Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Fourth Anniversary Present is Bear

Blizzard rolled out a little mini-polar bear cub, and a commemorative letter, to mark the game's fourth anniversary. I was away from the game for about five months when LOTRO came out, and there were some patches where I wasn't playing all that much, but, in general, I've been playing the game for most of those four years.

I'm not sure that I realized when I started playing that this is something I would be doing for such a long time. My mage is named "Greenwiz" because he is a wizard of sorts, and I started all of my character names with "Green-" back in the day to make it easier for my guildies to pick out whose alt they were talking to. In hindsight, I might have put a more name-like name on the character if I had realized I would have it for so long. (Technically speaking, I could pay for a name change, but it would seem strange to change it at this point, especially since I've been on the server so long and people wouldn't know it was me anymore.)

WoW and the Massively Single Player Revolution
WoW has had an interesting legacy. Before WoW, it was standard practice for MMORPG's to require mandatory grouping - you NEEDED the holy trinity of Tank-Healer-DPS to do anything. Now, almost every major MMORPG (excepting perhaps Vanguard) is designed to follow the WoW model, with solo content clear through the level cap or NPC henchmen to serve as a substitute party when other players aren't available. This is neither coincidence nor spineless copycatting, but cold reality.

The difference in subscriber numbers between the games of the Pre-WoW era and most estimates of WoW's NA/EU population is about 10-fold. This is not because nine in ten WoW players always meant to try some other game but never found the time, nor because WoW is somehow ten times better than the competition (the point could be argued in some cases, but isn't really relevant to this discussion). Rather, 90% of the modern MMORPG market consists of players who require at least some flexibility in their gaming time.

The genre has expanded beyond the stereotypes of gamers who spend 40+ hours per week in their parents' basements. The new market consists of players who aren't willing to put up with strict restrictions on their ability to play their games - e.g. that they must find a group with the correct spread of classes, and be prepared to commit 3+ hours to that group in order to make the trouble of organizing it worth the players' while. Players who are ducking on for an hour before work expect to be able to make real progress with their characters, and not merely checking the status of their auctions or barely surviving the time-consuming attempt to solo a single trivial mob that a group would plow over with ease.

Perhaps there should still be a market for games that cater to that older school market, but companies aren't willing to spend their time in that direction. The market that expects to be able to solo with at least some of their time is too much money to leave on the table.

Has the influence of WoW been a good thing?

Last night, I was doing a daily quest when my wife suddenly hollered at me. "Did you just kill a Killer Whale?!" she asked, horrified. I had, in fact, just set an Orca on fire. I was swimming in its hunting grounds (waters?) in order to catch some reef fish, it had decided that my gnome was the perfect size for a snack, and either I or the whale had to die. (Well, I suppose I could have rooted it in place with a frost nova, swam far enough away to cast invisibility, and gone somewhere else to fish, but that's a lot of work - perhaps I am a cruel cruel uncaring whale killer.)

The point of the story being that WoW has some truly spectacular production values, to the point where someone on the other side of the room can see that I just blew up what was obviously a Killer Whale. This is, perhaps, the issue with WoW's influence on the MMORPG genre. Solo quest content requires more of the precious and limited resource that is developer time.

A FFXI grinding party wouldn't think it at all strange to sit in one spot and pull a hundred of the same mob to the same location as long as it was giving them good exp. By contrast, WoW-style solo quests send players to a location, which needs to have a minimum of scenery and probably 2-3 types of mobs in the general vicinity, to kill maybe 20-30 mobs before moving on. Sometimes these mobs even need to be something other than pigs, though WoW does have a wide enough menagerie these days to fill the game world with a mix of the old and the new.

The issue with attempting to create enough solo leveling content for your game is the sheer cost - lots of content that players may only try out once, and less time to spend occupying players at the level cap. There is also the thorny issue of transitioning players from solo content into group content. Many players of non-WoW games (no offense to those of you reading this who fall into that group) blame WoW for some or all of their games' social problems as a result.

That said, there have also been real benefits to the market. Like it or not, the prospect of WoW-level numbers has raised expectations for quality. We will never know for sure what LOTRO or Warhammer might have looked like had there never been a World of Warcraft, but I'd imagine that neither would be as impressive as it is today. Having grown the market does present the opportunity for new games to grow - most players who played their first MMORPG in the last years probably started in WoW, and it wasn't actually the right game for all of them. The challenge is taking advantage of that opportunity, and I hope we do see a game succeed and get to that coveted million subscriber plateau sooner rather than later.

(It would be nice if we could, in the future, avoid doing what we did to Mythic - namely showing up in far greater than expected numbers, overcrowding the launch servers, and then leaving in equally greater than expected numbers, resulting in the derelicts of empty servers that Mythic now has to deal with somehow.)

Four More Years?

There's no indication that World of Warcraft is slowing up as it hits the age of four. Even if the game does eventually jump the shark (or, as appropriate, flaming Orca corpse), it will probably retain a fair chunk of its numbers out of sheer nostalgia value - game sellers sometimes seem reluctant to stock games that are six months old, and yet you can still find the Diablo and Starcraft games of ten years back.

In some ways, it's possible that the increasing shift in the dev cycle towards a more regular (if perhaps infrequent) patch cycle may be part of a plan to keep WoW manned - but not consuming ALL of the company's development time - as it moves ahead with the mystery fourth project and beyond. In that vein, I'll go out on a limb and predict that the second four years of WoW will see THREE expansions released instead of the two that launched in WoW's first four years. If they actually are done with patch 3.1, and mostly planned out for 3.2 and 3.3, the devs may be able to start actual work on the third expansion sooner rather than later. The fact that they're aiming at three content patches also suggests to me that they're hoping for the next expansion to be ready in a year and a half (unless the third expansion is so far out of left field that Blizzard launches a content patch post-Arthas in the Wrath era just to introduce players to the next chunk of lore).

Beyond that? As I said in that piece about the third expansion, I'm not expecting them to rock the boat. More new classes and races, perhaps, maybe even some form of alternate advancement when the prospect of characters who possess multiple 41 point talents actually breaks the class balance scheme, but nothing major. And that's alright. World of Warcraft is, for millions of players around the world, a good thing. Its happy birthday today will be followed by many more down the road.

1 comment:

DeeKow said...

Great analysis. Love it or hate it, WoW has changed gaming across all genres. It's also changed player expectations and set standards no dev companies would have dreamed of trying to meet pre-Blizzard.