Don’t Blame Blizzard for a Stagnant Industry

Is this the state of the MMO industry?

In one of the most poignant and well written posts on the topic I’ve seen, Wolfshead blames Blizzard for the stagnation that’s he sees as plaguing the MMO industry. He has a lot of good reasons why he feels this way, not the least of which being that they’ve done very little to advance the genre beyond making soloing a viable option. He also places the sorry state of much of the game’s community at the feet of this very innovation, moving what was once a bristling and aspiring community into one that solely wants more of the same.

But, I don’t think it’s fair to blame Blizzard here. Their key innovation, that soloability, is probably the single most meaningful paradigm shift since these games went graphical. Their subscription numbers bear it out: people like what WoW is offering. Is it Blizzard’s responsibility to advance and progress the genre, or is it their imperative to iterate and refine? Their track record shows more of the latter and much less of the former.

If there is anyone to blame for the crop of similarly featured MMOs to come out in the last five years, it’s the businessmen that prefer to capitalize on the WoW model rather than develop something new and innovative for themselves. Innovation is risky and these guys simply don’t want to do it. The fact is, it’s a much safer proposition to put their own coat of paint on the design that made WoW famous, add a couple of minor features that come with the times (ie, flight), and call it a day. The lack of innovation and resulting stagnation is a byproduct of fear and laziness.

You can’t blame Blizzard for sticking with what worked for them. They’re not doing anything wrong and they have no responsibility to anyone other than their playerbase, to which they’ve consistently delivered a “WoW experience.” We have to ask, do we blame the people who came up with a new idea and built their success upon it, or the people who shamelessly seek to thrive off of the rehashed ideas of others, while offering very few of their own. We the players have honored Blizzard’s refinement and rejected much of what has sought to capitalize on their core offerings.

All that being said, I do wish WoW would innovate more. They hold more sway in this industry than any other studio could ever hope to attain. When they move, people notice. But that’s not how Blizzard works. They’re not holding anyone back. The suits deciding the prerogatives for each new AAA model are. You could sum up every major release since WoW came out with the simple phrase “11 million people can’t be wrong” and you’d have a viable explanation for the resulting games.

Icarus is indie: they listen, they respond, they take risks

Which is why, perhaps, we’ve seen more indie games being reported on by sites like Massively. The way I see it, MMO releases are now split into two trees: AAA and indie. Any new AAA title will follow the basic principles that made WoW popular; that’s the market they’re trying to tap into. Otherwise, the sad truth is, the game would probably never have seen the light of day due to their difficulty in getting people to invest the massive amounts of money it would require.

So, I agree and empathize with much of what Wolfshead says, but, on this core topic, I think we need to expand our focus a little bit. Regardless, it’s an interesting read and I thank him for writing it. Yet, you can’t blame Blizzard for sticking to what made them successful. It’s like trying to hold celebrities to a higher standard because they’re in the public eye. It’d be nice if they all wore underwear and kept off of Oprah’s couch, but I’m not expecting it.

Blizzard, like those celebrities, is its own entity. We shouldn’t demand change from them, we should demand change from the games that want to dethrone World of Warcraft. If we truly do not want more of the same, then eventually even the most devout WoW fan will come up for air and aid in that decision. If we don’t want WoW, the game to defeat WoW will offer something new and exciting. Better yet, it will take what works with WoW and make it their own.

That is what these studios need to be copying.

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