It is safe to say that World of Warcraft (WoW) popularized the MMORPG as a form of consumer entertainment. Since its release, millions of players have been a part of Azerothian lore, slaying demons, killing liches, and punching dragons in the face.
With the recent press event for the Mists of Pandaria expansion, people are either loving the additions and revisions to the game or hating them. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that people have been loving or hating WoW itself for quite a while now, and while its front-runner status is still there, it is arguably in a state of subscriber decline.
Despite this dip in subscription numbers, WoW has altered gaming culture as a whole because of its status. Whether the game has had a positive or negative effect on MMO gaming culture, however, is up for debate. Today, we'll tackle what the popularity of WoW has brought upon the culture of MMO gaming, though I'll leave the ultimate decision of the net effect of the game's status for you to decide.
Some notes before we continue though: today's Devil's Advocate will look at what aspects of WoW have become culturally significant as a result of its existence and subsequent popularity. Some of these aspects may not actually have originated from WoW, but are still relevant to the discussion by virtue of WoW being the strange beast that it is.
There are a couple of excellent positives WoW has brought to the culture of MMOs. These vary in terms of importance, but all are things that MMO gamers in the present can be thankful for.
The first major positive WoW has brought to gaming culture has to be accessibility, both inside and outside the game. Anyone with a decent understanding of how to use a computer can easily play the game, and if you're stumped, the official site has beginner's guides to setting up an account and understanding the lore and game mechanics of each class. This is one of the guiding principles of current-generation MMORPGs and, prior to WoW, it can be argued that MMOs were a lot less friendly to non-gamers.
The second positive WoW shared with gaming culture is its forgiving nature towards death and loss. WoW introduced the notion that death penalties and shouldn't be so heavy-handed that it deters people from enjoying the game. Instead, it levied mild resurrection sickness and the ability to run to your corpse, minus mobs, from convenient spirit healing stations without significantly impacting your gear's usability. Its main competitors at the time, the Everquests, were well known for the idea of running to your corpse (with the risk of losing your gear and inventory if you couldn't find it). It even spawned a song called “Has Anybody Here Seen My Corpse?” a popular theme song for EQ1.
The third significant positive behind WoW would be its user interface customization. While we know now that most AAA MMOs either come with or eventually have some kind on UI customizing feature, such as window placement or add-ons, it wasn't exactly a big point for people till WoW came along, and along with it, the promise of a Hello Kitty UI.
The fourth positive, albeit a minor one, is the rise of information databases for characters, quests, and items. This was covered in part during the meta-gaming feature for Devil's Advocate two weeks ago, but it bears noting that in terms of making metagame information a good venture to invest in, WoW did it by introducing its very own Armory, allowing players to research people, gear, and other esoteric bits of information for their needs. The only close competitors, as far as research would indicate would be the API keys of EVE Online, and the connected wikis of various games that are supported by game companies (ArenaNet's GW/GW2 Wikis and EVElopedia), and even then, those aren't as fully featured or as integrated into the main site as Blizzard's database.
The final positive, and perhaps the most arguable positive that came to mind when writing this article, is the release of the Cataclysm expansion. Previously, attempts to revamp content in MMOs were often perilous undertakings, as evidenced by Star Wars Galaxies' New Game Experience change or by the addition of Trammel in Ultima Online's Renaissance expansion (though I'm led to believe that Trammel may have been a good thing). My understanding and experience with Cataclysm leads me to believe that the revamp of the entire 1-60 leveling scheme with new content and improvements created in previous expansions, such as phasing technology, was a smart move that allowed people to create alternate characters and spend more time in the game they had grown used (or grown tired of) to over the years.
The first negative, and it's a rather big issue for me, was how the resultant growth of WoW allowed it to make high-priced fluff “microtransactions” commonplace in MMORPGs. The whole celestial steed issue is probably one that's already long past for many, but I remember it being a strong bone of contention amongst a lot of folks. While one subset of the gaming populace was indignant, the steed itself made two million dollars in four hours. For me, it was a reminder that something had changed with Blizzard's team-up with Vivendi/Activision, turning it into the behemoth that some call ActiBlizz.
The second cultural negative is based on the oversimplification of World of Warcraft as a result of Blizzard's design decisions and is a spin on the earlier mention of the Cataclysm expansion and the accessibility standpoint. While WoW is simple enough to pick up, the game lets you acquire levels and abilities faster than you can manage to master them. As a result, there is a distinct feeling of being overpowered while leveling whilst remaining unable to fulfill the needs of one's class in a group upon hitting dungeons or raids with random folks or that new endgame guild you've joined. Because of the metrics acquired for completion of dungeons, other statistics, and the clamor for a solution that implies instant gratification to make the majority happy, the encounters are simplified. The other option, retooling the mechanics of gameplay and questing to enable mastery of the skills required, is left by the wayside.
One arguable negative that comes to the fore as a result of point two is the culture that has spawned as a result of game simplification and the rise of the dungeon finder mechanism. While the dungeon finder allows folks from various servers to complete objectives and further their progress in game, it comes at the sacrifice of a valuable resource: team cohesion. Instead of the tank setting the pace by being the shield of the group, the oversimplified mechanics allow the damage-dealing members to force a run to go at their pace (which is to say quickly). This does not allow tanks to learn the basics of leadership and tanking, and it keeps healers from learning how to manage healing others. Worse still, it creates a shortage of capable tanks and healers when these characters reach the endgame.
The final cultural negative that is part of this piece is the endgame itself. The endgame is comprised of killing the same super-powerful beings repeatedly for loot for everyone to grow stronger to kill even more difficult versions of the same supposedly super-powerful beings. It might be fun once or twice, but if you run the same instance, without variation, more than three times, you can probably call it your second (or first, depending on who you are) job. Repeat ad nauseam in preparation for the next super-powered beings or revamped heroic versions of people you killed back in Westfall before the Cataclysm even came.
Perhaps the most significant cultural change to MMO gaming that World of Warcraft brought with it is the result of a mix of design decisions, business practices, and just plain luck. The most significant cultural change to MMO gaming as a result of WoW's popularity is that the themepark MMO will remain king long after WoW's decline and demise.
The positives and negatives I mentioned are part of the very nature of WoW, and what this game brought to the minds of venture capitalists and businesses was that the the themepark MMO was profitable.
This essentially leads to the big businesses choosing not to hedge their bets on a sandbox, or even a hybrid sandbox. Because the most well-known MMO of today is a themepark type of game, the seemingly logical assumption is that these particular design decisions and elements, coupled with other accoutrements like a fourth pillar called story or a dynamic public questing system, will make shareholders and businesses lots of money. Because the sandbox needs to stand out from its themepark brethren, we have sandbox games that appear to be inextricably linked to complexity and full-loot PVP and less to the experience of a game world (as opposed to a game space) and player-driven stories.
There's just one problem with this seemingly logical assumption: we never got to see what the world would be like with sandboxes instead of themeparks as the prevalent MMO landscape. By all accounts, Everquest 2 would have been closer to sandboxes if the sandbox had become popular. Of course, there's no use thinking about parallel worlds we can't ever play games in, so we have to live with WoW's legacy, but that doesn't mean we have to accept WoW as the be-all and end-all of what makes MMO gaming great.
I love World of Warcraft (and Ragnarok Online) for introducing me to the MMO game space, but truth be told, I long for a game world where we have the modern conveniences of MMOs now with the unfettered experiences of a player-driven game. Will Pathfinder Online, or ArcheAge, or Guild Wars 2 provide a response to the legacy of World of Warcraft? Only time will tell.