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.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

2013 - The Great Gamble

Recently, I've been reading a number of years in review and I've been sparked to look back at my own year.  The spark is because I tried something different this year and I really need to examine for myself how I felt about it, and what I learned from it.  The truth is that I won't really know how I felt about this past year until I start writing it down.

The difference is that this was the year that I actually left WoW for the first time.  I've been an active player since the December after it came out.  The internet tells me that was back in 2004, but I really don't remember.  Jump ahead to September 25th of 2012 and Mists of Pandaria was launched.  I have to say that I loved it and leveled my two main characters, hunter and paladin, through all of the zones to level cap and even more, to experience the questing content.  I also had a third character, my shaman, that was halfway to cap as well.  I tanked the dungeons and started in on the reputation grinding but this time things were different for me.

This time, I was building on the experiences of the past and I knew that, as in previous expansions, I would reach a point where all I was doing was grinding.  Looking for a way to fill a few hours in an evening and keep myself entertained, even though I had already done everything, not once but many times.  I had reached this plateau before in past expansions.  Grinding dailies was novel in BC, was tempered by gear rewards in Lich King, and was soul-destroying in Cataclysm.

Don't Believe the Voices

I vowed that this time, I wouldn't stick around a be a sucker.  When the available content was finished, I made a promise to myself that I would move on and experience other games.  I had already joined the launch of SW:TOR and had followed it through its roller coaster of popularity, and my close group of family and friends were playing it as well.  In addition, at the release of Pandaria, I had bought a copy of GW2 on impulse and had characters there, not to mention a free account at Lord of the Rings Online.  There was no shortage of other games to play, other stories to experience.

So at some point in the spring of 2013, I stopped logging on to Mists.  Now, this was hard at first.  I typically have 5 Alliance characters at level and profession cap and another two Horde characters somewhere in the near-end process, but I walked away from them exactly where they were.  The truth is that somewhere around the middle of the third character I am overcome by the sameness of everything, but I keep playing because a little voice convinces me that I've got nothing else to do.  This time, I decided that I wasn't going to believe the voices.

The MMO buffet
Instead, I raised my head from the WoW trenches and discovered a lot going on.  I played group content with my friends in Star Wars.  This was about the time that SW was going through it's re-release at the one year anniversary, and they were attempting to flood the zone with frequent content updates.  Not all of these were huge winners, but they drew me into the Star Wars universe and encouraged me with the growing maturity of the product.  When the expansion, Rise of the Hutt Cartel, came out in April I was deeply committed, and generally satisfied.

Similarly, I had other games that I dabbled with.  I played through some zones in Guild Wars 2 with my human engineer and my Sylvari elementalist.  I was particularly enchanted with the adjustments they made to eliminate friction and competition between players.  On the other hand, I was never able to connect deeply with any particular story line.  The Asurans seemed more whimsical than noble and the Sylvari, who had a more interesting story with their black court antagonists, somehow failed to evoke any sympathy.

At the beginning of May, I jumped onto Neverwinter in its open beta release.    I love the Dungeons and Dragons setting and found that the solo dungeon instances perfectly captured the dungeon crawl experience for me.  Once again, I found the stories in the leveling zones to be fascinating in many different ways, from hard core ghost and graveyard stories, to airship pirates, to icy cragged mountain peaks.

Unfortunately, my interest lasted only as long as the questing zones did, and the strange difficulty curve did odd things to the experience at end game.  This is the fast food of MMOs, an occasional guilty pleasure that is easily accessible, but not something that sustains you for the long haul.  Fortunately, Neverwinter doesn't demand a long-term commitment.  It's a great game to pop in for an expansion (like Fury of the Feywild) and then leave just as easily without any long-term feelings of guilt.

The synopsis, here, is that I found so many other things to do, other stories to participate in, that I thoroughly approved of my decision to step away from WoW and see what else was offered.