Podzilla 1985

Monday, October 22, 2012

Death of an Industry - Or - Why Isn't Anyone Playing Guild Wars 2?

I just wrapped up my FoF interview with J.P. Harrod about his time working on the grandfather of multi-massive online role playing games (whew!), Ultima Online, and we discussed the current state of the industry. J.P. is a talented guy, but for whatever reason no longer works in the industry, and that is a shame. You would think that an industry that has gotten so stale would welcome talented minds, but I'm beginning to think that we are heading towards the very death of the genre.

Or, at the least, the death of new ideas within it.

We discussed at length the positive and negative impacts that the juggernaut World of Warcraft has brought to the table, and I found his thoughts on it to be very interesting. In the interview you'll be able to read this Friday, J.P. explains how the blame for the stagnant state of the genre doesn't fall on Blizzard or Warcraft for being successful, but on other companies for taking the easy road and just aiming for another WoW clone.

Success seen here crushing Creativity in battle.

I can agree with that. Everyone has been clamoring for a new revolution within the MMO genre, but aside from little bells and whistles here and there it seems to follow a pretty linear path. And, to be fair, that path wasn't even originally walked by Blizzard's behemoth. Everquest was as much of an influence on WoW as WoW has been for games that came after it.

Now, I never cared for EQ. In my younger days you were either EQ or UO, and I was a Garriott guy through and through. I even played his Tabula Rasa, another post-WoW game that tried to change up the formula a little bit and was shut down within two years. There was something else in there about publisher NCSoft screwing Garriott over and him winning twenty eight million from them, but we're not lawyers here at BZ85. We don't even have lawyers, which is why we're hoping Toho never sees our logo.

Once upon a time, long before there were a hundred different MMO's coming out every year, there were two real contenders. In 1997 came Ultima Online, a sandbox title that featured a big open world with no restrictions, individual skill progression, and no level system. In 1999, Everquest was released and changed up the industry with its linear zones, quest based game play, and character levels. Both games left their mark on the industry, but it seems like more games to come followed Everquest's form than Garriott's masterpiece.

The genre was successful, but it wasn't until World of Warcraft's release that the term MMORPG became a household name. I was talked into buying the game by a GameStop employee, and I remember discussing the game years later as a GameStop employee to everyone from hardcore gamers to housewives and grandparents. What started as a natural evolution from pen and paper role playing games into an online medium suddenly became a booming success that drew fans from all aspects of life.

The trade off with this success was that creativity within the industry began to fade. Warcraft was a smash hit, and it was far more successful than any of its ancestors. Naturally, everyone else wanted a piece of that pie. There were solid games released in the same vein as WoW, but none of them could really shake the stigma of being a "clone." Some games did manage to stand on their own merits amidst the sea of WoW influenced titles, including the sandbox sci-fi title Eve Online, which drew more inspiration from Ultima than any other title.

But for every WoW inspired success or Eve Online you had handfuls of failures, including one I was tricked into drinking the Kool Aid from - Mortal Online. I spent sixty dollars just to beta test the game because everyone made it sound like the second coming of Ultima Online. I logged into the game maybe three times before I realized that it was a terrible boring game with little content to offer. It may have had the best intentions, but I hear the road to Hell is paved with those kind of things.

If there is one thing any popular medium has taught us is that you don't mess with a formula that works. In this day and age of high unemployment rates and fears over a dying economy, nobody wants to take a risk and lose their life on it. That's why you see so many reality shows on television and remakes/sequels in theaters - nobody wants to take a chance to progress. We have become stuck in this rut of just using what works and there are very few visionaries left.

When I found out about Guild Wars 2 I was excited. This game, which I professed to be the last MMORPG I would ever buy, seemed to finally be the one to shake up the industry. Gone were quest hubs and Warcraft style "kill amount of x/bring me x amount' game play, as well as the monthly fee that keeps so many players from taking the dive into the genre. Not only that, but ArenaNet, a subdivision of NCSoft might I add, gave the game a more dynamic feel by drawing inspiration from the public questing system seen in games like Warhammer Online for their own title. Instead of that tried and true WoW system of questing you would take part in massive open world quests with other players that progressed in tiers. They even threw in a personalized hero story where you could pick and choose your characters history, and it actually altered the world.

Anyone that knows me is aware that I'm not completely happy with Guild Wars 2. For every one thing it gets right, there are two things that drive me crazy. It has a fairly open world where you can go wherever and do whatever, but the world is relatively small and it's all split into instanced zones. Your history choices are severely limited, and the combat is uninspired. Worst of all is the death of the quest hub, as the system they put in its place is just as boring. It is true that you no longer have to find guys with exclamation points over their heads to do kill or fetch quests. Instead, you get a basic sentence telling you three or four ways to fill an influence heart that, when full, gives you big EXP and allows you to buy special gear from that quest NPC. Different, but not exactly revolutionary.

My character, standing alone. Forever alone.
The game is fun though, and it started as a huge success. Most of my friends, who have varied interests when it comes to games, all seemed to come together to play this one. My friends list was filled with all kinds of real life comrades, and I was excited at the prospect of adventuring with these people.

That feeling lasted all of about two weeks, and after that I noticed whenever I logged in none of my friends were on. This wasn't just at two in the morning when I couldn't sleep. No, this was at all times of the day, and it was literally everyone on my list. That included my fiance, who is all of ten feet away from me when we're on our computers. She would rather read manga online that log into her elementalist, who she barely leveled to twenty.

When asked, my friends give me all different kinds of excuses. Some are playing other games for now, others are taking a small break, and yet others have real life issues they're dealing with. That's fine and all, but I just don't buy it. I've seen the obsession that comes with video game attachment. Whenever you find one that truly holds your interest it can be impossible to detach yourself from it. Warcraft had me in its grasp for years, and I blew off all kinds of social events and job related responsibilities to play it.

Guild Wars 2 is no World of Warcraft.

Guild Wars 2 was not the revolution it was supposed to be, I don't care what sites like MMORPG.com says. They can tout the success of the game all they want, but I see parallels  to titles like The Old Republic and Age of Conan. Both of those had great first time sales and the community proclaimed them to be huge hits. Both of those faded quickly, were relabeled failures, and repackaged as free to play titles.

At least GW2 did away with the monthly fee to begin with. Yet, it still feels like no one wants to play the damn thing already. Everyone bought it because they believed someone finally got it right, and while they made progress, they did not break the glass ceiling.

Most, if not all MMO's, do see a drop in player activity after that first month. Once the newness wears off people go looking for the next big thing, and the real testament to a games life span is how many people come back. I have yet to see a single friend log in in weeks, and I've checked multiple times a day just to see for myself if they do.

Another game that tried something different and seems to be heading towards failure is Funcom's Secret World. It's a great game with some serious issues, but it also dared to variate from the norm and now seems to be in serious trouble just months after its release.

So what is the story? Why are WoW clones failing left and right, yet games that try to be different are met with the same kind of apathy? What do MMO players want?!

As I discussed with J.P., those gamers aren't impossible to please, but they're a damn tough crowd. It's so hard to walk a fine line between sticking with what got you to the show, and changing it up enough to make yourself stand out amongst the crowd. Until someone finds a happy medium, or a new visionary comes along at just the right time to alter the future of the industry, we will be stuck in this predicament. Players are walking away because they're fed up with games that give them the same old experience, but the games they walk back to are the same old experience.

Happier times in Stormwind.
I know, because I'm one of those players who doesn't know what he wants out of his experience. The moment I created a character in GW2 all I could think about was how much fun I had in Azeroth. It's a vicious cycle, and this far past Warcraft's release I'm beginning to wonder if we're ever going to find a way out of it.

I won't go back to Warcraft again. My time there is over, thanks to being apart of the world for so long and being a victim to the hackers so many times. I'm also not going to buy another MMO, because I know it'll either be the same old song and dance, or because it's trying something new it will be a game of lower quality that will just disappear eventually. I hate to be so biased against the small developers who want to do something different, but I've been burned so many times before I'm running out of skin to singe.

All I can do is watch the industry become a victim of its own success. I hope another Richard Garriott can come along some day to save us all. How ironic that in a genre where heroes rise to save the world from evil, we wait so desperately for an avatar to come and save us from mediocrity.
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