What’s the deal with WoW mechanics? A gaming catch-22
The gaming world this week is awash in MMO news. Star Wars: The Old Republic lost close to 25% of its player base and the newly announced Elder Scrolls MMO was kind of a disappointment. TERA also released to positive fanfare and Guild Wars 2 recently hosted a weekend-long beta for pre-orders. And, should we say it? Diablo 3, while not an MMO, is right around the corner, sure to steal away the attention of the grinding hordes for at least some time.
But something more interesting is beginning to bubble up to the top of gamer’s interests. Is WoW-style gameplay finally stale? A lot of people seem to think so, a lot of other people completely disagree. For a game-type that’s been around for nearly a decade (and really now, longer than that if you want to include some of the pre-WoW era MMOs), its not surprising to consider the idea that maybe people are getting a little bored of it, or they want something that just feels fresher.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. People once revered the space combat genre, as well as the mech combat genre or even point-and-click adventure games. I don’t think its a huge stretch to think that if a genre isn’t offering up a lot of new twists to keep it fresh, then people will eventually desert it for something else.
World of Warcraft, at one point, was thought to be the pinnacle of MMO gaming, a formula that was so perfect no others could defeat it. Or maybe they could just copy it. And so began the nearly decade-long time of WoW-clones that just couldn’t live up to the task of de-throning the game. But that’s the catch-22 right there: The only way to beat WoW is by being exactly like it, but if you’re exactly like it, nobody else will play your game.
At least this seems to be the mentality of MMO ventures in the last 6 or 7 years. From Lord of the Rings Online to Warhammer Online to recently released Star Wars: The Old Republic, time after time it just boils down to a click-fest of grinding, leveling, questing for the waypoint and skill tree..ing. While addictive and fun at least for the “good” parts of the game, those good parts are buried underneath hours and hours of menial work tasks. Suddenly the escape from reality is nothing more than an satire of reality.
Something I’ve gone back and forth with myself on this genre is this question: what’s the real secret sauce to MMO games? What really makes them click for people? Some might say is the community. I’m pretty sure this is a big part of it. I remember the few MMO games I’ve been involved with (admittedly for way shorter time spans than others) were greatly enhanced with a sizeable group to communicate and play with. I also play a lot of competitive multiplayer games with friends though and I’ve felt more-or-less the same type of enjoyment.
So I also like to think it probably is something about the gameplay. It always comes back to gameplay. If communities were the only reason for a successful MMO, then why don’t they all have equally large playerbases? Its because some games are more fun to play than others. I always got this impression about WoW. It may have a lot of grinding, but its good about rewarding you often and constantly ticking that level counter up until you’ve reached the max. The top tiers become epic loot hunts and PvP showdowns, showcasing the true potential of persistent online worlds, but in the case of WoW, never really crossing into that threshold completely.
EVE Online actually does attract players because of its community, but that is due to the nature of its gameplay. The anything-goes ideal of the EVE universe have given rise to the best online dramas. From what I’ve played of EVE, I can firmly say that the gameplay is not the real draw, it requires a ridiculous amount of time to play (even offline), but I’m sure much of that is mitigated by the sort of exploits you can pull off. This also probably explains the game’s still fairly small, but tightly-knit (and growing) community of players.
So really now, the gameplay seems to be where the real secret lies. Why hsan’t anyone else done the math here? The only way out of the catch-22 is to simply ignore it. That’s what Guild Wars 2 is trying to attempt, at least where it can in terms of getting rid of traditional questing, leveling, skills and even loot. Your skills change depending on your weapon? How did no one else think of that? But I don’t want to make this all about Guild Wars, their game has familiar click-and-play tropes as well.
What I’m getting at is that you just need to get away from that core gameplay already, think way, way, way outside of the box. Before WoW, we were swimming in all sorts of somewhat similar, yet still distinct, MMO titles. But afterward it was almost like a nuke hit the MMO landscape. Maybe with the recent demise in WoW numbers and TOR numbers, we’ll start to see that this strategy just doesn’t work anymore.
I can’t completely fault the genre. When I invest in one of these games I can usually manage a good 40 to 60 hours of gameplay before getting the itch to move on. That’s nothing to sneeze at compared to most games I play. But I can never get rid of the nagging feeling that I’ve played this before, and if I were a game designer, I’d never want a player to tell me that. Even if I were reviving a dead genre, it would be great to have people think about how fresh it still felt. Please game makers, get out of this box and find something new.