Has World of Warcraft's Success Been Detrimental to the MMO Genre?
With the release of Battle of Azeroth due this autumn, I’ve been reflecting upon that MMO heavyweight World of Warcraft. I am not an active player of player of the game but have an interest based more upon its industry standing. I’ve tried World of Warcraft in the past and endeavoured to cultivate an interest in it for the sake of friends and colleagues, but the reality is that I’ve simply never warmed to this particular MMORPG. I don’t especially care for the games aesthetic, have no real interest in its lore or pop culture references and there are plenty of alternative MMOs that are far more appealing to me. So, let me state clearly, that I have no major prejudice against the game; it is just a question of personal taste. The same way I like horror movies, but I don't care for those that have an excess of humour or are dependent upon jump scares. I also fully recognise why World of Warcraft is such a successful MMORPG and appreciate its numerous merit, as well as the impact it has had upon shaping the MMO genre. The game is just not for me and I am content with that.
During the course of researching this blog post, I’ve found many forum and subreddit threads that expressed the view that World of Warcraft has effectively ruined MMO gaming. It’s a common point of discussion. Most of these posts credit the game with the refinement and simplification of many traditional game mechanics which thereby brought MMO genre to a wider audience. However, this is countered with the assertion that the by-product of this process has been the erosion of the social imperative that was at the heart of the genre at the time. This particular point if often explored in detail with clear examples of MMO rulesets prior to World of Warcraft, offset against what are the prevailing current trends. When framed in such terms I think the argument has merit. However, I would ask readers to consider the following. Although World of Warcraft may have been instrumental in setting a trend that deviated from the existing status quo, it doesn't necessarily mean that the established status quo was right or perfect.
My first MMO was The Lord of the Rings Online and I quickly grasped the necessity of social gaming back in 2008 to get ahead. I didn't especially mind this collaborative element, but it is fair to say that there was no choice regarding it. If you balked at team play you got nowhere fast. That was the rule of thumb for most MMOs up until then. So, I tolerated it rather than embraced it. In fact, this very aspect that enthused some players kept others away. Although I can get on with other players and work collaboratively with them, it is seldom done through love of my fellow man. It is simply a means to an end. That may not be a popular sentiment, but it’s is an accurate appraisal of my feeling. I thinks it's fair to say I am not by nature a care bear. However, it should be noted that when I discovered the genre, it had already moved on substantially from the days of EverQuest and Ultima Online. Both of which had far tougher game mechanics and systems. Personally, I am glad that I missed this period of time because, I wouldn’t have found such spartan rulesets to my liking.
Therefore, the tectonic shift in the genre that World of Warcraft pioneered certainly hasn’t inconvenienced players such as me. When I initially played LOTRO I didn't mind the social aspect and was happy to talk in chat and be amiable, as well as actively participate in a guild (or kinship as it is known in that game). However, back in 2008 the social element of the game was waning and by 2010, it was further altered when the game was retooled for the free-to-play market, amking it far more solo friendly. Nowadays I approach most of my MMOs from the position of a single player working towards personal goals. That is what drives me. Although I will group and still hang out with old friends and guild mates, I am not primarily looking for a broader social experience. However, some people still are, and they are the ones who feel displaced by the changes to the genre and possibly the most aggrieved. I understand and respect that, because it is our point of entry with any new leisure activity that usually shapes our experience, expectations and subsequent preferences. Change highlights this. I miss the days of discussing at work the previous nights television programs. I miss writing and receiving letters. But the most human activities are subject to change and progression. Furthermore, we mustn't forget that gaming is a business and ultimately goes wherever the money leads.
What I do believe is true is that the success of World of Warcraft has hindered innovation in the MMORPG genre per se. Too many developers in recent years have wasted precious time simply trying to emulate its formula. Sadly, this has all too often resulted in weak and uninspiring clones. As a result, MMOs in their traditional sense have lost their lustre and many developers are shying away from them. We still do not have a title that has fully broken from the standard mechanics of the genre, although I think Guild Wars 2 and The Elder Scrolls Online have been a step in the right direction. Yet it is this indecision surrounding the future of established MMO, that has led to the tangential rise of MMO variants such as the MOBA and Battle Royale genre. Destiny 2, GTA Online, Overwatch and the like have all thrived by combining the elements of the MMO with other types of games. It would appear that developers think that adding a co-op element to most genres of games is where the future lies, so we shall see more hybrid titles in the months ahead. Sadly, this just highlights the feeling of being disenfranchised by those longing for the old school MMO days.
Pretty much everything in life is about change. Although many gamers would like to see a return to old school MMOS, the casual market is bigger and more lucrative. It really is a numbers game, yet gamers are often blind to the practicality of economics. Perhaps one of the numerous crowd funded projects that are currently under development will provide a solution, although their track record has been somewhat poor of late. Perhaps this particular group of old school gamers needs can be met by a small to medium sized project, which is happy to pitch at a smaller niche market. Then of course there is the emerging trend for vanilla MMO servers, that offer a gameplay experience closer to that of the respective original launch. Rift Prime seems to have met with success and Blizzard clearly think there’s money to be had in World of Warcraft Classic. Will projects such as this satisfy those on the MMO margins? In the meantime, World of Warcraft marches on and although it has lost customers, the next expansion will more than likely bring many absentee players back into the fold.
Although World of Warcraft has caused much change, I do not think that it is the ruination of the MMO genre that some would claim. That can be laid at the door of various developers, who abandoned experimentation and became risk averse. Money may well talk but it also drowns out potential change and innovation. World of Warcraft is ultimately a symptom and not the actual root cause. Then of course there is the old adage that one man’s meat is another man’s poison. For every person who feels that World of Warcraft is the Doctor Beeching of the MMORPG, there are equally those who feel that the game fixed the problems associated with genre. Then of course while you are waiting for a shift in the industry, you can always implement your own. Many people will play MMOs with their own personal ironman rule sets. It is also important to consider that if World of Warcraft hadn’t broken the mould, surely someone else would have? “Convenient” coffee is not the exclusive prerogative of Starbucks. The traditional MMO that emerged from the nineties was the product of a perfect storm of events. Technology and the inherent novelty of the internet certainly had a bearing on the way the genre evolved. But that does not mean that what existed at the time was the optimum or best model. Therefore, considering all these points I suspect that this debate will never truly go away. Nostalgia and sadly recrimination are strong motivators. In the meantime, the market will more than likely allow for both groups to co-exist. Unfortunately for some that is not the desired outcome, as they see things as an ideological issue and a subset of a wider culture war. MMOs are not mere games but a hobby. I’m sure Simon Quinlank would have something to say about that.