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. Itís 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 (Iím 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 donít 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 ďdungeon finderĒ by BioWare when SWTOR was released. While I do not know the specifics of why this was decided, I wouldnít 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 ďgo-liveĒ and they will tell you stable environments are worth their first born.
Return on Investment
A few months ago, someone in my raidís 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 ďnon-gamerĒ members said, clearly distraught, ďAwww....I donít want to go through all of this leveling again.Ē
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. Itís 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. Itís 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 wonít have any impact on them.
Its the People....the people I tell you....
Similarly to my point above, itís 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 itís the team behavior on of raid or the inner political turmoil of a guild, itís 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 ďfriendedĒ 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.
Itís 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. Itís the same reason why Google+ canít 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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