Blaugust EverQuest MMO World of Warcraft

World of Warcraft: the worst thing to happen to the MMORPG genre?

August 14, 2019

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.

Polish

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.

User Interface

Image credit: WoWHead.com

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.

Money

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.

The Formula

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.

Post-WoW period

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.

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  1. Your piece conflicts me and gives me complicated feelings!

    To such an extent that I went to dig out of the internet archive machine what it I was I’d said about all this back in 2010 (https://web.archive.org/web/20110211024710/http://funingames.net/2010/12/a-world-without-wow/)

    I had a different angle on things, trying to imagine a world where WoW never came to pass. I think the only near certainty I came to in that though was that the MMO playerbase would never have grown as big, as quickly, as it did.

    Not without some other similarly popular franchise with mega brand appeal coming along and bringing its fanbase to the genre at least.

    The specific pros and cons aside, I can’t help but to wish that if we had to get a mega success like WoW that it was a more sandboxy title of the ilk of Vanguard.

    1. Part of me wonders too if it wouldn’t have been such a bad thing if MMORPGs stayed as a niche cottage industry. I think that many of the Kickstarted MMORPG projects may prove that you don’t need millions to be viable if you don’t blow your wad chasing ‘WoW money’.

      Unfortunately we’ve had to go through 15 years of investors being burnt on MMORPG failures, and so we are in my view stuck with a fairly ramshackle funding model which only allows for long development times and small dev teams.

      Thanks for sharing your old post – very interesting!

  2. It is a fairly well trod path, the “What if there was no WoW?” discussion. The root question for me is always whether or not if Blizz had decided not to finish WoW, would we have arrived at the same place eventually?

    WoW was, after all, heavily influenced my EQ. Blizz has said so repeatedly, even honoring EQ at a BlizzCon keynote one year. For many WoW was EQ perfected in a way that EQII was not. I was in at the EQII launch where within 30 days most EQ players either went back to EQ or on to WoW. EQII was half baked and changing things drastically even before WoW launched based on user complaints, and the EQII dev team seemed determined to spit on a lot of things that made EQ a great game. Blizz drew the right conclusions from EQ while SOE did not.

    So a lot of the factors that made WoW a success were lifted straight from EQ, while the rest were either corporate philosophy (polish and attention to details… I recall a Rob Pardo talk on spending weeks getting mouse response on a specific action just right) or things borrowed from previous Blizzard games. That yellow exclamation point over a quest giver, that came from Diablo II, while playing the campaign in Warcraft III is often feels like playing a WoW prototype done in an RTS. There were so many parts of WoW laying around just waiting to be combined into the final game that it almost seems inevitable in hindsight, and all the more so where you read about how so many of the Blizz devs were huge EQ players. The Blizz EQ guild was pretty much a corporate recruiting arm.

    As for getting attention for the game… Blizz was coming off a string of big successes. Anything Blizz made was going to get a lot of attention. Success leads to success.

    There was enough going on that if Blizz didn’t make WoW, a hard concept to fathom given the circumstances, it feels like somebody would have put all those parts together and ended up with something that would have served as the definitive EQ successor. It might not have been as big, so it might not have spawned so many uninspired clones, but once you see all the parts together and working it is hard to imagine a better way to address the MMORPG concept. It is like seeing a spark plug or a crowbar. You could make something that served those purposes with different form factors, but would they necessarily be better?

    This is complicated by the fact that this is entertainment, which means efficiency isn’t necessarily the goal, but your end users will let you know loudly if somebody is doing what you’re trying to do in a better fashion. Any MMORPG that launched after WoW had in their beta chat immediate comparisons to how WoW operated.

    And genres peak. For a brief couple of years EQ’s and then WoW’s success made people think that MMORPGs and virtual worlds were the way forward for all things, that things would keep getting bigger and more popular. It was a classic gold rush, and when it turned out not to be easy money, attention moved elsewhere and it just became a business. A profitable business, and one that won’t go away, but not the automatic path to fame and fortune that some people (e.g. Richard Garriott) were saying it was back around 2005.

    1. I agree with you re EQ2. I think it was a poor game with some level of creativity, but one that ultimately abandoned what made its predecessor great. The changes made to it since then to make it more WoW-like have, for most, made it even less palatable.

      I enjoy WoW. I have enjoyed it many times. But apart from the very beginning, it has never to me felt like a world that is truly alive. I’ve written recently about why EQ gave the illusion of being alive when in many ways it was even more static than WoW. Perhaps I’m looking with the benefit of hindsight – in 2004, was WoW the worst thing to happen to the genre? No. It was great. It professionalised MMORPGs in a way previous games hadn’t. It did take the good from EQ and in some ways was the natural progression.

      But in 2019, was it the worst thing to happen to the genre? I think so. Its continued immense success, its gradual dumbing down of itself, its seemingly inevitable lurch towards the ‘single player MMORPG’.. all of these things are being done by publishers to chase the almighty dollar right across the genre. And I think it stinks, personally.

      Personally, I think WoW and the genre as a whole has been a victim of its own success. You see it right across all fields, and you term it correctly – a gold rush. Boom and bust.

      Well, we’ve busted I think.

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