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No Elves Allowed: MMO Growing Pains

Column By Cassandra Khaw on February 01, 2012

One of the most difficult things to admit, as someone who writes about games, is the fact that sometimes, everything feels like a rehash. First-person shooters are prime examples of this. Call of Duty. Battlefield. Counterstrike. DOOM. Stripped of their audio-visual finery and emptied of all their little details, they're all the same. Cut them open and you'll see Wolfenstein 3D written across the entrails. Now, wait a minute there - put the pitchforks down. Before you get started, I know what you're thinking. Those are FPS games. Games like those aren't supposed to be taken from the beaten path. After all, there's only so much that you can do with a good set of artillery, right?

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(If you answered 'yes' to that, I would recommend taking a look at all the 'indie FPS' out there. Google Radiator Yang or the Stanley Parable. You'll thank me.)

With MMORPGs, on the other hand, the sky should have been the limit. It isn't. While we've come a long way from MUDs and Meridian59, we've also allowed the genre to be defined by a game. That's right. I'm talking about World of Warcraft. You can't even call it a household name anymore. It's gone beyond that. It has had Chuck Norris act in advertisements for it. Once you've gotten to that stage, there's no turning back. World of Warcraft isn't just the most popular MMORPG around. It has become the genre.

In No Elves Allowed's inaugural article, more than a few of you spoke out against the prevalence of, and I quote (Hello, xDayx!), 'face-rolling, questhub-hopping, dungeon-findering theme parks'. It's a disturbing trend. While there are definitely exceptions to the rule, it's hard to deny the fact that a majority of fantasy MMOs out there are little more than World of Warcraft with a different coat of paint.

Here's my question: is it possible to change all this?

Like some, my first instinct is to ask the various development teams to sit down and indulge in a good, old-fashioned round of Dungeons & Dragons before sending them off with a stack of monster compendiums. However, nothing's ever as simple as it initially seems.

Contrary to the popular saying, familiarity doesn't really breed contempt. Disdain, yes. Disappointment? Definitely. But there's a reason as to why people stick with broken relationships. Because they work. Because it's always easier with the devil you know than the devil you don't. And at the end of the day, the reason for the endless parade of carbon copy clones is us.

We may not want the carousel of NPCs that populate Azeroth, the humdrum production line of quests and the end-level raids. We do, however, appreciate the distinct feel of the classes, the sense of progression and the understanding that there is something waiting at the end of the road. I'm going to use APB Reloaded as a comparison here. Though brilliant on paper, the actual execution left much to be desired for. I spent more time trying to survive long enough to figure out precisely what my randomly assigned quest was than I did actually playing the damn game. Did I want to play an open-ended, gritty shooter of an MMO? Yes. But what I really needed was direction.

And that's something that the World of Warcraft model provides: structure and stability, polished fun that you can easily sink into after a long hard day at work. Given how chaotic real life is, there's something comforting about an environment that can be easily understood, about clear-cut objectives that can be mixed and matched. There is something seductive about a place where glory is an easily cultivated commodity.

(Of course, there's also always the fact that it's a lot easier to leech from an existing idea than to spent an additional million or so in research but let's not go there.)

If you think this is where I sigh and conclude that non-traditional MMOs will forever be the minority, it isn't. I'm actually pretty optimistic. We have games like WildStar, TERA, Dust 514 and Salem coming ever closer. Perma-death, that 'thing you should not do if you feel like making your MMO an economic success', seems to be like a growing buzz-word. As a genre, we're growing. But it's probably going to take at least another decade before diversity really sets in.

What do you think? Is it possible for us to grow even further or will World of Warcraft forever set the standard for our genre?

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No Elves Allowed
In this bi-weekly column, Cassandra Khaw will be taking us into world on non-fantasy MMOs, Indie, Triple-A, and otherwise to prove that innovation comes in all shapes and sizes.
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