Did WoW Ruin MMOs?

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A couple a days ago Sig over at Crucible Gaming put forward an interesting proposition; that he believes that World of Warcraft ruined MMOs by fostering solo play as the primary means of playing them. I have to confess, I started playing MMOs shortly after WoW launched, and I cut my teeth on Guild Wars before eventually trying WoW. So, as such I can’t claim the same level of first hand historical understanding of the early MMO market that so many in the blogging community can. But I do think WoW ruined MMO gaming, just not in quite the same way that Sig is putting forward, although I’m certainly sympathetic to his message.

To my mind, one of the greatest problems that WoW has created is a potential miscalculation in the level of interest there actually is in the MMO genre. No game has ever come close to matching WoW’s subscriber numbers which are currently around the 8 million mark, down from its height of around 12 million . Even games with huge launch hype and unbelievable budgets like SWTOR crow about selling a million boxes at launch. One million boxes. And that’s just boxes, not actual long-term subscribers. As this pattern repeats itself over and over again I think the question we have to ask is, do people want to play MMOs or do they want to play World of Warcraft.? Over the years I’ve begun to lean more and more towards the latter.

Sure, there are tons of MMOs out there now, but I don’t think that if you added the player bases of all of them together it would equal WoW’s peak subscriber numbers. But, big budget MMOs continue to launch and continue to fail to garner enough players to rival WoW or even come close. But of course, that hasn’t stopped many studios from trying to. That leads me to conclude one of two things: either that WoW is the greatest MMO ever made and nothing else can rival it, or there simply aren’t enough players willing to play other games, or at least not put down roots there so to speak. Based on my experience I simply have to agree with the latter.

Now of course it’s also entirely possible that the problem is that we simply haven’t had enough variety in the genre for people to feel the need to diverge from WoW. It’s certainly true that creativity has stagnated somewhat, and we’re still, ten years on, in the midst of the “like WoW but different because x” formula of MMO development. I’m entirely willing to accept that I may be completely wrong about this, but I simply believe that WoW achieved the status of cultural monolith and nothing will ever come close to that again. But because of it’s success and the budgets and expectations of MMO studios, we’ve ended up with a “play it safely, give them what they seem to want” sort of marketplace. That is what I believe has ruined MMOs.

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Take  look at AAA gaming and you’ll see a lot of lowest common denominator let’s do what’s already popular sort of titles. This is in large part because the size of the investments required to make some of these game just do not allow for any risk taking. Another parallel can perhaps be drawn with the summer blockbuster movie market, which also offers extremely safe and rote output most of the times. Again, because the risk of failure is too great.

That is the position I believe the MMO market is in today, and that can only be improved by the proliferation of smaller independent titles as has happened in the wider games market in recent years, particularly on PC. I know I’ve argued this before, but that is what I believe the long term legacy of WoW has been; a stagnation of innovation in a genre that really needs some. I’m just not sure there will ever be enough players to create a WoW-like player base ever again, and maybe the people who continue to play WoW simply aren’t interested in playing any others, so let’s forget about them and move on.

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3 thoughts on “Did WoW Ruin MMOs?

  1. I mostly agree with your conclusion. As a social introvert, I don’t think the support for solo play is at all bad. It’s important to be able to play in a world with other players without having to be constantly talking to them, asking for help and generally pestering people. Things like match making or open world bosses make it easier to float in and out of social situation without too much duress.

    I don’t think WoW’s legacy is stagnation though. I’ve been playing all ten of the years it’s been going, and there’s been more innovation within that one game that in all the other MMOs I’ve tried put together. Why? I don’t know, maybe they hit a sweet spot where they have room for trial and error due to high levels of subscribers. After ten years of well funded development post release, it’s hard for any new game to come close. But online interaction has developed in more independent models, free of the restrictive and expensive MMO model. Journey and Dark Souls comes to mind.

    Anyway, I’m willing to try any MMO, but most rely on you having a group of friends to start with, and if solo play is boring, I simply don’t think they’ll catch on.

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