It’s the granddaddy of all MMORPG’s. It reigns supreme. The iconic MMO killer. It’s World of Warcraft.
Originally released in 2004 by Blizzard Entertainment, it was the fourth released game set in the Warcraft universe. It’s had 12 million subscriptions at its peak, and well over 100 million in its lifetime.
Now, six expansions later, the game is still going strong, leading many players and industry leaders alike to think that the game will never die. Subscriptions fall after expansions have been out for a year, but as soon as another is released, Blizzard makes it rain yet again.
In this article, we’ll discuss what there is to learn from the mother of all MMORPG’s—the good and the bad—as well as what the game did to the genre, and what that means for your crazy MMO idea.
A never-ending cycle of both consumerism and entertainment, World of Warcraft has seen many generations of players. It’s been a long time since Vanilla days, and a lot has changed. For the sake of ending on a good note, let’s start with a few of the changes that players are annoyed with.
Researching & Contacting GM’s
No one said WOW was easy to play. Even though players that remember Vanilla days might beg to differ with this—because the game has been watered down to cater to a more broad audience—World of Warcraft is still very much tedious to get through. A lot of it has to do with the fact that the game is so large, and so packed with content, that there’s just no way to go back and fix or explain, or even connect some of the older content. It simply gets lost in the shuffle when the development team moves onto new, fresh content.
This leads to a lot of confusion and research. What quests are from Legion, again? Where in the world is Queen Kraklaa? How am I supposed to summon Reaves? The questions are endless, because WOW doesn’t provide much information outside of the basics. Their menu system allows players to click on quests and read the instructions provided by NPC’s, but if the narrative design doesn’t give much in the way of actionable information, players either need to figure it out themselves, or consult Google.
In fact, it’s gotten to the point where most players have a Google tab ready to go so they can sift through Blizzard forums, or they have to contact GM’s during dire times, like when a quest fails to pop up.
Now, any good developer should know not to make a game too easy. World of Warcraft is one of those games that frustrates you and then makes up for it. For every time you spend 20 minutes trying to figure something out, there’s another time when you only spend a couple of minutes getting an answer.
Of course, with a game world as huge as WOW’s there’s bound to be some navigation issues. There is a total disrespect for land mounts, clearly portrayed in the complete reliance on flying and portals. The thought of riding to and from points A and B proves lengthy and downright dangerous. Players have to pay gold to fly, get their own flying mounts, or find a city with the right portal that takes them where they need to go.
But that’s not all. If you thought you could set a waypoint to tell you where you need to go, think again. Use the minimap, or run around in confusion, those are your options. If you click on a quest and the minimap doesn’t offer any insight whatsoever, you’ll just have to hit “M” and stare at the larger map until it makes sense.
Speaking of the larger map, WOW’s map system works a bit like Inception. There’s a world map, with Outlands, Dranenor and Azeroth. Each one has regions, like the Broken Isles or Pandaria. Assuming you’re in the Broken Isles, you can choose which area you want to navigate, like Azsuna or Suramar for instance. So, if you’re in Stormheim, and want to go to Suramar, you’d better hope there’s a flight path, otherwise no flying mount will take you there. And you’ll have to find just the right map, out of 30 different ones available to even have an idea of where to fly yourself to. On your own mount. The only other way is to take a portal.
Of course, the game has come a long way. Giving credit where credit is due, at least there are portals now. Back in the day, mages made a killing off of creating portals for other players.
With a game so huge, it makes sense that there would be bugs. There’s just no way to fix everything, and it certainly shows. Players get kicked out of dungeons, quests get halted, and enemies die up in the air where you can’t loot them all the time. For a game with millions of subscriptions, it certainly can afford to fix these things, right?
Well, Blizzard is totally reliant on subscriptions, and that is hurting the quality. The first year after an expansion launch is all about updates and content. But that second year? There’s a loss of subs, because players get bored. This is the time Blizzard dedicates to developing a new expansion. That means whatever they didn’t get around to fixing the first year gets swept under the rug, unless it’s a major issue that doesn’t let players progress.
For instance, in terms of Legion content, the latest expansion, there is an Azsuna quest called Wanding 101 where players go to a mage academy. In it, players need to use the wand provided to shoot at targets from a distance. When the expansion first came out, the quest was broken, and players were stuck, unable to progress after spending the last 1.5-2 hours questing. It took Blizzard a while, but they finally fixed it.
Now that we’ve established some of the major things that World of Warcraft does poorly, it’s time to go over some of the things it does well. Note, these are the elements that have been attributed with killing the entire genre, but more on that later.
It’s Amazingly Beautiful
Despite its many flaws, World of Warcraft is undeniably gorgeous to play through. From the beautiful Dalaran, to the remarkable ruins of Azsuna, the floating platforms of Ulbum, or just about anywhere in Pandaria. Pick a random place to explore and your jaw might drop.
And there’s something for everyone! Azsuna is ideal for anyone who likes the ocean, Pandaria for those who love everything Chinese, Darnassus for anyone with a love of elves and fairies, etc. There’s even a bit of extraterrestrial flair with Azuremyst Isle, the zone the Draenei spaceship crashed into. That’s right, fairies, pandas and aliens all in one game. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
It might not seem like a major point to make, with the art design and graphics, but it actually is. This the digital age, where everything is expected to be of high quality, without sacrificing time spent waiting. Any new MMO’s out there have this to compete with. Players will sit there and ask themselves whether there’s enough content to do, enough regions to explore, and whether there’s enough variety to appeal to everyone. And they will expect this quality in a timely fashion, with weekly updates, just like Blizzard does.
The game isn’t just easy on the eyes either. It’s meticulous. It’s had 13 years to “get it right.” The enemy placement is calculated, the paths wind just right, and the river currents are just strong enough. There’s cute pets, a variety of foliage, and interesting detail in every home’s design. Absolutely nothing is bland in World of Warcraft.
Challenges Never Stop
Going back to a previously established point, any developer worth his/her salt knows that games shouldn’t be too easy. When Skyrim players figured out that endgame gear and specs made you a god, a lot of them stopped playing. The same thing happened with Diablo 3, where players reached a point where nothing better dropped, and they just had to push themselves into more and more rifts in the hopes of a better pair or bracers or something. When a game is too easy, there’s no point to it anymore. Everything dies in a couple of hits, and your sense of accomplishment wanes as a player. Suddenly something that is deserving of epic background music doesn’t feel as… epic as it should.
Few games understand this better than World of Warcraft. When players are sent on quests, the enemies are just challenging enough. A level 100 will face off with level 100 enemies. When a player dings to 101, the enemies stay at 100, but the quests are soon over after that. Then it’s off to a new area, where it start all over – a level 101 character with a level 101 enemy. While players can still do old content, and seek out areas with weaker enemies, these quests don’t provide experience, just gold. They show up as grey on the menu, to clarify this. This is Blizzard’s way of creating an incentive for players to do new content instead, as this is where the challenge lies. If a player reaches cap level 110, there’s still a fair amount of challenge to be had. There’s the constant search for gear, the PVP battles, and dungeons.
And it shows in other aspects as well. World of Warcraft isn’t just challenging when questing. In dungeons, you can use a mod called Recount to see who is putting out the most DPS, and motivate yourself to beat out the other players.
For the more hardcore players, there is a way to disable quests and remove the minimap, making it so they have to rely on instructions and no outside help. As previously stated, navigating in the game can get pretty confusing unless you’ve been to every place countless of times. Imagine running around with no map and no way to keep track of quests, just your own recollection of what an NPC said 20 minutes ago!
There is absolutely nothing harder than choosing a class and race. There’s just too many options! But don’t get us wrong – this is a good thing.
On the Alliance side, there’s humans, dwarfs, night elves, gnomes, draenei, and worgens. Horde gets to choose from orcs, undead, tauren, trolls, blood elves, and goblins. Both factions can choose pandarens, however. And this is all just race choices.
The comprehensive list of classes in the game consists of warrior, paladin, hunter, rogue, priest, death knight, shaman, mage, warlock, monk, druid or demon hunter.
While most players simply choose whatever race they’re most fond of now, there is a reason to be picky. Each race has racial traits that make it work in conjunction with the class specializations. Hence, there’s always a best and worst choice.
For instance, the undead have traits that help them shake off charms, fears and sleep effects, as well as a resistance to Shadow magic. They can eat dead bodies, and drain the life of their enemies. This pairs well with warlocks, a class featuring Affliction as a specialization, which focuses on drains and damage-over-time spells. Orcs and trolls are also good options as orcs are sturdy, and trolls have frenzy that can increase their attack and casting speed.
This being said, things change with every expansion, which has led most players to simply choose whatever they want.
Appealing to Fiction
Let’s ponder something for a second: what is the MMO mentality? Some players love to grind, others like to calculate their stat points to attribute for the most effective maximum distribution. There’s elites, love birds, and even male players trolling other male players.
Well, MMO’s are like… entire worlds where anything is possible. Gingerly jumping down cliffs won’t outright kill you, especially if you’re a rogue. You can be in a Chinese-inspired world one minute, only to be in the ruins of another town the next. There’s aliens and griffins, orcs and gnomes.
As such, people who play the game play to escape reality. It’s the one place they can retire to after work, and feel like they’re adventurers. They can do things that just wouldn’t fly in real life, like picking pockets, taming magical creatures and murdering other players.
When it comes to PVP, the whole game outside of major towns is like a free for all. There’s no way around it. You can be questing and suddenly be jumped by the opposing faction, Alliance or Horde. Will you be prepared? Do you know your rotation enough to know exactly what to do to effectively kill them before they can do away with you?
Even just navigating the roads, or doing basic professions in any town, will prove dangerous in the game, since there’s enemies pretty much anywhere you go. Whenever you’re out fishing, or making a fire to cook on, you have to keep an eye out, or select an area you’re difficult to reach/spot. It can be on a mushroom out in the water, the back of a pillar that isn’t easily accessible. Whatever the place, players can rest assured, they’ll feel like they are lost in a faraway, magical land.
What Did It Do to the Genre?
Well, technically, yes, World of Warcraft killed MMO’s as they used to be. What began as a hardcore genre filled with people looking to join merciless guilds has now become teenager friendly. But let’s start at the beginning.
WOW has set the bar amazingly high, with its beauty, lots of content, exceptional narrative design and voice acting, as well as diversity. There’s something for everyone. For new MMO’s, they’re already 13 years behind in terms of how much work Blizzard has put into their game. Companies just don’t want to take the risk and wind up second best, or worse.
And let’s consider costs. MMO’s aren’t cheap to make, nor run. For the new MMO’s coming out with only a million subs, this is bad news, since they can only afford a bare bones investment upon launch. The systems players are used to from WOW are missing, because not even Blizzard could afford to design such things until years after launch.
They essentially took a genre that was in its infancy, back when PVP meant “hiking through Horde territory…hoping to make it to Scarlet Monastery in one piece,” and improved on it so much that now everything has sort of… been done! No new MMO has the funding, nor time, to create something on WOW’s level.
But perhaps what killed MMO’s the most was the timing of it all. Back in 2004-2007, World of Warcraft was at its peak, and memories were being made. People played together and genuinely created memories they could hold onto.
Luke Winkle, writer of Kotaku’s “The People Who Still Play World of Warcraft Like It’s 2006,” put it all vividly:
“Vanilla World of Warcraft is not magical on its own. It’s just a video game. But if it came at the right time it could be profound. For me, it was the conduit for all those sophomore year tremors. My best memories in World of Warcraft aren’t the gear or the journey. They are the circumstances. It could be an insulated chamber, no responsibilities, the time nights felt infinite. For Josh, it was as a high schooler in Wichita, Kansas, for Alexey it was an internet cafe, for Terry it was in his mid-50s, back at school, resetting a career. For all of us, World of Warcraft was a simpler time.”
It’s all still happening now. A few years from now, there will be nostalgic talks about Legion. And maybe, just maybe, a few feet away at another nostalgic table, there will be developers who ask each other “remember when we tried to make an MMO and failed to figure out how to make players feel like they grew up with it?”
What It Means For Your Idea
By now you’re wondering if your MMO idea is even a good one anymore. Clearly, if you devote enough time to redesign a navigational and questing system, you can have an upper-hand. Maybe focus on ironing out bugs. Offer something for everyone. Add some variety, some diversity, and make it all look easy on the eyes.
But that’s already an unrealistic list, isn’t it? Especially since that doesn’t even include the game’s content, or entire development.
The truth is, no one is saying you can’t make the next MMO. It’s just that it won’t be anything close to World of Warcraft. It’s far too expensive to create from scratch. No game has been able to dethrone it, although many have tried. Wildstar, Skyforge, SWTOR, ESO.
But there is one way in which your MMO could be different: by not becoming just another clone. The biggest mistake that all other MMO’s have made is desperately trying to be WOW, and clearly, that hasn’t worked. If you’re hoping to get anything going you’re going to need to keep players in mind. They won’t get everything they want from the start, for obvious reasons. They know that. The best you can do is to not over-promise anything. Treat them with the respect they deserve and make sure to update the game weekly.
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