Even though my title might suggest otherwise, this will definitely appear as a rant to most of you. After all, I will be very blunt in saying what I consider the good, the bad, and the ugly of World of Warcraft ‘s influence on the MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online) scene. I will not shy away from telling you what I believe was the real contribution of the game to the genre. So let’s get the ball rolling with a look at the pre-World of Warcraft world so you can better understand just how things changed for the veteran MMO players when Blizzard’s juggernaut arrived on the scene.
First off, let me be clear: I’m not saying the pre-World of Warcraft era was better for MMO players, it was just different. For anyone out there who can remember, you’ll recall that we used to have fewer MMOs than we do today. Of course, I’m only referring to the North American market, but it’s important to note that the Eastern market (China, Japan, South Korea, etc.) also had their fair share of MMOs showing up as well. But on our side of the world, the major players were few and far between. We had the “Big Three”: EverQuest, Asheron’s Call, and Ultima: Online. That’s not to say that other titles didn’t exist, but when we talk about the start of the MMO scene, these are usually the three titles that most people will remember. We also had a slew of other innovative games like Anarchy Online, Dark Age of Camelot, and Runescape, just to name a few. All of the games released after the Big Three are what we now consider part of the second generation of MMORPGs. In only a few years (the big three all released in the late 90’s), we saw an assortment of different and varied MMOs show up. Some had amazing graphics and some had daring gameplay elements, but all of them were trying to innovate on the genre and create a success. Today’s multi-million subscriber base was all but a dream for the smaller-budgeted games, but with hundreds of thousands of users, MMOs were bringing in the money despite the lack of support and uncertainty in the majority of the gaming community. The best part of this 2nd generation is that companies pushed the envelope in what they offered in terms of variety and design; no one was shying away from trying to be different from one another. This is how gems like Shadowbane, Eve Online, Star Wars Galaxies, and City of Heroes saw the light of day. Unsurprisingly, those are also some of the games that lasted the longest. While some did close down, the Big Three are still going strong to this day, and they will most likely keep going longer than most of the second generation of MMOs because of one game: World of Warcraft.
This brings us to the current generation of MMOs and its major player, World of Warcraft. Of course, when World of Warcraft came into being, there were a lot of skeptics. It was an MMO so simplistic that people thought it might not last. Yet Blizzard Entertainment had (and still has) quite a following worldwide by then thanks to the high quality of their games, so it is unsurprising that they got people to try World of Warcraft and see what the MMO genre was all about. It was almost an instant hit. People flocked to the game and played without stopping (some even to the point of addiction). It was such a massive success that it overwhelmed the market. Games that came out around the same time as World of Warcraft had a lot of difficulty surviving, and the pressure from investors and publishers to be as big of a success shut down some competing games after only a few months. In short, what World of Warcraft did was create a precedent for MMOs that followed – a precedent that was very hard to meet. There certainly haven’t been any MMOs as successful as WoW in the 10 years since its release.
The mix of its simplistic approach and tested game mechanics created a bridge between the general population and the MMO community, and allowed everyone to jump into the genre. Everyone began to see why the monthly subscription was worth it. This is what became the major problem of the Warcraft era; the huge commercial success made sure that everyone would try to grab a piece of the pie, and the pressure to do so amounted to everyone trying to replicate the way Blizzard Entertainment did it. Thus, the WoW Clones were born . Games that tried, but failed, to achieve what Blizzard did became the norm. They simply put the same things they saw in World of Warcraft into their games with different graphics, sometimes changing just a little bit of the gameplay to try to be unique, but never changing enough that it would deviate from the Warcraft blueprints. That’s also when every developer and their mother decided that an MMO was the best way to make money, seemingly forgetting that World of Warcraft was so successful because it had brought something new to the genre. The race to a million subscribers was on across most major MMOs. It also marked the start of stagnation in the genre. What had been an innovative genre for a generation became a complete reversal for almost twice as many years. Thankfully, not everyone followed in World of Warcraft ‘s footsteps. Some developers decided to go ahead and create their own original game, even if it didn’t mean millions of users. Some also failed remarkably because of their innovation, due to a lack of support from publishers. Seed from Runestone Game Development is a good example of this, as no one wanted to take the chance with an unproven idea in the genre. So World of Warcraft did do some good – it got the attention of a larger population and made MMOs in general more viable. It showed developers that it was possible to create an MMO and allow their creativity to flow in an always-evolving world that requires constant development and new content. It showed developers that money was obtainable for long-term projects, and it showed the world how a single MMO can influence a whole genre to its own standard.
But for all the good it did, it also did damage. The lack of innovation and the lack of changes in the gameplay made the MMO scene die slowly as people, even though they played and played and played, started realizing that no matter how much they played, they still always did the same thing. These players saw that jumping from MMO to MMO was now more convenient than spending years to develop and build upon what they accomplished. So instead of settling down to just play their favorite game, they started rushing through content and disappearing once they saw they wouldn’t get more for a while. It also showed that the MMO scene was far too profitable to leave it at the previous pace of the second generation. The ensuing flood made smaller-budget games that showed great promise disappear under those that could afford to put more money in them for the sake of making more money. And then it brought in the worst part of the gaming world: the people that hadn’t bothered the niche community that formed around MMOs of old. It truly had showed how bad the world could get on the web. World of Warcraft became responsible for what is now wrong in the genre. And yet, it is not Warcraft itself that is to blame, but the gamers who supported it over all these years. Of course, you can argue that we all chose this and we are fine with it, but can we really say that the core players of the MMO genre wanted this change of direction? No, we can’t, because most of us chose to stay silent and see how things would evolve. Many gamers thought World of Warcraft was just a temporary fad, doubting it would last long. I still see people who don’t believe that Warcraft will have any longevity, insisting it will be shut down in a year or two. In reality, the team behind WoW don’t need to as long as it keeps bringing in money. They have already recouped the cost of development a thousand times over from the subscription fees. On top of this, each of the four expansions was sold individually (at full price), subscription prices never went down, and the amount of players still give them huge profits every year, even after factoring in all the necessary infrastructure.
This is the reality of what World of Warcraft did to the MMO scene. It brought recognition and attention to the genre. It stagnated the genre by forcing developers to follow in its footsteps for easy money, investors, and publisher’s funds. It changed a tightknit community that was evolving slowly but surely to a common understanding to a mess of players from all horizons who didn’t care about what was proper behavior in MMOs. It made the genre die with the increased flooding of similar games and the lack of direction. Overall, World of Warcraft became a behemoth that would not bring any benefit to a still-fragile and evolving genre. If you can’t take my word for it, just explore the different forums and games that came out after World of Warcraft. See how many of them became so similar and how the players now react to any new MMO that comes onto the scene. The “WoW Clone” term didn’t come out of nowhere, after all, and it is the reality of what we are faced with today. The reality, however, has started changing again, and some light is finally showing at the end of the tunnel. The MMO genre (while still not readily able to change direction again) is still pushing forward to finally restart on the road of innovation and uniqueness. It is time to start seeing the fourth generation of MMOs, and hope rides heavily on a few major players to remove us from the obscure times that the MMO genre had to endure. Time will tell if the next few years prove to be the change needed.
Editor’s Note: The views presented in this article are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of 3GEM Studios.