I had an interesting discussion recently with someone actually working in the video games industry. He was telling me that A) WoW is definitively past its peak and headed toward a slow (years) but certain death and that B) WoW ruined it for the rest of the industry.
I’m not going to argue much on the first point since I agree with him. I mean that it’s pretty obvious to anyone playing that WoW is not on the upward climb anymore. It’s there, it’s doing fine but there’s less of us than there was before. Point B is much more interesting though.
Been there, done that
What my friend was explaining to me is that players are not that dumb and can recognize a particular style of gameplay across multiple games. If they are looking for something new you can’t simply fool them by changing the title and tweaking a few details. He used the music games as an example (Guitar Hero, Rock band). Only 2 or 3 years ago these games were everywhere then all of a sudden they got hit hard. As if overnight everyone thought they were incredibly boring. What in fact happened is that all these games featured the same gameplay dressed differently and players just got bored with playing the same thing over and over again.
You know where I’m going with this now. WoW has been around for 6 years, Everquest, 12 years. For the past 12 years the mainstream MMOs have all been built with the same type of gameplay and its showing it’s age. Games built on those foundations tend to lose a lot of players once the new game phase is past. We see the same gears and unless you’re particularly interested in that particular flavor of WoW-esque gameplay chances are you’ll move on quickly.
According to my friend, and I’m inclined to believe him, the companies are scratching their head hard right now trying to find ways to move MMOs forward. They don’t want to reinvent the wheel because a MMO still has to be a MMO but they’re looking for that special something that will make the experience feel new again. Just like platformer and shooters have reinvented themselves over the years. In short, they’re looking for Halo.
Parallels to shooters
When talking about shooter games some people refers to the different shooters by linking them to influential shooters, like saying it’s a Doom-like game. A Doom like game represent a particular style of shooter and usually you can associate these styles with different periods in shooter games history. If you were to draw parallels to MMOs, Wolfenstein3D becomes Everquest, the first game to truly leave a mark and Doom becomes WoW, the juggernaut that changed the genre forever by building on the concepts of previous games.
After Doom, shooters game were more of less all of the same. There was a lot of experimentation and some games did stand out (Quake pretty much invented PvP in online shooters) but for the most part, the gameplay was the same and most games we barely even remember today.
Halo was the game that truly relaunched the genre. The core gameplay was still basic shooter tropes but they made a few critical changes that made the game stand out. What change? They made story an integral part of the game experience instead of it being a background noise and they finely tuned the PvP to make it more tactical. Not super great changes but enough to make it feel like a different experience.
Aside for the Golden Eyes fan! Yes Golden Eye did all that years before and it remains one of the greatest shooters ever. In a lot of aspect, Halo is a more polished Golden Eye but since Halo is the game that brought shooters back to mainstream audiences, I picked that one.
Why it’s a good thing that WoW ruined it
So you’re making a MMO and you want it to be a big success? You have to innovate, find that something that WoW doesn’t do or doesn’t do right, do it right and run with it. Old Republic think they have it with their heavy focus on story (not unlike Halo?) and from what he hear from the testers Bioware seems to be on the right track. It remains to be seen if it’s real and not just that new game smell talking.
All that to say is that when I hear that video games company are banging their heads against walls trying to find new ideas to beat the WoW juggernaut it makes me happy. I’m happy because we might just get something truly great and wonderful in the next game and I’m just excited at the idea.