Casual Play: What Makes WoW Dumb?
Weekly Column by Steve Wilson
Right off the bat WoW has attracted more new players than all other MMOs previously. It has also proven that the casual market is willing to pay ongoing subscription fees, something many were sceptical of prior to its release. These millions of new players have proven that the MMO genre is one that can be profitable, insanely so for the games that get it right. For the hardcore this is a double edged sword. On one hand it means that there will be a lot of new MMOs developed, but most of them will be directed at capturing that casual market. However an increase in development over all means more independent and niche games, more opportunities that there be something out there that appeals to everyone, just not all at once.
Just saying that millions of people went to see Titanic or Star Wars doesn't make either film smart. It does however suggest that there was some emotional chord in those films that appealed to massive audiences. It's easy for film critics to vault Run Lola Run or the Unbearable Lightness of Being up on a pedestal, the same way enthusiasts insist that UO or DAoC are somehow better or truer visions of what an MMO ought to be. In terms of commercial success however it's still the Star Warses and Titanics that walk away with the gold. Blizzard has done the same with WoW, struck a chord that appealed to the masses rather than the art snobs.
There are a number of things that the hardcore find overly simplistic about WoW. Lack of character customization, lack of impact on the world, lack of variation in crafting, and the lack of meaningful penalties for death are just a few that are constantly mentioned. And for the most part these don't seem to offend any but the old school MMO players.
I'm not my character. That there are only a few options for a different look doesn't particularly matter much to me at all. Once in the game I'll be identifying friends by the name over their heads more than whether their eyes are a paler shade of blue than mine. For the casual player the character is merely the vehicle used to get to the fun. Again it does not represent 'us.' An odd charge that's levelled at WoW is that once a player hits level 60 there's nothing to do but a grinder's game. That might be true if you attach any meaning to your character other than it being a tool. A casual player can easily set one aside and start another taking a look at missed content and new ways to accomplish goals. For the casual player customization is something that only affect the first few minutes of game play, the rest is spent staring at the back of their character's head. WoW has also appropriately done away with stat management, one of the most useless conventions carried over from pen and paper games.
Impact on the world has the potential to someday be a great gaming element. Right now however all it means is being able to plunk down a house somewhere. And in some games plunking down that house means rent and maintenance that becomes more chore than fun. I've already got a home along with mortgage and utilities. I see little entertainment value in having a second online version. When performing missions leaves some lasting effect on the world maybe then the casual player can get interested in impact. Chances are however that the hardcore players will dominate that impact by tirelessly running those missions anyway. In terms of world versus game most casual players have stated loudly they'd rather have an entertaining game.
Crafting has traditionally been the domain of the hardcore. Anything less than a full commitment to it meant a lot of wasted resources. The biggest problem with old style crafting was the random chance of failures and outstanding successes. After all what player in his right mind would pay hard earned gold for a merely average product when the hardcore had the endurance to grind out items of exceptional quality? This made every crafted item that was anything less than an outstanding success almost totally worthless. The average products become nothing more than fodder to grind skill and be thrown away, which is a play style that only rewards the most dedicated hardcore players. Casual players would not only be wasting time but also throwing away a lot of resources chasing a dragon tail they never have any hope of catching. WoW simplifies this entire process switching the focus away from a random die roll but back out into the game world. Crafting becomes a meta game about getting the resources from the world. Casual players get an opportunity to try the crafting game without being completely discouraged by having to make the same items ad nauseam in order to get one sellable piece of gear.
Few other games actually punish players for dying by making it more difficult or forcing them to replay entire portions. So why would this be considered a good mechanic in MMOs? Most players do not have their ego tied up in achievement, in games at least. They are in the game to have an enjoyable time. Penalizing them for mistakes is not terribly conductive to having fun. It can have a detrimental affect on the bottom line by encouraging player to quit in frustration thus losing subscription fees. And the notion that death penalties somehow hinder people from attaining the highest levels is ludicrous. Given enough time, even with the very worst death penalties imaginable, players will eventually rise to the top tiers of the game no matter how terrible the player is. Given the option to simply dust one self off and get back into the game I'm glad WoW went with the more entertaining option.
In the end WoW has indeed simplified some of the core game mechanics considered standard in most other games. Does this make WoW dumb? At a time when most arcade games were getting progressively more complex a little gem called Tetris came along. Its mechanics were simple and elegant and players overwhelmingly found the game fun. Does that make Tetris a dumb game?