Thursday, August 16, 2012

Riffing on World of Warcraft and MMORPGs

Written by StefanB

Its February 11th, 2005. Its a Friday. I took the day off. Nervously I'm pacing up and down in my study. Its 11am already and all I got was a text message from a friend, saying “OMG! I got it! Its installing right now! I'm so excited!”. I'm excited too. Excited waiting for my preordered World of Warcraft Collector's Edition to arrive.

In the end I had to wait until Saturday afternoon before I received it, and spent another day installing it (I had quite the slow internet connection back then). But after that... it was pure heaven! For the first 48 hours I didn't sleep at all. The brief breaks I took from the game were when I unfortunately had to visit the bathroom or pay the pizza delivery guy. World of Warcraft (henceforth called WoW) was the best game I've ever played (at least that’s what I thought at that moment) and I spent soo much time with it. I was so obsessed, I actually planned my day around it. I literally lived on fast food because I had no time to cook anymore.

Eventually I got pulled away from it about two months later by my work schedule, as I had to travel outside the country for half a year. When I returned my euphoria was gone and I reduced my playtime to about 1-2 hours a day. After about another year I realized, that something had changed: I wasn’t playing to explore the vast world and discover new things anymore; I wasn’t admiring the occasional (in a rudimentary way) beautiful vistas, reading the quest descriptions or doing any fun stuff anymore. I was working! I was min-maxing my stats by equipping the most hideous equipment, doing only the most rewarding quests, leaving the other ones aside. I wasn’t crafting funny stuff, but I was building an armor production industry to raise my crafting skill. At that point I decided I had to quit WoW. I got my fair share of fun and excitement out of it, but now it was just work. And work I had enough in my real life.

About half a year later the first add-on “Burning Crusade” was released. My friend was quite excited about it and so I thought I'd give it another try. We started from scratch with new characters and were following a quest guide until we reached the areas with the new add-on content. During that phase, WoW was more of a social game to me than an actual role-playing game. I was chatting with my friend for some hours every day, while I was blindly following his character from quest hub to quest hub with the use of the auto-follow option. When we reached the endgame, we found ourselves in a similar situation as half a year before: everybody was min-maxing, nobody had anymore fun. And because we were only casual players, with casual equipment, no one wanted us in their group. So it was dumbed down to daily-questing and reputation-farming.

And after half a year of playing the add-on I quit because of the same no-fun reasons I quit the main game before.When the second add-on, Wrath of the Lich King, was released we were halfhearted from the beginning. We anticipated the same motivation degression as before. But we still tried it out. After about a month of rather inconsistent play time we quit. 

During the Cataclysm we stopped by for about two weeks to see if anything had changed. It hadn't. So we quit again.

I think this shows quite well, how my interest in WoW diminished over the years. This degradation in interest is only natural and nothing unexpected. And although the WoW fanbase has diminished to a “meagre” 10-something million, its still one of the most popular online games for PC.

But I am honestly wondering, if Blizzard doesn’t shoot itself in its own foot with the release of the Pandaria add-on. When I first heard about it I was checking the calendar to see if it was an April's fool joke. As fun as the Pandaren Brewmaster was in the original Warcraft 3, I always found him misplaced. And to this point there never existed any lore in the Warcraft universe pointing to this race (at least not to my knowledge), and it seems Blizzard forces them into WoW just for the sake of producing another add-on.

Some of the features, such as the whole new pet stuff, sound fun, but overall its just more of the same. And I honestly don't think Blizzard will earn as much money with this add-on as they have spent developing it. I for sure won't go back to WoW again. Maybe one day when its free-to-play, but not on a monthly subscription fee.

So is this the reason then? Is it the subscription model that made WoW lose its followers? So many other subscription based MMOs have gone free-to-play in the past years, to keep their followers, there must be something to it. Well, yes and no. Lets take a look at why other games didn’t succeed with the subscription fee:

When WoW was released, it was a huge hit. And that’s because of three reasons:
  1. The genre was quite new (in fact I can only think of Everquest as another game of this genre in the western hemisphere);
  2. The game was developed by Blizzard (who by then had a flawless reputation for developing hit-titles) what lead to quite a hype; and
  3. The game design was done really well (and so allowed even beginners to easily get into it).

Every other western MMORPG that came after that, failed in all these three points:
  1. The genre was overflown with these games as everybody wanted to share Blizzards success;
  2. No matter how well renown the developing studio was, it's game was always compared to Blizzard's WoW as a copycat; and
  3. As other devolopers tried to copy the design, they in most cases either failed or were, once again, bashed for copying WoW.

Of course there are exceptions to this. But the majority of subscription based MMOs failed, such as Lord of the Rings Online, Warhammer Online or even Star Trek Online and Star Wars The Old Republic. And the reason is quite clear: why should a user (continuously) pay for something he/she has seen before?

So in the future, I think, the gaming industry (and by that also Blizzard with their WoW addons) has two options: either develop a subscription-based game that is sufficiently different from all games before or just make it a free-to-play title, as it is a lot easier for a player to pay once, get his/her 15-30 hours of joy out of the title and then put it back in the shelf.

But anyways, these are just my thoughts... Either Mists of Pandaria will prove me wrong or Guild Wars 2 will prove me right.


I've never seen the point of WoW - poor graphics, a bad UI and - insult to injury - you have to pay twice, and keep on paying in order to play it.

More KOTOR, less WoW is needed today, I feel.

I admit, the graphics were, even for its time, quite blocky and low textured. But on the other hand I don't think it mattered that much because it just added to the overall cartoon-y look.
Many of the games featuring a more realistic graphic style failed because they were always compared to the real world they tried to copy.
WoW made a smart choice going for the cartoon look instead, I think.
But at the end it all comes down to personal preference.

About the UI, I don't think you're correct. Of course it got tweaked over the years, but even in its beginning, it was quite intuitive to learn and was copied many many times by other games. So why copy something thats bad?

The cost... well... in that I agree. I can't spend as much time in a game every day to justify a monthly subscription. And even less when I had paid full price for it, when on the other hand I can play a game of the same price category without subscription fees.