After some years where MMORPGs were created like sausages in a production line, things calmed down and it was time to address the elephant in the room. What once seemed like a phenomenal way to make it rain had become a daunting development and business task that was mostly an exercise in failure. The genre had reached a plateau with World of Warcraft and it didn’t seem to be going anywhere. What happened?
As an old-school MMORPG player who was excited with the idea of the genre breaking mainstream and becoming a hobby that could be shared with the rest of my real world friends -instead of a strange, obscure fetish-, the announcement of WoW by Blizzard was such an incredible moment.
We started making preparations weeks ahead as if we were getting ready for a pilgrimage. We made sure we had the right rigs, best possible connection, pre-ordered our Collector’s Edition (for panda cub purposes, of course), planned which race we were going to pick. It was the gaming event of the year.
The rest is history and you probably know it. WoW was an instant huge, big fat hit with over 200,000 players creating accounts on release, making it the fastest-growing MMORPG in history. Its subscribers continued to increase steadily in the years after and even after the number began to decline after hitting a peak of 22 million, it has kept around the 6-8 million mark which still makes it one of the most successful implementations of the formula to date. And believe me, lots have tried to repeat the formula. Over, and over again. While other genres seem to have come a long way since 2004, the MMORPG has gone stagnant in a soup of raids, tab targeting, themepark gameplay, grinding, quick slot bars, fetch quests and numbers. Each new one feels tries to bring something new to the table but it’s usually something so small and insignificant it becomes just another product labelled as a “WoW Clone”.
What Blizzard did extraordinarily well was releasing a perfectly polished and accessible product in a moment where the competition was a complex and chaotic mess, difficult for newcomers to overcome the initial learning curve and discover the fun that was buried in them. In other words, it required time and devotion to get to the center of the lollipop in MMORPGs, while WoW put the gum in your mouth right from the beginning. And it did so by hand-picking some of the most addicting gameplay mechanics and systems, refining them, and sacrificing the rest.
From Day One, WoW was a good looking game (with the capacity to age well) with a superb interface, a crystal clear tutorial and a good understanding of the importance of loot. Which should come to no surprise coming from the creators of Diablo. It also was a carefully planned experience, pushing each player along the tracks of what they were supposed to face in the world of Azeroth, like the route on a themepark. Hence the term. It turned out to be the most successful system for attracting and preserving a wide audience which kept coming for new content and areas to explore.
What was left aside though was the aspect that game designers of original MMOs and MUDs found the most fascinating, the concept of world simulation and what some refer nowadays as sandbox experiences. I didn’t understand it at the time but this was what kept me, as an old school fan of the genre, to really get into WoW and it’s so-called clones. An era ended for me with this game and I could never be as passionate as I was about the genre again, no matter how many products I tried.
World Simulation was not only a player-driven economy, it was also a political structure built by the community where the position they hold has an actual impact in the game world. Early graphical MUDs like Nexus: The Kingdom of Winds were already very ambitious about this and these roles often provided as a way of direct communication with “Game Masters”, official employees of the game that could then implement whatever the players decided in consensus.
Game Masters were a popular figure back in the day. They also existed in what remains as my most cherished MMO to this day, Ultima Online, the first to reach the 100,000-subscriber base. Players would often participate in events hosted by these game masters that even had an impact on the plot, sometimes giving more notoriety to some players and elevating them to legends. Comprising anything from festivals to the assassinations of kings, it was truly an organic, player centred experience. UO was also one of the first MMORPGs to introduce housing, and not the instanced fad (an understandable but disappointing compromise to manage resources), but real neighbourhoods that you could walk through, meet others, chat about your daily adventures and hang out.
Some others went even a step further. An all-time favourite was the first Star Wars MMO, Star Wars Galaxies. SWG was the true definition of sandbox gameplay. Much like an earlier sci-fi predecessor, Anarchy Online, in SWG you were left to your own resources almost from the start. This was both terrifying and exciting. Choosing your own path through expansive planets -yes, that’s plural-, building your own colonies with other players, or just hanging around in your local Tatooine bar was such an immersive experience that even if you were not into roleplaying, the mechanics generated an almost implicit form of it.
Just before the advent of WoW, games like Ryzom would intensify the simulation aspect with whole functional ecosystems, weather systems and herds of alien creatures with populations that could increase or diminish. An outstanding technological feat for a game of its time and a developer of such a small size.
In the end none of this mattered much. Most of these MMORPGs were appealing for just a niche which made the maintenance costs very hard to deal with, and a lot of them either shut down or went for different subscription models like F2P. So when WoW showed up it brought hope with it, but at the cost of the beauty of imagination and what the Terra Nova blog cleverly named as an unbundling of the parts of virtual worlds. In other words, the aspects of a complete simulate world were fragmented towards other mediums and MMOs were left with the toxicity of players more than anything else.
Is hope completely lost? In my opinion, no. With the release of ArcheAge and the upcoming Sony’s titan – Everquest: Next, there are signs that WoW legacy –for better or worst- may be starting to wane and, now that we have everyone eyes on the genre, truly innovative MMOs where player can do a difference in the world and become something more than an statistic could finally be feasible.
Few seem to bother but I believe that we’re in a low point, devoid of the ingenuity that characterized these visionary experiences. I hope that technology will now empower us to revitalize it with bold ideas that give freedom to players instead of taking it away from them.