Wednesday, June 15, 2011

A Genre in Decline

World of Warcraft
World of Warcraft is in trouble. I think the last post proves as much. I have never seen so many players playing a game they don't like and a company (Activision|Blizzard) whose CEO they despise so much. Even though he might have been misunderstood; nobody cares.

They might start to really churn out content eventually. Like a magnitude more or so. The profits easily allow for that. In that case they might retain 11.4 mio players for a long time to come.

The current competitor of WoW is Rift. Rift is a 90% copy/paste with a few fun ideas and the occasionally back-to-the-roots notion. This payed off financially for Trion, but it does little for the genre. Rift's future looks bleak. At end game it is stuck between between instanced raiding and the open world content. PvP can't work for a game were every player is a small demigod.

Raiding in Rift is at best a distraction. For at least 50% of the 'callings' raiding means pressing 2-3 macros. And attacking WoW on the classical raiding game is suicide, anyway. I've read a lot of thoughtful posts about MMORPGs in recent years. At no point have I read a post about how raiding could be made much better. Players dream of many things; they do not dream of a more polished raiding experience.

The open world would be fine, if they hadn't copied so much from WoW. The strict leveling game doesn't allow players to really play a meaningful role until they reach max level. At max level the only thing Trion can think about is spawning monsters that attack places. But these places have no meaning for the players and nor is there any risk involved. It is 100% reward-based gameplay that can't immerse an adult.
It already has gotten old: especially for the WoW-demographic that Rift attracts. It is not a newbie-friendly game, in my opinion.

There are no instruments to prevent players from gathering at one point; teleports allow this to happen very fast. Even if the engine held what it promised, this wouldn't be fun. The only thing it does is creating a headache from hundreds and thousands of overlayed graphical and sound effects, which were developed to be impressive in a 1:1 fight.

Leveling in Rift is a success. But that's not an achievement, really. All WoW-clones have had a nice leveling experience (as long as it was finished). I liked to level in WoW, in Warhammer, in Age of Conan, in Rift. I probably would have liked to level in Aion if I had bothered to buy it. I'm sure leveling in LotR is fun, but it being f2p, I will never know.

There's a reason Blizzard didn't polish the leveling experience much after release. It just works - until players have played it through.
Until technological advancements enforced a revamp of the leveling, Blizzard almost completely focused on end game to increase subscription numbers. For MMORPGs with WoW-like leveling, longevity depends on end-game and on little else.

Leveling is fun in Rift, as long as you have not burnt out of the classic questing; many players haven't. But there are only two start regions and 4 'classes' which greatly limits the replay value. Compare this to WoW with 12 starting areas and 10 classes.
It takes about 5 days /played for a normal player to reach max level in Rift. Most players who intended to buy Rift have done so by now. Not many will continue to buy it, because there won't be good publicity about it. There won't be new subscriber-records. There will be empty servers.

Concluding, copy/pasting WoW is financially successful. But it does not drive the genre forward or open it up for new (and old!) players; it does not expand the market.

Star War: The Old Republic
Many of my old WoW guild colleagues intent to buy Star Wars: The Old Republic. It will probably sell a lot of boxes. Maybe more than WAR, which had pre-ordered 1.5 million boxes! That's the advantage of a well-known IP.

SW:TOR does innovate more than Rift does. The story telling and voice acting are alright during leveling. What worries me are the gameplay videos. Even though I try to like them, I really don't. That doesn't necessarily mean something; but it's certainly not good. It's possible that EA|Bioware will drown us in content and that might very well be a way out for the genre.

I think SW:TOR will be financially successful. But I doubt it turns out to be the next big thing. Thus, we get a few million players at SW:TOR at best and a few million playing a declining WoW. Maybe the competition revitalizes the industry, but even that would take half a decade or more to take effect.

Guild Wars 2
There is some hope for Guild Wars 2. It innovates more than most other companies, which doesn't mean much, of course. But being without monthly subscriptions, I have my doubt about its longevity. I fear it will be 'just a game'. Which is all right. But that's not what this genre needs to climb new heights.

The rest
There's games like ArcheAge, which could be fun for a while. And there are probably a lot of MMORPGs in development right now. Maybe there's a gem among them. I wouldn't count on it, though.

The only hope I have at this point is CCP. Call me a fanboy if you want. Even though I won't buy Dust 514, as I don't play console games, and even though I don't play Eve Online, for reasons I described many times, I am impressed by their ambitions.
And then there's the World of Darkness fantasy MMORPG they are working on for years now. There's hope. But with a 50 million dollar annual revenue you can only accomplish so much.


  1. The genre is only in decline from an aesthetic viewpoint. More and more people play some form of MMO each year and more and more titles are out there to choose from. The numbers are going up.

    Making aesthetic judgments is tricky. I don't like soap operas but I don't feel any right to look down my nose at people who do. By the same token "It is 100% reward-based gameplay that can't immerse an adult" is too judgmental in my view. If you met someone who said adults playing video games is silly and they should all just grow up you'd think they were stupid. But you're saying the same thing about a sub-type of gamer.

    Is there really a moral superiority from wandering about someone else's fantasy landscape as opposed to amassing larger and larger numbers? One could even argue the second relates more to real life - there aren't many explorers in the real world but there are a lot of achievement motivated workers.

  2. Stabs, this graph isn't perfectly accurate, but I think it sends a clear message. The 600k sub loss is not included as far as I know. (source:

    It's not just an aesthetic decline (stagnation, if you want) at this point.

    I didn't intent to insult anybody by mentioning adults. But while I can very well imagine that a child can immerse itself in the Rift-creatures attacking outposts, I don't think an adult is able to do that.

    He may still have fun, but it's not because a great army attacks his outpost. Or danger being in the air ...

    I won't judge moral superiorities. I just want to play a convincing fantasy character in a convincing fantasy game. ;)

  3. Have you considered that some players are just playing other MMO's that cater more directly to their tastes? Right now I'm enjoying some nice STO, and from what I'm seeing their population is of a decent size and quite possibly growing. They are also bringing their episodic content to Champions, and if it's as good as the stuff they already have in STO then they will see a bump there too. Wizards 101 just released a new patch, and it has me considering a return there in the near future. There are plenty of smaller MMO's out there, and I think more players are realizing they can have as much or more fun playing an MMO with a smaller population. After all, one player will only see so many other players at a time, no matter how many people are actually playing the game.

  4. I couldn't agree more. It's not a question of financial decline in the MMO genre; I think there's a "spiritual" decline, if you will. Meaning, that the ingenuity and innovation that drove the industry forward in the late 90's is, at this point, completely gone. WOW Clones rule the world. F2P titles care little beyond making a quick buck from suckers willing to shill out for in-game advantages. It's a disappointing state of affairs.

  5. Too much of the attraction of a game like WoW is in the blush of novelty. A player is most enthralled by their first MMO, and in that MMO they are most enthralled by their first experiences with each type of content.

    The problem, of course, is that novelty is a non-renewable resource. WoW has persisted on a churn of new players flowing through it, but that can't last. Eventually, the supply of potential players is consumed (except for a trickle of youngsters). And WoW competitors, if they are too much like WoW, have limited novelty and so fall away quickly.

  6. As for aesthetic decline, I think you just have a bit of tunnel vision. Eve is getting closer to their ambulation release, and adding some great stuff along the way. STO has episodic content, a ground combat revamp, new ships, an officer revamp, and more coming down the line. Steam is going to start supporting f2p, and we've all seen the innovative games that have gained traction via Steam. Remember the perma-death MMO announced, Wizardry Online? I can't say for sure, but I'm betting that Age of Conan will be announcing more than just their f2p conversion pretty soon. Aion may have been forgotten by most, but it is still out there and growing with graphical upgrades, a new arena-like dungeon, and a revamped pet system. There is plenty of interesting new development going on if you look for it.

  7. Good post. I think the real problem is AAA games in particular. I've been playing Rift recently, and it's so completely derivative that it's hard to get into it. It reminds me of single-player RPGs back in the early 2000s when the whole genre was overrun by Diablo clones. Hopefully a really great indie MMO will take off a la Minecraft and inject some new ideas into the market.

    By the way, there was a really good article on Gamasutra a few years back about game genre lifecycles. It's almost uncanny how well it applies to what's been happening in the MMO market.

  8. "But being without monthly subscriptions, I have my doubt about its longevity. I fear it will be 'just a game'. Which is all right. But that's not what this genre needs to climb new heights."

    Many long time WoW players, who perhaps only dabbled in Guild Wars, appear to see GW as being a cheap alternative to WoW that people only play, because they want to avoid a monthly subscription. For many of us, who aren't that concerned with the minimal costs anyway, that simply isn't the case and I for one have spent many more hours in GW than in any other game. Guild Wars was and still is a fully viable game in it's own right. In many ways the PvE is more of a challenge than in WoW (at least for anything short of raiding and probably competitive with that) and more strategically interesting. Further IMOP the PvP (a major attraction for me) in GW is in a different class to anything else, particularly because it has no gear disparity. Another complaint about GW1 is that, because of instancing its not really a full MMO. The truth is though that grouping up within a guild to do content is *easier* than in games such as WoW and Lotro, because everyone after a short while is at maximum level 20 with equivalent gear and there's a larger number of missions and content suitable for every skill level.

    I think the above is probably one of the main origins of the hype surrounding GW2. And combining Arenanet's track record with the philosophy expressed by Mike O'Brien in, just suggests that Arenanet have got it, in a way that other games haven't and that they are prepared to innovate in a way that others aren't.

  9. I would like to respectfully disagree with the notion that raiding cannot be improved and/or should be left to WoW alone. Raiding in its basic meaning of large scale PvE content is, in my opinion, something great and holds much more opportunities than what WoW realises. If anything, no one talks about raiding a lot because it has become ingrained as "that thing WoW does with tiered gear and scripted boss fights" and it's very hard to get people out of that frame of mind. Raiding (i.e. large scale PvE content) is very much part of the MMORPG I dream of (the one with a vast and immersive world).

  10. Funny thing about MMOs. People will complain but keep playing. But meddle and some ppl will get pissed off and leave.

  11. In response to a comment above, I also wonder about the raiding game in WoW. I don't raid as much as I used to, mostly because the raiding game to me is far too mechanical and reactive. There's fire on the ground, you need to move out of it. The boss starts casting massive AE spell so you need to interrupt it. The tank takes a spike of damage, so you have to use a fast heal. To beat the enrage timer, you must do X amount of DPS. And so on.

    In the earlier days of WoW, and other less popular MMOs, raiding required much more trial and error, and the discovery of how to beat an encounter. Warcraft raiding is almost exclusively about mathematics and execution, which for many is fun, but for me personally, I miss the discovery aspect. Put another way, I feel the raids are too polished.

    This can be 'blamed' on fan sites dissecting boss fights and publishing strategies, and the proliferation of combat logs. However, you could also address this by changing the combat methods of boss fights. Make them more dynamic. Make the boss react to the group, rather than the group react to the boss. Allow the boss to "learn" the raiders instead of the raiders learning the boss. Give the boss an adaptive AI.

    This would be difficult to implement well, but is something I would love to see Blizzard try to do with their extra cash (and maybe they are with Titan -- one can hope). Within today's WoW though, I fear a change of that magnitude would be rejected by the player base. As I've said before, players frequently call for change, but in reality they really dislike it.

    Like you, I also would love to see a true sandbox world, perhaps similar to Minecraft (from what I understand -- I have not actually played it), but with the depth, polish and quality of a Warcraft. I would love to see an MMO world with loose boundaries defining a world that could be fully developed by players. How awesome would it be to see how players dealt with population control and social class structures in a way that didn't destroy the fun of a fantasy world, all while maintaining (or enhancing) the same depth of game play that exists today?

    That would truly represent a golden age of the genre, and I believe it is yet to come. You can say we're in a lull currently, but I don't know if I agree that we're in decline. Perhaps I have too much faith in the creativity of game developers, but there is still too many awesome things yet to be seen in the world of MMORPOs.

  12. Jesse, I think you are right and I should test more of the smaller MMOs out there.
    Also, the genre isn't going to die, of course. It's just the that AAA-titles not only disappoint, but also loose subscribers. If the indie games could suck these players up, every thing were ok. But I am not sure they do.

    Roq, I look forward to GW2. I also welcome their courage to innovate. Let's hope that is a grand success.

    Rem, I agree that if you define raiding as large scale PvE, a lot could be done. I was talking about Rift try to clone WoW's raiding. There is no way to polish this even more, I think. Rift is stupid to try.
    Of course, one could do quite a lot to develop interesting new forms of large scale PvE content!

    Michael, we will see this age eventually. The question is just how many decades it will require to come around ;)

  13. Nils I agree with you regarding CCP and its new big project MMORPG based on World of Darkness. being our only hope.

    Myself being a follower of this project even though the news is scarce. I was listening to a radio channel and I heard good news about the Design Approach of WoD which as a concept sounds good and promising. It's going to have Sandbox Elements and Themepark Elements combined with Social Elements. Combat, Politics and Economy is going to drive the game. But little we know about how this is going to be done.

    I think Tera Online is innovating with its unique Dynamic Combat System and the new Political System (Vanarchs). I doubt it's going to be a success in the western market though but who knows? hey, at least they are innovating.

    I agree that SWTOR is just going to be a game that we played too many times (Deja vu deja vu...). I guess we will get bored of it too fast.

  14. There's also Copernicus from Studio 38 but reading Curt Schilling's posts in FoH forums I think the approach is going to be ThemeParkish but that's based on Curt's preferneces and opinions he stated in the forums. He tend to agree with a lot of "convenient" features which is your typical MMORPG targeted towards the "mainstream" audience (a.k.a people who shouldn't even be interested in the genre). But that's all my impression and hence why I stopped having hopes for Copernicus MMORPG. Mercury (Kingdom of Amalur) is going to be released soon and it is based on the same lore as Copernicus Project.

  15. I agree with Ben. The reason why EverQuest was mesmerizing is the fact that it brought unique world experience. If a developer can wow us with something innovative and deliver a unique world experience with completely new concepts they might hit the spot.

    But that's too risky investment-wise and no shareholder is going to risk being creative. Only a confident Publisher or a reckless one might venture through this. Indies unfortunately proved that they lack the resources and experience to make it no matter how good their innovative concept are (except for Minecraft but that's not an MMORPG).

  16. I also think CCP is quite innovatiove. Alas, I no longer play EVE for the usual reasons.

    Isn't it also true that even if DUST were on a PC, you probably would not play it since it is F2P?