The Moment of the MMO Has Passed

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It doesn’t take long into with Wildstar to have the creeping feeling that you’ve played it all before. The hotbar combat. The levels. The classes and holy trinity of tank/dps/healer. Five person dungeons and instanced player vs player.

This is not an attempt on my part to sound cynical. For whatever reason, I am not yet weary of the basic tropes of MMOs after 15 years, even as it makes me a little sad that what was once a medium has slowly become a genre. The way MMOs are designed and cranked out simply is, in the same way that strategy games nearly always have tech trees, whether their presence makes sense in the fiction the game is presenting or not.

Nor do I dislike Wildstar. On the contrary, I enjoy it quite a bit. Besides some muddy animations, it’s so far above and beyond The Elder Scrolls Online, its Spring competition in the MMO space, that they’re barely comparable at all. It oozes charm and character in a genre usually content to sacrifice both for a naked grab for the subscription number pot of gold. I’m only at level 15, it should be noted, and I’ve been around the block enough that I know all the enjoyment may dissipate in a haze of reputation grinds and a brick wall of gated content.

At the very least, though, it appears that Carbine Studios really thought about what they’ve created. They’ve managed all the angles, from raid size to crafting to mounts to dungeons, in order to recreate the important parts of what was arguably World of Warcraft’s golden age, the period from its release to early Burning Crusade.

This is not, however, a review of Wildstar, despite the above paragraphs. As I said, I am still in the early game, a rank noob in a world that already has max level characters; I wouldn’t be qualified to do an in-depth review if I tried. Rather, this is about Carbine’s attempt to recreate the magic and market of World of Warcraft at its height in those years from 2004-2007, and how they accounted for (and improved upon) most everything, save the most important bit: the intervening decade.

All MMOs are chasing the dragon of World of Warcraft’s once 15 million subscribers. Hit even 1 million on a steady, lasting basis and your company is set for years to come. So the games come, aping World of Warcraft to varying degrees. The problem is that, generally, there’s obviously not much thought behind what’s being mimicked and why. Referring back to The Elder Scrolls Online as an example: Hotbar combat was incorporated into the game’s parent series’ traditional twitch combat and it was obvious that the reason why was because that’s simply what MMOs do. And why do MMOs do things like that? Because World of Warcraft is the most successful game of all time and that’s what it does. Simple. No deep analysis behind it, but simple.

Carbine’s approach is different. It’s obvious that the studio actually thought very hard about what makes World of Warcraft tick, deconstructing the slice of World of Warcraft’s lifespan when it was the undeniable ruler of the PC gaming universe. This is particularly the case when it comes to the social bonds of those days, and it underpins their endgame roadmap. The basic calculus is simple and it’s one that I’ve seen reiterated in some form ever since I played my first MMO: Content which requires more people and is harder leads to social bonds, formed in guilds and raid groups, which last longer. Churn in those groups, of course, occurs as people try to reach the maximum level their (varying) capabilities can acquire, but once everyone reaches their comfort levels, the bonds formed are steady.

Wildstar and early World of Warcraft share a common maximum raid size for this reason, with forty people being the maximum. The five person dungeons hark back to that earlier era of World of Warcraft, when running one was a non-trivial investment of time and energy. And the attunement mechanics, whereby content is locked to players who haven’t completed a chain of events to access it, are straight from the more hardcore end of The Burning Crusade’s spectrum.

NCSoft and Carbine are obviously banking that this particular approach to endgame and its attendant rules for game socialization can make a lot of money. Rather than the more hardcore approach being hidden away for unaware gamers to stumble upon when they hit their last level up, it’s a visible and marketed selling point. Wildstar promises that the old days of big raiding are back. The thing that got you hooked on MMOs in the first place, raiding with a chance of failure, is here to save us.

wildstar mmo screen.jpg Wildstar

In the micro, there’s a real question about whether the genie of casual raiding (as personified by World of Warcraft’s looking for raid system) can be put back in its bottle. World of Warcraft’s group content is, at this point, largely trivial at the low to mid range, even for players with lower skill levels. The game is remarkably forgiving when compared to its earlier days. But there’s a pleasing rhythm to it when you start in. You can hop in and out of even the more involved raids in an hour or so. A five person dungeon can take 20 minutes or less. It’s a casual game which has set the expectation (followed closely by Rift, at least in its small group content) that group content is not necessarily hard content. Wildstar loudly eschews that viewpoint and I think there are serious doubts that it can maintain that stance after so many years of World of Warcraft becoming easier and more casual (which are related, but not identical, things).

That can change post-release. In fact, I think it’s almost certain that nerfs and adjustments will be incoming once the majority of the player base begins to run into Wildstar’s seeming buzzsaw of hardcore content. But more worrying for Wildstar and any prospective MMO should be that the internet social void which MMOs partially filled no longer exists in 2014.

When I began playing World of Warcraft in 2004, I was dying. This isn’t an exaggeration for effect. My Crohn’s disease had progressed so quickly and so savagely that my doctor at one point told me I was extremely likely to die within three months. That obviously didn’t happen, thanks to extremely timely emergency treatment, but 2004 was the nadir of my physical health. A combination of pain, the necessity of having a nearby bathroom at all times, and malnutrition had me at home for days on end.

It was terribly lonely and boring. World of Warcraft introduced me to a level of internet socialization I hadn’t experienced before. Moreover, I couldn’t get it anywhere else in 2004. There was no Twitter or Facebook, and certainly no hordes of people using that social media which was available. Free video chat with any sort of efficiency wasn’t feasible. It was, in terms of social interactions, a completely different world.

Mine was an edge case, but everyone I knew who played World of Warcraft, every single one, regardless of health or happiness or success, was playing to fill that social void which we were only beginning to figure out existed. Yes, the equation which World of Warcraft and now Wildstar based its endgame on made it a bit stickier, but it was the temporal context we lived in that bound us. 15 million people weren’t playing World of Warcraft because of the mechanics; they were playing because of the universe of interrelations which we couldn’t access in any other way.

We’re older now. We have kids and mortgages and serious jobs. In the time it takes to log in and get something set up with MMO friends, you can swipe your fingers a few times and be both engaging thousands on Twitter while videochatting with your friends at the same time. And if you really got into MMOs for the “ding, grats” style gameplay, it’s worked its way into games of every style and genre, with hundreds of mobile games offering a distilled version of it directly to your cerebral cortex.

It wasn’t the game, it was the moment; not what MMOs were but when. It’s terribly, unsatisfyingly handwavey to say, but it was the zeitgeist and now it’s not. There will be exceptions here and there, as both SWTOR and Guild Wars 2 prove, but they always rely on some unique quirk; in the case of those two games, they succeed as they do because of the most valuable IP in the world and a unique business model, respectively.

The profit ceiling for successful MMOs is simply lower than it was and that’s not going to change. I have no doubt that there can and will be reasonably successful attempts. I also happen to think that Wildstar will probably be one of them. But I have this weird feeling that Carbine and NCSoft think they can recreate 2004. Everything points to that outcome and Carbine has written a pixel based master’s thesis on how to do it.

That thought and care makes it even more inexplicable that they seemingly didn’t put the same thought into the ever mutable status of games and interaction over the past 15 years. Perhaps there was simply too much money to do so. But the moment of the MMO has passed. For better or worse, the world which birthed a ravenous appetite for 40 person raids and long hours in dungeons has passed, never to return. Whether MMO companies, Carbine included, can account for its passing is an open question.

Ian Williams has written for Salon, Jacobin, The Guardian and more.

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