Wednesday, February 20, 2008

What does WoW's success mean for a Mature rated MMO?

I recently just found out about a small feature in Tabula Rasa that I didn't find mentioned anywhere in the manual. Basically, mobs in Tabula Rasa don't always die right away and they'll sometimes do a death scene reminiscent of a Bugs Bunny cartoon. At first I just thought this was an annoying game glitch that forced me to wait a couple extra seconds to get my experience. But apparently you can prematurely end their death antics by running up to them and pressing "F" which performs a finishing move and grants you double experience. If that wasn't enough the finishing moves often involve you kicking the enemy and causing its head or entire body to explode. It reminded very much me of old mortal combat fatalities and I'm ashamed to say it gave me a little chuckle.

Thinking back I realized I hadn't seen anything that violent in a video game for quite some time. World of Warcraft has been my major MMO home since it came out and I've almost forgotten that video games could sometimes go into the same realm as R rated movies. Most people would argue that was a good thing. After all isn't there enough Grand Theft Auto and Manhunt clones out there causing negative publicity for video games? Well that’s true on one hand but on the other you've have games like Bioshock and Assassin's Creed which would definitely be R rated if they were movies. Both these games happen to be very good but probably would have been transformed into horribly bland crap if they had their violence watered down for a less mature rating.

I realized at this point that part of World of Warcraft's strategy to increasing accessibility to the MMO market was intentionally keeping its "rating" low by using stylized combat violence along with its cartoon art. It’s kind of a weird strategy for a game that has the word "war" in its title but sound reasoning since they were planning on releasing in China. The Minister of Culture for that country has some strict rules for games especially foreign titles. Blizzard was eventually forced to add some flesh to the arms and legs of the undead race but that was it. Apparently, skeleton arms are anti-communism or something. I've tried games with more realistic art like Everquest 2 and Lord of the Rings but I quickly discovered I missed the models from World of Warcraft, especially the large-ass shoulders. I can see why Blizzard made the decision to use cartoony and stylized art.

However, just became I like stylized fantasy doesn't necessarily mean I want bloodless and fluffy combat. My childhood years are long behind me and I think my medium of entertainment deserves the right to maybe kick it up a notch. Some publishers have realized that a majority of their MMO audience is way past the 12-16 year old bracket that most news coverage always tries to associate with video games. I think that’s why we see Funcom taking a chance by pushing a mature rated Age of Conan and other games also experimenting with less adolescent styles of combat. Even the much anticipated Warhammer is going for a darker and more violent universe though they are keeping the cartoonish character models. In fact recent allegations that Warhammer looked too much like WoW were met with some scathing remarks on just how little war happened in Blizzard's popular MMO. I think the term "hippy playground" was used.

While this is just over confidence and marketing hype aimed at their largest competitor it did make me think. Maybe it’s time developers quit trying to capture a wide market by being as inoffensive as possible and realize that good art is a little offensive. I mean I don't want Rockstar games to get into the MMO market but then again I don't want every publisher to water down their games until everything plays like Hello Kitty Online.