This one is it. No kidding this time. This is definitely it. The MMO *insert the next big thing* is definitely going to be a World of Warcraft killer. Period. No question.
Ok...enough of that. The truth is, we have all heard or read the above statement at least a dozen times in the last 5 years. Every now and then, a big game company comes up with a new MMO concept and they sell the heck out of it on the interweb. The ideas seem fresh. The art is new. The graphics engine is pretty. And they all promise that this will not be a grind fest. All of this translates into hundreds of posts on World of Warcraft (as well as other gaming) forums how the end is coming. How a mass exodus of players will suddenly cancel their subscriptions and move all of their efforts into the next big MMO.
But then....nothing happens. The 9 million plus subscription behemoth keeps chugging away. Sometimes it feels the arrival of the new kid, especially in the subscription number decline seen recently. Still, it somehow continues to hold the crown as the biggest and baddest.
The truth of the matter is we may not see a true WoW killer for quite some time. This is not to say that WoW has no flaws; far from it. We could fill countless forum pages on all the issues WoW has (and many of us have).
A WoW killer is simply improbable because of the state of the MMO space. Every new game that enters the market comes in at a disadvantage. Regardless of the new features or the intellectual property it is based on, the new game enters years behind and is never really given a good chance to establish itself as a solid WoW alternative. It’s like Floyd Mayweather Jr. against that new kid. Sure, he might be a complete new comer with flashy new moves (Rift). Or he could be the son of a great, a name with all the right pedigree (SWTOR). In the end though, the champion has the upper hand.
The Devil in the...features...
MMOs are an interesting beast, in that they are constantly changing. Content patches and expansion packs continually work to move the story along and help to make the gameplay feel new. This iterative cycle is one of the biggest advantages that WoW has on all of its competition. Over the last 8 years, Blizzard has had the opportunity to experiment, tweak, adjust, calibrate, and all together blow up (I’m looking at you, talent system) major features in WoW. Each time it was a reaction to a concern on within the games community. Whether it is class balance or overall content fun, the developers have had lots of time to adjust the experience to their player base. Even when something begins to feel stale, they find a way to freshen it up and get us hooked again. The game even keeps a museum like record of its history. Just compare the still existing Molton Core to the Ulduar raid. Or even more notoriously, the Outlands leveling experience to the rest of the game. Things have evolved quite a bit over the years and largely to make the game more accessible and enjoyable.
The new kids don’t have this luxury. Development studios working on an MMO have difficult decisions to make when it comes to the features they have prepared at launch. With very high budgets to begin with, a number of features need to be cut in order to meet a specific delivery date. This is hardly greed speaking either. The truth of the matter is there are only so many millions a company can invest in a project before it needs to yield some revenue.
One example of this phenomenon would be the omission of a “dungeon finder” by BioWare when SWTOR was released. While I do not know the specifics of why this was decided, I wouldn’t be surprised if the idea even revolved around allowing more player interactivity while grouping for major dungeons. Unfortunately for the development team, they underestimated the negativity some players still held from PUGing experiences and the level of comfort they felt in being able to quest and wait for a group at the same time. Luxury is hard to move back from.
The same goes beyond the game features and into the server infrastructure as well. There is no question that Blizzard learned a ton about the performance of their game and the profile of hardware required to support a game like WoW. All of this has resulted in a much more stable environment, with less and less down time due to maintenance. Sure, that may not seem like much now, but ask any developer that has gone through a rocky “go-live” and they will tell you stable environments are worth their first born.
Return on Investment
A few months ago, someone in my raid’s vent channel started talking about Titan. The conversation quickly converted to how Titan was going to replace WoW and we would all move to whatever the new game will be. While that point on its own can be debated, the most interesting comment followed. One of our “non-gamer” members said, clearly distraught, “Awww....I don’t want to go through all of this leveling again.”
I would not be surprised if this was a sentiment shared by a number of other people in the WoW community. Whether you have one character or seven different alts, odds are you spent quite a bit of time in game. Leaving all of that behind to start playing another game can be very difficult. It’s like quitting your job after 7 years and giving back all of your pension benefits. You are basically back to square one.
This can also be a completely emotional response. Again, if you have spent any significant time in any MMO you are bound to have fond memories of your adventures and the friends you shared them with. It’s like selling the home where your first child was raised. Sure, you might be moving to something bigger, but all the memories are here.
Lastly, there is the small detail that was included in the quote above; not all WoW players are gamers. At first, this was very surprising to me. In my younger years I was under the impression that MMOs were for the truly hardcore. WoW broke that stereotype. A large number of the folks I raid with simply look at themselves as WoW players. They are not looking for a new game to switch to. They just want to enjoy their time with their friends. Most of the marketing out there won’t have any impact on them.
Its the People....the people I tell you....
Similarly to my point above, it’s important to note that the most influential and exciting part of the MMO-verse are the people behind the characters. I am a firm believer that the WoW community should be (and I know is to some extent) the study of social behavior for many years. The ways in which millions of players interact in a virtual world are astounding when you consider them. Whether it’s the team behavior on of raid or the inner political turmoil of a guild, it’s the other players that will usually have the biggest impact on your experience. So with that in mind, why would you leave them?
Good experiences or bad, many of us have been with the WoW community for a long time. Whether active forum poster, distant forum stalker, blogger, simcrafter, or role-player, we have all found our favorite part of this game. With that, we ran into like minded people we have “friended” and continued to speak to over the years. We share in their virtual ups and downs, as well as their real life experiences. Guilds go through divorces, marriages, deaths, moves, job loss, births of children, new family pets, and even day to day job doldrums. All of this helps to make this odd group of people that get together to play a videogame a few times a week much more than just characters on the screen. It makes them a part of our lives.
It’s no wonder that it can be difficult to leave our guild for the next best thing in videogames. Sure, the shiny new graphics will get us to install the game. But after playing for a while, we quickly realize that none of the little quirks of guild chat made it over. Sure, there are exceptions. In a number of cases, guilds have moved together. They are like minded people all looking for a new challenge. Still, quite a few people come back simply because they missed the people they shared these experiences with. It’s the same reason why Google+ can’t beat Facebook; you can move over, but you cannot always take your friends with you.
Naturally, all of the above points are nothing WoW exclusive. Any well planned and supported MMO would build off of the same strengths. However, in the current market, WoW has established itself the most in all of these categories. Approximately 9 million subscribers plus 8 years of experience equals a giant that is nearly impossible to topple.
Will it ever disappear? No question. At some point, the engine will become so outdated and the play style so overdone that even the most dedicated players will begin to look towards something new. Until that day though, all MMO developers will have a very hard time surpassing, or even matching, the level of success that WoW has achieved. In the current landscape, it simply has an unfair advantage.
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I am sure most of you would agree; you never forget your first love. I know I certainly won’t forget mine. It’s actually funny how you can remember all the little details when they mean so much to you. I remember she had silky skin and blond hair. I remember she had a magnetic personality. She was smart, curious, and always capitalized on an opportunity to learn. On top of that, she was sweetly innocence and constantly trying to make the world a better place. Seems too rosy? Perhaps, but it’s the way I remember her. We met under fairly tremulous circumstances, so romance wasn’t the first thing on our minds. However, as we spent more and more time together, the bond was undeniable. It was as if we were made for each other. As if in the infinite randomness of the universe, through nothing short of a miracle, our souls were brought together to enrich each other’s lives from now until the end of time. And then there were those hot pointy ears.
I’m referring to Aerie from the game Balduer’s Gate 2 done by the masters of character design at BioWare. While the above paragraph might be exaggerating the experience a bit (I do love pointy ears!), the impact that it had on my gaming experience was pretty big. This was the first game I ever had a “Whoa, I can choose who my character falls in love with?” moment. Before Balduer’s Gate, the only other experience similar to this was the romantic choice between Chelsee and Regan in The Pandora Directive. The main difference is that my choice, Regan, was a bit of an accident. I didn’t particularly like Regan as a character, but my Tex Murphy still ended up in bed with her (art imitating life?). Regardless, a personal romantic choice was a largely unused feature in video games up until that point.
Were it not for the love of Princess Peach and Mario, or the numerous incarnations of Zelda and Link, we wouldn’t be here today having our own love affair with video games as whole. Still, it is certainly harder to get drawn into the love story when there is nothing personally vested into it. In those games, we only saw the story from afar. Princess Peach never yelled, “Save me, Save me Kris”. That pot bellied plumber got all of the accolades. Now-a-days I’m front and center, and during my play time with BG2, that blew my mind.
Different Types of Love
While exceptions occur, the majority of the AAA titles released today that have a strong focus on story tend to offer the player some level of choice in their adventure. This also includes the main character’s romantic interest, of which there tend to be multiple options. One example would be Fable 3. While the path from Rebel to King can be played through with very little romantic involvement, the player theoretically has the opportunity to have a relationship with any non-player character in the game. The game will even go as far as tracking statistics for the player on number of sexual conquests, STDS, group sex partners , and other specifics. A more sophisticated approach has been used by BioWare in the Mass Effect series. Here they have specifically put more focus on character development and look to create personal attachments that are rooted in the characters past and experiences, similarly to what would occur in real life. The main commonality between these two approaches is that the relationship factor of character development is very much a “side story”. It is not required nor does it change the ultimate outcome of the end game. This is not the case for all games though.
There is a genre of games that specifically focus on dating as a goal. These “dating simulators” are rather popular in Asia (though growing in popularity in the western world). The main goal is simply to go on as many dates as possible by interacting with the various characters in the setting. In case you’re not familiar with this type of game, don’t let your imagination get the best of you. There is no pornography here. It’s simply set to make the characters “like” you, the hero. A more recent branch of this genre is known as “otome” and these titles are specifically focused on luring the female gamer. One example of this is a game called “Pirates in Love”, which is also available in Canada and the US.
Even MMOs find time for some love, specific on servers dedicated to role-playing. Role-playing is a choice by the person behind the computer to impersonate the character they play in the virtual world. This is mostly driven through interactions with other characters within the game (that are in turn controlled by other human players). While the theme of the role-play can range depending on the back story created by each character, an intriguing aspect is the possibility of two characters starting a relationship. For the sake of clarity, the assumption is that the relationship is fictional and exists between the characters in the game and not the people controlling those characters. This is easily the most fascinating of the three approaches we explore here as there is no developer impact on the relationships that are presented. The relationships are driven purely by the decisions and interactions of two players. The developers simply give the players the tools they need to have these interactions. It is this personal approach that really allows the players to connect with the game experience and have it resonate with them.
But, it’s still people, right...?
At the end it is you, as the player, that decide whether this form of game play is important or not. You can make the most of it, or ignore it completely. As a result, I thought that gathering some personal feedback from people out on the great interweb would be a nice addition to this article. The thought of a “Do you partake in romance options of video games?” seemed like a bit of an overdone topic. As a result, I decided to put a bit of a twist on it. I surveyed a number of people on their thoughts of a significant other playing a game with a romantic component. I also had an in person discussion with 4 of my closet friends. The questions I posed were:
• How would you feel if your significant other was playing a game where they had the option of being in a relationship with another computer controlled character?
• How would you feel if your significant other was playing a game where having a relationship with a computer controlled character was the main goal?
• How would you feel if your significant other was in a role-playing relationship with another player controlled character?
Before I discuss my findings I wanted to ensure that I clearly state that this approach has a number of flaws. I have no way of completely controlling the people that respond to the questions. I did, however, do my best to try to go to forums which would be exposed to gamers, non-gamers, male, and females. The goal was to get the biggest possible group of people to respond. In total, I received 73 answers, 55 being male and 18 being female. Unfortunately, due to a number of bans that I received upon posting in certain non-gaming forums, only 2 of the 73 participants identified themselves as non-gamers.
Certain aspects of the survey were not entirely surprising. 89% of the participants felt that their partner playing a role-playing game that included a romantic component with a computer controlled character was completely acceptable. That number dropped down to 67% percent when referring to their partner’s playing dating simulators. MMO role-playing romances resulted in only 19% unconditional approval.
Isolated, the male and female responses followed a similar pattern. As the focus on the romance components in the game grew, the amount of individuals comfortable decreased. This was slightly different when asked about role-play romances, in which 24% of the male responses were ok with the scenario, while only 9% of the female responses agreed. I remind everyone that my sample size was rather small, but it is something to consider. The last item to note is that in most cases, the participants, even if bothered by the activity, would not bring it up to their partners. The only discrepancy being the role-playing scenario, where the majority of the answers indicated a discussion would have to occur.
The in-person conversation I had helps to bring some context to the above findings. The one interesting point that had come up the most often was intent. If the intent was for the significant other to get away from real life and get lost in the virtual relationship in any of these situations, than it was considered a problem. While the wording of my questions was meant to disregard this as a concern, insisting that each of the examples was simply being done for the enjoyment of the game, intent seemed to be the first issue brought up regardless. There was an inherent concern around the sincerity of the loved one and whether they would be able to tell the difference between real life and virtual world when the experience was “rigged” to play with their emotions.
Overall, the findings seemed to indicate that we definitely live in a society where there is room for a level of this type of interactivity. The concern seems to start when the experience becomes central or “too real”.
I had to privilege to bounce some questions about this topic with Tobias Heussner. Tobias has been a writer in video games for years. I felt like his perspective would help round out some of the thoughts I tried to explore. He was able to summon up the main points quite well.
“Personally I think that romance options are a vital part of RPGs because relationships give the player (or character) something to care about,” Tobias wrote to me in a couple e-mail exchanges we had. “Normally a hero doesn't save the world because he wants to do so, he normally saves it as kind of 'accident' while saving something or someone else. If the hero is in love with another character he wants to save her, not the world, but to do so he has to save the world. For example Jim Raynor in StarCraft only wants to save Kerrigan, he wants to save his girl, but by doing so he saves the universe.”
Tobias also spoke about the future of this feature in video games saying, “I hope that it'll not only (be) a matter of choices, but also about how we present it.” He went on to cite quick time events, mini games, and side quests that would be specifically designed to grow our affection with the character of our choice. He also mentioned that the whole challenge comes from “show (or play), don’t tell”.
I tend to agree with Tobias on these points. Let’s take the most extreme, yet not completely unrealistic example, and review the Milo demo for the Xbox Kinect. Beyond all of the different jokes of inappropriateness that have gone around, think about this technology being used in a role-playing game like Mass Effect. All of a sudden, you are not just clicking the blue text to get the positive response from the character. Now you are interacting the way you want to. It’s not pre-scripted wording that you simply choose. This is you speaking with characters themselves. Sounds like it’s far away? Perhaps.
Granted, this will only further fuel the debate around what is appropriate for this type of interaction in a video game. The root of that question might even be connected to why we decide to participate in these game options in the first place. The better developers and designers become at creating a completely engrossing experience, the greater the risk. While it’s easy to say that it’s ultimately up to the individual on how to interpret what is happening on the screen, making the line more and more difficult to differentiate must have some consequence. All that being said, as a video game enthusiast, I can’t help but to be excited by such a high level of interactivity in the medium that I love. Don’t worry Princess Peace, I’m coming for you.
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