I’m just going to say it: WoW killed innovation in MMO’s.
This is a slightly different take on the recent wave of “MMO’s are dying” sentiments floating around the blogosphere. I don’t believe for a moment that the MMO genre is dying, for the same reason that I don’t think the FPS or RTS genres are dying: there is still a steady stream of big name titles being developed and released, even though the rate of releases seems lower than a few years ago. But I think the prophesising of doom that has been going on for a while is due to the vast majority of MMO’s playing very very similarly. Similarly to WoW.
Yes, yes, I know that there were a number of MMO’s that came before WoW. But WoW was an iteration on those formulae, and we haven’t really seen anything revolutionary since. EVE Online grew up alongside WoW, which could explain why it has flourished for as long as – if not as spectacularly as – WoW, despite being so different. So why have there been no substantial advancements in the genre since Blizzard was crowned King?
I believe that the major reason is that WoW showed the industry that MMO’s could be big business. When you get the kind of money that Blizzard was raking in in the mid-late 00’s, other businesses want a piece of the action. Given that most of them were starting way behind Blizz and SOE, they needed to catch up quickly or drop out of the race entirely. They’d see the sheer amounts that WoW was making and their development model would not even consider the “build up a small but loyal following and expand slowly” idea – it’d be all “we need to tap into the existing playerbase”. They had to, in order to justify the money that investors were injecting into these projects. When you are dealing with that kind of investment, small and steady returns are not attractive.
Investors looking at WoW’s revenue stream would be dissatisfied with anything less than stellar returns from their own projects. This would mean that anything innovative, that wasn’t proven to work (as attractive gameplay) already, would be heavily frowned upon as a potential waste of time and resources. Thus, the path of least risk would be to copy the gameplay of WoW. Sure, you had to have something to distinguish your product, but it couldn’t be too radical a departure from what Blizzard had perfected. LOTRO would rely on the draw of the IP, as would STO and SWTOR and TESO. TSW would lean heavily on the setting and skill system (and my favourite, investigation missions).
When you are trying to steal players from another game, you can’t offer anything too radically different, or you have no foot in the door. By being able to say “this is what you are used to, but better!”, you can entice players away from Blizzard. On the other hand, as we have seen in the last few years, that works the other way too, where Blizzard has kind-of-copied popular aspects of other MMO’s to draw players back (or away from those games). But Blizzard was there first, already comfortably established, so any net loss after this exchange of player loyalties is something they can afford – the newer games cannot afford it nearly as much.
I think that the repeated attempts to challenge WoW for sheer profitability were the result of investors treating the MMO industry in a similar way that several other global markets operate. Take the mobile phone or tablet industry, for example. It is dominated by a couple of names, but they all do practically the same thing. Same with the console market. I don’t think that anyone really anticipated that WoW would not share the market at all. I think people – not least of all, the people with the development cash – expected one, maybe two major rivals to rise and compete with WoW, and then there would be all the satellite MMO’s picking up the niche scraps. And I think that the reason so many MMO’s over the last 10 years have been WoW ‘clones’ is because they all tried to establish themselves as that major rival. The result has been an MMO bubble, that is going to burst in the next couple of years.
I’ve recently become disillusioned by ArcheAge from the reviews/impressions of some bloggers in the beta, I don’t think that there is enough new in the game to really differentiate itself (at least, not in a good way). So that leaves me with my fingers crossed for EQ Next, and the two space MMO’s Star Citizen and Elite: Dangerous. No Man’s Sky is also intriguing but I’m not sure how much of an MMO it is at this stage. I have a feeling that the only ways forward from here are either massively improved AI to provide both challenging, dynamic combat and immersive interaction, or a proper virtual world that is player-driven and basically just curated by the developers rather than designed by them. I have a dream game along those lines, that I’ll try to lay out in depth on this blog, but I fear we may be waiting at least another 5 years before anyone attempts anything truly innovative.