It takes a great deal of self-constraint to not mention the elephant in the room, especially when it comes to World of Warcraft and the house of MMOs. It's doubly worse when that elephant is performing tricks: creating starry ponies, previewing new areas of its upcoming expansion, and trumpeting how it will be changing the face of Warcraft forever. In the past couple of weeks, we have been saturated with press about the elephant: up, down, and sideways, it has come at us as each outlet tries to feel out a part of the elephant like the proverbial blind men. Meanwhile, writers figure since the elephant is doing tricks for everyone, they might as well take their time to talk about it, blog about it, make conjectures about it, and prophecy how it's going to change the world.
I mean, who doesn't want to talk about it? It's an elephant. Look at it. Isn't it amazing?
Back when I started out writing these columns for MMORPG.com, I talked about how World of Warcraft offered a stale comparison for evaluating other MMORPGs. Ironically, it's almost impossible to talk to someone outside the industry without using World of Warcraft as an example. Throughout the months, I have danced carefully around the room, talking about the elephant only when I felt it necessary or relevant.
It isn't that I hate World of Warcraft; I play it on an almost-daily basis on an average of two hours a day. I have a few level 80s, a half-dozen alts in various states of experience, and belong to an awesome raiding coalition. However, it also frequently bores me, leaves me burned out, and, if it were not for the great group of friends I've made, I might have already canceled my account until Cataclysm. I like it, but I don't find it the most enjoyable MMORPG out there. The reason I avoid talking about World of Warcraft is because, like the rest of you, I hear enough about it on a daily basis to not want to hear someone else offer their opinions on the latest trending topic – even my own.
The problem is that World of Warcraft, particularly in a pre-expansion stage, becomes less of an elephant and more of a leviathan. With millions of worldwide players, five years of history, and a huge company behind it, WoW becomes the debutante of the MMO world. It isn't the first beast to undergo this transformation. It is, however, residing in one of the most volatile times in the MMO industry – and for all the changes going on around it in its giant shadow, World of Warcraft remains surprisingly stagnant.
The discussion of the changing market, the opening of more quality free-to-play and subscription-free titles to the West, as well as the increase of micro-transactions, has certainly benefited from WoW's presence. If nothing else, the increasing foray into micro-transactions at the Blizzard Store is opening dialogues of how much profit-pumping players are willing to accept. These discussions weren't as heated when Dungeons and Dragons Online released its new free-to-play with subscription or micro-transactions model; the temperature didn't get hot enough to burn the industry when Allods Online poised to sell a $20 backpack.
The core of the discussion about free-to-play markets, however, still dwells in a distant realm rarely traveled. Even to this day, the general perception of F2Ps is that of an ineffective pirate: 95% horrible. They're seen as being designed to plunder your pocket while you engross yourself in an endless grind to some distant goal. Players are refusing to adapt from the comfortable model, even though the comfortable model is actually adapting to the practices of free-to-play games. The changes dwell in the elephant's shadow.
While World of Warcraft is working on a Cataclysm, other companies are hard at work developing titles that have the potential to push the elephant out of the room. Consider, for instance, EA BioWare and Star Wars: The Old Republic, a game whose budget may surpass that used to create World of Warcraft. There's a lot to be said about a title coming from a company that rivals the size of Activision Blizzard, especially with a powerful team like Bioware in the developer's seat. SW:TOR will be the first of its kind to offer fully voice-acted scripts and choreographed combat, an experience that will be at least partially cinematic. Likewise, Tera from En Masse and Rift: Planes of Telara from Trion are looking fantastic at an early stage. None of these games are getting nearly the buzz that they likely deserve as contenders, at least at this point in the running.
Perhaps the “WoW killer” meme has become so prolific but yet proven untrue, we have given up on the idea of the elephant ever leaving the room. After all, the old classics – Ultima Online, EverQuest, Dark Age of Camelot, to name a few – are still around with beating hearts and still collecting subscription fees. Maybe World of Warcraft will expand endlessly, or perhaps it will go the route of EverQuest and expand not only into a second version of itself and expand on two fronts. Blizzard certainly has the means for it.
The problem is, those old juggernauts aren't what they once were. They were replaced by new elephants, bigger and grander than what they could imagine and offer. Likewise, World of Warcraft is beginning to show its age. Its Cataclysm is not so cataclysmic; in fact, it's mostly a rebalancing of current game mechanics that have been in place for a year or more. Meanwhile, new development teams are coming up with brand new game mechanics unexpected in the MMO industry. It isn't World of Warcraft that's experimenting and forging new business models, new game mechanics, new stories, new immersion. It's the beasts lurking in its shadows.
It's time to start feeling around the elephant, to avoid its trumpets and snazzy circus tricks. It's time we pushed aside the persistent trunk, to open the box beneath the heels, to turn the spotlight away from the center ring. As a community, we can begin avoiding the elephant and see what else is in the waiting darkness, what new tricks and surprises the industry has in store. After all, even elephants get old and die.