Love 'em or hate 'em, those guys and gals at Blizzard are still the incumbent monarchs of the MMORPG realm. World of Warcraft is now heading into its eighth year of existence, and with a few minor bumps on the road of subscription, the game is still holding firm with just under ten million loyal players.
We've had Burning Crusades, Lich Kings, grumpy dragons, and now Kung Fu Pandas - and there's still no end in sight. Say what you will about Blizzard's particular brand of MMOing, but the intelligence and guile of its development team is something to admire. Almost a decade later, people are still as plugged in to the world of Azeroth as ever: which other online game has managed that feat?
You could say the minds over at Irvine, CA, have managed all of this because they are possibly gaming's greatest observers. EverQuest, Asheron's Call, and Lineage all released sequels, and without exception, all stumbled over that question of succession - how do you detach players from one game, and coax them into investing as much time in a new one? So far Blizzard's answer has been one of collective simplicity: you can't - just expand creatively, without forcing the world into a mass of glued on islands, with newbies and veterans miles apart in terms of progression.
And I think most will agree that this approach has worked thus far. The myth of WoW has grown, its popularity soared, and for almost ten years it has dominated the online scene - but like Echo and the Bunnymen sung: "nothing lasts forever."
World of Warcraft, graceful as it may be, is starting to show its age. The engine is tired, the mechanics all-too-familiar, and now after years of treading through the same dusty patches of Azeroth, most of us are starting to develop that new world itch. We want a sequel or a new IP; something else to stomp our boots all over and corrupt in entirely different ways: what's it going to be Blizz?
Titan: It's Definitely Not The Big Three
Since 2007, Project "Titan" has mysteriously clung to forums and rumour sites. Blizzard have openly referenced that they are working on a new MMORPG, but won't e pushed on further details - only that is in development, and they aren't ready to talk about it. Oh hum.
So let's speculate for a second, dream a little, dare to think the imaginable. Blizzard are known for 3 major IPs, Warcraft, StarCraft, and Diablo, but recently, all of these have been addressed with sequels or expansions. Surely there isn't room for another addition, online or not, so soon? Crossing these out, and forgetting the developer's quick movement on a certain StarCraft-like mod, let's take a look at what else Blizzard has in the closet, ready or not for MMOization.
Rock 'n' Roll Racing: Last Seen: SNES 1993
Before Blizzard became the all seeing, all powerful publishing goliath, it was a rather obscure Super Nintendo developer. Under the early studio name of Silicon & Synapse, this rather entertaining racer was an early success for the developers, but nothing like their later games. A chance for online adventuring greatness? No, that'd be silly, these guys aren't Pixar.
Blackthorne: Last Seen: SNES 1994
Blackthorne can be viewed as an early prototype to the WarCraft setting, with a similar focus on medieval fantasy, orcs, demons, et al. This platformer placed you in the shoes of Kyle, a transdimensional prince, equipped with a shotgun and the mystical lightstone. Oh and he had to save the world from Sarlac. I liked it when developers lifted Star Wars names. MMO mutation? I think this had its day with WoW.
The Lost Vikings: Last Seen: SNES 1997
A popular Super Nintendo title in its day, The Lost Vikings, and its sequel, were puzzle platformers that put you in charge of the three titular nords. World of Vikings? I can't really see it, but Blizzard still retain a soft spot for Eric, Baelog, and Olaf, featuring or referencing them in WoW and StarCraft II. Perhaps not the ideal candidates for an online transformation, but I wouldn't write these guys off for a glorious third return, iOS maybe?
Shattered Nations: Last Seen 1995-96 (Cancelled)
Blizzard has trashed more projects than most people realise, and one such dumpster baby is Shattered Nations. Like WarCraft Adventures, this one saw enough love to receive a trailer, but little else is available. Taking place in a post-apocalyptic world, strategy was the name of the game, scavenging resources, and rebuilding society - rumour has it design was stalled, and it returned in the form of StarCraft. Possible online conversion? I doubt the founders even remember this one.
So really, there isn't much here to pick from. New intellectual property is the way to go, given the release heavy strategy coming for Diablo and StarCraft. So where are the masters of the MMO heading?
Paul Sams, Blizzard's COO, told press in 2008 that their next online feature would be "something that's cool, and new, and different" as well as a "challenging endeavour." Now as we know, that was 4 years ago, and things can change, but this idea of "different" lingers on.
In the same year, Michael Marhaime, Bliz's grand overlord reiterated Sams' comments, but in greater detail: "So let’s just say it’s going to be different and it’s not going to be a sequel to World of Warcraft. It will be different. We’re not trying to replace World of Warcraft with this new MMO. We’re trying to create a different massively multiplayer experience, and hopefully World of Warcraft will still be going strong when that one is released."
So let's look at this for a moment. World of Warcraft is a progression of the EverQuest/Theme Park mould. It took the ideas of the old SOE classic, and updated it. Added a better learning curve, more ways to progress, and a hefty dose of refinement: how would Blizzard head in a different direction?
Would it be crazy to look towards sandbox at this point? If WoW is a product that is still a viable money spinner, which it definitely is, releasing something similar would be to declare war against Azeroth, and it'll end up in a gooey mess of subscription cannibalisation. Them's the facts of MMORPGs. So, being that Blizzard are the clever folk they are, the idea of creating the very antithesis of their existing product would make sense.
So let's look at sandbox for a moment. The developers are great at taking existing ideas, boiling them down to their movable parts and essential mechanics, and layering on the entertainment and addictiveness they need. EverQuest was a rather abrasive and rough product - and I can say that as a devotee of the game. What World of Warcraft did was take the concept, and ultimately made it better. And don't come at me with calls of "care bear" - making something functional and more user-friendly isn't a valid criticism.
A new engine, a new IP, and a new kind of sandbox: wouldn't that be awesome? If Blizzard took influence this time from Ultima Online, and came up with a product that creatively handled all of the issues of the aforementioned. If WoW was the thrilling ride of epic heroes, raids, and all of the rest of it, couldn't their next product, in contrast, be the tale of the ordinary, simply existing in a fantasy world? Now that I could buy into.
But of course, I'm running away with my own wants. By saying "different" Blizzard could easily run in the direction of an action RPG, or alternatively, strap an iPad to their face and cry out "we are embracing the future!" All of which are equally possible.
At Blizzcon 2011, Rob Pardo gave us these tid-bits of information: Project Titan has around 90 developers working on it, and sits somewhere between pre and full production. It's going to be a PC exclusive, with a new engine, and will be a huge, hulking game. And most importantly, people won't expect what's coming. Now that sounds pretty exciting.
So what do you think Blizzard's next move will be? Putting together the very few pieces, what would you like to see the behemoth developer do next? Leave your comments in the space below, and together we can dream our little dreams.