With the release of Warhammer Online
(WAR), yet another contender enters the MMO ring attempting to deliver a knockout to leading champion World of Warcraft
(WoW). Although Warhammer Online
developers have publicly attempted to dismiss the idea of beating WoW, it is without a doubt that beating WoW is somewhere in the minds of EA Mythic's people. In thinking about the MMO market, particularly in looking at the way in which WoW rose to dominance, the way in which WoW has defended itself against competitors, and what has happened in the lifecycle of other MMO games, I would argue that WAR will never beat or even come close to WoW. In this cblog entry, I will discuss why I feel this way and the implications, assuming I am correct, that these conclusions will have on Blizzard itself in the future.
Oh yeah, this post is really really really long. If you don't want to read much, I'll just say now that the take home message is that it is unlikely that any game will substantially improve on WoW in the near future. In addition, WoW's competitiors are underestimating the switching costs incurred (time investment in their WoW characters given up) should a user "switch" from WoW to their game.
Note: In this clog, I restrict my discussion to the American/European pay-subscription MMO market. While I acknowledge that the Korean/Japanese/Chinese MMO market is large, it does not seem to have a particularly large effect on the Western MMO market. More specifically, I am not talking about MMOs such as City of Heroes
or Eve Online
, but instead about the entire horde of WoW-clones with the specific goal of killing WoW.
The developers of WAR, as well as other wannabe-WoW-killers Age of Conan
, The Lord of the Rings Online
, ultimately seem to subscribe to the following business model:
If (My New MMO) > WoW, I will beat WoW and make $$$.
While I will show that this model is highly flawed, I would first like to bring into question whether or not it is even possible for a new MMO to be "better" than WoW. I would argue that it will not be possible to create a substantially better WoW-like game prior to some gigantic revolution in computer/Internet/programming technology and/or game design. Obviously, it will always be possible to make games with better graphics and sound. However, I feel that there is only so far one can go due to both the constraints of network performance as well as the fear of alienating players who do not have $3000+.machines. I know many people who are curious about WAR but simply do not have the computer to run it and therefore stick to WoW.
Another note: I should at this point establish that there is a difference between graphic design and graphics technical quality. Unfortunately, I think many people mistake the distinction between the two, lumping it all together as "graphics." I grew extremely tired of hearing fanboys yelling on the Internet about how the graphics of AoC were so much better than WoW. Yeah, from a technical point of view, AoC has WoW beaten. Whether or not AoC is better than WoW in terms of graphic design is a much harder question to answer.
AoC on top. WoW on bottom.
In terms of gameplay and design, it seems to me that the MMORPG has reached a plateau of sorts. In other words, the basic mechanics and design of the genre have matured similar to the way that 2-D platform design matured in the early Super NES days. We have had certainly many excellent 2-D platformers since the Super NES days. Nonetheless I cannot say that many of them particularly revolutionized the genre. I do not know of many successful platforms of late attempt to advertise itself on their game revolutionizing the genre. Yet this is exactly what is happening with the MMO industry, where every new game claims to redefine the genre and rarely ends up doing so.
Let me use a simple example, one that has been lobbied against WoW for years: the idea of free and meaningful PvP.
So the complaint goes like this. WoW has shallow PvP because it places heavy restriction on PvP. There are multiple ways in which the game can punish you for ganking. Unrestricted PvP is generally limited to PvP-only instance scenarios and zones such as Warsong Gulch (capture-the-flag) and Lake Wintergrasp. It is impossible for one side to effectively "conquer" the other side's city even if you cram every player into that city and take out all the NPCs.
AoC, and possibly to an even bigger extent WAR, has constantly been slamming WoW for its PvP and claiming that its own game provides a more meaningful PvP experience. Yet, when you analyze why PvP is the way that it is in WoW, as well as the way in which many of these games have "solved" the PvP problem, it is obvious that, if anything, no one has solved it, or at the least solved it any better than WoW.
MMOs restrict PvP because unrestricted PvP is ultimately detrimental to the overall player game experience. To use an analogy from U.S. history, it is the reason that we as Americans are restricted in our freedoms in order to protect the right of everyone to enjoy those freedoms. How would you like to start the game and realize that you can't do anything because the guys from the other faction has just invaded your land? How would you like to be constantly ganked by some player in better gear, higher level, or simply a more powerful class than yourself for hours on end? I thought not. Yeah, it feels good when you are on the delivering end of that punishment. But it sure doesn't feel good when you are on the receiving end of that punishment. And to those that claim that anyone will solve the issue of balancing characters and classes, I wish them the best of luck in doing what no one has ever managed to do successfully whether you are talking about classes in MMOs or characters in Street Fighter II
. Hell, even a game as "simple" as Super Mario Bros. 2
is grossly imbalanced in that certain characters are far easier to play than others.
When AoC claimed to have better PvP, it would seem that what they meant was that people were much more free to kill each other than in WoW. Of course, it is no surprise that this was quickly curbed with the addition to heavy ganking punishments once horror stories of endless ganking and griefing started increasing drastically. When I look at what WAR claims to offer in terms of PvP, I question how much of that is just PR smoke. Most of WAR's PvP seems to be as controlled and limited in the way that WoW's is. As for the idea of taking over enemy cities, I question how "meaningful" this task will be due to the need to balance the ability to players who need to actually do something in that city other than kill one another. Ultimately, a back-and-forth of taking over cities in WAR seems to me as meaningless as back-and-forth capture-the-flag games in WoW. As with AoC, I would not be surprised if PvP in WAR will become more restricted once the game is live.
Real improvements? More like PR fluff.
Anytime I see an MMO claim that it will beat WoW because it is superior to WoW, I question that claim. When I think about the "problems" of MMOs such as WoW, which often become the selling points that AoC and WAR and every future MMORPG claim to "solve," it is obvious to me that none of these problems are actually solved because the underlying issue is far more complex and not likely to be solved in the near future. Yes, WoW is a much older game than WAR, but again, WoW is an evolving game and has spent the years of lead it has to improve itself constantly. With each expansion, WoW has answered and resolved a few of the issues that its predecessor version failed in. Therefore, age is not really an as big of an issue as many new games would like to portray it to be.
As I said above, how do you provide meaningful substantial PvP and at the same time balance the ability of all players to have fun? I have a feeling that the solution to this and other WoW and MMO problems will not come in the near future. Even Jonathan Blow, the champion of high-brow-games who seems to have made a career out of bashing all aspects of WoW in his rants...err I mean panels...offer no suggestions at all for improving the game or mechanics: he simply criticizes, which is far easier to do with any problem than actually fixing it.
So now we go back to the MMO business model formula, which I described as flawed. While this simple formula can be improved on in a variety of ways, let me focus on just one modification for now.
If (My New MMO) >> WoW + Cost of switching from WoW, I will beat WoW and make $$$.
Lowering of switching cost barriers caused cell phone provider switching to skyrocket.
There is a great analogy to explain this model: the cell phone industry. For a long time, it was a pain in the ass to switch cell phone providers because if you switched providers, you would have to get a new cell phone number. Thus people would not switch cell phone numbers unless they absolutely had to because they didn't want to engage in the time and costs of telling all their friends to change their numbers. On the other hand, once the law changed and forced companies to allow you to keep your number, the floodgates opened and everyone started switching based on other criteria such as quality.
In some way, this same description can be made of the MMO market, especially since, as I have just suggested, most of these MMOs are essentially the same game. What the MMO developers are forgetting however, is that there is a huge switching cost that keeps WoW gamers tethered to WoW: the fact that they have already invested a ton of work into their WoW character and that by switching to WoW, they would be throwing out possibly years of work and character investment. So why would anyone give up years of work in one game to do it all again in a game that is pretty much the same thing?
There are a two important implications from this hypothesis. The first is that competitors could perhaps increase their ability to draw away WoW players by offering incentives that "transfer" their work across games. For example, I am a level 70 mage in WoW (the highest level possible at present). I would be much more interested in transferring to WAR if they were to somehow transfer my work in WoW to WAR by allowing me to start my character at a much higher level and give me much better starting gear. Of course, it doesn't seem likely to happen so this is a moot point.
Sony tried to get its EQ players to jump onboard a new game. Too bad it wasn't the one they wanted them to go to.
The second and possibly most important implication of my suggestion is in its ability to explain how WoW come to dominate the market in the first place and to suggest how WoW will be beaten in the future. The market leader prior to WoW was Everquest
(EQ). However, if you think about the time when WoW was coming out, Sony was already starting to hype up the upcoming sequel Everquest II
(EQ2). Now, I'm not sure about you, but if I were an EQ player and I see that Sony is starting to shift their attention to the sequel, it would be obvious to me that the days of my game are numbered and I would start looking for the next big game. In other words, the switching costs of leaving EQ decrease when it becomes obvious to everyone that EQ is at its end. While Sony's intent is obviously to entice you to switch to EQ2, they also risked people switching to other games since nothing from EQ that you did carried over into EQ2, and that is exactly what happened. To reuse the cell phone example, if your cell phone company told you have they were implementing some new system that would require you to change your number and get a new cell phone, it doesn't really matter whether the new service they are offering you is really good. The fact is, if you have to go to such ends, you might shop around and look at other cell phone providers instead of sticking with the existing provider. In other words, for a new MMO to unseat the older game, the new game has to not only be much better than the old game, but the old game has to be in a position in which it is obvious that the end is near.
Consider what has happened with AoC. AoC came out at an ideal time: the lull that occured inbetween when the majority of WoW's "The Burning Crusade" expansion hit and the point at which Blizzard started really giving out substantial information about "Wrath of the Lich King" If there were any time when WoW seemed like it was losing momentum, that was the time. It is no wonder that tons of WoW players bought AoC in their desparate starvation for something new and exciting. Of course, by this time, Blizzard had started really throwing out tons of information about the new features in the expansion and the beta for the expansion really kicked off. Given this timing, I am not surprised that while AoC sold tons of copies, few took the subscription once the 30-day-trial ended. No doubt a large number simply returned to WoW once they saw that the investment and work they put into WoW had future potential.
I guess what I am saying is that if anything, the best time for a WoW-killer to come out will be that day when Blizzard decides to actually kill off WoW, possibly in favor of a WoW2. When Blizzard signals that WoW's days are near its end, all bets will be off as to whether or not the existing WoW fanbase will stick with Blizzard's new game or switch to whatever other new game is about to come out. Perhaps Blizzard will be smart and offer some sort of character transfer program where your WoW character can be brought over into WoW2. Of course, who knows whether Blizzard will do something like this when the time comes.
Of course, there are many MMOs that are successful today such as Eve Online
. However, it is not trying to be a WoW-killer. In addition, games with different pricing models such as the free-to-play model are finding alot of success, especially in Asia. Perhaps the next WoW-killer might not even set out to be a WoW-killer.
Might Diablo III be an indirect WoW killer?
In conclusion, WoW is not likely to be killed off while it still has momentum and a perceived future because few people are going to junk years of time and investment to do it all over again in a game that is fundamentally the same. While I look forward to WAR and seeing how it will do in the MMO market, I doubt that it will have the effect that EA Mythic desires. In some ways, I think that WAR will have an even harder time since AoC has finally opened the eyes of many MMO players to the realization that all of these MMOs are fundamentally the same game. Ultimately, I don't think that any game will unseat WoW until WoW decides to call it quits. That is when the real competition to reshape the market occurs.
P.S. I want to acknowledge Rutgers Business School professor Sharan Jagpal and his MBA marketing class for jump-starting my thinking about the business strategy of the MMO market and ultimately inspiring this blog entry even though I did not do particularly well in his class.