Aren't we... ?
Yesterday I was playing one of our core themepark MMO, and I was really playing the game. I mean I was paying attention to the story, actually reading the quests for once and trying to feel the immersion (no I'm not talking about the game on that pic above if you're wondering). So I happened to talk to this guy, the chief of the village, and after some investigation I was basically telling him how much he screwed up, his close allies had already betrayed him, he was getting old and stupid, and his village was on the verge of being invaded and burnt down to the ground. So he gave me a nice pair of boots. Wait... What ? Seriously ? I told him how much he sucked and he gave me some boots ? He could have done anything from slapping me, to putting me into jail, or even bursting into tears, but instead no... you're a good boy, take this new shiny piece of gear and keep running the little errands for every NPC around. At this point I realized how pointless it was that every NPC I talked to had to give me something. Even the beggar lost in the forest happened to have some particularly interesting shiny stuff fitting perfectly my class he had no desire for. As every two minutes of my gameplay had to be rewarded by a new piece of gear, in the end the whole stuff meaning absolutely nothing, the very future began to unfold before my eyes : ultra modern themeparks will end up equipping this new gear for me automatically so I won't even have to notice that I got it in the first place and the circle will be completed. What's the point already ?
I remember playing the old D&D pen and paper games, when you got that +2 sword it really meant something, and it never fell out of a random NPC's pocket, not even talking about most of the other games you did not have any stats on stuff at all. Imagine a modern fantasy MMO where the only gear you could get was your own clothes, your bag and a sword. Nothing more, and nothing magic. Maybe later you would get a magical item, but much later, only after great achievements story-wise, or having defeated powerful enemies, and that would be just a maybe, no guarantee. But wait... oh no, it couldn't work because players would not feel this constant gratification that entice them to keep coming for more. Still I start to feel that we have reached a point when instant gratification doesn't mean squat, because it's not tied to anything meaningful : no challenge, no risk. Just click a few things on the screen, and you get your new loot with better inflated stats. For all those years how is it possible we haven't come up with something better ? Or something different ?
'That's the way MMOs are. Just quit if you don't like it, some rabid forum fan could tell me, you've just burned yourself out on the whole genre.' No I haven't sir. I'm just vomitting quests and bind on pick-up gear at the moment, because I got fed by too much of that over the last years. Let me vomit in peace, and accessorily have a good rant about it (you're not compelled to read it). Still I assure you if it can ease you that I don't feel any more clever or smart in the process, as if I would have understood something extraordinarily subtile in our favorite genre that others wouldn't have, and I quite envy people who can still have tons of fun the way it is. But seriously, why does every new game that comes out has to repeat those exact same mechanics on every single aspect (and accessorily fail) ? Like that constant bind on pick up loot overdose we're being fed with quest after quest (Teala wrote a good blog article here on MMORPG.com about gear overdose).
The WoW model
You still want to take on the undefeated cow... ?
When talking about Rift recently in an interview with Gamasutra, Scott Hartsman its executive producer said 'it's got to have plenty of the traditional stuff that people want in an MMO as well as a whole lot of things that make it unique'. Later he says 'So, yeah, if you look at a game like World of Warcraft, how many tens of millions have touched that game in its life? […] You can build a really ridiculously healthy business by just making that group of people happy. If nothing else, we definitely know the audience that we're going after'. The picture is pretty clear. Scott's game is not meant to revolutionnize the MMO market, just to appeal to its already existing playerbase, and most of them being found in WoW, Rift is meant to offer WoW players a similar experience with new perks. Let's just hope for the sake of the process the new perks hold on, because otherwise once the newness wears off most of the attracted players will be back to WoW or their previous online game in no-time.
And that pretty much sums up almost every MMO release since 2006 (the new perks never holding on). Is it that WoW got too big and made too much money for game developpers not to feel the pressure of having to try the same recipe ? And if they didn't want to, their producers or investors would tell them they had to anyway ? All hail to WoW, the master, the king, and the god of themeparks. It invented the genre, the style, mastered it in every possible way and just crushed every direct concurrent into oblivion. When asked a few years ago what he would do if he could take over control of one major MMORPG , Richard Bartle said 'I'd take over World of Warcraft and I'd close it'. Not many understood what he meant back then, and he got flamed alot for that, but it does makes perfect sense in a way. If WoW wasn't here we would probably see a much more diverse creation in terms of MMO games, Rift wouldn't be Rift, WAR wouldn't be WAR, AoC wouldn't be AoC, or maybe they would all be truly themselves, that is completely different one from another.
I still think that bashing on WoW is a little too easy though, and doesnt answer anything. WoW is a really good game in its kind, it does what it does, and it does it well. As long as people keep on subscribing to the game it has no reason to change anything, they should even make it more of a themepark every new patch as it seems to be what makes its success in the first place. On the other hand I pity other companies game developpers, publishers or whoever, whatever their reason is, for not having the bollocks to at least try to create something different, to try to 'create', period. Virtual worlds could offer infinite different kind of models and mechanics for their players to immerse in, why do developpers have to stick with the WoW-clone model, the very same mechanics, and the inflated gear stats ? I know alot of people don't like the 'WoW-clone' expression, as it's been overused on the forums, but on this precise point it's a bit simpler to write and to understand than something like the 'themepark level based RPG quest and inflated bop-gear grind with a token collecting rinse and repeat instanced end-game'. Even on this long expression you miss alot of unique features WoW has and other mmos copy without any shame, like no real penalty or risk to lose anything, end game raids, regular level raises, class system, auction houses... etc. And if you think the 'themepark level based RPG quest and inflated bop-gear grind with a token collecting rinse and repeat instanced end game' is the only kind of MMORPG possible in the whole world and people should stop playing MMORPGs if they don't like it, well... think again. Seriously do. And don't ever work for a game company... please !
The collapse of Themeparks, is it ever coming ?
WoW's attraction and playerbase has become so strong, that it does not only affect players who boycott other MMOs they could potentially like better (yes there are some older games that play differently, and yes I have some friends who never wanted to give a fair chance to anything else than WoW even when they claimed they got bored with it). It also dramatically affects other MMO companies, and game developpers who can't seem to get rid of its influence. It's like starting from scratch they already have the WoW's model on their draft when designing a new game, not a blank page as they should have. They look at what they could change, and come to the conclusion they'd better not change too much (hey Rift !). That doesn't necessarily mean they make bad games, not at all, just that they make the same old thing over and over and over. When does it stop ?
It can stop when players stop to buy these games in the first place, and therefore developpers realize that the shiny model doesn't work anymore. But who says that's the case ? Players as a matter of fact have already stopped to subscribe to most of them (but to WoW of course). But they still run like a horde of starving fanboys to every new release that promises them the moon (me being the first more often than I'd like to admit). So those will always sell like 1M boxes and even if they end up having 50k subs 10 months later some of them will still be profitable. So when do we learn ? When will we be able to really make up our minds and send a clear message to the devs : 'guys WoW is cool, but we already have WoW if we want to play it, can't you try to make something that plays differently for once ?' No bind on pick-up gear grind, or no levels, or maybe no classes, no endgame raids, no instanced dungeons, no repetitive quest grind, no meaningless death. Don't necessarily remove all of those : just remove one, two, or three and we could already have a very original game compared to what we've witnessed recently.
But here I'm assuming a little too fast that no other Themepark like WoW but WoW himself could ever be successful. By successful I don't mean profitable, as I'm talking from a player's perspective and not an investor's perspective (I'm sure some rushed sub based themeparks with overpriced cash shops have managed to be profitable despite falling really fast in terms of population). By successful I mean getting an expanding world and playerbase, the ability to constantly attract new players, even if starting small. I'm talking about creating a game that makes its players want to stay on the medium or long term, talk about it to their friends and family even after the first few months, and not just rush to the max level and quit. Can a WoW-clone... sorry a Themepark ever achieve that ? Do we want more themeparks because that's the style of MMO we like, and it happens we just got unlucky with the recent ones ?
I don't believe in hazard when things can be explained by logic, and therefore I don't think the last batch of themeparks we got those last 5 years that miserably failed is due to just bad luck, bad devs, bad companies and rushed products. I tend to think that most of the MMO playerbase, and even the WoW's players, are already bored to death by the ultra classic themeparks mechanics, or if they are not completely it's routine already and they aren't surprised anymore. That explains why when a new MMOs comes out you have so many players eager to spend 50$ to try it out right now. Once they see it's same old same old, or once they get bored by the themepark model once again, sometime not even knowing what's exactly the cause, they just go back to WoW or their former game where most of their friends and guildmates still are. Considering this, it looks difficult for a pure themepark to be really successful other than directly beating WoW, they can enjoy a moderate success certainly (as Lotro had, and Lotro is quite an original game on several of its mechanics by the way), but they cannot live up to the hype made both by all the aspirations and projections of players, and the added boredom of 6 years of the same WoW mechanics making players secretely hope this new game is gonna be different and surprising when it's not meant to be in the first place by the devs themselves. But who knows ? Maybe a new themepark will come soon and prove me wrong. I kinda hope so. Is it possible ?
Is SWTOR the savior ?
How can't this be great as a MMO... ?
It looks like we have the perfect candidate coming (and now I'm putting my anti-flame +10 titanadamantium-vest because I'm about to touch to the sacrosanct of the holy things, how dare I !). Star Wars: the Old Republic is the new star wars MMO by Bioware, I guess I don't have to tell you what SWTOR is, everyone knows that as it has generated tremendous expectations from most of the MMO community. Will SWTOR be a themepark with the very same underlying mechanics as WoW ? Let Bioware's president answer the question "It [WoW] has established standards, it's established how you play an MMO. Every MMO that comes out, I play and look at it. And if they break any of the WoW rules, in my book that's pretty dumb." It's very little doubt that SWTOR is gonna be a themepark with all the classic WoW stuff, we've had enough infos so far on the game to be pretty sure on those points. I'm not saying either it will be totally unoriginal, they try to add some new perks of course, and in this case they work really hard on the storyline and on quest mechanics to give players more choices and replayability. SWTOR has captured all the dreams and hopes of so many players, there is little doubt that the game is gonna sell millions of boxes and the servers gonna explode the first two weeks. And even all of that could not be enough for Bioware/EA as it seems they're looking to challenge the big one, Blizzard's mastodon, playing on its field (and they will probably need at least 1M subs for a while just to break even on their huge costs).
I won't take a risk and predict what kind of success or failure one should expect from SWTOR. But whatever it is I think it could be pretty determinant for the future of MMOs. If SWTOR succeeds, reaches the 1M+ sub mark, or even more and stays there, it will prove that there is a future for themeparks if they're done really well, with a lot of investment and time. It will say to the developpers : you can challenge WoW and go after its playerbase, but don't try to do it if you don't play in the very very large budget league (I hope they get the second part of the message, but I'm afraid they won't). On the other hand, SWTOR's failure would be cataclysmic for the genre in the first place, but on the longer term could be beneficial (please don't hate me for saying that !). It would send a clear message : players don't want more of the same old, they already have WoW when they want to play it, not every virtual world has to use the very same mechanics. Eat that devs ! Think better next time. SWTOR could also fail because it would be poorly done, but all the recent stuff I've read or watched about the game make me think it won't, and I really hope it won't. They're working really hard on this one, they're not afraid to postpone its release until it's ready, and all the changes they've managed to pull off since last year look good enough to make me think they know what a themepark is and they're ready to do it well. I could say I already got my popcorn and I'm ready to watch the big show from a good safe distance, but I must admit I'm pretty much more likely to get personally involved and also spam my login button the night SWTOR releases. Yea, I know. You're a MMO addict or you're not.
What do you guys think ? Will we ever see a themepark get as successful as WoW, or even just break the 1M sub bar ? Is there still a future for those games, outside Blizzard's next-gen Titan, or should developpers stop to be hypnotized by the mastodon, start to really think by themselves and create from scratch new games and new worlds with different mechanics ?