Behind the Screen: World of WarCraft and the Evolution of the MMO

I’m a gamer.  Well, that’s not really true.  I used to be a gamer – there, that’s more accurate.  What gaming I do now tends to be retreads, sequels, or simple nostalgia – outside of indie games on Steam, I haven’t played a “new” franchise in… hell, probably close to eight years.  But I still pay attention to well-established franchises in my history that I remain interested in – the Diablo games, the StarCraft games, Civilization, and so on.  I tend to buy new/redone versions of old games, as well, so for instance, I recently picked up Final Fantasy 7 and 8 on Steam.  But truly new games?  They’re largely beyond me now; I just don’t have the energy or desire to invest in something I have no familiarity in.

That said, I still play two MMORPGs on-and-off.  The first one was my first MMO – Final Fantasy XI.  The second is, of course, World of WarCraft, because what MMO player didn’t play that at some point?  Both games are enjoyable on some level, frustrating on others, and totally not worth my time in yet others.  But I still poke them on occasion.  The primary reason I do this is because, as games, they’ve changed greatly.  In fact, neither game is what it was when it was initially released.  They’re almost completely different games, other than the basic skeleton.

I’ve thought about this a lot over the last three years, as both WoW and FFXI have undergone serious changes to support a smaller playerbase and a lack of incoming newbies.  But last week, in preparation for the next WoW expansion, Warlords of Draenor, WoW’s lead designer sat down for an enlightening interview.

The short of it is this – there are no “next-gen” MMOs.  When Blizzard canceled their rumored next-gen MMO, the almost completely unknown entity “Project Titan,” I considered it the death knell for the genre.  Much of what Hazzikostas says supports my theory, which is basically that the world of gaming is no longer primed for such games.  This is the world of Candy Crush success, where the most popular games aren’t games at all, but apps.  The idea of sitting down for an 8-hour gaming marathon is almost stigma again, something that’s frowned upon when people look up from their smartphones.

I’ve always thought that the MMO genre was born out of necessity, filling a void that a specific set of gamers was craving.  You see, the Super Nintendo era (’91-96) and the Playstation era (’97-’01) were basically golden eras of RPGs.  I won’t even begin to list the lovely games that came out during that time, 40-80 hour monoliths of epic story and patience.  But as the Playstation 2 era began in 2002, those games faded away – the simple, enjoyable, menu-based games that focused on story to offset boring interfaces.  Games became flashier, and most RPGs turned into action-RPGs.  Some Japanese RPGs still came over, but the frequency was much lower, and an entire group of gamers accustomed to long, arduous games was suddenly adrift.

Enter the MMO.  To keep up with advancing technology and instill a greater sense of… wonder, I guess… to the boring old RPG, companies put their games online, bringing tons upon tons of “heroes” into single worlds.  Those gamers, starved for the intensity of old-school RPGs, came.  Some of them came from the early predecessors, like Ultima Online and EverQuest, as well, of course.  Two games always stood out for me – FFXI and WoW.  Two reasons here; first, because both had major franchises to draw from, and second, they were (and still are) very different games, whereas many MMOs after WoW simply tried to imitate its formula.

Anyway.  The thing about playing a user-defined character for potentially years is that you sort of bond with the character.  You don’t want to give it up.  It becomes a deterrent from moving onto another MMO.  You put in all that work, raiding and gaining achievements and making unique weapons, whatever… and it makes the newer game much less enticing.  Eventually, Square-Enix managed to do this to some degree with FFXIV, but that is quite an anomaly.  Blizzard has chosen the other path, the one I expected all along – they gave up.  They realize their WoW players are most likely going to continue to play WoW regardless, and that to create a brand new MMO would only siphon WoW’s playerbase; they’d end up with two games to maintain that are basically sharing a playerbase, instead of two major games with distinct player bases.  It’s not cost-effective, not for development or for maintenance.  So instead, per the article above, Blizzard did the most logical thing available – they doubled down on WoW.

I’m not a big WoW fan anymore, but I can really appreciate Hazzikostas’ vision for the game.  He says it himself – the next-gen MMO is the current-gen MMO.  Warlords of Draenor is basically an entirely different game, an updated game, from vanilla WoW.  He carries the point further, pointing out that the average player of WoW when it launched was most likely a young adult or student of some sort, with lots of time on their hands; he’s realistic enough to realize that those players still make up most of the player base – as a result, he points out that the average current player of WoW is probably an adult, most likely with a career, possibly with a spouse or children.  That person simply would not be able to play original WoW anymore.  And that, to me, is exactly why there are no new MMOs.

The result of this – both in WoW and in FFXI and probably others – is that MMOs, which were once incredible grinds, have become incredibly player-friendly.  Shortcuts have been introduced.  Grinds reduced.  Mini-games with little-to-no bearing on the main story, but are fun and require only small bits of time, have been introduced for impulse gaming.  This has mixed results; raids in WoW are far more merciful, but the loss of the detailed talent tree is unfortunate.  People wax nostalgic for the “hardcore days,” and bemoan players who weren’t present for them.  But really, no one wants those.  We look back with rose-colored glasses, remembering days of misbegotten youth when we had time to burn and the only thing to do at 1am on a Wednesday night was spend a couple hours dying repeatedly to a raid boss or camping a notorious world-spawn, not worried about being late to class or sleep-deprived the next day.  We all liked those days.  But the fact is, we aren’t those people anymore.  That core gamer group is adults now, people with bedtimes and responsibilities.  It’s a change, and I’m rather impressed by Blizzard’s open awareness of it.

So Warlords of Draenor comes, and Hazzikostas has the right idea in mind.  WarCraft will continue to roll on, because why wouldn’t it?  More expansions will come, perhaps smaller in scope and continually adapting to the player base as it grows.  Those young 30-somethings playing now may have toddlers and young children; in five years they’ll have pre-teens, and their time usage will change again.  But again, Blizzard is conscious of that.

The gaming horizon still lacks for quality RPGs – the MMO remains the last bastion of the epic RPG, unless you enjoy action-RPGs, which have always been a mixed bag for me.  And like them or not, MMOs have the range to tell stories that even the best Japanese RPGs could not come close to (well, a select handful of the best still sit on top, but still).  But accessibility was always the problem – the storylines culminated in major events that required a skilled group.  Seeing those restrictions relaxed, and seeing these games open their maws wider, allowing for greater and greater degrees of casual players, well, it’s a good thing.  Because wax nostalgic or not about the “old hardcore days,” people and demographics change, and the only way an interactive genre survives is to keep up with its player base.  And that’s exactly what WoW is doing, so far with success.  I can applaud that, even if I’m part of that group who reads the above interview, looks at Warlords of Draenor, and gives a little shrug, having felt life moved on, saying “Nah, it’s just not for me anymore.”


Remember when winning was enough?

I’ve been playing video games for a long time. Most of my life now; at least two-thirds of it with some form of regularity with gaming as my go-to indoor leisure activity. To do the math and put that into perspective, let’s say I’ve been gaming regularly since, oh, about 1994. My early years were primarily with the Nintendo/Super Nintendo systems; by 1997, I found a game that tickled my fancy so greatly that it started the process of turning me into the predominantly PC gamer I am now (that game was Diablo).

One of the greatest boons of the Internet age of gaming is that we can play with other people; this, however, inevitably leads to social constructs and hierarchies in which players must prove themselves worthy. In the old days, games did not take this into consideration. For the purposes of this argument, because they so clearly reflect what I mean, I’ll point to differences between Diablo and Diablo III.

Diablo was one of the most beautifully simple games ever, in my opinion. Three classes with limited customization and sixteen random dungeon levels to explore, which doled out random loot. This made Diablo infinitely replayable, despite being a game centered around one town and sixteen “floors” of dungeon. That’s pretty much all there was to the game. Of course, there was a finite list of possible items and permutations of dungeon layouts, but for the most part, it always felt fresh, and it was fun to try and get consistently better gear, to the point of getting the best possible “King’s Sword of Haste”, for example (even the prefix/suffix system which generated bonus stats on items pulled a random number from a defined range; my King’s Sword of Haste could have been better than your King’s Sword of Haste). Because of the replayability of the game, players did lots of bizarre or surprising stuff on occasion. I had a Sorcerer (my preferred class) who could stand toe-to-toe with Diablo on the hardest difficulty, for example, and survive. One night, my stepbrother and his guild mates did some PvP naked boxing – they made level 1 characters, entered a game together, went into the dungeon, and killed each other barehanded. Why? Because it was goofy. I can’t prove to you these things happened; they’re nothing but memories for me now, special because of their spontaneity. Likewise, in Diablo, the Butcher boss was usually a difficult kill at the level he was encountered on; the playerbase figured out that he doesn’t open doors, so we’d lock ourselves in a room with windows and kill him with ranged attacks.

Diablo III, on the other hand, represents the newer generation of online games, which almost always include an “Achievement System” (to be fair, Blizzard is most notorious for this, but it exists across platforms and genres). This is common nowadays; many games have this, and Microsoft certainly pushed this agenda with Xbox Achievement Points which spanned the entire library of Xbox games. Achievement systems are pretty harmless in and of themselves; they give players an additional goal to push for, or create a singularly difficult idea that a player may not have otherwise thought of. It adds flavor. The downside is that as achievement systems get more fabricated into the gaming community itself, it comes at the cost of spontaneity. It’s entirely possible that the Sorcerer I had in Diablo becomes an achievement in another game (i.e. defeat Boss X with a melee blow from a ). Even my stepbrother’s idiot boxing could become a plausible achievement (i.e. defeat a foe at level 1 without using a weapon). Defeating the Butcher without taking any damage/using only ranged attacks? That’s an obvious achievement waiting to happen.

Beyond the loss of spontaneous gaming, achievement systems also create the sense that beating a game is no longer an end in and of itself; you beat the game to progress onto other achievements, or as a result of your progression, but not as an objective in and of itself. Achievements become a way to garner replayability at the cost of actual game design; rather than make a difficult game, create a game with multiple difficulties and a range of achievements across each one. Perhaps this is a marriage of convenience – after all, no one wants to make an online game people only play once to beat. But an achievement system creates your goals for you; a game like Diablo, so beautiful in its simplicity, gave the players no such framework, and yet the players continued to play, driven by the simple fact that the game was fun and fresh (there was nothing else like it on the market at the time).

Back in the day, I had my little Diablo icon guy – he had his 3 dots, for beating each level of difficulty in the game. That was as close to an achievement system as Diablo came; past that, relaying your “achievements” was a word-of-mouth activity, and something you needed a certain cred for to be believable. In Diablo 3? There’s no distinction in beating the game. The distinction is in your numbers – your achievement point total, or your overall DPS (damage-per-second). We’ve lost touch with what it is to just beat a game, sit back, and enjoy it. Beating the game is no longer the point; winning isn’t beating the game anymore, it’s achieving a measurable end – be it damage or achievement points or something else.

My point here is that the gaming experience is slowing being quantified. To be fair, this has always been true to some degree; games are basically just math behind the pretty graphics, after all. We know that bigger numbers are better. But players are increasingly, across many online RPGs, being quantified into numbers – be it damage statistics or achievement points or whatever else. I suppose the damage thing bothers me less; math is math, and that’s pretty objective math. But achievement systems are something else; quantifying player action is a much more abstract idea, a much more subversive sort of tracking. Achievement systems place value in how players play the game without asking for their input. I have no interest in level 1 boxing in Diablo, but if there was an achievement for it in Diablo III, I’d do it once for those 10 points. While things like damage-per-second are a quick (sloppy and often inaccurate) method of gauging player skill, achievement systems tell us nothing about a player other than how OCD they might be. Yes, many achievements in many games are uniquely challenging and completing them is rewarding. But they’re someone else’s challenge, someone else’s way to add a covert level of difficulty to the game, and someone else’s way to quantify player action and encourage players to play the game a certain way beyond the normal scope of beating the game.

Two of my favorite online games to date (Diablo, Final Fantasy XI) have no such achievement system. Players in those games created their own challenges, enjoyed their own successes, and made their own legends by retelling those successes. There’s no achievement for beating Diablo melee-style with a Sorcerer, or for clearing all three nations’ missions in FFXI; but I did those things, because I thought they’d be fun and worthwhile. But more than anything, I miss winning being enough. When I beat Diablo for the first time on the highest difficulty, there was no in-game mechanism to keep me playing. I could win and go home. I kept playing because of friends and because of the fun; but most importantly, I did not keep playing because of a subtle nudge from the game itself that there was still something around the corner to do. Winning was enough. It’s not anymore.

On gaming and the future of MMOs…

I’ve been a “gamer” for close to 20 years now, nearly two-thirds of my life.  I started with the NES and DOS-based, pre-Windows computer systems.  I started on Mario and Zelda and early computer games like Wolfenstein 3-D and some grid-based D&D game I never knew the actual name of.  I didn’t really get “into” gaming until I was encountered the Super Nintendo and, in particular, the Zelda incarnation of that platform – A Link to the Past.  The crisp sprite-based graphics and free-feeling combat caught me.  I was a Nintendo Power subscriber at this time and my eye was immediately caught by the next crisp medieval-era game that came around – Secret of Mana.  A fan of medieval combat and weaponry, the selection of weapons and real-time combat was a hook.  It was Secret of Mana that introduced the term “RPG (role-playing game)” to my vocabulary.  I kept an eye out for RPGs after that, and it turned out to be the perfect time to do so, because the next two games I encountered as a result were Final Fantasy VI (III) and Chrono Trigger.

To gamers now, or people who didn’t experience the Super NES era, there’s really no way to fully explain Final Fantasy VI.  VI was an apex.  It was the best of the gaming medium encapsulated into a single game, a single experience.  It was the first game to really grab you and hit you with a narrative that had a truly literary scope.  It was the game, for me, when games went from a trivial interest to an experience unto themselves.  Chrono Trigger followed up on this, but for me, did not achieve the lofty level that VI did.  VI and Chrono Trigger were massive successes (Chrono Trigger was the first game I ever pre-ordered) and the industry took notice; the next generation of RPGs, the Playstation era, were set to capitalize on the RPG as an experience.

It started with Final Fantasy VII, which despite coming out a year after the Playstation debuted, was truly a launch title, a game that people bought the Playstation for.  No RPG has commanded that kind of respect since.  Despite being a very raw-looking game using polygonal 3-D models, VII featured cinematic cutscenes that were the most stunning things on the platform at the time.  Like it’s predecessor, VII featured an expansive storyline and, like most RPGs of that time, took anywhere from 40-100 hours to complete.  The experience takes time to build.  The list of RPGs that followed Final Fantasy VII on the Playstation are a who’s-who list of great games and influences for future games; make no mistake, the golden era of RPGs was on the Playstation (moreso yet when certain SNES titles were reproduced for the Playstation).  Xenogears, the Suikoden games, Valkyrie Profile, the Lunar games, and many more I’m neglecting to mention all continued to push the boundaries of the gaming narrative.

But most RPGs are plagued by two things – a rudimentary, menu-based combat system and mediocre graphics.  They’re games of strategy in combat, something that can’t be executed quickly.  Commands are given and battles are fought in a turn-based method.  RPGs were predominantly sprite-based in this era, with the skeleton of a game being a grid (which was better and better disguised as the generation progressed) upon which sprites (characters that occupy a grid square) move across.  Perhaps in light of this, RPGs saved their visual flair for the cinematic cutscenes mentioned above – and boy did they.  In many games, the player would progress through arduous tasks and narrative and the reward, besides victory, was a feast of computer-generated cinematics to convey a key event in the narrative.  It wasn’t evident at the time, but as technology continued to advance, it became evident that the status quo, graphically, would not hold.

As the Playstation 2 era dawned, RPGs got an overhaul, and it was obvious to most RPG players that the genre was in crisis.  The traditional (Japanese) RPG of turn-based combat and extensive narrative that took 40+ hours to complete was being displaced in large by the Western action-RPG, games with fluid real-time combat augmented by minor character-building features and a lesser narrative, which often took less than 20 hours to complete.  The list of memorable PS2 RPGs is much shorter than that of the Playstation.

But as time went on the RPG evolved somewhat unexpectedly – taking a cue from the success of online RPGs of the ’90s like EverQuest and Diablo, the time-intensive RPG of the vast narrative found new life as an online game. The massively multiplayer online RPG (MMORPG) was born, and those who craved the all-encompassing experience of the Playstation-era RPG found their new hobby.  The static 40-hour narrative was replaced with something even grander; a narrative that could unfold over months or even years, moved by dynamic characters that could change, as well.  Players could invest in a character or set of characters that they would play for years.

The MMO is a strange beast, and the investment a player makes in an MMO is staggering compared to RPGs in the past.  Whereas a player can sit down and complete Final Fantasy VI or VII in a couple days of playtime, the same is not true for an MMO, which has no fixed ending.  Sure, a story segment may finish, but the allure of new events is always around the corner, and there are generally very few players in any MMO who obtain everything relevant to them in each set of new content, as it comes out.  MMOs always have something else to offer.  But MMOs are at a crucial crossroads, because the original generation of mainstream MMOs is coming to an end.  The eye is looking to the future, and so far, the future hasn’t worked out so well.  The majority MMO out there is, and has been, World of WarCraft, which too many subsequent MMOs tried to model themselves off of.  My particular MMO of choice has been Final Fantasy XI, which has adapted since it launched 10 years ago to a smaller and more casual playerbase.  But subscriptions for MMOs are on the decline, and both of the aforementioned RPGs are looking ahead; Blizzard, who makes WoW, has “Project Titan” in the works, the codename for their next-generation MMO, and Square-Enix, who makes FFXI, is re-launching its successor, Final Fantasy XIV, after an initial failure.

Penny Arcade had a comic up some weeks ago about MMOs, largely in response to word that Project Titan was being scrapped and restarted from scratch.  In the news/commentary section, Tycho (I think it was) made the point that, in reality, there is no such thing as an MMO sequel; there’s no “WoW 2” because we’re playing WoW 6 or 7 already.  This is, largely, true, I think.  MMOs evolve; I last played WoW in 2011 and gave it a shot a couple months ago due to an excess of time due to a broken ankle.  WoW had changed beyond my recognition, and the WoW I wanted to play no longer exists.  Final Fantasy XI, similarly, has changed greatly since its inception and subsequent adaptions into something that’s very unlike its initial form.  But the key question is this – as players change with their MMOs, and stick with the changes, they stay in large part because the MMO creates an emotional memory; we attribute memories and emotions to events and people that we wouldn’t in a single player game.  Beyond that, we form emotional commitments to our characters themselves – if you spend 180 days of playtime building a character to be very powerful, exactly what is your incentive to start over from scratch in a brand-new game?

It’s telling that no MMO has challenged WoW over the last several years, and that FFXI’s attempt to move on failed initially.  I actually think there’s no next-generation MMO success to be had.  For one, when MMOs first debuted, there was a yearning playerbase for them: a surprisingly large population of gamers who would routinely sink 80-100 hours into single-player RPGs; with those games declining alarmingly, these players were primed for MMOs and many of them were an age where such intensive play was acceptable within their lives.  Nowadays, I argue that MMOs are competing for a dwindling playerbase; that the current single-player gaming environment does not create MMO players, and that MMO players are slowly exiting the scene, aging out of hardcore play as they get married/have children/pursue careers.  This is why games like WoW and FFXI have had to simplify their games and make them more friendly to casual players.  Beyond that, I argue that many players will stick to their MMO; a next-generation successor to WoW may succeed if all WoW players make the move, but they won’t.  I’d estimate, based on personal experience, that anywhere from 30-70% of an MMO’s players will stick with it rather than move on, or, even more devastatingly, many will “try” the new game only to drop it later.  This is the pattern that’s killing most new MMOs now; a game like RIFT or the Old Republic launch respectably enough only to see their subscription numbers drop and dwindle after that.  The inevitable move is made to go free-to-play, which is basically the death knell for an MMO; MMOs make money via subscription.  Nothing is worse for publicity than a drop in subscribers after 3 months; anyone considering picking up the game will pass if it looks dead-on-arrival, and MMO arrival takes place 3-6 months after launch as players get established and content gets fully accessed.

FFXIV re-launches next month after a massive failure the first time around; everyone should be paying attention.  FFXI is 10+ years old and shows its age; no doubt, a great deal of FFXI’s population (30-70%, I bet) will at least go try FFXIV.  Having had an opportunity to already learn from their mistakes, Square-Enix has a surprisingly unique opportunity to try and address issues made specific from the previous failure.  That the playerbase is even still willing to try is impressive enough, in terms of loyalty.  This is a proving ground for a next generation of MMOs, and it’ll be interesting to see what their numbers show by Christmas, in terms of player subscriptions, and whether they track FFXI migration versus new player sign-ups.  If even 25% of their subscribers drop FFXIV and go back to XI by Christmas, though, you have to think that it’ll be the all-too-familiar story that has played out over recent years.  I imagine Blizzard is paying attention.  As for me?  I’ll be happy playing FFXI, knowing that’s my MMO these days, and with no desire and no time to start over from scratch in a new world, no matter how compelling the narrative may or may not be.  Like many gamers in the target MMO audience, I’m “aging out” – I’m married, pursuing a career, looking ahead to having children.  The idea of investing fully into a new MMO world?  It’s just too much now.