Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Designing around WoW

Cuppycake is complaining about an endless stream of blog posts stating that MMO's aren't evolving, and that WoW is just a clone of previous games. She certainly has a point there. MMORPGs still do evolve, and World of Warcraft is full of underestimated innovation, and has always been. The kind of posts Cuppycake is complaining about reflect not so much facts, but emotions: People who grew bored with MMORPGs in general complain about lack of innovation, and people who dislike World of Warcraft try to diss it by making false claims about it.

If you look at it objectively, the evolution of MMORPGs is clear to see. World of Warcraft is a game which is constantly evolving, because it has to. Getting a million people to buy your MMORPG is one thing, but getting millions of people to stay in your game for 5 years is quite another. Of course one could make a subjective point that WoW isn't adding content and evolving gameplay *fast enough* for you. But if WoW hadn't been better than previous games to start with, and hadn't kept evolving ever since, you simply can't explain why World of Warcraft is still the market leader. The WoW-haters at this point usually use the arguments that all the millions of WoW players are just plain stupid, mindless lemmings who don't know better, and who can't identify a far superior game even if they try it. I find that sort of argument extremely insulting, to myself and to players in general. I have a far better opinion of MMORPG players than that, they usually know very well what they like, and aren't shy to vote with their wallet.

But while some bloggers are too quick to dismiss the elephant in the room, I do see a certain tendency of game companies and developers to be too much in awe of World of Warcraft. A MMORPG is a complex mix of different gameplay systems, each of which having many options, resulting in a huge number of possible different games which would all be MMORPGs. There is no doubt that World of Warcraft has found *a* mix that works, developed from both old and new ideas, and executed it superbly. But unfortunately that has led some developers to believe that WoW has *the* recipe for success, and that nothing very different from it could ever work. This has resulted in a constant stream of "WoW+" games being developed, games which try to take a large chunk of the WoW recipe, and then add a little something to differentiate themselves from WoW:
  • WAR = WoW + RvR
  • Aion = WoW + wings
  • Champions Online = WoW + superheroes
and the list goes on and on.

And I'm not talking about copying World of Warcraft's graphics style or user interface here (although that happens as well). I'm talking about about copying the basics of WoW's gameplay: Gameplay directed by quests; character development through classes, xp, levels, and talents; solo combat based on fixed skills on hotkey bars; group combat based on tanks, healers, and damage dealers; and last but not least the horrible idea that there should be an inferior, often grindy leveling game, and a superior end game of some sorts. Far too many games have copied these basic features of WoW, and declared them to be genre-defining. But one just has to look at some other games, like Ultima Online, Star Wars Galaxies, or EVE, to see that these features are not necessarily part of every MMORPG. And while these other games obviously didn't get the mix or the execution so right that they'd enjoy the same sort of multi-million subscriber success, that doesn't mean that all of the ideas contained in these games are inferior. There is no reason why for example a game without classes and levels couldn't succeed as well, if done right.

The WoW+ concept of game design has severe drawbacks. First of all players familiar with WoW will not only notice whatever it is what you added to the basic WoW recipe; they will notice far more whatever it is you substracted, which more often than not is the raid endgame. Second, given the choice of games with very similar gameplay, players will usually end up choosing either the better executed one, or the cheaper one. Thus you either need to beat WoW itself in quality of execution, or Free2Play games like Runes of Magic and Allods Online in price. The deck is stacked against WoW+ games, because people tend to compare the WoW+ game that was just released with the existing WoW and other WoW+ games which already had a lot of kinks worked out.

This is where my doubts about the success of upcoming games like Star Wars: The Old Republic is coming from. SWTOR is clearly one of these WoW+ games: The first thing you will see after character creation will be a NPC with some symbol floating over his head, who will give you the first quest in a long series leading you from level 1 up to the level cap. The "plus" will be that this NPC has voice-over, and of course the Star Wars world instead of yet another fantasy world, but will that be enough? Will people not realize that killing 10 womp rats on Tatooine by first targeting them and then using skills on your hotkey bar to kill them is exactly the same thing they already did for years? This is exactly the sort of game people buy full of hope when it comes out, only to leave it a month later, already bored and disappointed.

The WoW+ design fixation is one that grows proportionally with a game's budget. The bigger and more expensive a new game is, the less likely it is to try and stray from the "recipe for success" of World of Warcraft. Which is why a lot of the MMORPG veterans who grew bored of that sort of gameplay are now promoting various games from smaller companies, on much smaller budgets. Of course that means that these games don't have the sheer size and quality of workmanship of a triple-A game. But small games like Puzzle Pirates or A Tale in the Desert show that you can make MMORPGs in which the gameplay is fundamentally different from World of Warcraft, and which proportionally to their cost are successful. Of course that doesn't always scale, some ideas aren't compatible with a mass market, and can only do well in a niche market. But I doubt that WoW somehow stumbled upon the one and only formula that can succeed in a mass market.

Now if I had a spare 50 or 100 million flying around, I would make a game which is radically different to World of Warcraft in fundamental gameplay, but rather copy the attention to detail and quality of execution from Blizzard. The trick is to design around World of Warcraft, by realizing that it isn't this or that feature that defines the genre or results in automatic success, but harder to copy things like polish, and technical excellence. How impressed would you be by a game that didn't have horrible lag and server problems on release day? And if that game had a completely different gameplay, a very different type of combat and character development, it would succeed much better than yet another WoW+ game. If I'd design it, I'd make my Shandalar game I mentioned before: The game would steal ideas from trading card games, character development would be about collecting cards for your collection, and combat would involve having to deal with a random hand of cards from your deck, thus avoiding endless repetition of always the same spell rotations. But that is just one idea among thousands of possible options.

Funnily enough the only company I see being willing and able to put 100 million dollars into a game which doesn't resemble World of Warcraft at all is Blizzard. Unfortunately I don't think that game will be released before 2012 or 2013. MMORPGs are evolving, as Cuppycake said, but not always fast enough for my taste.

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