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The Soapbox: Don't hate the game, hate the copy

Eliot Lefebvre

Disclaimer: This editorial column is 100% the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect that of Massively as a whole. If you're afraid of opinions other than your own, you might want to skip this column.

If you ask a remarkably high number of players, World of Warcraft is a negative influence on the face of MMOs. Not necessarily for the reasons that many players, current and former, will claim; the complaints of this group have nothing to do with content or overarching design philosophy. No, World of Warcraft has ruined things just by virtue of its very existence.

It's WoW's fault that we've seen a flood of games that are, essentially, the same game with a slight twist (WoW in space, WoW with more PvP, WoW in the mind of Derek Smart, and so forth). It's WoW's fault that these games have failed, and it's even more WoW's fault when other games fail. And despite everything, these claims aren't seen as ridiculous. They're often taken very seriously. But really, WoW isn't to blame for its clones or the failures of other games. The fault for those lies exactly where logic would imply.

But let's not start out talking just about failure. Let's kick things off with a talk about success.

When World of Warcraft launched back in 2004, the team behind the game knew almost immediately it had a hit on its hands. Not that there was much debate to be had -- the game was breaking every conceivable yardstick it was possible to use. Blizzard had set very careful guidelines for what milestones MMOs hit within six months, a year, and so forth. The game broke these milestones at the pace of a stampeding bull, forcing the team to work overtime to add servers and patch bugfixes just to keep up with a level of demand it had neither expected nor prepared for.

This isn't without precedent in other fields. A lot of genres have had sudden and unexpected successes that broke all realistic expectations. White Wolf's World of Darkness games were the breakout hit for pen-and-paper games in the 90s. Pokemon turned a Nintendo console that had been all-but-abandoned into a handheld phenomenon once again, something that would inform Nintendo's strategy up to... well, right now. If I started listing television shows or movies that turned out to be surprise hits, I could be writing all week.

And what happens every single time there's a breakout hit? For every Pokemon, you get Digimon and Monster Rancher and a half-dozen other franchises in which you catch monsters and evolve them. Every TV phenomenon like Lost produces shows like Persons Unknown and The Event. The World of Darkness franchise led to a sudden decision by game writers that making some sort of modern myth-inspired game was cruise control to swimming pools full of money. When there is a success, other people and companies will do their level best to try to imitate that success and catch some of the reflected glory.

But this doesn't make the source to blame. Whether or not you liked Lost, the series was over by the time Persons Unknown premiered and was very over by the time The Event premiered. Whether or not these shows ever get a second season (the former definitely won't; the latter probably won't) has nothing to do with what inspired the show in the first place.

MMOs are no different. WoW was a breakout hit, and so a lot of developers immediately realized that they needed to respond to this success. The difference is in turnaround time. Development cycles for MMOs can be long and arduous, and so it took quite a bit of time for imitators inspired by WoW to start hitting the shelves. In fact, many if not all of the imitators we saw at first were games that had WoW elements stapled to them comparatively late in the development cycle.

It's hard to just glance at the game at launch state and realize the scope of what it was doing, the way that it was forcing the industry to rethink several long-held assumptions about grouping and leveling. Certainly it wasn't visible to the devs at Blizzard, who (if memory serves) implemented the solo-friendly leveling structure because they wanted to allow players into the raiding endgame faster and more efficiently. It was only later that they realized how much people preferred a more accessible structure and what that actually meant for the game's development.

I'd like to think that most of the people who say these things are smart enough to realize that it isn't really WoW's fault, even if they won't admit it. The people to blame for the fields of WoW clones are the development teams behind the WoW clones and whatever made them think they could mirror a game that was, essentially, a fluke. That's not to say it's a bad game -- it's a very good one -- but the explosion of popularity and 12 million players mark it as being something unique and special, something that can't be replicated without a substantial dose of luck.

But for some reason, the MMO industry seems to have taken WoW as its model. Games are more and more frequently budgeted such that the game launches when the team has run out of money, because the company has already spent all of its budget trying to turn the game into a blockbuster that will earn a million subscribers at launch. This has happened precisely once, and it was for a game that was budgeted so that the team would have kept getting paid even if it wasn't a huge hit. We keep hearing about how games need millions of subscribers to be successful, as if that were a conservative figure instead of an incredibly large one.

Companies are going to die as a result of this. But that isn't the fault of WoW. It's the fault of managers and accountants with insane dreams about making the second WoW, neglecting that WoW happened in part because the development team hadn't planned for it or expected it. It's the fault of programmers and designers who start by taking inspiration from the game and then turn to taking ideas from it wholesale without consideration for what that does for any trace of unique flavor. And it has really nothing to do with the age of WoW players, the tastes of the players, or any need for an easy ride in a game.

WoW is ultimately responsible for the fortunes of itself. Other games have their own teams to take responsibility.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!

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