "hardcore" than the average customer in the total MMORPG market. Developers who design games following what the fans tell them they want are unlikely to produce anything more than a niche game. So while the blogosphere is full of buzz around the release of Darkfall, the game more likely to reach over a million players by the end of the year is Free Realms.

The other misconception among MMO bloggers is that World of Warcraft was an accident, a stroke of luck. But if you look at Blizzard's total portfolio of games, you'll notice that quite a large number of them were more successful than the competition in their respective genres. Blizzard isn't simply lucky, they *make* their own luck. And they do that through excellence of production, often taking existing ideas and making a game out them with superior quality and attention to detail. Or as Samus commented yesterday:
Let's say I have my favorite sandwich shop. They didn't start out nearly as good as they are now, but they've had a lot of business in the last 4 years that they've been open, which has allowed them the time and resources to develop a lot of great sandwiches. But as is the nature of things, I grow tired of them. It's not that I stop thinking they're the best sandwich shop in town, there's just only so long you can eat the same sandwiches before you want to try something else.

So I decide to try one of the new sandwich shops in town. The first thing I notice is that the fries that come with the sandwich are terrible. When I say something, the other customers throw food at me and scream about how you come here for sandwiches not fries because it's a sandwich shop can't you read the sign what kind of illiterate retard are you...and so on and so forth. Fair enough, but I also notice that the bread is stale, whereas my old sandwich shop baked their own bread fresh. That suggestion nearly starts a riot, because if I wanted fresh bread, I should go to my old sandwich shop. Apparently, the owner knows my old sandwich shop bakes their own bread, so he is deliberately buying day old bread because he wants to be different.

So I try another sandwich shop. This sandwich shop is clearly trying to copy my old sandwich shop. Every sandwich is just a clone of one from my old shop...only not as good. Nothing about this new sandwich shop is any different or better than my old shop, except they haven't spent 4 years perfecting their sandwiches.

Perhaps the more important thing is the menu size. My old shop had lots of sandwiches, but all of these new sandwich shops have only 2-3 sandwiches. It doesn't matter how good those sandwiches are, I'm going to grow tired of them pretty fast.
Now this is the point where things are starting to look promising for Bioware. Because Bioware is another of the few companies known for quality games. Given enough time and resources it is totally possible that they can produce a quality sandwich, err, game.

The last point to address is the misconception that World of Warcraft is a black hole due to social interaction. Everybody plays WoW, so everybody has friends playing WoW, so people can't leave WoW because their friends are all in WoW? I don't think so! If anything, social interaction is one of the weak points of World of Warcraft. No other game has so much soloing, so much guild hopping, so little loyalty between "friends" and guild mates. Guilds draw together when there is new content to beat, but quickly fall apart once the content is beaten. Blizzard completely failed to introduce any purpose to guilds beyond raids. And as new raid content is being added at a relatively slow pace, there are large stretches of time in which WoW is vulnerable to large numbers of people being bored and leaving WoW to check out a new game. If that new game would be any good, and had better social cohesion, the social "pull" would be more likely to draw players out of WoW than back in.

It is easy to find various insulting descriptions for the average World of Warcraft player, from n00b to tourist. But all of these insults come from people who prefer games which require a lot of time and dedication, having features like non-consentual PvP or events which require people to keep playing in blocks of several hours. Of course people who like that sort of gameplay think that games that have this sort of features are "better", and can't understand that this is not what the majority of customers in the MMORPG market want. So they come up with all sorts of crazy explanations why those "WoW tourists" aren't sticking to their favorite "better" game, but go back to World of Warcraft instead. But the simple truth is that these people will stick to a new game one day, provided that new game has a similar quality level and is suited more to the needs of the average player. You can't at the same time criticize World of Warcraft for not being perfect, and then assume that nobody will ever be able to make anything better. WoW is good, and some of the competitors simply failed to match the level of quality, but WoW is still far from perfect, and it is getting old. Every year lowers the hold that WoW has on the market, because Blizzard can't produce content fast enough to keep everyone busy. And sooner or later a better game will come get millions of players.

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