Massively multi-player online games all share a problem: there’s a finite amount of content. When a player exhausts all of the quests and adventures in MMO and there is nothing left to do, it leaves the player with a feeling of emptiness. Developers can avoid this problem if they can create content fast enough and keep the illusion of a virtual world going. However, this is much like laying down the tracks in front of a train; eventually the train will catch up and overtake the construction crew.
No player should ever have done it all or experienced it all in a MMORPG. When that happens, it is a sure death sentence for the player’s immersion. It’s much like the scene in The Truman Show when Truman Burbank finally encounters the artificial boundary of the contrived world he’s been living in all his life. A player can only go on for so long without a heightened suspension of disbelief in a virtual world. Realizing that you are at the maximum level and have accomplished everything that a world has to offer is a moment of epiphany for most players. Nothing demonstrates this more amply then Blizzard’s popular World of Warcraft which is now two years old.
The initial genius of WoW was it’s accessibility and appeal to casual gamers. WoW seemed to be the answer to MMO’s like EverQuest which had become very raid-centric and the province of the hardcore player and the uber guild. One of the big problems with WoW right now is that there has not been any new 5 person PVE instanced content since the release of Dire Maul which was 17 months ago. If you don’t raid or grind PVP then you are out of luck as all it takes is about 2 weeks of doing Dire Maul North (tribute run) to get the best loot that’s possible for 5 person groups. (Yes they did release a series of quests for the .5 tier armor but that was basically recycling old content such as Scholo, Strath and UBRS.)
Another problem is that if you used to raid in WoW and then end up playing casually, you have no place to go and no way to advance your character in the PVE game as your gear is much better then anything you can get in Dire Maul.
I often wonder, what kind of game WoW would be today if they hadn’t wasted so much time developing their flawed PVP Battleground system? Apparently all of it will be scrapped for the expansion as a total revamp of their PVP system is planned. How many new instances would have been created in the past 17 months since the release of Dire Maul if they had no focused so much of their time and energy on PVP?
On a side note, a disturbing fact was pointed out in a recent Tera Nova article Posted by Nicolas Ducheneaut. He did the math and calculated that in order to maintain rank 13 of Field Marshall it would require 80 hours a week of constant BG grinding. That type of time commitment is certainly not what a reasonable person would consititute a “casual” game by stretch of the imagination.
When I look at WoW today, what I see a MMO with approximately 6-8 months of casual content and endless content if you are a raider. Blizzard has pulled off a clever bait & switch con game on the playerbase. If they can convince players that they *must* raid in order to progress their characters and keep them “alive” then they don’t have to create any new content. As others have said, Blizzard just embraced the EQ “raid or die” paradigm with their focus on raiding content. So much for the original ethos of Blizzard that offered a casual friendly game where one could make some progress (albeit small) by playing a few hours a week.
It’s sobering to realize that the majority of WoW content and art was created years ago by people who are no longer with the company. Blizzard is essentially living on past glories with WoW. I just don’t understand why they have failed to follow through on their promise of a casual friendly MMORPG with such a raid-centric game that has now overshadowed the initial genius of WoW’s quest driven, casual gamer appeal. They certainly have the economies of scale with 7 million subscribers to develop new content in a timely manner.
I really doubt the expansion will change the direction that WoW seems to be headed. All it will do is delay the inevitable. Sitting around waiting for Blizzard to live up to their promises is a luxury those of us that want something more from MMO’s can not afford. Blizzard can do no wrong these days because they are seen as the saviour of online and even PC gaming. Yet we’ve all become comfortably numb and the temptation is to geneflect when someone mentions the triumph of WoW in broadening the playerbase.
Blizzards success has come at a great cost to the genre such as: a horrible player community, lack of social cohesion, no live GM events, no respect for the tradition of role-playing, a dumbed down NPC system, a banal PVP system and a game that rewards time spent and the acquistion of gear over individual player skill — which Robert Sirlin eloquently pointed out in his excellent Gamasutra article earlier this year:
So let’s put the cards on the table. Here is what World of Warcraft teaches:
1. Investing a lot of time in something is worth more than actual skill. If you invest more time than someone else, you “deserve” rewards. People who invest less time “do not deserve” rewards. This is an absurd lesson that has no connection to anything I do in the real world. The user interface artist we have at work can create 10 times more value than an artist of average skill, even if the lesser artist works way, way more hours. The same is true of our star programmer. The very idea that time > skill is alien.
2. Time > skill is so fundamentally bad, that I’m still going to go on about it even though I started a new number. The “honor system” in World of Warcraft is a disaster that needs to be exposed for health and safety reasons, if nothing else. This system allows players to work their way through the ranks, starting at rank 0 and maxing out at rank 14. Winning in pvp gives you honor points, and at the end of each week, your performance is compared to that of other players, and you gain or lose ranks. Now, losing also gives you points, but not as many. The system overwhelming rewards time spent playing, rather than skill.
The end result of the WoW phenomenom will be how it’s success may influence the MMO’s of the future in a negative way as WoW clones start to enter the marketplace. Let us hope that this will not be the case and that new MMO companies will emulate the good things that Blizzard brought to the table with WoW — initially a very accessible game, a reverance for quality control, a philosophy of polish, outstanding artwork, and the genius of simplicity with regard to user interface heuristics. The successfull MMO’s of the future will be smart to include popular features and concepts from previous games and discard the ones that have proven not to work.
Lately I’ve been thinking that pioneering MMORPG’s like Ultima Online and EverQuest were the Model T Fords of online gaming. They made a quantum leap impact on the gaming world somewhat akin to the introduction of the automobile that replaced the horse and buggy. Bringing 3D graphics to a MUD was considered revolutionary. So now almost 10 years after the birth of these two games we are continually refining on the basic concept of EverQuest. Like the Model T before them, cars today still have 4 wheels and a steering wheel. Despite having all of the modern space age features that would have been unheard of 100 years ago, automobiles still perform the same function: transportation. In a way, virtual worlds are also a form of transportation as they “transport” us to worlds previously only available via verbal stories, music, literature and film.
Someday there will be a paradigm shift that will forever change the way we look at virtual entertainment. Virtual worlds like Ultima Online, Everquest and World of Warcraft were all very necessary and important pioneers for their time. However, I believe we still have a long way to go before we can make MMO’s a totally encompassing immersive experience like the Holodeck on Star Trek. Hopefully, there are still dreamers and visionaries out there who can deliver on the awesome potential of virtual worlds.