Saturday, August 14, 2010

WoW did not kill innovation in MMOs

I found a recent post at Don't Fear the Mutant and the comments that followed really thought provoking. In certain corners of the web there is a running meme that goes along the lines of "Every major MMO since World of Warcraft launched has been a WoW clone, WoW murdered innovation in the MMO genre. " Of course this relies on defining every MMO that has classes, quests, levels, and turn based combat (i.e., the great bulk of CRPGs, online or off...and a lot of PnP RPGs as well) as a "WoW clone." However, let's just accept that lunacy at face value and move on.

The basic problem with this meme is it's myopic focus on big hype big budget MMOs. A lot of MMO commentators seemingly only pay attention to the MMOs that have the biggest development and advertising budgets. Yes, indeed, the really big budget MMOs to tend to be Everquest style games with classes/ levels/ turn based combat, and have a lot of design similarities with WoW. Like WoW they are usually solo friendly, have a relatively easy to understand class/ level based advancement system, include a lot of quests, and have a UI very similar to the one pioneered by Asheron's Call 2.

However, seeing these these features in a big budget MMO should not surprise anyone because such games are by definition aimed at the mass market. Everquest was the most financially successful MMO of the first generation, and World of Warcraft was the biggest success of the next. If you are designing an MMO budgeted for more than 100K players, you'd be pretty stupid to ignore the mechanical similarities of the most successful past MMOs. And it is for this very reason that big budget MMOs don't count when evaluating whether the MMO genre is stagnating. No one sane is going to put a WoW budget behind a niche / experimental game design.

As soon as you take a single step away from the mainstream, you can see that there are actually a lot of successful post WoW MMOs that bear little resemblance to it. For example Dungeons and Dragons Online has the deepest character generation system this side of EVE, real time combat, and a guild leveling system more involved than anything I've seen elsewhere. It's also the third most popular MMO in North America according to the NPD. Wizard 101 is doing well enough to put out a new world roughly every six months. The card based combat, pho Harry Potter setting, and mini-game method of mana regeneration draw absolutely nothing from WoW, save perhaps bright colors. Puzzle Pirates is also doing quite well and has as little in common with WoW as I can imagine and still technically be an MMO.

Take two or three steps off of mainstream into the really niche products [and in many cases not financially successful at all, I will allow], and you will find even more innovative MMOs. For example Myst Online URU, a completely free to play MMO where there is literally nothing to do except solve puzzles and explore. Or A Tale in the Desert, where as far as I can tell you mainly craft. Or The Endless Forest. You play a deer. There is no combat, crafting, or even chatting. You communicate with others using only emotes.

Just because the only MMOs someone pays attention to are all DIKU/ WoWish doesn't mean that WoW has ruined the genre. It means that some MMO commentators need to broaden their horizons. Innovation continues to occur, and even be rewarded financially on occasion. When I see commentators say "WoW ruined MMOs", what I mainly hear is "no developer has been willing to put a huge budget behind a niche product that caters to my peculiar tastes."


  1. I 100% agree with you. As much as I don't care for WoW's end game content, it does do a lot of things really well and is a great game.

    I think the problem is that gamers get innovation confused with evolution. There have been quite a few MMO's since WoW that have brought some sort of innovation the the genre, and yet they are all branded as WoW clones.

  2. People think they want innovation but they don't really. Over and over innovative games have been punished financially.

    Next time someone posts about how WoW kills innovation they should list the last ten games they bought and explain why they didn't buy Love, Portal, etc.

    You can't blame publishers for sticking to the tried and tested formulae when what players buy conflicts with what players say they want.

  3. Blizzard is doing what they normally do - build refined products in a well-defined genre.

    They are part of a small group of developers that can do big budget titles and serve the mainstream audience within that genre.

    Other companies do the innovation, define the genres etc - often with smaller budgets. If you are not competing over the mainstream you do not need that huge budget to be successful.

    There is a good blog post from a few years back which describes this phenomenon quite well with regard to Nintendo. Replace a few bits and pieces with MMO related names and it fits right in.

  4. @Jaydub: even when you look at something like Runes of Magic, which is to all appearances a complete rip off of WoW, you still see some innovations. The dual class system, where every single two class combo unlocks subclass abilities unique to the combo, is like nothing I've seen anywhere else. Even the WoWish MMOs continue to move forward and try new things.

    @Stabs: that kind of irks me too. How many commentators have even tried some of the really experimental MMOs? If you want to see more innovation in the genre, you need to vote with your time (at the least) and encourage some of the really creative projects that are out there.

    @Sente: that was a fantastic read, thanks for the link. It's obvious who is catering to the "hardcore" in the terms that article lays out. However, who is the Nintendo of MMO space? Sadly, Farmville is the first thing that comes to mind.

  5. It took years before people stopped referring to FPS games as Doom-clones. That didn't happen until enough changes to the genre emerged to make Doom look like it was out of step with what people where playing.

    The same thing will happen with WoW. Innovation happens in small steps. One day, the state of the art will have advanced to the point where WoW looks old. Until then, we have to put up with idiots and their WoW-cloning games that are trying to push that frontier in their own ways.

  6. @Yeebo: It is difficult to pick a direct equivalent of Nintendo, with the longer life cycles in MMO space.

    ArenaNet would be a candidate.

  7. Interesting that Blizzard, and even Warcraft (RTS) are mentioned in the Lost Garden article. Of course, he was right, Blizzard is about taking an established genre, looking at complaints about gameplay, and making better or more responsive games. I don't no why people complain so much about the game mechanics of WoW. They aren't perfect, but they are polished and encourage a huge number of people to play.

    As far as who is the Nintendo of MMOs? Hard to say, because despite variations in story content, MMOs are a a single genre themselves, as opposed to a platform/brand like Nintendo. I certainly would not say Farmville, it is an innovation in casual play, but has its roots in the RTS genre, not RPGs.

    The funny thing is that "hardcore" in the article seems to be different than how self-described hardcore gamers would identify themselves, since they are the ones complaining loudest about how dumbed down WOW has become, and in comparison to EQ, for example.