Recently I’ve been reflecting on all of the MMO’s I’ve played over the years and the various aspects that I liked about each one. It also made me think about the things I don’t like seeing in MMO launches as well as my surprise that no developer has really been able to come close to World of Warcraft’s success.
I’m going to think out loud over the next few paragraphs here to explain some things.
When “Vanilla” WoW was released in 2004 I believe it’s success was directly related to the fact that it offered the one thing MMo’s at the time were not, which was the ability for casual players, who did not want to group or raid, to experience about 90% of the game content.
Back in 2003, we had successful MMO’s like Final Fantasy XI and EVE. Unfortunately Final Fantasy, which I can say many positive things about, had the issue that in order to level past ~15 or so you’d need to get a group of people together and for hours on end kill one monster at a time. On the other hand EVE was an open ended sandbox in space, that anyone who was into economics and math really seemed to love, which kept it a very niche segment of the MMO genre.
So WoW came out and a lot of people started playing…casually…and since then Blizzard has been the company defining what success in the fantasy MMO genre is. For example, WoW was the first MMO I ever saw that introduced a Group Finder. I no longer had to type in general chat “LF2M Tank and Healer UBRS” for what often felt like an eternity…and sometimes never amounted to anything.
As the game grew and hit the 10 million players mark in 2008 a number of development studios started to create similar model games, but with varying improvements and in some cases not enough. These included games such as Perfect World’s Jade Dynasty in 2009, Trion’s Rift in 2011, and Perfect World’s Forsaken World in 2012.
In 2011, Trion Games released Rift, it probably would have been out sooner, but that whole legal debacle with Palladium Books and Rifts, which as far as I can tell very much influenced their early release. In any case when Rift was released I felt like Trion had taken WoW and improved on it in every way.
Trion was the first to put a time limit on their Battlegrounds, classes could switch specs at will, end-game gear could be crafted for both PVE and PVP, dynamic invasion events in the world, and one simple thing I really liked was that the opposing Factions could speak to each other – which made sense given how invasions worked.
However, within a year Blizzard’s Burning Crusade expansion included most of Rift’s improvements with exception of dynamic invasions, though they did have pre-expansion invasion events within the world and I’m not really sure if dynamic invasions would necessarily make sense in WoW given its storylines.
At this point Rift didn’t have enough to differentiate itself from WoW. It had marketed itself as “We’re not in Azeroth anymore” and well that worked at first, enough people who jumped to Rift, simply went back to WoW once it added these improvements and more content.
So fast forward and we now have a booming MMO market with literally hundreds of fantasy MMO options. It’s a bit ridiculous honestly. But there have been a few AAA titles that are very similar to WoW in regards to the controls and style of the game. I call this “Classic style MMO”. What I mean by that term is that I have a character with numerous abilities that requires me to have numerous action bars at the bottom and sides of my screen. While many important abilities are mapped to 1 to + on my keyboard, most abilities I need to move my mouse to click on, and for the most part I’m navigating with a keyboard and clicking on various buttons with a mouse. This is different from what I would call “Action MMOs” such as Tera, Neverwinter, Vindictus, GW2, etc where you can really play the game almost Diablo style with the mouse and you have maybe a handful of abilities you hit every now and again.
So lets’ stay with Classic MMO’s for just a bit longer now.
In 2010 we saw Star Trek Online, followed by Star Wars the Old Republic in 2011 and finally The Secret World in 2012.
I enjoy Star Trek Online. I enjoyed it then and as a lifer I occasionally jump in once a month to spend my allowance and play dress up with my officers and kill some Borg. It’s gratifying and I think in the last year with Perfect World’s development of their Arc Games platform we’re going to see them as a rival to Blizzard when you count all of their users across all of their many MMO games.
However, all of the games available on Arc are what I would consider niche audiences. For example Star Trek is popular, but not everyone enjoys it, just as not everyone enjoys FPS such as APB or Blacklight, or Super Heroes such as Champions, which is all part of their line up as well. However, I think Perfect World could rival Blizzard simply because their platform has literally something for everyone and their niche.
Of course the downside is they will never have a single game that could gain the user base that WoW has, even with their F2P model.
So what about Star Wars? This was a huge disappointment I feel. For being the most expensive MMO ever developed the game focused too much on a single player game story and lacked a lot of the social elements at launch needed for an MMO to success. It also focused on hyping itself up and making promises that it couldn’t deliver. Telling your MMO fans that you have something “coming soon” and then a timeline that says that same content will be out next year, isn’t “coming soon” to them. For example the group finder was non-existent at launch and it took several months to have it added to the frustration of many players.
Fast forward to it’s now converted F2P demo-model and it lacks the option for players to engage in end-game story content. Their raid finder only allows one raid per day and changes each day and the zoning within the game still continues to be an issue where one must sit through three to four loading screens to get to any given place.
Lastly getting new content in SWTOR is slow at best and over-hyped when it does come out. Their marketing team does a great job at making a single dungeon release sound like a full on movie production.
Finally we have The Secret World, another game that should not have been an MMO, but would have done well to be a single player game. The story is great, the setting is fantastic and many of the missions are really interesting. I still find that the satellite hacking to be on e of the most unique and intelligent missions ever created, and if you’re a code monkey you probably agree.
Unfortunately the game still has a rather clunky group finder and it was disappointing to hear from a developer post how they felt that the players should use general chat more to find groups.
If you want people to play your game with others, don’t make it hard for them to find others to play with.
So what have we learned so far?
To make a successful MMO we need at bare minimum the following:
- Unique Setting (Don’t try to make Azeroth)
- Group Finder at Launch (Group Finder)
- Social Tools for the game (Guild Chat, Banks, Shared Account Items, etc)
- Give hardcore players rewards, but make it possible for Casual players to be involved (Raid Finder)
- Focus development on future content releases, not on voice acting and cinemetics, players devour content fast, keep them guessing and keep them challenged or they’ll leave