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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.

10 comments

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  1. We Fly Spitfires

    I’ve though about this a lot myself and I agree with you. Although every major MMO developer copies WoW, the fact remains, that’s not Blizzard’s fault and, if anything, it’s purely the fault of the new developer for thinking that the only way to achieve success is by carbon-copying the biggest game out there.

  2. Krosuss

    Wolfshead makes some good points. For all the capital Blizzard has taken in over the years … how much have they really given back not only to the greater MMO community but to their own customers. Two major expansions and a bunch of fluff in between? It’s pretty clear what they’ve been doing … pocketing the cash.

    They’ve used this same model for Starcraft and Diablo. Sure, those games are great and people still play them but in the past decade how dramiatically groundshaking does Starcraft 2 or Diablo III appear to be shaping up? Not very. Ten years and they both appear to be cleaner looking, better graphics, rehashes of the same old games. Shame on the players for not realizing it and for not demanding more. And other MMO companies are trying to ride those coattails rather than really trying something different to draw attention and move the genre forward.

    Syncaine has written about this at Hardcore Casual in the past and I agree … Blizzard has delivered little to their players for all the cash they take in.

  3. Tauren Warlock

    Blizzard giveth and Blizzard taketh away.

    On one hand WoW has popularized the MMO genre and shown that these games can be commercially successful. I’m pretty sure that every MMO released in about the last 3-4 years was able to release, at least partially, because they could go to investors and point at WoW as an example of how profitable these games can be. And when those games release there is the greatly expanded audience ready to spread the hype for the new shiny game, buy a $50 dollar box and try the game out to see if they want to subscribe permanently.

    Having hordes of new customers buying a product is usually a good thing for a company but for a new MMO it can cause some problems. Like Syncaine has said this mass of day one players see the new game at it’s worst (since the developers haven’t had a chance to respond to bugs), they also cause network problems because of their numbers.

    These new players compare the current de-bugged, refined and polished WoW to brand new game that hasn’t come into it’s own yet. They make criticisms about the game at various places around the internet (that become the internet’s permanent record about that game). And then leave forever.

    So what would the MMO genre look like without blizzard. Would Tabula Rasa have eventually worked out it’s bugs and become a good game without the competition, would NC soft have cancelled the game outright without the possibility of WoW like success, or was it all doomed to failure because of bad engineering and design? What would the releases of AOC and Warhammer have been like without the hype-boom-dissapointment-bust cycle. Would they even have been made at all. It’s all hard to say.

  4. hunter

    I think its interesting to look at the next two AAA MMOs, SWTOR looks like it’s going to be generally similar to WoW, I haven’t seen any evidence of an attempt at innovation, just a Star Wars WoW really. Still early. GW2 although I don’t doubt they’ll take things from WoW does seem to have some new ideas they’re acting on.

    And it looks like they’re coming out around early 2011. Interesting showdown.

  5. Tauren Warlock

    I’m going to go out on a limb and predict a Warhammer style boom bust cycle for SWTOR that leaves them with less than the 1 million they need to be successful inside of 6 months. Hopefully that will be the end of the really obvious wow-alikes and we’ll start to see a little more creativity out of the industry.

    Guild wars 2 could be a lot more interesting, but it’s a little too soon to tell.

  6. Tesh

    One trouble is that MMOs are nastily expensive beasties to create and not exactly cheap to service. The indie scene in games in general is thriving, but it’s a hard sell to make an MMO with World of Goo’s art aesthetic and minimalist feature suite. If you have to get venture capitalists or other investor vampires on board to make an MMO, they will inevitably lean heavily to “established” market trends.

  7. Dink

    Who said SWTOR needs 1 million in six months to be successful? Most MMO’s make a profit with 100 to 200K subscribers. Box sales alone will make SWTOR successful even if no one subscribes.

    1. Chris

      EA did, actually, but I don’t recall hearing the six month qualifier. Here’s a link to the Eurogamer article on it.

  8. Kromus

    Again, like you Chris, I am sitting on the fence about this- but I think that if a truly awesome new MMO comes out, it’ll take it’s place. It takes time though, I guess. Blizzard didn’t just release WoW after all, they had several popular titles, so if the investment didn’t pay off they can shrug, a lot of MMO companies might not have that safety-shrug(ha), in my opinion.

    Overall, no, I think blizzard are not stagnating the MMO industry, other companies are trying to hard to captivate a already captivated audience. There are a lot of frustrated WoW players out there.

  9. John

    , it’s purely the fault of the new developer for thinking that the only way to achieve success is by carbon-copying the biggest game out there. call of duty zombies game unblocked

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