Thursday, April 17, 2008

Eureka! It’s the innovation, stupid!

Cameron Sorden of Random Battle is writing for Massively now. He has a great new article up titled “When will the players leave WoW?

The basic thesis of the article is that players whose only MMO experience is Warcraft will not leave WoW for another game without a monumental leap in gameplay. His argument is that only players who have already jumped ship from another MMO are looking for the next great MMO title. He surmises that the affection and attachment players hold for their first MMO will prevent them from leaving for anything short of a dramatic improvement in gameplay.

I don’t agree entirely with the logic, but I do agree with the sentiment that any game company that hopes to unseat WoW as the MMO of popular choice can’t simply re-package the WoW experience and expect to woo customers away from Blizzard. As Cameron points out, “WoW took the EQ formula and fixed everything that sucked.” In turn, the next MMO champion is going to need to take all the things that suck about WoW and fix it while keeping all the things that made the game so popular.

That’s a pretty steep challenge. The most obvious flaws in WoW are very deeply rooted in the original EQ formula. Fixing those flaws would require challenging many of the very basic game design formulas that we all associate and take for granted with MMOs.

Sound familiar? On Tuesday, I wrote that I believed the holy trinity of Tank, Healer and DPS was fundamentally broken and the result of an antiquated mechanic developed because early MMOs lacked the technology to produce intelligent AI. I would maintain that working to rethink that basic MMO principle now that better AI is more accessible would be a great starting point for any developer looking to create a serious competitor to WoW.

Likewise, I wrote back in February that I believed one of the other great flaws of Warcraft is that the incremental benefit received for each gear upgrade far outweighs any incremental benefit gained from becoming a more skilled player. Every “unfun” aspect of WoW can be attributed in some form to the mess this flawed reward system creates. As someone pointed out on Tobold’s blog earlier in the week, it says something about the game when the “fun thing” is opening the chest full of loot at the end and not the 45 minutes leading up to that point.

So while I strongly agree with Cameron that innovation and improved gameplay is going to be what it takes to unseat WoW, I disagree with him in his thinking that most players have such a strong affection for WoW at this point. Quite the contrary, people are bored. An expansion every two years and a content update every 9 months is not enough to keep this game fresh and interesting. At least EQ put out A LOT of content and, as Tobold pointed out, even provided a whole new leveling experience from level 1 to the new level cap in the Ruins of Kunark expansion.

I would argue that many people will try WAR when it is released simply for the variety and the fact that it is DIFFERENT. In marketing terms, WAR is going to be given an opportunity to steal market share from Blizzard. We will then see if they have enough innovation and improved gameplay to hold onto that share or whether it will go back to Blizzard. However, the fact that they will be given that opportunity is testament alone to the fact that the Blizzard status quo is stale and predictable.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I agree that the Tank, Healer & DPS paradigm is a mechanic to make up for the lack of AI, the assumption that AI is so much better now doesn't quite work.

The problem with adding better AI to an MMO is that the player scale is so huge, AI is severely limited on the server-side, most game servers are heavily bogged just keeping track of players, loot, etc.. It would require trusting the client a lot more than current games do (and even now they're forced to trust the client too much).

The amount of exploits would grow proportionately with the AI, plus be more difficult to trace due to the complexity.

It would be nice to see some new paradigms, but it would be risky not just on whether it's fun or playable, but the expense of networking and server infrastructure (or the expense of risking your game into a spiral of exploits).