With the imminent coming of World of Warcraft (WoW) Classic – a relaunch of WoW as it was in 2004 – it is timely to consider WoW’s impact on the genre. You won’t be surprised to know that I view WoW’s impact mostly negatively.
But in fairness I will talk first about the positive things WoW brought to the genre, and then discuss the negatives.
On the plus side
You might find it odd that I – a proponent of older MMORPGs like EverQuest and Ultima Online – would find positives to say about WoW. But I have played WoW on and off for many years and the game did, and still does, get things right.
One of the best things WoW did for the genre is set the standard for production values, polish and network stability. Prior to WoW’s release, and arguably even at WoW’s release, launch days and patch days were horrendous. The games themselves lacked the polish that would soon become Blizzard’s staple. There are few games out right now that can compete with WoW’s smooth, seamless experience.
Of course this has a dark side. It meant that many soon came to expect a level of slick polish in other games, from studios that could not hope to compete with Blizzard’s quality assurance resources, network scale and pedigree.
Prior to the advent of WoW’s LUA-based interface, most MMORPG players were offered little in the way of user interface customisations. The scope of modifications to WoW’s interface has been truly amazing and at times game-breaking. But few games even today can compete with the sheer amazing number of ways the WoW UI can be modified.
Again, this is not an unqualified positive. In many cases the openness of WoW’s UI has meant developers have had to design encounters and mechanics in a way that cannot be ‘cheated’ with mods. They have also had to purposefully close off some aspects of the UI which were being exploited.
The dark side
That positivity didn’t last long, did it? Don’t get me wrong.. There are plenty of other things that WoW brought to the genre as positives, but they are not as remarkable because other games did them too.
On to the key negatives WoW brought to the genre.
When WoW was first released, the MMORPG genre was niche. Peak simultaneous player counts for games like EQ and UO were numbered at most in the hundreds of thousands. WoW would change this, with numbers in the millions. Millions of players meant millions of dollars, and the MMORPG genre went from a niche side project to the main event for many publishers. Everyone wanted a piece of the action.
This popularity started a chain of events which brought a lot of interest to the genre. Some of it was good interest. Most of it was interest from people with money who wanted to make more. Gradually the decision-making power left the hands of the creatives – the developers and content designers – and into the hands of businesspeople at publishers.
A genre that had previously been about exploring new ideas (and making some money too of course) became about selling units and maintaining subscriptions above all else. And it showed.
New money in the genre was a two-edged sword. On one hand, it meant more investment to pay for developers, intellectual property licences, and other resources. However it meant the pre-WoW tendency to take risks with development (e.g. the entire development of EQ) was now unacceptable.
Big money meant big losses if/when things did not work out. So investors needed something tested and reliable: WoW. This push spawned many WoW clones and forced already published games to chase the WoW money and do complete overhauls to align more closelt to the WoW formula. As we would see they would all mostly fail even when they did try to follow the WoW formulka.
A great example of this was the release of EverQuest II (EQ2), which occurred around the same time as WoW. EQ2 was unique in many ways but its release was completely dwarfed by WoW, for a range of reasons that were not entirely all about WoW. Looking back it is easy to trace the gradual watering down of EQ2’s uniqueness and its march towards becoming a more WoW-like game. It never recovered.
The sum total of the money and its ensuing formula was the sapping of creativity from the MMORPG genre for at least a decade or more. The only company that really innovated was Blizzard, but even Blizzard took its cues from its publisher and many would argued have watered down what made WoW popular in the first place. In this context it’s easy to see why WoW Classic has such a following.
Ultimately none of these formulaic clones could compete with the WoW leviathan. They could not compete with the polish, content, or pedigree and thus almost always felt second rate.
I think we are currently in a Post-WoW period of MMORPG development. More and more players are hearkening back to if not a pre-WoW sentimentality, then at least a Vanilla WoW sentimentality.
The shining lights on the horizon are unfortunately coming from Kickstarted indie games, which is an indictment on the risk-averse gaming industry that has been burnt so many times chasing the WoW dragon. I say unfortunately because this model has core limitations. So while they are making games that are creative and less formulaic, they are doing so with one hand tied behind their collective back.
WoW changed the landscape of MMORPGs. It took the genre from a cottage industry to a big business, and in true boom and bust fashion left corpses in its wake. It brought money to a creative industry and in doing so starved out its inherent creativity.
Now players are jaded and mistrustful, and many have fled the genre entirely. The top three or four MMORPGs are either WoW, or WoW clones with a different IP. The genre is boring, it lacks creativity, and is more geared at extracting cash shop payments than producing compelling gameplay.
On the eve of WoW’s release the MMORPG genre was diverse. Games like EQ, UO, Star Wars Galaxies, Anarchy Online, Asheron’s Call, and others were all very different from one another. They appealed to different people. Now we have a homogenous genre where the games that are truly different are poorly funded, left on life support, or shut down entirely.
I have hope that this will change. Perhaps we need to go back to the cottage industry. Some say that the genre is dead.
But I hope we are due for a rebirth.