Friday, February 29, 2008

Ten Things that will make a WoW Killer.

Just recently Activision boss Bobby Kotick gave a speech that basically warned any investor away from investing in MMO development because of the success of World of Warcraft. He cited recent failures in the MMO market and claims that even a 500 million to 1 billion dollar budget might not guarantee the same success that Blizzard has experienced. This is pure hyperbole but highlights a point that has become very apparent in MMO development. Investors are starting to back away from funding projects because of World of Warcraft.

Originally the super-MMO was a boon to the industry since it proved that the customer base could be grown. But now after so many new games failing to drawn even a fraction of World of Warcraft’s numbers we are starting to see venture capital withdraw from the market. No one really understood what made the game such a success and it looks like no one is going to be able to repeat it. Microsoft recently withdrew from the Marvel MMO quoting that Blizzard's dominance in the market prevents any definition of what they would call success. Other studios have had a string of poorly performing MMOs and are starting to restrict funding for new projects.

However, it’s not like World of Warcraft's secret to success is a big mystery. A large part of its success was that it was different from every other MMO on the market at the time. It was the only casual MMO in a sea of harsh death penalties and time intensive grinds. Now after the market has been copying the leader for four years being casual is no longer something special or different. Also a lot of new MMO's made the mistake that being casual meant there didn't need to be any depth to the game. Playing loose and fast with the item progression in a DIKU based game is just a bad idea. So far only Lord of the Rings has managed to be casual without sacrificing depth but they ran into some other problems which nipped their subscriber growth in the bud.

1) Unique Art Style
A lot of people like the cartoony art style of World of Warcraft and a lot of people hate it. One thing both these people agree on is that it’s easy to tell a screenshot is from the game compared to any other MMO. A WoW killer will have a unique art style which doesn't necessarily have to be cartoony. I personally like the cell shading from Champions.

2) Gentle Leveling Curve that can be done Solo
Games with a lot of levels but with a gentle curve are the best bet since item and ability rewards can be spaced out to give a sense of progression over a longer time. Games like D&D and Guild Wars can have problems keeping up a sense of progression.

3) Clear Benefits to Grouping
Almost all games stick with item rewards from instances as the main benefit for grouping. But as the player base moves to the higher levels the item rewards become less beneficial since they're less people available for grouping. Groups should actually see an individual increase in +XP per mob as they add more people to their group. Casual based games already allow constant killing of weaker mobs when soloing and grouping doesn't increase that rate very much.

4) Good quests, not an over abundance of crappy ones
This is one of the worst things I've seen in almost every MMO released since World of Warcraft. Lord of the Rings was especially bad since they had these amazing and interesting Chapter Quests then a million kill twenty of this mob type quests. What I like to see are automatic experience rewards and titles given out for killing large amounts of the same type of mob similar to LOTR. That way gamers never have to read bad fiction trying to explain why there is a quest to exterminate 100 rats.

5) Actual Dungeons and not just Quest Instances
There needs to be something that teaches players how to work together as a team for endgame PvE and PvP. I would suggest instances that range from standard dungeon encounters to ones that use teamwork in a PvP environment. For example you could have an instance that would require a group to guard several objectives from waves of NPCs that would try to capture them. The mistake a lot of games have made recently is to make every quest go into a generic instance which looks crappy and computer generated. I'm looking at you City of Heroes and Lord of the Rings.

6) Gear progression but with some Permanence
Just because your playerbase likes getting new items doesn't mean they need a new one every 5 minutes. Tabula Rasa is horrible this way since gear has no value when every slot gets replaced 3 times per level. Also there needs to be a balance between bind on equip, bind on pickup, and items with no binding. World of Warcraft actually has too many bind on pickup items which can sometimes result in an instance run benefitting no one in the group. Tabula Rasa is going to implode on epics soon since there is no binding on any items, not even ones from quests.

7) Separate ability effects in PvP and PvE
It’s a pain in the neck to code but every ability should have one effect on mobs and one effect on other players. Warhammer has some great ideas with about making healing and tanking classes effective in PvP without forcing them to change their class role in PvE as well. World of Warcraft accidentally opened the doors on making PvP popular and any future game which ignores this side of the game isn't going to gain a lot of subscribers.

8) Consensual PvP systems with balanced rewards
There's no reason to have PvP unless some good rewards are also offered. In general the more organization involved in the activity the better the rewards. Guilds should be able to organize a raid to either take down a large PvP objective or a raid instance and get the same quality rewards. Groups should be able to get these same rewards but at a much slower pace. Solo players should even be able to get the same quality rewards but it should take 5-10x longer then the raider.

9) Gentle Introduction to Raiding
If your end game is raiding oriented then you should make the first raid instance easy and not require a key or attunement quest. If you want content that gets used by both the hardcore and casual players then have a normal and heroic mode for the raid instance. What not to do for end game raiding can pretty much be covered by looking at aspects of Karazhan.

10) Use a combination of a Class and Skill system
Games need to have systems that allow players to differentiate their characters in ways that affect game play and not just appearance rewards like titles. The talent system from World of Warcraft is a good example but unfortunately allowed too much specialization and basically created all new classes. Lord of the Rings also ran into problems by having no customization options for classes resulting in an unchanging and boring play style once you mastered the basic mechanics.

I don't really believe gamers are fickle though I do believe the law of gravity effects virtual worlds. Basically the larger a MMO population, the more gamers feel attracted to the game. If you want to beat World of Warcraft then you need to make a list a hell of a lot longer than the one I made. The most important thing is not just to list what Blizzard did right did so you can copy it. Designers especially need to point out features which they think can be improved. This post ran a little long and if you’re still with me I thank you. Feel free to leave a comment about a feature you think needs to be in the WoW Killer.


Tipa said...

I'm gonna have to disagree with you here. WoW was not that original, and older games were not that unfriendly toward new players.

Trying to analyze WoW's success on particular game features is, I think, a mistake -- and especially where you note that you would do it differently from WoW, for instance, clear benefits to grouping, which goes counter to WoW. I don't think a game which is only a variant on WoW can do any better than LotRO, anyway. They've taken it about as far as it can go.

WoW is a winner because it knows how to build and keep a community, and how to make an MMO with an extremely low barrier of entry. The actual game mechanics don't matter so much. Most of WoW's players have no experience with other MMOs anyway and could hardly have made the decision to play WoW because they liked its feature list.

They probably came because they heard it was fun, and everyone else plays. It sure felt good to be part of WoW when I played, to know people were making videos and comic strips and movies about the game I and millions of others were playing.

You just don't GET that with other games.

To kill WoW (not possible in any event)... so to MATCH WoW... you need to put a lot of money into building a community and then value your players. Features don't matter so much, and that's where competitors can really shine, since they can offer significantly different features but give the same attention toward the community, and hope for the same result.

That's what Warhammer is trying to do. We'll see how that goes.

Bill Gorman said...

I'd agree with tipa. Community is king, and that's why WoW is so big.

I'll disagree with the Activision guy. "a 500 million to 1 billion dollar budget might not guarantee the same success that Blizzard has experienced"

That may be true, but I think the success of WoW has made it *easier* to reach what was considered successful [hundreds of thousands of subs] *before* WoW, and on any basis [other than comparison with WoW] is still a success.

I think WoW introduced a giant number of people to MMOs. Even if small numbers of those people go to other games, that can make them quite successful.

Every MMO need not be WoW-sized to be a success, just like every SW developer need not be Microsoft.

Relmstein said...

Community is the number one reason why people stay in a MMO but it has very little to do with why people join it in the first place. Look at Eve Online with a very strong community but game mechanics which are like a big neon sign "Casual not Welcome" Think how much more popular Eve would be if ships only had to be repaired and weren't destroyed.

Looking at the game design of WoW is critical to making an appealing MMO nowadays. The problem is too many developers just take the feature list and copy it word for word. Some things need to be changed or else players are simply going to stick with the original.

Warhammer is doing this very well since they obviously made a feature list of WoW and thought: "Hey for a game with the word 'War' in it the PvP kind of sucks." Their changes are oriented at having the mass appeal of WoW but having the PvP systems of DAOC.

I'm sure its very similar to the discussion Blizzard first had about Everquest: "Hey for a game with the word Quest in it, there's not really that many of them."

Bill Gorman said...

I think we agree, but have different definitions of "community". To me community = friends.

I think people start WoW because their friends get them in. I think they stay in WoW because the game is good. A bad or difficult game wouldn't keep folks regardless of their friends.

I am just about to jump into EVE, and my first impression is aligned with yours. It looks absolutely stunning, but the complexity of it seems daunting.

Kinless said...

I didn't start WoW because of friends, or some "community". I'd played some Lineage II, it got old, and WoW looked interesting. It was WoW or EQ2 and WoW was what I picked off the shelf. Haven't played much of anything since.

And I probably played solo till after level 40 before I ever joined a guild. I didn't avoid people, but I didn't feel the need to be with them all the time. I was just happy questing and making progress with my character, my pets, and my abilities and professions.

SolidState said...

> And I probably played solo till after level 40 before I ever joined a guild.

There's a reason why man people claim WOW only really starts at the endgame... ;)

Unlike Kinless I joined WoW due to friends buying the game and inviting me (bullying me :)) to try it out also. Since then I have played with them and have been in a guild since the early teens of my first char.

Community is king, Tipa and Bill are right.

But one "feature" of WoW that nobody mentioned yet is the UI modification (addon) system, around which a large and vibrant community (there's that word again) has also sprang up. It's fantstic how you can change the way the game feels, works and looks per your individual tastes, and I think is yet another reason (apart from excellent content) that make WoW a great game.

For any game to compete with WoW, I think a UI-modification system is a must. That, and community :)

Anonymous said...

Another thing that makes it popular is the low system requirements. When I tried Everquest it felt sluggish. I have a decent machine, but it didn't feel fast and tight like a ps3 or xbox game.

WoW on the other hand, feels responsive and tight. I can turn the visuals way down and get the best performance in pvp and raids.

WAR looks very appealing and I hope it has some of the fun and humor that WoW has. I hope they make it simple, yet complex (make sense?) - easy to learn, hard to master. I also hope it isn't too much gore. I like fun happy sometimes too :)

Captain Angry said...

I think World of Warcraft would have enjoyed a moderate amount of success no matter how good the game was simply because of the original Warcraft IP. I'm not saying that ANY established IP would necessarily guarantee a popular game, (star wars, lotr) but an established GAMING IP will.

If Valve decided to make Half-Life the MMO, then millions of HL, Counterstrike and Team Fortress players would at least try it out and assuming you have designed your game well enough to suck people in then you have them on the hook.

Warcraft is a solid 7.5/10 game with many concepts borrowed from older games which was built on an already established sexy IP. Add to that blizzards brilliant art direction and thats what allowed it to snowball into the Walmart of MMOs.

PS: Karazhan is an entry level raid? Umm.. ZG, AQ20, MC, BWL, AQ40, NAXX? I did all of those before I ever heard of KZ... and it would have been NICE if some of the complete idiots showing up had to do a few 5-man instances to get a key.

Relmstein said...

You might be on to something about using established video game IPs to build MMOs.

We've seen with Dungeons and Dragons Online that using a "game" IP doesn't always guarantee success. I can't think of any MMOs being released in the next two years that are built on a popular video game IP. There are rumours of a KOTOR MMO being worked on but Bioware has almost flatly denied working on it.

Viet said...

I agree with Captain Angry on the content reason. Sure many people joined because of friends, but how did it all start? In November 2004, people were not joining the game in droves of cliques. I joined because Blizzard had a great rep, and the Warcraft line was one of my favorite. It was my first MMO and I knew no one at all that played the game. I'm sure many others back then may have felt similarly. And this start is what created the eventual droves of friends coming to the game.

Warhammer has a good chance imo because it also has a strong lore content, unfortunately I am not as familiar with it as I had been with Warcraft. Either way, I will give it a chance (this time joining with many guildmates) and see how long it can run its course.

vetiver said...

One thing nobody has mentioned is the humour and the great use of references from movies or songs.

I don't know of any other MMO that uses this in such a fun way as WoW.

Sean said...

I think GTA has the video game IP to make a MMO WoW Killer. Warcraft wasn't a MMO until World of Warcraft. It may be tough to move GTA to MMO, but at least they are moving to MO. If built right this could be a legitimate force and eventual subscriber competitor if the game content stayed fresh.
Blizzard could follow the SAGA line and make Universe of Starcraft (UoS) an MMORTSG and pull even more subs but right now they would be pulling from themselves.