Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Blizzard and McDonalds

While I just shot off a first thought yesterday, I think Wolfshead's well written, but utterly illogic rant on how World of Warcraft is a disease which ruins the MMORPG genre deserves a longer rebuttal. To do that, I'm going to start by assuming that what he says is right, and using a stereotype comparison beloved by all WoW bashers: McDonalds.

What Wolfshead says is that over 5 years ago this big McDonalds opened up in his town. It was a huge success, and the McDonalds has been packed every day every since. He himself ate there for years, until he didn't like burgers and fries any more. Now he is looking around for a nice French restaurant offering Filet Mignon, and finds all the other restaurants are also just offering burgers and fries, only the other restaurants are smaller, less well lit, less clean, and there are some cockroaches scurrying around. Now he is blaming McDonalds, who made very little innovation in the last years, just offering occasionally slightly different burgers, for the decline of the restaurant industry in his town. He says McDonalds strived to make their burgers "addictive", refused to offer radically different stuff like Sushi, and is destroying the social connections people used to have while sitting around a table waiting for the food to arrive by offering fast service at their counter.

Now look at the same situation from the point of view of the McDonalds: They spent over 5 years listening to what their customers said they wanted, and giving it to them. They keep their restaurant clean and free of cockroaches. They sped up their service, because that was what the customers asked for. They stick to the kind of food they are good at making. And of course they are trying to make burgers that taste good, in an iterative process of continues stepwise improvement, that has absolutely nothing to do with "addiction". So when Wolfshead comes and blames McDonald for his woes, McDonalds will simply reply that they are doing their best to cater to their customers and market. And they are not at all responsible for the state of cleanliness or the menu of the other restaurants. They aren't doing anything, nor *could* they do anything, to prevent a good restaurant opening up and offering Sushi or Filet Mignon.

And while World of Warcraft in reality isn't quite as "junk food" as its distractors say, that changes nothing in that the same argument is true for them: They don't stop, nor could they possibly stop, another company from making a better game. They simply found out what a large number of customers wanted, and gave that to them. They don't even try to radically change that, because changing their game radically would be downright stupid. Remember Star Wars Galaxies and their radical change with the NGE? Instead Blizzard is going along a path of iterative improvement to the product they have. That product is far from perfect, and it only covers a part of what people could possibly want from a MMORPG. But if anything we should applaud Blizzard for sticking to that small part, and trying to improve it. Wolfshead is blaming them for "fooling us with Holywood polish", but what exactly is wrong with making a game polished? Sticking to a part of the MMORPG space and improving it iteratively is bound to create something which is polished to the finest detail. And that is what you'd be reading in any book giving management advice to companies: Stick to your core competencies, and rather further improve that at which you are already good at, instead of recklessly expanding into areas that you don't understand.

Last week I started writing about what the perfect MMORPG would be for me, and that perfect MMORPG would be in many ways different from World of Warcraft. But whenever I mentioned that I would want a MMORPG in which decisions are interesting, and people would need to think more instead of just mashing buttons, the inevitable reply came that "this would be a niche game, people don't want to think". While I don't believe that is true, it points us towards the real culprits here: A lack of imagination and enterprise, in part from the players, but more importantly from the other game companies.

Again: Nobody prevents another game company to make a game that is better than World of Warcraft. And in fact there are a number of small games which in spite of low budgets stuck to what they are good at, and didn't try to clone WoW. Games like Puzzle Pirates or A Tale in the Desert are highly enjoyable, and offer a lot of what people are saying is missing in WoW. The one announcement of the Guild Wars 2 dynamic event system has more innovation in it than one year of press releases about Star Wars: The Old Republic. So I would agree with Chris from Game by Night, that if the industry is stagnant, don't blame Blizzard for it, but rather blame companies like EA Mythic, EA Bioware, Cryptic, Square Enix, Funcom, and whoever else you can name. Companies who spent a lot of money making games that ended up being neither fish nor fowl, trying to outdo Blizzard by copying WoW and tacking something onto that, and shoddily executed to boot.

There is nothing wrong to want something different from World of Warcraft. But you can't blame Blizzard for not changing WoW to a completely different game, because it is the *other* companies who need to innovate and find a new model of MMORPG which people are willing to play and pay for. It would be highly ironic if Blizzard, with their glacial development pace and need to keep their old game running, still managed to be the first company to realize that World of Warcraft is not the only possible model for a game getting over a million subscribers in the USA and Europe, and produced just such a game with their next generation MMO.

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