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State of MMO’s nation: WoW’s cloying ten-year legacy

Tuesday, 3rd July 2012 13:58 GMT By Brenna Hillier

With The Secret World launching today and Guild Wars 2 just down the road, it’s an exciting time for MMOs. But while indulging in a little light grinding, even a newb like Brenna Hillier couldn’t help but feel the long shadow of Azeroth.

If the latest crop of MMOs represent the growth of a genre in the decade since World of Warcraft launched, then I genuinely fear it has stymied. Is this what MMORPGs are reduced to? Catering only to an existing market rather than trying to find new users?

It’s been ten years since World of Warcraft debuted and changed the MMORPG space forever. Although games like Ultima Online and Everquest were popular and successful, World of Warcraft is an inarguable cultural phenomenon, hugely influential on gaming and geek culture – and beyond. Want proof? I’ve never played it, and until recently I’d never even played any kind of MMO, and yet I can reliably bumble along in the language of the scene.

Raids, instances, tanks, DPS, controllers, buffs, LFG; I understand, on an abstract level, how the game is played. World of Warcraft may not have established this gameplay lingua franca but it cemented it, and it remains the giant of the MMORPG world, the touchstone for all others to come. New MMORPGs reference the same themes and schemes; every new MMORPG is designed to be if not a WoW-killer then certainly to attract a portion of its audience; new MMORPGs are designed for World of Warcraft veterans.

The evidence for this is clear in World of Warcraft’s competitors. I recently participated in two different MMORPG betas – first Guild Wars 2, and later The Secret World, which EA is releasing today. Loading up the Guild Wars 2 beta was my very first experience with a MMORPG. I chose a Charr character and leapt into the fray – quite literally, as the Charr story begins on a battlefield, which was somewhat stressful given I had no idea how to stop my health bar going down. My contribution was to run into a wall and stand there for 20 minutes while I frantically searched for an online instruction manual.

I am a veteran gamer and I don’t need a lot of handholding. If I am playing a game with a keyboard and mouse, certain universal ideas – like WASD – probably don’t need explaining. With this in mind I boldly strode forward. And forward. And forward some more – despite how frantically I was wiggling the mouse and expecting it to steer me towards my goal. After a few moments of wretched confusion I figured out that MMORPG characters control like tanks – forward and backward and rotate, a thing I thought we’d merrily jettisoned along with late 90′s survival horror. And after some experimentation, that you need to right click and drag the screen to move the camera.

World of tanks

This felt so clunky and awful that it was like the first time, a lifetime ago it seems, that I used twin analog sticks – and spent half the time staring at the sky and the other half at the ground while dashing in a circle. I briefly wondered if I had had a stroke and lost the part of my brain how to play games, or whether the cold in my office had finally destroyed the nerves in my hands.

I immediately contacted a couple of better-experienced types to flag this bizarre control system with them and elicit some sympathy. I received none; Pat was actually struck slightly speechless to think of anybody not knowing how drag the camera as instinctively as they know which button is “jump” or which trigger is “fire”. This is something everyone knows because everyone has played World of Warcraft – or a game so like it that the distinction is a matter of aesthetics.

What does it say about the current approach to online RPG design that this background knowledge is assumed right from the get go? If you’re playing an MMO, the games seem to reason, then you must already know how they work. You know how to play an MMORPG because you played World of Warcraft.

What does it say about the current approach to online RPG design that this background knowledge is assumed right from the get go? Guild Wars 2 is aimed very firmly at MMO veterans; there’s no denying the messaging and the intent inherent to its design. I had the same experience jumping into The Secret World, though Funcom had at least thought to include a few control prompts and actually fronted a pretty reasonable tutorial section introducing its unusual, classless weapons and powers systems. But even once I overcame my discomfort with the controls in both games I started finding a bunch of other things to be confused about.

Neither makes any effort to teach you how to play an MMORPG. I don’t know how or why I’d want to join a group. I don’t know what powers and equipment I’m supposed to use. IIf you’re playing an MMO, the games seem to reason, then you must already know how they work. You know how to play an MMORPG because you played World of Warcraft, and from long discussions with MMORPG veterans on this very subject, it seems that every MMORPG produced in its wake has been an attempt to refine, improve upon or succeed it.

So far, none have done so to any great degree. If the latest crop of MMOs represent the growth of a genre in the decade since World of Warcraft launched, then I genuinely fear it has stymied. Is this what MMORPGs are reduced to? Catering only to an existing market rather than trying to find new users?

This isn’t to say that The Secret World and Guild Wars 2 will be “bad,” obviously. But the question of when we’re going to see true innovation in the MMO space has to be asked: it doesn’t look as though it’s going to be this year.

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22 Comments

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  1. Talkar

    The only upcoming MMO i’m looking forward to is Planetside 2 x)
    But great article!

    #1 2 years ago
  2. roadkill

    “the long shadow of Azeroth.”? Really? LOL!!

    #2 2 years ago
  3. Erthazus

    This year Blizzard is probably going to show/announce TITAN.

    and when they will show at least one screenshot, Blizzard fanbase.. i mean blizzard peasants will cry all over the place and pray to them to release it with “Shut up and take my money/car/house!”.jpg’s

    and when the game will be released, Blizzard will suck their wallets to death.

    #3 2 years ago
  4. DSB

    I think that mostly depends on whether they can do it again. Even Blizzard are going to have to outdo WoW to seize the market again.

    What I don’t get is why so many MMOs are still hiding behind a paywall. Should you really be charging potential buyers four months of play just so they can buy even more months of play?

    I don’t see the point. It should be all about bringing people in, not keeping them out.

    #4 2 years ago
  5. Erthazus

    @DSB,

    “Even Blizzard are going to have to outdo WoW to seize the market again.”

    Diablo III with all of it’s mistakes proves that you can sell on the PC (the most pirated platform ever in existence) a singleplayer game at launch for 6.5 million units + AH for Real money.

    With this in mind, next MMORPG from Blizzard will be a New Jesus Christ to Gamers. Jesus is coming DSB, this year only on Blizzcon.

    also, Mark Morhaime said that it’s new mmorpg will blow brains, so… It’s happening even if the game is going to be shit in the end.

    #5 2 years ago
  6. Eregol

    @3 And when exactly do you expect them to announce that?

    #6 2 years ago
  7. OlderGamer

    It will be next spring Erth, this year will be about the new wow expac, I think.

    And to an extent Brenna is correct. I have played better games then wow, but I still play wow and not those other games. Rift comes to mind. For me it is because of nearly any PC can run wow. I have three accounts here in my house(Mine, wife, and son) and we play with brothers, grown up son, and other friends. So it is a lowest common denomiator type thing and a social thing. I am getting Guild Wars 2, but only one of my three PC will be able to even run that game. And there lies the problem.

    Cutting edge tech is nice, but not when you can’t play it. No way my group of friends and family can all play even Rift, let alone GW2.

    So, we stick with wow.

    #7 2 years ago
  8. Erthazus

    @6, Blizzcon Ofc.

    @7, Blizzcon can’t be without new announcements.
    wow expansion is at the beta stage already so there is nothing to show really.

    #8 2 years ago
  9. DSB

    @5 So do you have any stats on how many people are still playing Diablo 3? Most of the people I know are sick of it already.

    Blizzard can’t keep releasing games with that many mistakes and idiosyncrasies and still expect to be held in the same regard.

    Most games let me change the difficulty through the menu. Diablo 3 makes me play the game 4 times before I get to where I want to be. It’s just mindnumbingly retarded :P

    #9 2 years ago
  10. Erthazus

    @9, ofc i don’t. But who cares? Blizzard got 6.5 million sales on the PC “At Launch”.
    6.5 million is a record. Diablo is not even close to WoW popularity.

    I remember when Blizzard announced Starcraft II in south Korea with just a logo. Ladies in front of the logo cried like crybabies.

    When Mark Morhaime or some lead designer will announce a logo (new MMO) at this Blizzcon, people will die there, not just cry.

    It will be a new sales record and people will buy it even if there will be a sign “It’s shit. Don’t buy it!”

    #10 2 years ago
  11. TheBlackHole

    I’m just going to throw this out there… RuneScape.

    It’s older than WoW, updated every week, is regularly going through major game engine upgrades and is just about to hit its 200 millionth account (total, not active). It’s also just launched a beta for a combat rework where its (apparently) received several hundred thousand applicants.

    I’m not saying it’s any good (I don’t play it), but whenever people mention important MMOs I always hear WoW, GW, the usual suspects. How does a game amass 200m accounts and still fly under everyone’s radar?

    #11 2 years ago
  12. Johnny Cullen

    @Erth – No chance. No Blizzcon this year for a start.

    They could announce it at a Worldwide Invitational, I suppose, but as I said earlier this year, Blizzard wouldn’t want to announce it anywhere else but BC.

    #12 2 years ago
  13. Erthazus

    @12, no Blizzcon? I’m wrong then…

    Well, Jesus will be next year i guess.

    #13 2 years ago
  14. DSB

    Next year in Jerusalem?

    #14 2 years ago
  15. OlderGamer

    @Erth, yep. Just makes sense.

    @DSB, I stoped playing it too. D3 doesn’t have the same kind of legs that D2 did, for me, imo, of course. The sputering servers and launch trouble wasn’t really a facter for me. I didn’t enjoy that, but could put up with it if the game rocked my world. But Diablo III didn’t really ever grab me.

    #15 2 years ago
  16. roadkill

    Erth is right. People will whore themselves out to play Titan no matter how bad it will be.

    #16 2 years ago
  17. TheWulf

    Eh. I don’t buy this. But not because I don’t believe the article writer, but more because I know that there are other factors here which aren’t being covered. I’ll explain.

    I had a friend whom I introduced to Champions Online. For the first few hours he was running into things and had trouble navigating via the minimap. Within a few months hew was just as good as I was.

    The fact of the matter is is that GW2 is as intuitive as CO, if you’re having trouble then you’re over-thinking it. That’s all there is to it. In fact, Guild Wars 2 makes this even easier for you at the beginning because you have only one ability, and it’s an auto-attack. If that’s not guiding you gently into the fold, I don’t know what is.

    You actually unlock other abilities on the field as you progress, you don’t need to go to a trainer or anything. You can unlock them whenever and wherever you are. And the tutorials slowly walk you through the process of doing so.

    So all I can say is that you were likely over-thinking it and expecting it to be more complicated than it actually was.

    This reminds me of the first time I gave my gran a tablet, versus her old notebook. She was so confused and dithered around, she actually began to panic. I had her calm down, then I asked her what she thought would be the right action to take to get what she wanted.

    The first thing she chose was actually the correct one.

    It’s self doubt that does this, and you work yourself up to believing that something is way more complicated than it is. You have one button that smashes stuff. You smash stuff and you stay alive. But it can’t be that easy, right? It can’t be as easy as those LEGO games, right? It’s an MMORPG, it has to be tougher than that. It has to be!

    Except it isn’t. You have one button. You walk up to something and you press the button. You don’t even need to target that something if you’re a melee character.

    Outside of the tutorial, things heat up, and you have to learn to dodge. The tutorial points out that double-tapping a direction key gets you out of damage. How do you know where damage is? There are these terribly obvious circles on the ground, they are red. Red means bad. In fact, many on forums have complained that GW2 hand holds too much. That it’s too casual.

    So if you’re having problems with it, you’re having them because you’re over-thinking it. You have one button at the start. Walk up to something and press your button. Are you dying? Double-tap A or D.

    Not rocket science.

    I don’t doubt your intelligence here, don’t get me wrong. That’s not the point of this post. But I find that people who’re new to a particular kind of game, device, or experience instantly believe that they’re out of their depth, and they work themselves up to believing that it has to be this big, massively complicated thing.

    And that the truth on the monitor in front of them (that they have just one button to press) can’t possibly be true.

    Except it is.

    Sometimes you just have to take the dive and press the button you think you’re meant to press. 99.9% of the time, you’ll be doing exactly the right thing, regardless of your doubts.

    — EDIT —-

    And I don’t mean for this to be condescending, I really don’t, but I never cease to be amazed at how people panic like that at the most simple of tasks.

    It’s like when you put a gamepad in the hands of someone who’s never played. Put the most simple game in the world in front of them and they’ll panic, put down the game at first, and claim that they’re terrible with technology. It’s not until you convince them to set aside their self doubt and to try doing the things they think they’re supposed to be doing that they begin to enjoy themselves.

    As a tech nerd with a big family and range of friends, I’ve seen a repetition of this more times than I could count. I mean, if I had a pound for every time I had to help someone through this… well, I’d have enough for a top of the range computer with all the accessories right now, probably.

    It’s just silly, but it’s true.

    And that’s exactly what I saw when I read the article. You don’t need to panic and run for the manual. There’s a button there that says 1 on it. It’s your only button. Do your best to navigate yourself to a foe, then hit 1. That’s it.

    If that’s too hard, it’s not because you’re dumb or terrible, but it’s because you’ve managed to convince yourself these things by over-thinking the scenario.

    Just the same as when I gave my gran her first tablet.

    #17 2 years ago
  18. jdfoster00

    2 words and 1 number: GW2

    Also to people saying nothing sells on pc… I think F2P market is in BOOM…. I mean look at companies like TQ didgital, Aeria etc etc… Making huge sums of money from F2P games and have a huge install base… (conquer online going 10 years strong!

    #18 2 years ago
  19. Joe_Gamer

    My least favorite part of MMO’s is trawling forums for all that extra information on how to play(crafting systems are notoriously obtuse), it’s like a delightful little mini-game, “here’s our shiny new MMO, now go waste…er…uh…INVEST valuable hours of your life sifting through the excrement of our user base for all the information we couldn’t be assed to put in the game!”.

    #19 2 years ago
  20. Puggy

    Hm, I would not compare Diablo 3 to your average Singleplayer game. Mostly because (I imagine) you can’t pirate it that easily, since some of the Mob data is stored server side. So you have to pull off a private server in order to get your pirated version to run. Then again I could be wrong, it’s just what I imagine.

    Any yeah, nobody cares about how many people still play D3, they bought the game, transaction is over, Blizzard gets nothing but trafic costs of more people are playing the game. Well that and maybe a cut on the RMAH.

    As for titan, well that one will be an interesting beast. It might work if people can iport their characters with max level and max equipment, friendlists crafting stuff and all over. But if it is a new game, where everyone has to start from scratch, I doubt it will be as popular as people believe right away.

    It’s like sports. People play soccer. Not because it is good, but because everyone is playing it, and most people feel the need to be like others, cmopetet with them and be better. There are games or sports that might sound better, but as long as it is not popular, nobody cares.

    As for the Interface, I have to agree with Wulf. Most of the time when designing new software you spend thinking about how to make it most obvious, most intuitive for the user. Companies do not have time and money to pay for weeks of tutoring their whole crowd of employees anymore, and since it is so easy at work, people want it at home too. If I have to enter a three button combination to make my character move, well, that would not work anymre (remember the C64 times when you had to put a paper instruction over your keyboard to know what button does what? Starting your helicoptor you had to activate turbine one, two, coenct to rotors, increase rotation slowly….)
    Nowadays designer look at the most popular games of that genre, how are the default controlls and try to use them. Most games will start with space bar or “p” as pause keys. Nobody would try Strg-alt-rShift-w for pause.
    It is I guess state of the art. Turning your steering wheel left, makes your car move left. Pressing your w key makes your POV or Character move into the direction they are facing.

    #20 2 years ago
  21. Strawb

    I’m guessing the author of this article uses the words “ten years” loosely, since it’s only been eight years since WoW was released.

    That being said, while it can be argued that the MMO scene has not really seen any innovation, I would say GW2 at least tries to take a whack at it.

    And I can’t help but think there’s a limit to what can be innovated in the MMO genre. Some games have switched to using the mouse more when fighting, which can be called innovation. Other games are giving more freedom, and true impact on the game world.
    But the overall gameplay remains the same, and I think that’s important to a lot of people.
    And risk-taking isn’t really something we see in the AAA game industry much.

    #21 2 years ago
  22. Kabby

    Article about WoW: Check.

    TheWulf is in the comments section writing a lengthy beatdown while sneakily shilling for GW2. Check.

    All is normal on VG247: Check

    #22 2 years ago