It’s Not WoW’s Fault New MMOs Suck

Part of the dislike that people have for World of Warcraft tends to be focused around the argument that it’s damaged the industry by being too successful and created a culture of developers and publishers believing that WoW clones are the only way to achieve it’s success and make huge piles of cash. Yes, it’s definitely true that we’ve seen a rise of copy-cat games and a drop in independent thinking but I don’t that it’s Blizzard’s fault and I don’t think we can logically blame for them it. In fact, I’d directly blame the developers and publishers themselves for thinking that by copying WoW, they can create a good, popular and successful game.

WoW gets a graphics overhaul

WoW gets a graphics overhaul

I see a lot of this sort of thing in the movie industry. For instance, when a superhero film does well at the box office, producers assume that it’s because the public like the genre or franchise and immediately try to milk it dry with sequels and copies. And then when one or two of those films flop, they think the ‘fad’ for the genre is over and move onto something else. Unfortunately they underestimate the movie-going public and don’t appreciate that people like quality and substance more than anything else. It doesn’t matter what genre a film is, if it’s good it will do well.

I can understand the desire that developers may have to mimic features from a game like WoW but the thing that both they and especially publishers need to realise is that the success of WoW is due to more than the sum of it’s parts. Copying some or all of features from it in the hopes of manufacturing the future WoW-killer-clone is never going to work. I can follow a recipe from a cook book but that doesn’t make me Gordon f’ing Ramsay.

It’s my opinion that once developers and publishers stop chasing the dream of taking on the Titan that is WoW and just start focusing on creating excellent MMOs, we’ll eventually see something that rivals Blizzard’ dominance. Not because it’s a WoW clone but because it’s a great game that’s tapped into something else that players are looking for. As Wolfshead said, build it and they will come.

Blizzard achieved something magnificent with Warcraft. They took the equivalent of a B-movie industry and made it mainstream and for that we should be grateful to them. Just because everyone else in the past 6 years believed that the only way to achieve the same success is by copying them and failed miserably in the process is not WoW’s fault. It’s the fault of the development companies themselves for thinking gamers are just sheep who can be sheared for cash once herded through the right pens. I don’t baaa-lieve that for a second.

-Gordon

P.S. Image knicked from CtrlClick.com’s excellent Allods preview.

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32 Comments

  1. Carson63000 says:

    Yep, well said. I spent my time working in the games industry, and let me tell you, imitation was rife no matter what style of game. I recall well my first design brainstorm on an FPS title I was working on – every single idea being thrown into the ring was “we should have xxx like Halo!” “we should have yyy like Unreal Tournament!” “we should have zzz like Quake 2!”

    Those games were all successful games. Our game was.. derivative. And also cancelled before release. :-)

  2. The problem is that a big success like WoW overshadows all others. When EQ was top of the charts, other games were still being discussed. UO was “almost” as big as EQ, and so people talked about having more “worldy” games like that. But, once WoW came along and crushed all other games, those types of games disappeared. Everyone wanted to do WoW because it was so much more successful than all the others. Remember when getting 200k subscribers meant your game was good? Now we have games that could stabilize to those numbers but are considered “failures” because they don’t WoW’s 11+ millions.

    The real problem here is that it still takes a lot of money to make an MMO. WoW and EQ were still multi-million dollar projects, don’t forget. The problem is that you can’t just go out and raise that much money. In general, people with that much cash will want a HUGE game to grab a bit of WoW’s market. $4M to do a game that gets 300k players isn’t worthwhile to most people. (It seems there are a few exceptions, thankfully.)

    This is similar to the Farmville problem that everyone is talking about from the recent GDC. It’s not that people can’t make other games besides Farmville, but the magnitude of its success blots out a lot of the sun (read: interest and funding) that could let other projects bloom and flourish.

    • Gordon says:

      The thing that I don’t understand is why people think a $4M game with 300k subscribers is bad. Surely it’s still a good return of investment for most people? I suppose it’s greed and the fact that few people want to be just another game but instead want to be the best, most successful and most dominant without compromise.

      • Stabs says:

        I think it’s the way venture finance works.

        For the investors it’s nearly as time-consuming to manage a £4m game as a £200m game.

        Also VC is specifically about high risk high gain. If you diversify £200m across 50 £4m projects you’re not risking as much as if you put all your eggs in one basket. Nor will you get such a high pay-off if you back a winner.

  3. Usiel says:

    Brian and Carson, I need your explanation in this case.

    As far as I understand, you basically say, that developers are willing to create original games, but have no access to funds and that publisher who actually have the money, dictate what the game should be about..

    I work in the financial sector, so I could raise funds/capital for a start up, but have no access to the developers market. Even if I was willing to accept a 200.000 subscriber game as a success, I simply would not be able to find developers. They do not seem to be an organised market.

    • Tesh says:

      That’s my experience, yes. Developers will occasionally want to make cheap knockoffs, but the guys who are in the industry because they love it tend to want to make new, interesting things.

      Of course, being creative types, organization isn’t always easy or a high priority, and there are real issues when there are too many cooks in the kitchen, or devs who embody an inverse relationship between ability and authority.

      There is a dev market, but it’s pretty much the “indie” scene, and yes, it’s not terribly well organized. Small projects rule the day there, since they stand a chance of getting done. MMOs aren’t just expensive, they are brutally complex and huge. I work on the art side, and art asset generation for something as big as a 3D MMO world is a huge project, especially with the market perception that bling sells. Even something like Mount and Blade (a good, if not stellar game), with middling visuals, took a lot of time to craft.

      Also, “new and interesting” is risky. Investors don’t like risky.

      • Gordon says:

        Money rules all I guess.

        What would be really interesting would be for someone to create a highly customisable, out-of-the-box MMO engine that could be easily adopted to make new games without the huge expense it currently takes. I’d be happy to see a lot more small scale MMOs that offer exciting mechanics without being bug ridden or lacking content.

      • Usiel says:

        Oh come on Tesh, do not destroy my hopes.
        Is there really no chance to create something aside from the 200 people beasts?

        I could raise funds to bring a team of 4-7 people for 1-2 years through the day.
        Please do not tell me, that there is no chance to create at least a niche game.
        We are not talking about a Blockbuster here. New Ideas, one race, two factions, solid but clean art, keeping the developers at work after launch, expanding the game…

        Something that keeps you fascinated through exploration, rather than bigger, better, faster, more.

        • Tesh says:

          The guy behind Love made his pet MMO solo. Puzzle Pirates doesn’t have a huge crew behind it. Small teams are viable, but they *must* occupy a different niche than the mainstream, and it’s tricky to find a profitable vein to mine.

          t’s more a question of scope than anything else. You’re *not* going to make a viable WoW clone, or maybe even anything 3D with a half dozen people and 2 years, certainly not from scratch. Maybe you could build on an engine like the Hero Engine, but as Brian and evizaer have noted, that limits what you can do.

          Believe, me, I’d love it if small, agile teams could make fantastic niche products, even if they have to use middleware. I’d love to design one, and I know a few other people who would, too.

          My question always has to be “is it viable?” though. I can design and pontificate about fun niches I’d play in, but are they big enough to profit from? I’m not sure. I’ve not dug into market research as much as I should have.

          I’d love to design purely for the joy of creation, crafting something excellent because it was worth doing. It’s hard to make a living doing that. Not impossible, just unreliable.

          So… not trying to crush dreams, just pointing out that there are some realities that need to be addressed. ;)

          • Usiel says:

            Consider, financial and market research issues as done.

            I simply do not get the developers to discuss the technical dimension. Find out what is doable and what not. Usually I can use the groups network and infrastructure, to get contacts etc. but the developers market seems to be either a forum of very young guys, trying to get into the industry, or “older” developers leaving the industry and join IT departments.

            Besides the whole western market seems to be concentrated in the US.

            Thanks Gordon, noted if you are willing to spend your time in Munich : )

        • Gordon says:

          If you do ever raise the funds, I’d like to volunteer as a games designer :D

  4. scrusi says:

    Carson, don’t forget that WoW itself was no different. There were hardly any original features in the game, it was just a good combination and a lot of polish. The problem is less in “let’s steal feature X from game Y” but in the attempt to create a 1:1 copy of a single existing game, potentially “improving” in one area or another without really understanding what you are doing.

    A “just-like-wow” startup can’t really compete against the established giant – games need to be sufficiently different to even stand a chance. Alas, different seems to mean worse these days :/

    • Gordon says:

      I’d argue that WoW did bring some new stuff to the scene. Although, agreed, they didn’t reinvent the wheel complely and redefine the genre, they did give us new mechanics like quest driven leveling and a level of casualness and accessibility never seen before. I suppose it was bit like the step from Dune to Command & Conquer or Wolfenstein 3D to Doom.

      Unfortunately games now don’t seem to want to give us new stuff they just want to copy exactly what we already have.

  5. Wiqd says:

    This is something I’ve been saying for a very long time. WoW itself isn’t to blame for the lack of innovation and imagination, its success is. Now people giving out the money won’t even consider a game if it isn’t trying to be WoW or at least contain some things that WoW has exclusively.

    EQ2 didnt have battlegrounds or achievements for the longest time … but look at it now. I mean, sure WoW took achievements from WAR (kind of, could have been in development before that *shrugs*) but everyone borrows. It’s when you have an awesome idea that falls WAY out of line of what WoW’s user base wants. Remember that WoW is only successful because of what it offers the majority of its playerbase: easy leveling, easy loot and sometimes a pretty good story.

    No other game has tried to do that lately. AoC was going to have a hugely innovative combat system and it was scrapped for a watered down version that’s comprised of mashing buttons. Champions was another City of Heroes with loot you could put on. Star Trek tried to delve into its fan base and came out “meh,” probably because it was done by the same people who did Champions ;) (I know, different dev team, etc etc).

    TBH, and forgive me for crosslinking here, but I made a post awhile ago stating exactly what I’d like as an MMO enthusiast: http://wiqdintentionz.com/studios/blog2/?p=589

    Why would I, as a subscriber go off to play a game that imitates WoW, when I can play WoW? Do they really think they’ll cover up all the mechanics by having a Unicorn as a player race instead of a Night Elf and a Reaver as a class instead of a Deathknight?

    • Gordon says:

      “WoW itself isn’t to blame for the lack of innovation and imagination, its success is.”

      I wouldn’t even blame it’s success, I’d just blame the devs and publishers who think that there’s only one way to achieve it :)

  6. Mojeaux says:

    You guys are leaving a very important part of the equation out of the discussion. The players. The players have a lot to do with it. The WoW kiddies, as I like to call them, come out like a plague of locusts, settle in, play the game for a few days (if that long), all the time screaming at the top of their lungs in whatever public channels the game makes available to them about how this game isn’t WoW or something equally retarded and then deem the game unworthy because it (gasp!) takes them more than a week to hit max level or acquire loot or boy scout badges or what have you. They then head back to the only thing they know. WoW. WoW isn’t superior, it’s just the only thing they know. I dare say that if you were to ask old EQ players who’ve also played WoW which is their favorite game, which one brings back the fondest memories, 80% of them would answer EQ, hands down. I know I would.

  7. Ferrel says:

    Rabble, Rabble, Rabble!

    You’re right, it isn’t WoW’s fault that other MMOs suck. I can’t disagree with you there. That doesn’t mean that the existence hasn’t changed the nature of the business though. This is largely an argument on semantics. The word fault has a negative connotation and I probably shouldn’t use it.

    Whether Blizzard likes it or not WoW has influenced developers and investors. They were not big boys and girls and just made assumptions that lead to some pretty terrible MMOs. When I make this argument it really isn’t to cast blame on Blizzard and/or WoW. It is more an effort to educate or at least give someone pause.

    The movie industry analogy was great. The people who make bad MMOs are at fault, yes but WoW is an influential force! WoW is the hot girl at the party that talks you into smoking a joint even though you promised your Nana you wouldn’t!

  8. Gareth says:

    Great article, and for once I agree (even if I don’t like WoW anymore :) ).

    It actually seems like games companies today have lost their bottle and no longer have the self confidence to make the truly great new games, ones that have vision.

    Games like Planetside, it feels like a game that some enthusiastic developers put together what they thought would be freaking cool. Whereas more modern ones like STO feel like a committee sat down to spec features in that other games already have that works, and then they stewed it all through a nice safe test group making sure the bottom 10% of players could get through the early content without any disheartening deaths, result easy, tedious, boring!

    Really itching to see some games developers out there start developing games they would want to play themselves, the last few years feel like the money men have been calling all the shots.

    • Gordon says:

      I suppose it’s all about money. Now publishers think they can make staggering amounts of cash like Blizzard they aren’t interested in small profits or innovative games, they just want whatever will sell the most.

  9. Wiqd says:

    @ Gareth – that’s exactly what I’m doing for the game / world my friend and I are creating. It’ll never see the light of day, but I’m designing it to the point where I would literally want to spend as much time in the game as possible … and not just for grinding crap.

  10. Stabs says:

    Surely there have been games that are radically different from the WoW model. Hellgate: London, Tabula Rasa, Earth and Beyond.

    Just look at the list of closed down MMOs and almost all have one thing in common: they are all nothing like WoW.

    It’s up to players to play non-WoW games if we want them. Also developers who have been given very large budgets (Tabula Rasa, Warhammer) need to stop making noob mistakes.

    • Tesh says:

      I’ll submit that devs who are relying on a large critical mass of players to make their game design and business plan work, are setting themselves up to fail *coughSWTORcough*. Niche products have to be sustainable with a small population, and have business plans built around that sustainability instead of growth. Growth can come, and it’s smart to design for it, but the game has to work and work well with just a few players.

      Arguably, Darkfall is trying just that. They limited the playerbase by throttling the initial game sales, they limit trial players by putting a token $1 price on the trial, and they didn’t set up a dozen servers on launch day only to collapse them later. Puzzle Pirates started with a few subscription servers, and later added their microtransaction servers (which have proven to be more profitable).

      Subs can work if you plan around a lower count of subbers (the market is saturated), since they do provide a steadier revenue stream, but it’s nice if you also open up options for those who don’t like subs to segment your market a bit. Wizard 101 had subs and “content purchases” out of the gate (think DDO or bite-sized Guild Wars, where you buy pieces of the game content). That allowed them to cater to whomever was interested in the game. I haven’t seen numbers on which model has been more profitable for them, but it would be interesting.

      So not only should you avoid mimicking WoW on the design side, but you can’t compete directly with them on the business side.

      Oh, and I’ll second Stabs’ comment.

      • Gordon says:

        Although DF doesn’t appeal to me I do have to commend the creators for how they’ve built a game that their passionate about and isn’t try to take down WoW. I’d like to see more of it and hopefully not all of them being super ‘hardcore’.

    • Gordon says:

      I could argue though that games like TR and E&B shut down because they weren’t actually very good rather than the fact that they challenged the industry. Other games, which are radically different from WoW, still do well. EVE is a perfect example of a successful MMO that’s the furthest thing from WoW anyone could imagine :)

  11. I’ve never understood the “WoW ruined the genre” argument. Sure, it spawned a lot of copycats, but so did Star Wars. So did Friday the 13th. Heck, so does any remotely successful movie or game these days. What matters is, like you said, the quality of the games. I’ll gladly play a ripoff game if it’s fun. I’ll gladly play WoW because it’s fun. MMOs don’t have to be triple-A titles just to stick around.

    I look forward to TOR not because of how it’s like WoW, but because of how it’s different. I think that SWG had a lot of good systems that WoW could have implemented to be an even better game. So did Ultima Online. As blockbuster as WoW is, it’s not the be-all, end-all of MMOs. It’s got a LOT going for it. But it doesn’t have everything. And with people getting used to F2P games as well as $15 subscriptions, there are a lot of players out there who are willing to experiment with some new MMO techniques (thanks to WoW opening up their eyes to the genre).

  12. Phalse says:

    Jesus WoW does not even have close to 2 million subscribers.

    2.5 million *CHARACTERS* were seen online WoW in the past 30 days. This includes trial accounts and accounts with multiple characters and DM’s multiple characters.

    I think each account that subscribes would have at least 3 characters maybe 4. On MMO’s I played on a main, secondary possibly more secondary characters PLUS mules/crafter characters and most people had the same set up.
    No one subscribes and play only 1 character.

    2.5 million characters in the past 30 days – trial accounts with multi chars – bots, divide by the average number of multiple characters per account is around 250k actual different People who subscribe.

    Blizzard is full of it. They DO NOT have even close to 2 million subscribers not to mention 11 million, give me a break. You can see the Characters seen in past 30 days online. Use some common sense.

  13. rmt says:

    i dont see why people say other games copy WoW anyway. WoW isn’t original. It wasn’t the first of it’s kind. WoW is a copy of another, just like the others.

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