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.”