Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, January 06, 2010
 
Designing around WoW

Cuppycake is complaining about an endless stream of blog posts stating that MMO's aren't evolving, and that WoW is just a clone of previous games. She certainly has a point there. MMORPGs still do evolve, and World of Warcraft is full of underestimated innovation, and has always been. The kind of posts Cuppycake is complaining about reflect not so much facts, but emotions: People who grew bored with MMORPGs in general complain about lack of innovation, and people who dislike World of Warcraft try to diss it by making false claims about it.

If you look at it objectively, the evolution of MMORPGs is clear to see. World of Warcraft is a game which is constantly evolving, because it has to. Getting a million people to buy your MMORPG is one thing, but getting millions of people to stay in your game for 5 years is quite another. Of course one could make a subjective point that WoW isn't adding content and evolving gameplay *fast enough* for you. But if WoW hadn't been better than previous games to start with, and hadn't kept evolving ever since, you simply can't explain why World of Warcraft is still the market leader. The WoW-haters at this point usually use the arguments that all the millions of WoW players are just plain stupid, mindless lemmings who don't know better, and who can't identify a far superior game even if they try it. I find that sort of argument extremely insulting, to myself and to players in general. I have a far better opinion of MMORPG players than that, they usually know very well what they like, and aren't shy to vote with their wallet.

But while some bloggers are too quick to dismiss the elephant in the room, I do see a certain tendency of game companies and developers to be too much in awe of World of Warcraft. A MMORPG is a complex mix of different gameplay systems, each of which having many options, resulting in a huge number of possible different games which would all be MMORPGs. There is no doubt that World of Warcraft has found *a* mix that works, developed from both old and new ideas, and executed it superbly. But unfortunately that has led some developers to believe that WoW has *the* recipe for success, and that nothing very different from it could ever work. This has resulted in a constant stream of "WoW+" games being developed, games which try to take a large chunk of the WoW recipe, and then add a little something to differentiate themselves from WoW:and the list goes on and on.

And I'm not talking about copying World of Warcraft's graphics style or user interface here (although that happens as well). I'm talking about about copying the basics of WoW's gameplay: Gameplay directed by quests; character development through classes, xp, levels, and talents; solo combat based on fixed skills on hotkey bars; group combat based on tanks, healers, and damage dealers; and last but not least the horrible idea that there should be an inferior, often grindy leveling game, and a superior end game of some sorts. Far too many games have copied these basic features of WoW, and declared them to be genre-defining. But one just has to look at some other games, like Ultima Online, Star Wars Galaxies, or EVE, to see that these features are not necessarily part of every MMORPG. And while these other games obviously didn't get the mix or the execution so right that they'd enjoy the same sort of multi-million subscriber success, that doesn't mean that all of the ideas contained in these games are inferior. There is no reason why for example a game without classes and levels couldn't succeed as well, if done right.

The WoW+ concept of game design has severe drawbacks. First of all players familiar with WoW will not only notice whatever it is what you added to the basic WoW recipe; they will notice far more whatever it is you substracted, which more often than not is the raid endgame. Second, given the choice of games with very similar gameplay, players will usually end up choosing either the better executed one, or the cheaper one. Thus you either need to beat WoW itself in quality of execution, or Free2Play games like Runes of Magic and Allods Online in price. The deck is stacked against WoW+ games, because people tend to compare the WoW+ game that was just released with the existing WoW and other WoW+ games which already had a lot of kinks worked out.

This is where my doubts about the success of upcoming games like Star Wars: The Old Republic is coming from. SWTOR is clearly one of these WoW+ games: The first thing you will see after character creation will be a NPC with some symbol floating over his head, who will give you the first quest in a long series leading you from level 1 up to the level cap. The "plus" will be that this NPC has voice-over, and of course the Star Wars world instead of yet another fantasy world, but will that be enough? Will people not realize that killing 10 womp rats on Tatooine by first targeting them and then using skills on your hotkey bar to kill them is exactly the same thing they already did for years? This is exactly the sort of game people buy full of hope when it comes out, only to leave it a month later, already bored and disappointed.

The WoW+ design fixation is one that grows proportionally with a game's budget. The bigger and more expensive a new game is, the less likely it is to try and stray from the "recipe for success" of World of Warcraft. Which is why a lot of the MMORPG veterans who grew bored of that sort of gameplay are now promoting various games from smaller companies, on much smaller budgets. Of course that means that these games don't have the sheer size and quality of workmanship of a triple-A game. But small games like Puzzle Pirates or A Tale in the Desert show that you can make MMORPGs in which the gameplay is fundamentally different from World of Warcraft, and which proportionally to their cost are successful. Of course that doesn't always scale, some ideas aren't compatible with a mass market, and can only do well in a niche market. But I doubt that WoW somehow stumbled upon the one and only formula that can succeed in a mass market.

Now if I had a spare 50 or 100 million flying around, I would make a game which is radically different to World of Warcraft in fundamental gameplay, but rather copy the attention to detail and quality of execution from Blizzard. The trick is to design around World of Warcraft, by realizing that it isn't this or that feature that defines the genre or results in automatic success, but harder to copy things like polish, and technical excellence. How impressed would you be by a game that didn't have horrible lag and server problems on release day? And if that game had a completely different gameplay, a very different type of combat and character development, it would succeed much better than yet another WoW+ game. If I'd design it, I'd make my Shandalar game I mentioned before: The game would steal ideas from trading card games, character development would be about collecting cards for your collection, and combat would involve having to deal with a random hand of cards from your deck, thus avoiding endless repetition of always the same spell rotations. But that is just one idea among thousands of possible options.

Funnily enough the only company I see being willing and able to put 100 million dollars into a game which doesn't resemble World of Warcraft at all is Blizzard. Unfortunately I don't think that game will be released before 2012 or 2013. MMORPGs are evolving, as Cuppycake said, but not always fast enough for my taste.
Comments:
I bet if MMOs didn't have 4+ years of development time and 50 million dollars to complete, they would iterate and evolve a lot faster.

Look at the evolution of social games for an example. ;)
 
Cuppycake seems to have made a fundamental misunderstanding in calling that Keen post an example of the "World of Warcraft brings nothing new to the table, is just a copycat game of all its predecessors" theme.

Keen clearly stated that he DOES consider WoW to be a product which built upon what had been done in the past and advanced the state of the art, NOT a clone that brought nothing new to the table.
 
Here's an idea for Cuppy:

Take $100 million and develope a design document for an MMORPG. But you have to leave EQ1/2 and WoW out of the picture. Start from scratch.

Where do you start? Do you use the pen and paper game called Dungeon and Dragons as your template, or do you draw inferences from somewhere else?...What would they be?

It's silly to think that MMO's havent been innovative since EQ1, or even the early days of text muds. The problem here is one of perception, and depending on when you started playing MMO's, you're likely to have a long list of likes and dislikes stored in a memory that is often biased by that first game you play.

How would you classify the new LFG tool in WoW? Would you classify it as innovative, or something that was long overdue? Would more bag space be innovative, or something long overdue? Were keyrings innovative when they were -finally- implemented, or something that was long overdue?

When I say long overdue, in each of the above cases, the players asked for these thing -long- before the developer ever thought to implement them. Nothing innovative there, nada.

Tell ya what; take a bunch of WoW players and sit them down at a table for a night of D&D with a well trained/experienced DM - see how much fun they have under the current ruleset and explain to them that this is where it basically started. Explain to them that Death is real and your armor and weapons can be lost or stolen....see how long they last under some strict guidelines of play.

The point here is that MMO's have mainstreamed the "competitive" factor right out the window, and I think that is what Keen is addressing. People dont like permadeath, the loss of items or a lost chance at a new shiny.

Everyone is now being appeased in some way or another, and -innovation- means making even a bigger group of players happy in the attempt to pad the bottom line.
 
Fundamental changes in existing things are rare ... most probably non existant. Evolution is slow.

Our ancestors did not leave the oceans and moved into brickhouses, skipping the trees and the caves.

So you will see a bit of WoW in everything. A "cheap" history of the evolution would be:
P&P RPG-CRPG-MUD-UO-EQ-WOW

The only visible evolution we get is content ... and yes, WoW aint adding it fast enough :)
 
I don't get where all the SWTOR-hype comes from anyways. I mean its clearly visible that we are heading towards an (maybe well executed) WoW-Clone with better storytelling. And I am not convinced at all that this storytelling will help any. Experiencing a story takes time. This time is well spend if you don't know the story, but evolves into a boring timesink when you start an alt. Sure you could take another avenue of the storyline, but I doubt there will be too many fundamentally different paths because that would split the gameworld into too many separate parts. In addition to that people still haven't overcome their WoW-habits, so storyline or not they WILL rush for the levelcap and choose not the great and interesting storyline but the storyline that lets them progress fastest. For a twink that may involve playing the same storyline over and over again. Doesn't matter that its boring as hell as long as you progress fast, doesn't it?

To me, SWTORs storyline-fixation looks more like an obstacle to overcome than an "pillar" of gamedesign. Like it or not, people will enter this game and start counting all the things that remind them of WoW. If the counter progresses beyond a certain number they will simply declare "This is like WoW". At that point some will leave and others will start playing like SWTOR is exactly like WoW. Everything fundamentally different will be ignored because it doesn't fit into their mental WoW-tab. Everything that was left out from the WoW-recipe will be noticed and seen as flaw.
 
have you even played champions online?
 
Since my first MMO was WoW, I am inevitably biased. WoW is my standard against which everything else is judged. It's hard to think outside of the box sometimes.

I'm particularly interested in your comments on Aion, since I recently began playing that as well.

The one question I do have - you mentioned how the "WoW model" is defined. How was the MMO defined before WoW came along? Did WoW really change it?
 
How would you classify the new LFG tool in WoW? Would you classify it as innovative, or something that was long overdue? Would more bag space be innovative, or something long overdue? Were keyrings innovative when they were -finally- implemented, or something that was long overdue?

When I say long overdue, in each of the above cases, the players asked for these thing -long- before the developer ever thought to implement them. Nothing innovative there, nada.


Bad classification. Players did NOT ask for the Dungeon Finder specifically, they asked for a solution to a problem of finding groups for dungeons. The specific solution Blizzard offered was innovative, did work (as opposed to their previous attempts to solve the same problem), and fundamentally changed the way many players play WoW today. Thus it is very much an evolution of WoW.

have you even played champions online?

Yes, although not much. But it is a good example of a game which superficially looks like being completely different from WoW, but in reality is based on the same basic concepts. You log on, see the first NPC with a quest symbol floating over his head, he'll tell you to kill X mobs, you do and gain xp, until you gain a level, and get more skills and abilities to put on your hotkey bar for combat. Of course it doesn't look like WoW, the combat has a different speed and feel as WoW, but those superficial differences only get you so far. By the time I finished the tutorial I was already completely bored by Champions Online.
 
But isn't the quests/experience/levels/etc. model a lot older than even WoW?
 
This small comment says it all:

"What Apple did was bring the best features together into one slick package, market it well to a non-geeky, non-smartphone crowd, and sell the shit out of it. Hm, sounds like WoW."
 
Bad classification. Players did NOT ask for the Dungeon Finder specifically, they asked for a solution to a problem of finding groups for dungeons.

I beg to differ. As soon as cross realm battlegrounds were made available, players asked why the same sort of thing could not be done for grouping purposes.

Admittedly, when cross realm BG's were admitted, it was indeed innovative -at that time-.
 
Tobold,

"But if WoW hadn't been better than previous games to start with, and hadn't kept evolving ever since, you simply can't explain why World of Warcraft is still the market leader."

The argumentum ad populum becomes tiresome. Titanic was seen by millions, is it the best film around?

Beyoncé sells millions of records, is she the best musician around?

Now, i'm not going to be that WoW hater strawman that you're so found of, WoW has it's merits as any of the above products. Titanic has superior production values, good actors, decent dialogues. It appeals to the masses but that's just it. Is it a bad movie? No. Is it so much better than the independent movie seen by 250 people at the small theatre? No, but at least it has a huge sinking ship, explosions and leo dicaprio.

WoW is the Titanic of games. Not a bad game in any account but it's just a gaming experience for the masses and the tendency for simplification continues.

As for Champions Online, the only thing valid in your comparison is the exclamation signs on top of characters head and I'm not even sure that WoW was the first to have that. Champions Online is a fundamentally different game than WoW and claiming they are copying WoW for having a hotbar is the same as claiming they are copying WoW for having NPC's. A hotkey bar has been a standard of RPG's for 20 years for christ sakes. Champions Online as the fixed powersets in order to give players a familiar ground. Beyond that you can mash up anything you like in order to make distinctive characters. There are many problems with the game, granted, but i don't think that being too similar to WoW is one of them.

And no. LFG Tools and UI functionality are not the kind of evolution players want and in that regard you can say that WoW had none. Adding more quests in order to streamline the leveling process is not "innovation" but a keen market perception: people want to be led through an experience or they will leave the game. People want bitesize chunks and feel accomplished so the quest model fitted that perfectly. Is it good game design? Yes. Is it a good busines model? Yes. Is it innovation? Quite debatable. "More of that" is seldom innovation.

You are right though when you say that companies should mimic WoW's production values and such. But you should also ask yourself how many companies had Blizzard's resources in the years before 2004, sitting on top of Starcraft, Warcraft and Diablo IP's. Do you really think all the other dev houses are comprised of morons who can't grasp the need for a sound Q&A team?

Your basic premise is not at all wrong. Some games do design around WoW: Allods and Runes of Magic are even more notorious than the rest. But most games simply drink from the DIKU model is just because they have exclamation points it doesn't mean they mimic WoW. Even WAR is just WoW+RvR because players play it that way. PvE is there only as a break from PvP and an acknowledgment that even PvP'ers like to see the scenery and kill some mobs once in a while.

All in all, and sorry for teh text blanket, I think you cannot ignore the elephant in the room but you should only pay close attention to it depending on what you want to do: create a solid game that will turn a decent profit or a mass-market-multi-million dollar hit with shinies and explosions. Just like the latest summer movie blockbuster. :)
 
I don't get why everyone is bashing WoWs leveling. Personally I find leveling in WoW to be a ton of fun. The quests, the different zones, getting a new item, getting a new skill from time to time. It's all great fun.

And I thrust Bioware will deliver a good game. They know how to make a great game, just look at Dragon Age, SW: KOTOR, Baldurs Gate,...
 
The one question I do have - you mentioned how the "WoW model" is defined. How was the MMO defined before WoW came along? Did WoW really change it?

Before WoW, the definition of what a MMORPG is was a lot larger, with games like Ultima Online or Star Wars Galaxies working with skills instead of xp and levels, for example. Of course WoW didn't invent the class/xp/level system either, which goes back all the way to pen and paper D&D, and was already implemented as MMORPG in the form of games like Everquest or Dark Age of Camelot.

But while some people will tell you that WoW is an Everquest-clone, the basic philosophy and gameplay of EQ was very, very different from WoW. EQ was a game of forced grouping, and despite its name doing quests wasn't something you did all that often. Gameplay often consisted of finding a group for a particular spawn point in the world, and then "camping" that point for hours. There were dungeons and raids, but they weren't instanced, so if guild A just killed the big dragon, it wouldn't respawn for many hours or even days, before guild B could try to kill it. You could gather a group and work all your way through a dungeon, just to find that the final boss mob was camped by some high-level player.

What WoW added to the genre was the idea of turning a gameplay which was only suited for a smaller number of hardcore players into a gameplay which was accessible to the mass market. That included extreme soloability, the idea of players being guided by following a string of quests leading them through the game, and instanced dungeons and raids allowing players to consume content in parallel without bothering each other.
 
"What WoW added to the genre was the idea of turning a gameplay which was only suited for a smaller number of hardcore players into a gameplay which was accessible to the mass market. That included extreme soloability, the idea of players being guided by following a string of quests leading them through the game, and instanced dungeons and raids allowing players to consume content in parallel without bothering each other."

Just to be clear. For you popularity equals quality and anything that has the most paying customers is the best thing in any given media format.

If that is your definition I will, of course, agree with everything you say about WoW. It certainly is the most quantifiable feature while others are largely subjective.
 
"The "plus" will be that this NPC has voice-over, and of course the Star Wars world instead of yet another fantasy world, but will that be enough?"

I can only speak for myself and my wallet, but the answer is yes, that will be enough.
 
"This time is well spend if you don't know the story, but evolves into a boring timesink when you start an alt. "

The Developers of SWTOR recognize this. That's why for each class there isn't one repeated quest from 1 to Level cap. You have a completely different story as a Bounty Hunter as you with a Jedi Knight.
 
I think sometimes people miss the point. No gaming company is out to make the 'best' game there is. Just like no author is out to write the 'best' book there is. What the author and the game company want is the 'best-selling' game or book there is. There is a significant difference between the two.
 
@Sergio
'Do you really think all the other dev houses are comprised of morons who can't grasp the need for a sound Q&A team?'

Looking at WAR, Conan, Champions Online and soon to be launched Star Trek Online, the answer is a definite YES. The idea of allocating resources to properly test their mechanics and content seems to have eluded their developers completely.
 
Speaking of copycats, what is the chance the many of the new changes that people are enjoying so much will be included in the 'vanilla' version of the next Blizzard MMO? Are robust LFG, dual spec and increased options for fast world transport carrots for existing players or discovered tools that we should expect to see again?
 
The scary part is one of the reasons I preferred FFXI to WoW is that it's a forced grouping system and the quests were things you actually had to set out as a group to do and were not related to leveling except indirectly. Leveling was thru "grinding". One of the reasons it worked for me is that they made the combat system interdependent enough (and we're not talking just the trinity here) and complex enough to remain interesting. Basically a good party was always trying to run on the speed edge. Finding the right mobs in sufficient quantities so that you were killing difficult enough mobs fast enough to keep the exp chains going while using skill chains to boost your speed and survivability. The sign of a good party was one where you could hit the 5th mob in a chain time after time. A great party was one that just kept plowing and saw chains over 20 long. You could only get that if all 6 members of a party knew what they were doing and were on their game. And the system was setup to reward players who did it (more exp faster). This is not to say one couldn't solo in FFXI, just that it took MUCH more effort than grouping.
 
I think a better question to ask, Tobold, is whether the exact same game with a "change of scenery" is enough?

If that change is subtle, like WoW to WAR, then it's not. But a fantasy setting to the Sci-Fi Star Wars setting? That's quite different.

So I would say that if SWOTR is executed as well as WoW, that it's the change of scenery IS enough and the game is going to be huge and remain huge.

But that's the key -- execution and attention to detail. Simply wielding a lightsabre isn't going to be enough.
 
Eve Online is the only active major MMO that is significantly different from the Warcraft/Everquest/DikuMUD model. It's a remarkably interesting and balanced game. I keep hoping more MMO designers will copy some of its best ideas, the economics and crafting and alliance politics and one giant open world. Someday we'll get beyond yet-another-WoW-clone.
 
@Honors Code

So you think renaming the womp rats to a different type of animal with a different skin is a completely different quest that will keep people interested?

People are tired of the errands developers are placing before us under the disguise of quests. These aren't quests, they are chores.

I don't care if it's presented to me like the Holodeck on Star Trek I don't want to collect 10 of anything anymore.

UO and EQ had the most innovation of any MMORPG's. WoW took what EQ, UO, and DAoC had refinded it and made a game with mass market appeal... along with creating alot of good ideas. HOWEVER for every "innovation" Blizzard has done they have borrowed two from someone else and simply made it better. Alot of the innovation Blizzard gets credit for is simply taking an existing idea and making it better.

I would play Tobold's game btw.
 
@Ayr

I seriously doubt that. There may be some developers who talk a good game but can't walk the walk but in the end it's just a matter of resources.

I'm not even bringing another strawman, the Idiot Executive, to the equation. This is a matter of resources.

You are the producer of a game. You have the option of shipping the game with 300 quests thoroughly tested or 900 that may be buggy; have 1 continent thoroughly tested or 3 that may be buggy; and so on...

Which one do you think is going to fly? And with limited, or misused, resources where do you think they will cut? And when most companies have young inexperienced developers being crunched to hell and back it's ludicrous to think that the games won't suffer.

More than polish, timing or competence, WoW's biggest asset and the factor that probably was more important in it's success was the fact that Blizzard was sitting in a huge pile of cash when they developed WoW which in turn took a lot of pressure off.

If someday things go sour, and I don't think they will for Blizzard can and will be accused of many things except stupidity, you'll see that the "when it's ready" will go away.
 
"the players asked for these thing -long- before the developer ever thought to implement them. Nothing innovative there, nada."

Innovation is still innovation regardless of where the idea comes from.

In fact Blizzard's skill at harvesting player innovation with regard to its UI has been a notable factor in its success. Would people have played so long without Auctioneer, Questhelper, Decursive, damage meters?
 
It's not really "WoW+", though, is it? It's "Diku-style+"; by your own criteria WoW was "EQ + quests and solo content", and Champions Online is clearly more similar to City of Heroes, which of course was launched before WoW.
 
@Zoso
No matter how much it pains me to admit this, everything is compared to WoW now no matter when it was created.

I played EQ for 5 years too so it hurts to admit that, but it is what it is.

WoW is the standard now.
 
@Epiny,

I haven't the first clue what will keep 'people' interested.

Read my comment, I said for ME and MY wallet the voice-over, and the Star Wars world instead of yet another fantasy world WILL be enough to keep ME interested.

That's all I can really say. If there are enough people like me, then SWTOR will be going for a long time. If there aren't, it won't be. Only time will tell.
 
@Honors Code

I think the Star Wars world is going to be SWTOR's biggest selling point honestly. It's going to get alot of of first month people just based on the IP... more than likely myself included.

However if it's like all the other quests I've dealt with in the past 5 years with just voice overs I don't think it will be very succsessful.

I don't think SWTOR will fail, I just don't think it will meet expectations. I hope it proves me wrong though.
 
I personally enjoy games where solo quest progression is a valid means of progressing. I also find WoW to be numbingly dull, the solo quests are simply to trivially easy to be entertaining (though to be fair, I haven't tried it in months...the Dungeon Finder sounds like a big improvement).

In any case, I for one am glad that I have a lot of options like CO, CoH, LoTRO, DDO, Wizard 101, RoM, WAR, ect. from developers that are "deluded" enough to think there is a market for more MMOs that have quests and allow you to solo.
 
Sérgio, fair enough, you obviously think "extreme soloability, the idea of players being guided by following a string of quests leading them through the game, and instanced dungeons and raids allowing players to consume content in parallel without bothering each other" are bad things, or at least devolutions in MMORPG design.

But at some point, you have to grow up and admit that while "popular" doesn't automatically imply "better", it doesn't automatically imply "worse," either.

Making the game accessible to more players - allowing people who can only log on for half an hour to achieve something, allowing everyone to have a crack at the raid bosses, not just the server-dominating uberguilds - these sort of changes, I would confidentlyargue, are both popular and good.

I would never argue that WoW must obviously be the best game out there just because it has the most subscribers. But you don't get the most subscribers, and the most by a huge margin, and then stay at the top of the tree for five years, without doing a lot of things right.

If you want to point a finger at a genuinely horrible game, you should be looking more at things like Horizons and Alganon than WoW. Games that hardly appealed to anyone, not a game that appealed to millions of people, but just not you.
 
I like your WoW+ term. It is something innovation in the industry will probably be fighting against for years down the road.
 
@Carson

I never said WoW was an horrible game. I played it for two and a half years and it was my first MMO love.

That doesn't blind me to the fact that they went from a easy to learn hard to master experience to a trivial series of little tasks to keep non-gamers occupied.

Also, you can hardly call WoW a virtual world where you have to "live" you virtual life among others.

And, unfortunately, that's where the industry is going.
 
@ Carson 63000

Making the game accessible to more players - allowing people who can only log on for half an hour to achieve something, allowing everyone to have a crack at the raid bosses, not just the server-dominating uberguilds - these sort of changes, I would confidentlyargue, are both popular and good.

To be fair here; people who are only able to log in for half an hour a day will never be able to have a crack at a raid boss, let alone be able to achieve much of anything outside of a few dailies and possibly a single LFG random dungeon(especially if they are dps).

If you are saying that streamlining should be taken to the extreme of providing content for the "30 minute or less crowd", then I have to say you are dead wrong. People who only have 30 minutes a day to spare on gaming should -NOT- be playing MMO's IMHO.
 
Why do we assume MMO's will evolve? It is a matured genre. Think of automobiles -- not much has really changed -- they have 4 wheels, doors, steering wheel, etc. MMOs are in a similar state. Fine-tuning and cosmetics may vary but the fundamentals of the interface and the gameplay will not change.
 
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