Is WoW Causing the MMO Genre to Stagnate?

By Chad Awkerman

September 14, 2009

Given the fact that there is another major MMO release upon us this month (Aion, on September 22), it begs the question once more – will it be a “WoW killer”? Last year, the same question was asked near the release of a few majorly hyped MMO titles such as Warhammer Online and Conan. Neither of those did so hot, to be honest. We’ve seen MMOs come, claiming to be able to topple, or at least compete with, the king of the hill. Yet, time and again all that big talk is lost in the wind of the WoW-dominated MMO market.

World of Warcraft, being on top of the totem pole, is a great thing for Blizzard. They can sit by and pretty much do as they please. They have a game convention just about every year dedicated to themselves, after all. In a general sense, I’m a big fan of WoW. I played the game from launch, in November 2004, until earlier this year, with only a few breaks in between to try out other MMOs and give my often-neglected consoles some love. This article isn’t about how much I hate WoW or me hoping it crashes and burns. Far from it. I’m glad Blizzard is having success with the franchise and still get excited when new patches are released and new expansions are announced.

However, all those WoW fanboys who desire ill will toward all other MMOs are doing themselves and the entire MMO industry a disservice. As it stands right now, WoW really has no competition. Sure, there are a few other MMOs that aren’t doing bad by any means, such as Lord of the Rings Online. But, there have been none in the past five years that really give WoW a run for its money. This, in turn, causes stagnation of the genre and less innovation across the board. You see “WoW clones” popping up all over the place, none of them doing very well and all trying to imitate the success that WoW has, without the big franchise name of “Warcraft” attached to it and, ultimately, they all are underwhelming. Success is now determined in how well a game stacks up against WoW instead of how well designed the game is overall. You could have an incredibly good game and it will still be considered a “failure” in many uninformed gamers’ eyes because it can’t pull in 10+ million subscribers. Imagine the MMO market without WoW right now – Lord of the Rings Online would be the top dog. It’s a great game, much better designed than WoW, yet it doesn’t get as much attention because it doesn’t pull in the subscriber numbers that WoW does.

So, what do we need to fix this problem? First, we need gamers to recognize a good game when they see one. I’m not saying WoW isn’t a good game, but blind allegiance to it alone isn’t good for anyone (except maybe Blizzard).  The more MMO players that realize there is, in fact, an entire genre a good games out there besides WoW, the more likely they will be to try something new and, just perhaps, support another game in addition to their favorite.  Secondly, we need an MMO to come along that really gives WoW a run for its money, that way everyone is forced to innovate instead of release the same type of content patch after patch and expansion after expansion. To be honest, besides a more “casual” spin on things, the first two expansions to hit WoW have been more of the same with a higher level cap and new zones. Basically, the same rusty fence just with a new coat of paint. Perhaps that’s part of the reason I quit WoW after all this time, things just got plain boring for me, and I didn’t see any end in sight.

It would be nice to see WoW itself do something outside the box, something to really blow the lid off the industry besides just having the subscription numbers of a small nation. We need to break this cycle of the same type of content and the same things to do over and over. Every new MMO that comes along has a slightly different format for the same old genre staples, they all innovate a little, but even stagnant water moves a little with every minute wind current that moves over its surface – that still doesn’t make it any less stagnant.

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How can MMO developers turn the genre on its head? By following in the footsteps of a select few titles that try their best to think outside the box. During one of my breaks from WoW I played EVE Online. That is a very different MMO for a very different kind of player, but some of the underlying game play philosophies could be applied to a more “standard” MMO to shake things up a bit. There is no experience, no levels – only skills and bigger, badder ships that you can build and pilot with said skills. Following in that same line of thought is Final Fantasy XIV. Again, there will be no experience, no standard levels – you will get more powerful based on the abilities you learn from the armor and weapons you equip. Those two MMOs are a step in the right direction, they’re forward-thinking, if you will.

So, the answer to the big question of this article? Is WoW stagnating the MMO genre? Yes, I believe it is. Although not intentionally, because of its popularity, it seems that Blizzard has been rather lax in moving the entire genre as a whole forward, instead staying with the same game mechanics for almost five years, releasing expansion after expansion without much change to the core game play. Its no secret that developers are, in a way, scared of going up against Goliath. So much money can be poured into the development of a new “WoW killer” MMO and, naturally, investors are afraid to lose it. But, if we learn anything from the story of David and Goliath, its that one small stone, if propelled correctly, can topple even the tallest of giants. Let’s hope in the future we see more innovation, more strides forward, from both Blizzard, and other MMO developers to keep the genre alive and kicking as a whole, instead of it being defined by a single game.

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Chad Awkerman

Chad joined the DualShockers staff in mid 2009 and since then has put much of his time into covering RPGs, with a focus on the Japanese side of the genre, from the obscure to the mainstream. He's a huge fan of iconic games like Secret of Mana, Final Fantasy VI and Persona 4 yet enjoys the smaller niche titles, as well. In his spare time he enjoys experiencing new beer, new foods and keeping up with just about every sci-fi show on television. He's married to an intelligent, beautiful Southern Belle who keeps his life interesting with witty banter and spicy Cajun cooking.

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