Double Buffered

A Programmer’s View of Game Design, Development, and Culture

No MMORPG Will Ever Beat World of Warcraft

Posted by Ben Zeigler on July 14, 2009

There’s been a bit of talk lately about the future of Shooters from Cliff Belszinski and others, and there was a nice discussion about it on last week’s Listen Up podcast. The quick summary is that many people believe the FPS genre is headed towards picking up various features from the RPG genre. Nearly every multiplayer FPS released today features a grinding-based level advancement system. As someone who is a huge fan of System Shock 2 and Deus Ex I endorse this trend, and single player games (Borderlands being a good example) are going to take BioShock’s lead and go with it. However, I think this is just part of a larger and more significant trend: The integration of features you might associate with RPGS/MMORPGS into other genres. How will this integration work, and what does it mean for what is currently the MMORPG genre?

Let’s take World of Warcraft, as it is the current pinnacle of the MMORPG genre. To be clear I am using MMORPG to refer to the specific type of gameplay used in World of Warcraft (as well as close relatives), while I am using MMO to refer to the more general category of online games with a persistent world. I feel the success of WoW can be roughly divided into 5 components that heavily interact: The social systems and community that build in and around it, the subscription business model, a persistent world to share with others, the character advancement system, and the DikuMUD-derived base gameplay. The community and social systems are a major reason that players are happy to play your game for years on end, and all other parts of an MMO should enhance those aspects. Although Korea and China have proven that other business models work, the subscription model encourages a strong community, is very attractive to piracy-fearing developers, and is what funds the massive development costs needed to build the rest of the game.  The persistent world (the only thing that Call of Duty 4 is lacking to be a proper MMO) encourages the socialization by giving the players a really solid context to use as the base of forming relationships. The character advancement system ties into the persistent world by making it seem even more significant when you level up. Finally, the base gameplay gives players something to do when they’re not too busy socializing, exploring, or advancing.

There have been many attempts to swap out the base gameplay of an MMORPG for something else, and most of them have failed. Planetside, numerous racing games, ridiculous numbers of free korean MMOs that never caught on. Why is that? The problem is that only certain types of base gameplay fit will with the other components of an MMO design. Quake would make a horrible MMO, because the entirely skill-based gameplay of it does not lend itself well to character advancement. Defense of the Ancients can never be an MMO because the pace of character advancement excludes them from being part of a truly persistent world. My feeling is that Planetside failed because it was too intense. I didn’t play a whole lot, but every indication I’ve seen says that because of it’s focus on pure combat, the game did nothing to encourage out-of-combat socialization. Unless you have breaks and social hubs built into your game (the waiting-for-the-round-to-end time of CounterStrike can serve this purpose well), players will never develop the long term social ties needed to sustain a community. This is also why there’s never been a good MMORTS: the amount of brainpower needed to manage units in a way that engages RTS players doesn’t leave a whole lot left over to build social bonds.

The DikuMUD gameplay is a good match for the other components of an MMO, but it’s reaching it’s limits. First of all, things like MMORPG aggro are still extremely nonintuitive (Why isn’t WoW’s aggro based on positioning? Because DikuMUD didn’t have graphics). More importantly, the direction WoW is moving (towards puzzle raid bosses that need to be solved and game-breaking solo quests with vehicles and such) indicates that Blizzard has run out of ideas to keep the basic tank/heal/control/DPS gameplay interesting. If there’s one thing Blizzard is extremely good at, it is iterating and polishing gameplay ideas. The rest of the industry may be hubristic enough to believe that they’re just going to be BETTER than Blizzard at freshening up MMORPG gameplay, but it’s a better bet to just not try. Age of Conan and Warhammer gave it their all, but they just didn’t do enough to differentiate themselves.

What has succeeded? Eve is an interesting example. The base gameplay of Eve is so barebones that I can’t stand playing it, but obviously others can and it’s still growing. The puzzle genre is an attractive one, and Free Realms may be on the right track (although it’s a bit too scattershot on the base gameplay). I’m 100% convinced that within a year or two one of the major multiplayer shooter franchises will go fully MMO (business model and all). Other variants of the RPG theme, such as tactical positional (ie, like japanese SRPGs) or Action-RPGs (Diablo is 90% of the way there, and there have been a LOT of almost-great Action MMO RPGs) are obvious choices. There are a lot of potential gameplay systems that can be the baseline for an MMO, and I’m sure one is going to come out of left field in a few years and become a bigger success than World of Warcraft. Subscription-based games featuring a persistent world and character advancement will be increasingly successful for decades to come, but World of Warcraft will stand as the pinnacle of popularity for a now-niche gameplay style. At least until it’s time for the retro remake.


7 Responses to “No MMORPG Will Ever Beat World of Warcraft”

  1. motstandet said

    I’m taking issue with your statement that there will never be a DotA MMO. DotA is extremely cooperative and thus a breeding ground for social interactions. There is even downtime in matches (respawn time), which you yourself said is adequate for fostering socialization.

    I’ve put a lot of thought into this and had lengthy discussions. You would have instanced matches (much like a Battleground) where character progression can take place. Outside of the battle, you are able to pre-plan, equip, and swap which abilities you want to use in the battle. There is persistent character progression (acquiring different abilities), but the short-term game of deciding how to actually progress the character in the battle is still preserved.

    The closest implemented example of a system like this would be Global Agenda (a MMOFPS still in testing).

    If you would like to read more or take part in the discussion, you can head over to my blog.

  2. JZig said

    Demigod tried some persistent-character stuff (that completely failed to work due to technical issues, but that’s a different problem) in a DotA environment, and the idea of persistent progression on top of the in-session progression is definitely feasible and will add value. I do feel that the two layers of progression are going to fight against each other, in the sense that players who like DotA to be a purely player skill-based game will object heavily to the fact that someone else is better than them because of grinding. We’ll see, I definitely could be wrong on how much the progression mechanics clash.

  3. Kldran said

    When I read the title, my first thought was that the main difficulty in beating WoW, is that to do so would really require that the game increase the size of the player base by bringing in new players. That is what WoW did, and how it got so big. Expanding the base again, would require either an ingenious trick, or a lucky gamble on something odd. Such success is not something that can be planned. (Nintendo won with the gamble on it’s Wii, and DS)

    Regarding the RTSMMO, I’ve actually had many thoughts about such a thing while growing up. Many of my thoughts tended to involve a game much less demanding of one’s attention than most RTSes though. I’ve often wanted an RTS that focused more on strategy than micro-management, as I find the need to act fast tends to stress me out and makes games a lot less fun than they could be. I’ve always loved experimentation in games, messing around with different ideas and seeing how they panned out. It was always my favorite part of an RTS, and it always disappointed me when I eventually tried to do something other than mess around against a computer, and found that any competitive game requires a different style of play. I hope to someday see an RTS that focuses more on playing with a toy, instead of competing in a contest. (amongst my family and friends, I’m notorious for playing games incorrectly)

  4. ... said

    WoW is failing slowly now… i feel sorry for them … i canceled my acc yesterday and bought GW … i though i was playing GW for 1 hour but guess what? i played it for 5 hours and forgot about my Work 😦 i hope my manager doesnt say anything

  5. […] articulo de Raph Koster explica detalladamente en qué consiste esta mecánica. Véase también este reciente artículo donde se explican algunos detalles sobre cómo funciona el combate en  Worl…). Por si no lo conoces, Raph Koster es quien escribió el libro Una teoria sobre la diversión, el […]

  6. Soloist said

    Writer, socializing in mmorpgs like WOW sucks. I use hacks and cheats to solo and I love the game but I hate grouping with strangers and I have an actual life so I don’t get to play often, and am not in a guild. Socializing sucks in mmos unless you are a troll. I actually prefer the duo option but not grouping with strangers and like I said I don’t want to get to know people online, I don’t need more friends. I just wish some crazed fan would commit an atrocity against a developer who thinks grouping is “good” and shake things up. Then the whole “model” would change and they’d scale everything so people could solo or group but not be forced to do one or the other.

  7. […] max or pay $30 and abandon my existing friends to set up a server transfer. 18 months ago I said no MMORPG would ever beat WoW, but it looks like World of Warcraft is on it’s way to killing the genre itself, by […]

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

%d bloggers like this: