Is WoW Causing the MMO Genre to Stagnate?

Is WoW Causing the MMO Genre to Stagnate?

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.

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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.

6 responses to “Is WoW Causing the MMO Genre to Stagnate?”

  1. Frank says:

    The MMO market is stagnating for 2 simple reasons and neither of them is related to WoW.

    1. Cost – The subscription model used by most MMOs worked 10 years ago when there was little to no competition. Now there’s multiple “big” MMOs all charging $15/month to play (WoW, Eve, EQ, WAR, Conan, Champions, etc). Most of us simply can’t afford to play them all so we stick with our tried and true games. Note, that Guild Wars with no subscription model was able to turn a profit. Also note that LOTRO has a Lifetime or $10/month option and while they aren’t huge they are healthy and have met their goal which leads me to #2.

    2. Fun – No game should ever set out to beat another game. It’s just plain silly. Focus on the fun factor and they will do fine. LOTRO did just that, their head honcho even said early on in interviews that they had no interest in competing with WoW, only to make a good game. I would bet dollars to doughnuts that Bioware will take the same approach and focus just on making a game. This is where Conan and War went wrong: Conan focused too much on being “hard core” and forgot about making it fun, and War spent too much time trying to be different from WoW so that the great innovations Mythic made were lost in the shuffle to compete. Both games lost sight of the fun.

    3. Polish – Ok, it’s 3 things, NO ONE EXPECTS the Spanish Inquisition! I’ve played a lot of MMOs through beta and into launch where I lost interest when bugs and major play issues were still present weeks into release. This made the “new” game less interesting and fun compared to my old game and I eventually went back. I have grown to trust Bioware to put the spit and shine on a game, thus, I have high hopes for Star Wars: The Old Republic. I just won’t buy into the hype of anything being a wow-killer, it just shouldn’t be the focus of the game.

    If Aion launches with a reduced subscription fee I’m in! If Warhammer lowers its price I’ll head back. If either of them gives me some new options like $5/month for Weekends only, or hourly price options then I’ll get to play more of them. But, even if they are cheaper I still won’t stick around if they aren’t fun or broken… just that my tolerance for problems will be increased as the cost decreases.

  2. @Frank: I agree on all points, however competition breeds innovation, and competition is something WoW just doesn’t have right now, not in any substantial way. Until they have some major competition, I fear its going to be more of the same.

    When they release Cataclysm, besides reshaping Azeroth as we know it (which is basically just graphical/texture changes), is there going to be any real difference in the game play or is it still going to pretty much the same as it has been the last five years? I fear it will remain the same because they have no reason to innovate if other MMOs aren’t anywhere near to competing with them.

    This, in turn, makes other developers either wary of even trying to compete or stuck in the same rut as WoW with the same old game play staples of the genre.

  3. VpC says:

    I think the main reason wow is so successful is the big start they got when it first came out. When you think about it, many people play games because their friends play them. Having a 4 or 5 million start creates a snowball effect, just like the first EQ did. Also, if you take that into consideration, you soon realize that not only are their friends playing, they are attracting new people who want to see what all the hype is about.

    Based on my “theory”, if LOTRO had a sticker that said 10 million online, I would be more inclined to buy it as a first time MMO player. Why would I want to join a community that is struggling to obtain a 400,000 world wide mark opposed to a 10 million world mark?

    And finally, having the stamp of Blizzard and Warcraft on it cant hurt to much either….

  4. Netvyper says:

    I think this is a really interesting subject for debate. For the most part, I agree with you Chad, the MMO market is stagnated. Whilst WoW isn’t helping, it offers players a nice comfort zone, its not the biggest culprit. There is simply the lack of exceptional games being released.

    Having played EVE since early beta, and WoW for a couple of years at launch, and again more recently, and tried many MMOs over the intervening few years, nothing has been able to suck me in anywhere near to the way wow did. There are several reasons for this;

    Life – I think people are more aware of how an MMO can impact life. As a college student, MMO was a new term, coupled with not much life experience I was sucked into playing… ALOT. Raiding 3 nights a week, and all weekend, and Grinding/chatting the other two nights… well it hurt RL when all was said and done, having learned these lessons, perhaps I won’t allow myself to be sucked in quite like that. Now, can I play a game like WoW, far enough above average to satisfy my ego, without it impacting my life? Unlikely, this is where eve excels. I can login once every couple of weeks, and yet still my character is improving, and is the scheme of things, is pretty damn good. It rewards patience, cunning & skill, not simply time. When you factor in the business model of an MMO, this makes even more sense! I am logged in and using resources on the eve servers for less than 15 hours in a month, and I chat to my friends from the game, outside of the game, at times more convenient that being logged into the client, my lunch break at work for example. To play a “traditional” MMORPG, I would have to be playing significantly more, using more resources, and yet paying a similar amount.

    Bugs – The single biggest killer of an MMO. I’m not talking about things like falling through the world, or a particular item not working as intended, the balance of classes/spells etc, they are things as a player that I’m happy to work around. I am talking things that make me stuck… stop me in my stride. It could be the ‘named mob’ that I need to find, who isn’t there, or is heavily camped. It could be the instability of the servers at launch. If you think about other games or movies, it’s “suspension of disbelief” that makes the really good ones. When you can believe in the World & Characters you are introduced to you get something memorable, something worthwhile. Any experience that breaks that, especially in the early stages of a relationship with a new MMO is a problem.

    Depth – When I first picked up wow, I knew there was a level cap at 60. During the week or so that I played the beta, I managed some 20odd levels. Explored maybe 4-5 zones, out of the whole world available to me. I had fun doing it, I found some fun characters with amusing stories, some interesting quests, things I hadn’t really seen before. Plenty of hints & references to Lore I knew nothing about. All of this made me want to explore the game more fully, to experience all these vast tales, to see just what mechanics the game could throw at me later on. Each of these little tiny hooks got themselves into me, and held on, just a little. Even when I was outside the game, I’d be wondering about the game.
    None of the MMOs I’ve played since have really had quite that level of draw. Vanguard, Conan, WAR, D&D:O, LOTRO they all have mildly differing mechanics and different lore but none of them sucked me into the character of the game quite like wow did, and still does. I am a fan of warhammer, and enjoy the detailed lore that is created around the (tabletop) game, but nothing inside WAR kept nagging at me to go a little further, to see what was around the next corner. PotBS came close to drawing me away from eve. It has a detailed economic system, ships which need to be replaced and upgraded, extensive and interesting pvp. This interested me, pulled many of the same threads as EVE does, but it was hit with some core failings. The quests were boring, simply a grind in a very poor disguise. There were arbitrary caps on the economic systems. One or two too many barriers to my really enjoying the game, and as such, they only got 1 month’s subscription from me.

    So, what does an MMO need to offer in order to draw me out of my comfort zone and take my money from Blizzard & CCP?

    A GOOD Launch.
    Depth in Game Mechanics (Character Progression), In Lore/Storylines/Quests.
    Most importantly it needs to offer something new, something unexpected. Something to challenge me and my pre-conceptions of what an MMO is or should be.
    It needs to understand what the barriers to my playing the game are, and remove them.

    Overall MMO gaming is very good value for money, three times the cost of a cinema ticket, for a lot more than 6 hours of entertainment, but don’t make it something that requires more commitment than life allows.

  5. @Netvyper: Thanks for the comments. I agree with everything, for the most part. I do think one of the biggest draws of WoW that I don’t think any but the most “kiddie” MMOs have matched so far is its “casualness”. Blizzard really struck gold when they, over the years, eased up and made the game easier.

    I find it hard to call this a bad thing. Even when I was hardcore raiding and they would make changes to make something easier for people, I was one of the ones glad they were doing it. That paid off later, as I became a “casual” player, and took advantage of many of the changes they had made.

    I love this thought you had near the end: “Most importantly it needs to offer something new, something unexpected. Something to challenge me and my pre-conceptions of what an MMO is or should be.”

    WoW has done that a couple times, on a small scale, but perhaps at the time I thought that because it was several years earlier in my MMO experience and I didn’t know any better. I think because WoW has been offering the same core game mechanics with little hope of ever changing, it just got too tiring for me and so I gave it up in search of greener pastures.

    I haven’t found anything totally amazing yet, but I have found a few MMOs that satisfy my desire for a fresh landscape and a few interesting mechanics (Aion with its flying/gliding, for example).

  6. evord says:

    Something not many people mention is content and gameplay mechanics. Warcraft’s graphics looked behind the times when the game came out (Diablo 2 was the same). Its gameplay and content were amazing though.

    So many MMOs show off their glorious graphics and 100 character classes… but they have crappy gameplay and lackluster content.

    Ironically, LOTR really did it right and all my friends said, “its too much like WoW, I might as well be in Azeroth”