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A New Generation for the Masses
In 1997 Ultima Online was released and the term MMORPG was created. Since then, many have come and gone with some success stories sticking around. Games such as World of Warcraft and Everquest are nearly household names. Millions of people around the world play MMO’s every day. Blizzard’s giant houses over twelve million players globally. This genre has seen many changes over the years with companies that try and enter the MMO scene with the “newest adventure” and promises of “revolutionary changes”. Yet, here we are almost 14 and a half years later and we are now just hearing about the “next generation” of MMO’s. Why has it taken so long for developers to bring players a brand new experience?
Before we can delve into what the genre desperately needs, we need to look at what plagues it now and we’ll start at the top of the food chain: World of Warcraft. I’m not even 200 words into this article and I have made three refrences to the MMO “king” already. Undoubtedly, it is nearly impossible to not bring up WoW in some form when talking about this genre. Blizzard entered the scene in 2004 and transformed one of their three widely successful genres from a niche favorite into a global phenomenon. Building upon the success of Everquest’s formula, Blizzard took the genre to heights it may never see again. What did Blizzard do that the plenlty of games before and after have failed to do? The company’s marketing campaign was global and massive. They also kept a fine split line of content to cater to both the PvE (Player vs. Environment) and PvP (Player vs. Player) crowds. There is literally tons of things in Azeroth. Nearly every corner or land has something in it. It feels alive and that has never rung more truer than what Blizzard did with their third expansion: Cataclysm. Cataclysm transformed Azeroth revitalizing the now and then tedious leveling process and introducing one of the series’ most diabolic villains. Blizzard is an entertainment juggernaut and their talent for story-telling and cinematics are bar none. They know how to excite their player base and keep them coming back for more. World of Warcraft can really be considered a drug to some people.
On the other side, WoW can also be heralded as the beginning of the end of the MMO genre. Online chatter between genre fans and WoW bring a mixed bag of emotions. Did Blizzard really kill the MMO industry with their giant? I saw an amazingly written post on a forum where the author talked about how WoW could very well have a Guitar Hero effect. This is also very ironic since Blizzard is now a part of Activision. The author of said post argues that WoW brought in an influx of companies saying, “hey, we can do that, too.” It is true that the MMO market is saturated with released, soon-to-be released, and still developing titles. Many of these games are based off of licensed products much like Warcraft. A ton of MMO’s have released since November 2004 and none have come even close to WoW’s success. Traversing through a three-month old MMO’s forums result in seeing topics stating “heading back to WoW” and others of the same effect. Why can’t powerhouse combos such as EA and Warhammer, Sony Online and DC Universe, Square-Enix with Final Fantasy come close to the numbers that Blizzard has achieved?
Many times you see publishers rushing games out the gate for sake of release dates and hype. Companies look towards WoW and try to emulate that success by having large advertising campaigns, epic cinematics, and claims saying that their game will be number one or reference the death of Blizzard’s product. What they fail to realize is that WoW wasn’t built on ads and pretty graphics. WoW’s success rides on the fact that the game closed with a very successful beta and opened with a bug crushing team, a large assortment of content, and a story based on an already accomplished series. Coupled with content releases leading up to a culmination of events and improving server statuses and endgame, WoW’s first year was a frantic ride to help players, keep players, and hook new ones. Blizzard never let up and still hasn’t. The game has regular bug fixes, expertly spread out content patches, and a new expansion every two years. This formula must be easy to replicate, right? Apparently not.
Let’s talk about a game that I enjoyed quite a bit at release: DC Universe Online. I had reservations about the game from the beginning with the SOE logo slapped on it. SOE doesn’t have a very good reputation with veteran MMO fans, especially after they ruined Star Wars Galaxies. However, after a brief beta playthrough and a zero hour purchase on Steam, I was subscripted to DCUO. I am a huge comic fan and that’s what I’m blaming it on. I thoroughly enjoyed my leveling process in DCUO, something I can rarely say about this genre. Leveling is tedious to me and I’m all about endgame content. DCUO kept leveling at a great pace to keep you interested with quest lines that were actually fun. Fighting against famous heroes and villains from the DC comics that I love was great. I reached the top level after a week and a half of playing and found myself grinding up for enough resources to buy myself good gear from challenges and instanced dungeons. After a while, I began raiding in the endgame against Brainiac’s forces inside the Batcave and stopping Black Adam from being angry in Khandaq. I can report that after beating Brainiac and freeing Batman, the endgame in DCUO is well done. That being said, I have stopped playing the game.
What changed? The laziness of SOE has finally reared its ugly head far too many times in DC Universe Online. The team has repeated re-released old content with higher bits of difficulty while finally finishing the Batcave arc after three raids. There hasn’t been much updates to PvP which the game has lost grasp since the controversy with hacks. The third content update will revisit another old dungeon which will now be retrofitted to be a Duo (2-player instance) and finally release a raid outside of the Batcave. There are bugs from launch that still plague the game and SOE is dedicated to a patch every month to month-and-a-half. I am saddened to say that all of these issues have brought SOE to announce a “Super Server” merge which will leave only four servers in total. One server will hold the US PvE population while EU players will get their own and the same will be done for the PvP side of things. This is a great way to mask the fact that much of the population has already left. Can DCUO be saved? I sincerely hope so, with the just now announced total reboot of the DC Comics universe, perhaps the online game will get an expansion and a new marketing campaign.
What ultimately went wrong with DC Universe Online has happened to many games in this genre. The developer and/or publisher pushes out the MMO too soon and it is stricken with bugs, tiny amount of content, balance issues that plague PvP, or no endgame content. World of Warcraft launched with bugs as well but most were squashed during the closed beta. Balance issues (I’m looking at you vanilla WoW Paladin class) were rampaging in PvP. However, the game launched with plenty of content to keep players busy until they released Onyxia’s Lair and Molten Core shortly after launch when more and more players were finally reaching level 60. Blizzard obviously knew what they were getting themselves into. You cannot just launch an MMO and be done with it until you complete enough new content for a patch. Releasing an MMO is like making a baby. You have to care and nurture it or you are not going to have a splendid time.
I can’t sit here and completely blame the devs and big shots, though. The players also have a huge factor in an MMO’s demise these days. WoW’s progression has seemingly spoiled most MMO fans. Features that exist now in the world of Azeroth weren’t around for the launch or even the first and second years. While the arugment can be made that new games should see that players enjoy these features and they should be in at launch, even when devs commit themselves to putting them in their games the masses will still be displeased. How can new MMO’s survive in this cuthroat environment? Well that brings us to the main topic of this article: we need a new generation of MMO.
DC Universe Online and RIFT are great examples of released games that tried to change the genre for the better. DCUO rung in a new way to play by getting rid of a mouse pointer and giving players control of their character’s viewpoint. Reminiscent of third person action games, DCUO catered to a new crowd of players that enjoyed more freedom in their movement and direction of attack. DC Universe still held onto the old fashioned, tried-and-true method of the Trinity system. In a Trinity system you have the tank, healer, and attacker. This is where RIFT stood out. While RIFT is a traditional MMO in nearly every sense, it is hard to classify their class system in a Trinity. Their new dungeon finder tool does a good job of it but don’t be entirely fooled, that rogue in your group may end up saving your tank’s life during a boss fight. Hell, maybe the mage will keep the healer up in a tight spot. You may even see a rogue main tanking a dungeon! Unheard of! Aspects of MMO’s such as the Trinity system, click and wait combat, and invading dungeon after dungeon for endgame is becoming boring and downright not fun. RIFT spiced their game up with constant Rift battles and town invasions. Things like that help the leveling experience but endgame needs a total reboot. Crafting systems are becoming tedious, redundant, and boring. I give credit to Final Fantasy XIV where crafting systems were put into their own player classes, very interesting and actually sort of fun.
Games like DC Universe, RIFT, and Final Fantasy XIV are trying new things to spruce up the genre, however, these new aspects are scattered. There are no MMO’s that have put together a collective set of features that are new and exciting to bring about the next generation of this genre. Publishers are starting to look at MMO’s as a costly venture with little hope of succeeding or meeting their expectations. Developers need a new vision, biggest budgets, or more time. I weep for developing titles like Star Wars: The Old Republic and TERA. Both games look strong and I always have faith in Bioware to produce a great experience but I fear they will be suffer from publisher expectations and impatient players longing for something new. As someone who has played a multitude of MMO’s since 2002, I am becoming bored of the selection out there and upcoming but I await the next generation of one of my favorite genres in gaming.
P.S. I apologize for how many times the word genre is used in this article! 🙂