Those of us poor souls who are MMO and virtual world veterans have seen a lot in the past 12 years of the history of this genre. We are no strangers to the philosophical tug of war between world and game. As early MMO travelers and pilgrims, we used to passionately write about it and fiercely debate it. But then we stopped discussing it altogether.
Somewhere in the mid 2000’s, in the public consciousness MMOs crossed the Rubicon and became more game than world. The world became the servant of the game — not the other way around. At about that time an important tipping point was reached that came about unannounced and unheralded: the collective dream of being part of a living, breathing albeit virtual world died.
How did this happen and why?
I Am Not a Gamer
Let me preface this article by saying that I don’t like the term “gamer” and I don’t consider myself a gamer. The gamer moniker never really worked for me. While I always enjoyed RPG type video games, I always thought of myself as something more than just a gamer — especially after MMOs became part of the landscape in 1998.
For me MMOs were more dignified than mere video games. There was something special and unique about being part of a virtual world. A sense of persistence, community, ownership and belonging that games could never offer. In my mind I’ve always thought of myself as a participant, a traveler, an explorer — not a gamer.
Games are mostly about experiencing short-term bursts of enjoyment and fun. On their own, I find games a fleeting and transient form of amusement. While it might be good enough for some, a steady diet of empty calories obtained from amusement is not enough to satiate my hunger.
Besides, games are not a solid enough foundation enough to build a virtual world upon. The reverse is more logical as the world should always come first before the game. Building the roof of a house before laying the foundation makes no sense at all.
The Current Imbalance
But it wasn’t always this way. MMORPGs –yes the “RPG” meant something back then — used to have a healthy balance of game and world. The game aspect of a MMO was something that you experienced within the world. The world itself was more far more important than the mechanics that existed behind the curtain.
Even the players have changed because of the shift from world to game. They’ve lost their appreciation for awe and wonder and instead agonize over talent builds, stats and complex damage equations as MMOs have been reduced to spreadsheets and formulas.
No longer is it enough just to be in a fantastic virtual world where danger and the unknown lurks behind every corner; now everything must be deconstructed to feed the endless hunger of the over achievers.
The Pervasive Nature of Video Games
These days the game is everything and there are legions of teenagers and adults that have grown up submerged in the gamer culture. They have been spoiled by technology. Today’s MMO player was probably weaned on handheld games and graduated to consoles. Like the baby boomers before them, this demographic is a force to be reckoned with. Woe to the developer that doesn’t bow down to the almighty gamer and accommodates their appetites and proclivities.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that most gamers aren’t particularly fond of virtual worlds because they’ve probably never experienced one.
So along came a video game company that decided to capitalize on this new generation and they decided to offer them something very familiar yet packaged as a “world”. The culprit for this change of MMO design philosophy is of course Blizzard and I put the blame squarely upon the shoulders of Rob Pardo the architect of WoW. He is the clever alchemist that decided that MMOs needed to become games to be mainstream and successful.
The Blizzard Smoking Gun
One conclusion that I have come to after years of playing WoW and pondering its success is this: World of Warcraft is not a true MMO, it is really a game artfully disguised as a MMO.
I recall reading an interview a few years ago where one of Pardo’s disciples Jeff Kaplan revealed as much. Given that some MMO bloggers and thinkers are starting to revisit the old debate of world versus game I thought it would be interesting to re-examine this candid interview.
So here’s the tell-tale 2007 interview where Jeff Kaplan admits that WoW was never about making a traditional MMO, instead it was all about exploiting the trappings of a MMO and making a game instead:
The MMO Gamer: This will be our final question. WoW obviously holds an enormous deal of appeal for a great number of people. A good friend of mine’s seventy year old mother, who had never played a game before in her life, until she picked up a copy of WoW, now has a level 70 Druid in a raiding guild. Everyone has their own theories as to the source of where this appeal lays, but what do you, as the lead designer think?
Jeffrey Kaplan: I think the source is the focus on fun. I think a lot of people got carried away with the concept of an MMO from a very high level of community management, or community manipulation, or an MMO as a social experiment. But what we did when we were working on WoW was focus on the fact that it was a game, and if one person played it all by themselves the game should be fun, and not to rely on traditional MMO thoughts of the time, which was forcing people to interact with each other, forcing a slow progression, and being overly punishing on the players. We just wanted to make an experience that was fun whether you wanted to play it by yourself, or with other people.
Make a really deep game, in a really rich world, and then later, focus on, in the later stages of development, how can we make that as accessible as possible through smart user interface choices, and really sort of simple gameplay at first that introduces you to the more complex mechanics the more into the game you want to get.
For anyone that cares about a true virtual fantasy world, this is akin to the moment where Dorothy finds out that the Wizard of Oz is a fraud. What you have here is a rare glimpse into the calculating and shrewd mind of Blizzard. This is the Rosetta Stone of how MMOs have been made ever since. It’s a rather frank admission that WoW is not a virtual world at all but just a game.
For the record, I strongly disagree with just about everything that Kaplan says. Here are a couple of things he said that I’d like to discuss:
MMO Developers Got Carried Away with Community Management?
Let’s take a look at this particular sentence which I find particularly egregious:
Kaplan: I think a lot of people got carried away with the concept of an MMO from a very high level of community management, or community manipulation, or an MMO as a social experiment.
What MMO is he talking about here? He seems to have something against a company that would actually consider the fact that communities of players form within a MMO. As if fostering a community within a MMO is a dubious, wasteful, anti-fun enterprise that must be avoided at all costs.
Blizzard has shown us many times in WoW’s past a complete and total disregard for community. Some examples are: you can avoid every dungeon and solo to the level cap without bothering to form a group. Another example, I’ve seen entire guilds breakup due to inept raid design and progression. Seven years of WoW and there is no real community left, unless you call Trade Chat “community”.
In truth, Blizzard has completely ignored their community, so to have Kaplan casting aspersions against a MMO company that would actually take the notion of community seriously is regrettable. Given this attitude it’s easy to see why Blizzard has never bothered to empower and nurture a good community in WoW. If you don’t even believe in community then why would you even care about having “good” community?
Even his use of the phrase “community manipulation” is absurd. What MMO community was ever manipulated? Is requiring that players group together a form of manipulation? Is raiding manipulation too?
Let’s not forget that this is the former guild leader of one of the most successful and notorious raiding guilds in EverQuest: Legacy of Steel. Without EverQuest and the community on his server he never would have landed that job at Blizzard. How lucky for him that the designers of EverQuest actually created and believed in a virtual world that required that people form cohesive social bonds and communities to overcome shared adversities.
If we want to be honest about manipulation then we need to look directly at Blizzard. Their stock in trade game design mechanic is to manipulate how players experience their game by using rewards. Players will do anything, travel anywhere to get a few more stat bonuses in the form of shiny purple loot. Blizzard are the true masters of Pavlovian manipulation and they have trained their players well.
And let’s not forget how much social devastation Blizzard has caused over the years as many guilds were forced to breakup due to their ever-changing raiding requirements. Just more social engineering courtesy of the non-manipulative folks at Blizzard.
MMOs Got Carried Away as a Social Experiment?
Next up is a real doozy. Kaplan use of the phrase “MMO as a social experiment”. I only wish that he would have had the courage to name names. Let’s ponder this question: what experimental MMOs were out there at the time that anyone had even heard about? This seems to be a direct salvo launched at Raph Koster’s involvement in both Ultima Online and the ill-fated Star Wars Galaxies. These aren’t the MMOs you are looking for Jeff…
This is direct evidence of risk aversion and creative negligence in Blizzard’s design philosophy. Experiments are seen as a waste of time at Blizzard unless of course you love PVP (waves to Tom Chilton) which has undergone years of experimentation and iterations forced on players which cost them millions of dollars of development resources.
It’s a Game Not a World
Here’s the smoking gun quote from Kaplan that proves beyond all shadow of a doubt that a “game” is the heart and soul of WoW:
Kaplan: …what we did when we were working on WoW was focus on the fact that it was a game, and if one person played it all by themselves the game should be fun, and not to rely on traditional MMO thoughts of the time, which was forcing people to interact with each other, forcing a slow progression, and being overly punishing on the players. We just wanted to make an experience that was fun whether you wanted to play it by yourself, or with other people.
This quote from Kaplan really needs no analysis. Everything that I have grown to detest and loathe about WoW has its origins in this kind of mentality. As long as MMOs continue to be made using the tactics in this playbook you will end up with predictability and stagnation.
Given this admission it’s easy to see why WoW appeals to so many people that would never have enjoyed a real virtual world. It’s because being part of a real virtual world takes effort, commitment and involvement whereas a gamer sits down and waits to be entertained with free bread and circuses.
Even as a “game” today’s WoW woefully misses the mark with its 85 levels of challenge free tutorials that would put a modern school child to sleep. It’s hardly the “deep” game as Kaplan claims.
What ever happened to their mantra “easy to learn, hard to master”? Look guys, by level 5 I learned how to play your game, why are you torturing me with 80 more levels of spoon fed pabulum? Why do you wait so long to introduce any semblance of challenge to your players?
When I think back of when WoW started, I recall how many veteran MMO players were seduced by Blizzard’s clever bait and switch scheme. Entire guilds transferred over from EQ to WoW. Since it looked and felt like a virtual world, we thought it *was* a virtual world. We mistakenly saw WoW as the natural successor to EverQuest. Since some of the high-ranking dev team were EQ players, we trusted them and figured that they were trying to make a better version of EQ. I think we naïvely projected our hopes onto WoW when in reality it was something completely different: a game dressed up with all the trappings of a virtual world.
Unearthing the root of Blizzard’s design philosophy gives us more clarity in understanding why they do what they do and even more importantly what they won’t do i.e. player housing. Admittedly, they created a unique product that leveraged elements from different genres and created something original in WoW but it was always lacking depth and meaning.
So here we are today in 2011. The average WoW player is probably unaware of the virtual world deficit inherent WoW. For many of them, WoW is their first MMO and that is all they know. Ignorance is bliss and that’s a shame because WoW could be a far better MMO if Blizzard were to shift some of their resources to non-achievement community focused content development.
But in the end, WoW is just a game and nothing more. WoW will never be a great because greatness was never its goal. There’s a big difference between wanting to achieve greatness and wanting to be popular.
It’s also far less of a philosophical burden and much easier to make a video game than it is a virtual world. Anything and everything can be excused because after all “it’s just a game…”.
Games have a utilitarian sensibility shielding them while virtual worlds are seen as pretentious experimentation or social engineering. After all, games are for real men and virtual worlds are for Renaissance faire sissies. This is the lie that the achievement obsessed raiding culture and the armchair alpha males who dominate the Elitist Jerks and the Fires of Heaven forums — would have you believe.
Let’s be honest, if Leonardo Da Vinci or J.R.R. Tolkien were alive today and applied for a job at Blizzard they would be turned away. While Blizzard claims to be hiring artists and designers what they really want are more accountants and statisticians that will help them make more money — not visionaries or world builders that will help them build a better world. To be frank, I don’t believe the people at Blizzard have the intellectual, spiritual and creative wherewithal to even fathom the creation of a real virtual world. It’s just too deep a concept for them to wrap their minds around. They are better left doing what they do best: creating video games for the masses.
There’s a good chance you’re right. The “Gameplay first” mantra is certainly in line with your analysis, as is the “concentrated coolness” one. However, moving too much away from the “world”, the simulation aspect, might not at all be good for WoW’s sub numbers, either.
After all they grew 6mio in the first year, then 2mio per year for the next 3 years and then they released TBC and haven’t grown a single million since then. With Cataclysm they even had to admit the first fall in sub numbers and since, for gameplay reasons (!), I am honestly unable to enjoy they beyond-trivial leveling GAME(!) nowadays, I don’t think they will ever grow again – let alone have more than 12 mio players.