Saturday Soapbox: The loneliness of the long-distance MMO

WOW finally has real competition, but has it arrived too late to save the genre?

Back in early 2008 I joined Eurogamer's staff as MMO editor. World of Warcraft was still cresting its phenomenal wave of success and a crowd of high-profile new massively multiplayer games was forming in its wake, heading for release. I was convinced that exciting things were about to happen in this booming genre.

I couldn't have been more wrong.

Instead, we've had almost five years of stasis. The signs of what was to come were clearly writ in that first year, when Age of Conan and Warhammer Online launched to considerable fanfare and big sales, but failed to sign up long-term subscribers. Their story was repeated again and again, to greater apathy each time, while floundering games turned free-to-play.

At the end of last year BioWare made one last push with the gigantic Star Wars: The Old Republic, certainly the most expensive game ever made. The announcement that it was going free-to-play followed seven months later. Meanwhile, World of Warcraft's fortunes have begun to turn, albeit with the ponderous speed of an oil tanker. Subscription MMOs are failing in slow motion.

So what happened?

In a word, nothing. Through no fault of Blizzard's or the brilliant game it built on the shoulders of earlier pioneers like EverQuest, World of Warcraft has held an entire sector in its thrall. Innovation stifled while designers and financiers alike chased unreachable targets of size and opulence. WOW's competition has been weak and derivative.

1

Age of Conan was among the first and most conspicuous failures, but the industry didn't learn from it.

Just a few months after I started my job, Age of Conan was a perfect case study, but everyone learned the wrong lesson from it. Essentially the "mature WOW", this blood-and-guts fantasy game boasted handsome graphics and relatively fluid combat. But Funcom's management, nervous that it appear as big as WOW, artificially inflated the size of the game and stretched its content way past breaking point, then rushed it to market before it was technically ready. The game was broken and there wasn't enough to do. Despite a valiant patch-up job from its developers, it never recovered.

The moral of the story should have been not to try to compete with a game whose vast girth and bulging feature list were growing by the year; to start small and build big later, to chase different players and different goals. Instead, budgets ballooned and release dates slipped as producers swore to get it right next time, to fill every one of those 80 levels, to tick every box and fix every bug, to puff out their chests and stand toe-to-toe with the big boy in the playground.

The resulting games - games like The Old Republic and Funcom's own The Secret World - played better but could never hope to recoup the effort and money that had been expended on their making. Their development teams imploded and the games' ambitious horizons were decimated almost immediately after launch.

2

Star Wars: The Old Republic's opulent production values and single-player story masked a game that was mechanically almost identical to WOW.

Just as production ambitions were too big, creative ambitions were too small. Or misdirected, at least. From Warhammer Online's factional gameplay to The Old Republic's laborious voiced storytelling, there was no shortage of Big Ideas bandied around before the press and public. But they've been distractions, disguising a general refusal to tackle the foundations of this relatively young genre and move it forward, or to offer alternatives to jaded players.

"In the eight years since WOW's launch, the fundamental playing experience of an MMO has barely altered at all while a legion of game designers has busied itself with rearranging the furniture."

In the eight years since WOW's launch, the fundamental playing experience of an MMO has barely altered at all while a legion of game designers has busied itself with rearranging the furniture. They've tinkered with role-playing systems and moved the emphasis from loot to stats and back again while leaving the ponderous, alienating pace of the action, or the stuffy structure of the quests, unchanged. It's good to look different, but you can't actually be different, they've seemed to argue.

It can hardly be a coincidence that the only subscription game to grow and thrive during the WOW years has been Eve Online - a game as far removed from Blizzard's populist entertainment as it's possible to get in terms of setting, gameplay, technology, audience, everything. Yet its creators CCP have been shrugged off as crazy iconoclasts while the copycats continued to flow.

3

The Secret World claimed to have character development free of the usual classes and levels, but in fact it was anything but.

And what's Blizzard's role been in all this? The Californian company certainly hasn't made things easy for its rivals, and nor should it. It has always striven to defy WOW's ageing process and keep it one step ahead, and for the first four years it hardly put a foot wrong, culminating in the eloquent and flowing adventures of 2008's Wrath of the Lich King expansion.

But it's not like it hasn't presented opportunities to competitors either. Its revisionist approach got the better of it with 2010's Cataclysm, an astonishing attempt to re-engineer the entire game for the future that, in retrospect, made the critical mistake of putting long-serving players second just when their attention was starting to wander. It was an open goal, but The Old Republic was still a year away, wallowing in its own bloat.

So Blizzard has continued to prune and polish, guided by its own good judgement, but without the benefit of any competition that's prepared to challenge its assumptions. Until now.

The last six weeks have, in a way, been the moment I've been waiting for since I took that job in February 2008. Guild Wars 2, which launched in August, might look like another clone - and its developer ArenaNet can run over budget and over schedule with the best of them. But as I said in my review, by daring to disregard a few of the most basic tenets of the MMO faith - things like how quests work, or whether you really need clearly defined group roles - Guild Wars 2 has succeeded in refreshing the basic playing experience of a genre that was going stale.

4

Guild Wars 2 doesn't look like the most innovative MMO since Eve Online, but it is.

Guild Wars 2's release was swiftly followed by the latest Warcraft expansion, Mists of Pandaria. For the purposes of my argument it would be convenient to claim that it suddenly seems unbearably old-fashioned - but despite a mild creakiness that's been thrown into relief by the younger game, I find I've been thoroughly enjoying it. It's a typically lavish piece of work that will satisfy loyal players and doubtless enjoy huge success in growing markets like China. Although sales are down, subscriptions are holding steady and Blizzard still stands every chance of replacing itself at the top of the charts when its next MMO project, Titan, finally breaks cover.

No, there's no need to weep for WOW just yet. Instead, my fear is that we'll never see its like again.

It's never healthy for a leader to run unopposed. Even Guild Wars 2 isn't quite tackling WOW on a level playing field. It charges no subscription fee, which makes it easier for the two games to share the same market. It also makes it easier for ArenaNet's designers to innovate, as they don't necessarily need to lock players into the same all-consuming loops to keep them paying their monthly fees.

Its fresh approach ought nevertheless to influence, or at least encourage, a new generation of challengers and help drag this genre into the present day. But is there anyone left? A bunch of survivors licking their wounds and looking to free-to-play as the ultimate panacea (despite the fact that it's only ever really worked for slimmer competitive games like League of Legends or Team Fortress 2). Projects like The Elder Scrolls Online and WildStar which look like dinosaurs before they're even out. And WOW, the grand old dame: finally having to hitch her skirts to keep up, but too old to really change.

With speculation that Titan may even go free-to-play, it seems like the era of the subscription MMO may be drawing to a close. While few outside the boardrooms will mourn the death of the monthly sub, maybe we should - because it's specifically the subscription model that allows such enveloping virtual worlds, the sort I dreamed of as a kid, to exist. And as much as I love Warcraft, I wish there'd been more than one of them that really stuck with me.

To a great degree, the future of the MMO depends on what Blizzard decides to do with its next game. I've got every confidence it'll be good, not least because Jeff Kaplan, the architect of Wrath of the Lich King and a designer I greatly admire, is working on it. But for the sake of these games and the players who enjoy them, I hope that Titan will be challenged harder than WOW has been by more developers who are finding different paths to follow. And maybe even Blizzard should hope so too, because it can be lonely at the top.

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