Out with the Old and In with the New?
Over at the Pink Pigtail Inn, Larisa brought up the idea that there is a diminishing returns idea to MMO gaming that prevents new games from coming in and wow-ing players the way that WoW did when it was first released. Maybe it’s desensitivity to new MMO games due to the sheer amount of exposure to WoW many players have, especially for those whose only experience has been WoW. I think she’s right – but there’s another aspect to consider for the reason why there are so few true successes in the MMO game industry – the community of players behind the game itself.
Let’s just look at WoW and the WoW community. WoW turned the MMO industry on its head when it was released, despite having some pretty major issues on Day One. (I remember having 2 minutes lag each time that I looted something off a corpse that I didn’t already have a running stack of in my inventory, simply because the ‘item database’ was being overloaded by the sheer number of people trying to play at that time, or so I heard.) However, in a much more real sense, WoW is merely a refinement of its previously successful predecessor, EverQuest.
What did WoW refine that EQ was missing, in order to make it overcome the Diminishing Returns issue? I think it had five things going for it:
1) It built off an already popular and establish lore – namely the Warcraft FTS series, which had a pretty loyal and proven fanbase. Even players who were not MMORPG players decided to take a chance on WoW, simply due to the use of the existing Warcraft Lore as the base of the game.
2) It enhanced what was a pretty clunky GUI system that EQ was stuck in, making it easier for newer players to enter the game, without such a steep learning curve. Further, this was enhanced by making a simpler, easier to learn quest system, where things were tracked within the game itself, rather than notes, and that the quests were more integral to the game than in EQ. (Honestly, from what I remember and what I heard from long-time players, quests were mostly a waste of time in EQ. It was like an Easter egg hunt to find the right question/keywords to ask the NPCs to advance the quests, the rewards often weren’t worth it, and notes on the quests for progress and whatnot had to be kept by the player, not within the system. Most players didn’t bother except when the reward was a necessary item, such as the Epic weapon quests.) Also, the travel system was enhanced over having to run everywhere all the time.
3) It was graphically more enhanced than EQ, which, while it had updated its graphics engine since the start, still did not get away from a static, ‘polygonal’ look to its models. As is widely known within the gaming community, graphics can initially sell a game (though the diminishing returns on that are substantial. – all looks and no fluff is a recipe for failure in the long run.)
4) It had elements for the causal gamer while maintaining those for the more serious gamer. For the casual gamer, it gave quests, with a relatively smooth learning curve, and generally gave ideas on ‘where to go next’ as you advanced through a zone, and it also gave you the ‘rest XP’ concept for those that couldn’t play as much as some. For the more serious gamer, at the start of the game, there were World PvP titles and gear, epic raid dungeons, and a vast world to explore (with an improved transit system for easier traveling). EQ really did not have anything to support the casual player – your success in the game was almost entirely based upon the sheer amount of effort expended in the game.
5) WoW came at a very fortuitous time – it came when many experienced players were burning out on EQ and gave them a new experience to play – and it came when many new players were starting to look to MMO games to try, but were intimidated by the level of commitment necessary for many of those that existed at the time.
What this lead to was a pretty successful start, and as people got more into the game, and the idea of blogging and forums for Internet discussion really took off, a robust community was born. Strategies, game information, theory, and discussion became a norm for the game, as did blogs such as this with more information and opinion pieces, both entertaining and informative. All became part of a collective community online for WoW.
It must be noted that EQ had the makings of such a community as well, and that the EQ community also expanded as online information dissemination became more prevalent. (This community, and the lack of it for the newer game, seemed to be one major reason why even EQ2 did not do well compared to EQ, when it was released.)
What this community has provided for both WoW and EQ, is a foundation that people can refer to for game information, for both old and new players. This has led to both games having remarkable stability and longevity, as in order to attempt to challenge either game in its position within the MMO hierarchy of game, the new game must also compete against the sheer amount of information available regarding these games.
I read on a blog once before, and I wish I could remember who had written it, but the thought was that WoW and EQ both exist as they do today in a symbiotic relationship with the off-game communities they have created. They are relatively unassailable in their positions due to the fact that to take on WoW or EQ, one would have to take on the community as well, which as it stands now, doesn’t look ready to budge.
EQ is still surviving, albeit not nearly as strong as it used to be. There is still content being created for it, but due to the demographics of the player base and the time/effort barrier to entry into the heart of the game, which like WoW is much more towards the endgame, much of this content is geared towards challenging the high-end players still remaining.
EQ has done some things to try to make some of this content more accessible, such as removing some attunements and providing ‘backflags’ – substitute easier ways to gain keys for older areas – but has not done too much to make it easier to advance one’s character to the endgame in an efficient manner with the gear that would allow them to participate in activities with the more established players. One thing that this does lead to with EQ is the idea that changing your character is not really efficient – i.e. starting an alt – as the amount of work to get that alt up to endgame status is enormous, and therefore players will be locked to a particular class (or a very small number of classes, if that person is extremely diligent with their EQ playing) and therefore, risk of burnout due to lack of change of one’s position within the game is high.
WoW has taken a different approach to the idea of ‘new players’ or ‘new characters’, and in realizing that the bulk of activity in the game is focused on the higher-end material, has gone back and made advancement in the game to the endgame level much easier for players. Recruit-a-Friend, removal of instance attunements, removal of Elites in many non-instance questing zones, the shifting of Emblems and the gear they allow to be purchased, the level shift of mount purchases and even the sheer amount of XP available in the BGs today are all ideas made to get players to Lv 80 relatively quickly and get the gear necessary to tackle the high-end dungeons such as Naxxramas and Ulduar. This also encourages people to try many different aspects of the game as well, as leveling and gearing alts is not very difficult at all, as demonstrated through the heirloom item system.
EQ seems to be taking a stance of trying to maintain what player base it has, rather than trying to give incentive to bring new players to their game – the sheer amount of material between the start of the game and the endgame is vast – and I also believe EQ’s designers know the types of players that still remain on their game and are gearing the new content towards that. EQ is in its twilight period, but with infusions of content that keep the remaining, albeit dwindling, player base returning to the game, the game will survive for a time longer.
Given the shift in the handling of newer players for WoW, it is clear that Blizzard is still trying to entice new players to the game, and give older players a chance to try many facets of their game, by encouraging players to make multiple characters and attain endgame status in order to challenge the high-end content. While this has annoyed some of the more serious players out there, the majority of players seem to welcome this. New players can come to the game and actually progress on their own, if necessary, while avoiding many of the inefficiencies and difficulties players previously faced in older content (much of which is necessary since the bulk of the player base tends to be in Northrend). Older players are often playing multiple characters, trying out different aspects of the game, allowing for different experiences within the same content, as the advancement of those characters is fairly rapid.
What does this all mean for the new games coming in?
It seems to mean that in order to overcome EQ or WoW, the players must get involved rather quickly to start creating a community of information and players that others can get immersed in. While perhaps not as much a giant competitor as WoW is, EQ is the base from which much of this MMO universe came from, and is still an indicator of how serious players can be with these MMO games, and a source for many design ideas for future games, and served as a model for the information community when WoW came to be. WoW, on the other hand, is the current juggernaut of the MMO universe, and given this, the sheer amount of information available out there for playing WoW will make competition difficult. What will be necessary is patience on the part of the player base, not to get frustrated and give up when the roadmaps to the endgame aren’t laid out the way they are currently for WoW. There has to be consideration for the developmental period of a game’s community, and so far, the player community seems to not be patient enough to overcome this developmental period.
So, to put up a fight, one needs to involve the player community. It seems that with each new major release coming out, that there are a few MMOs that seem to have the potential to give WoW a run for its money. They have up-and-coming communities during the developmental and preview portions of the game’s life cycle, but tend to fall off once the game is released. This sort of community is absolutely necessary to entice new people, encourage the more experienced players to share and expand the community constructively, and to give all players something new to experience.
It will be curious to see what game is able to maintain the momentum that WoW has currently – it is still the biggest game despite a there being a lot of voicing about dissatisfaction with elements within the game (too easy, too much significant patching, favoring PvP or PvE when making balance decisions, etc.). It does not seem like a large part of the gaming population out there is completely satisfied with their WoW experience – and it gets worse as the game gets larger, especially when it comes to exploitation (hacks, spam, etc.) – but people stick with it. Even some players who have burnt out on the game return, and probably keep a watch on the community at least, to see what’s going on in the WoW universe. This does not mean that Blizzard can fall asleep at the wheel – expectations remain high from the players. Too many disappointments and even the more serious players will leave. However, we as players have shown that Blizzard need not be perfect for us to stick with WoW… We’re still here despite all the QQ present in the community.
In the end, MMOs are about some sort of social experience mixed within a game setting. Because of this, a developer cannot just fight within the game setting and expect to win, no matter how ‘revolutionary’ their game is – they need to encourage and nurture the out of game social experience as well in order to have a fighting chance at true competition. The community is an important factor in the success of MMOs – and why shouldn’t it be? If we weren’t concerned with anything social in an MMO, we’d go back to playing solo games like Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest.
My 2 yen,
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