Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Post-Warcraft: a Genre Matures

So a few days ago, I wrote up a review of 2013 for me and MMOs.  I'm not claiming that this little journey of mine is in any way unique.  In fact, I'm probably late to reaching this point, and many others have already done this over the course of the last 3 years or so, possibly in the aftermath of Cataclysm.

I see this as a normal maturing of the industry and not entirely unexpected.  An episode of Extra Credits titled The Future of MMOs back in 2010 spoke about how the genre would only begin to advance again when people were willing to play games other than WoW. Here, they identified two problems:  first,
"(An MMO is) designed to be played to the exclusion of everything else.  People just can't play two MMOs at once."
and second,
"Lower cost means that companies will be able to take more risks and experiment in ways that they couldn’t afford to with (traditional) MMORPGs."
Over the past three years we've seen both of these developments  slowly take shape.  Players regularly mention how they have 2 or 3 games on rotation, when previously they would be devoted to a single title.  Personally, I credit SWTOR for breaking that log jam, not by being better than WoW, but by being the game people were interested in enough to consider making the jump.

With the stranglehold broken, we've also seen a much greater willingness to experiment with new models and new paradigms.  SW:TOR was more like WoW than anyone was willing to admit, but they brought Bioware's concept of the companion into the MMO space.  Guild Wars 2, among many contributions, changed the relationship among players from being essentially antagonistic to being a mutually beneficial one. 

Once players are willing to step away from traditional, monolithic, heavy RPGs, developers have the freedom to make very light games like Neverwinter, which just recently introduced mini-games through their internet portal to complement the main MMO. And this is in addition to the crafting and inventory interface that was already present.   Somehow, even with the Armory, this is an area that Blizzard just has not been able to master, and yet Cryptic has jumped in with both feet and has already carried the ball further down field.  Cryptic is hungry enough to try new things, and flexible enough to take risks.

The final piece that has yet to fall into place is a psychological one.  People are still looking for the one game to rule them all.  The single new MMORPG that will fill all their needs.  I think that ultimately, this paradigm has to go as well.  We should be looking for specific games that do specific things very well, rather than one game that tries to do everything and appeal to everyone.

From a publisher's perspective, the broadest audience is the most desirable.  But I think we'll see more success in games that try to be more specialized. I think we're moving away from the all-encompassing high fantasy/science fiction/gritty realism/ genre bender that WoW became and lean more toward very tightly focused experiences.

When you want a sword and sorcery, high fantasy game with elves and dwarves and paladins, you'll turn to Warcraft.  When you want a dark, edgy tale of horror and investigation, you'll reach for the Secret World.  When you want an evening you share with your friends in the Star Trek universe, you'll go with STO.

Just as you would read more than one author, and watch more than one television series, you now have the freedom to play more than one game.

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