A few nights ago, I was playing Wildstar with my committed leveling buddy. We had just arrived at Malgrave, the zone where players on the Exile side spend their last ten levels. After collecting twenty cacti from sun-scorched dunes and reducing a species of space bears to nigh-extinction, I couldn’t help but make a offhand remark.
“Man, this feels a lot like World of Warcraft.”
This wasn’t the first time during my climb to level fifty that I was overcome by this feeling of deja vu. In fact, as WoW celebrates its tenth anniversary, I can’t help but look back at all the games that have been released during the game’s reign that have invoked the same feeling.
Age of Conan. Guild Wars 2. Rift. Star Wars: The Old Republic. Wildstar. All titles with big aspirations and even bigger marketing campaigns. In each case, player and gaming journalist alike were made to believe that a project was in development that could wrest the laurels from WoW; and, in each case, we we were handed a blotchy photocopy of the original.
Create a character from a curated selection of races and classes. Hop from zone to zone following linear chains of quests. Reach the level cap and be terminally bored by the lack of elder game content. Rinse and repeat.
Sometimes there’s a new feature. Singular. Guild Wars had an updated questing system. Wildstar had player housing. Age of Conan had gratuitous cleavage. However, none of these features amounted to anything that Blizzard couldn’t add – or hasn’t since added – in a single content drop. Nothing to warrant a second subscription fee or even the hours needed to download and install the game.
I don’t want to say that these developers aren’t trying. Carbine Studios poured their heart and souls into Wildstar. As much I rag on the game, the world of Nexus oozes with character, charm, and care uncommon in the era of shovelware free-to-play titles.
Instead, I think these developers don’t know how to try. After the success of WoW, it was natural for them to assume that Blizzard had discovered the alchemical formula for success in the fickle new genre. Quests, instanced dungeons, and world stories became the linchpin of every MMORPG that entered development after WoW‘s momentous 2004 release.
However, Blizzard’s torrential success was owed as much to this magic formula as it was to their financial solidarity. Not to say that WoW didn’t revolutionize the genre, because it did. It made its predecessor EverQuest look like a DOS game. But the tripartite quest-dungeon-story model is one that only works when a developer has the coffers to produce lavish content patch after lavish content patch and the devoted fan base to reliably refill these coffers every month.
It’s an uncommon luxury. Even games that have ridden on the coattails of fandoms such as Star Wars and The Elder Scrolls have floundered trying to keep pace with Blizzard.
Now that the first wave of WoW-killers has long since failed, it feels like the industry is flailing. Developers don’t know how to compete with the juggernaut Blizzard built in their spare time.
Adhering to the formula championed by WoW is suicide, and there’s no obvious means to improve upon it. Questing is just about as polished as questing will ever be, every possible theme park gimmick has been jury-rigged into a dungeon, and each new fantastical realm now comes with a complimentary saga of lore stretching back ten thousand years.
The latter trend has proliferated to the point of absurdity in Wildstar. There are literally books full of lore laying on the ground everywhere on Nexus. It’s a borderline public safety hazard. I have to concede, I stopped right-clicking this carpet of tomes after hitting level ten.
Well-meaning but awkward game design decisions like this demonstrate how confused the MMORPG genre has become. We’ve reached an evolutionary dead end, and the genre risks extinction in light of more populous and accessible online games like League of Legends and Minecraft.
Speaking of the latter, titles such as EverQuest Next offer a faint glimmer of hope for the future of MMORPGs. Players have been aching for a triple-A attempt at city building and open world player-versus-player combat since Richard Garriott graced us with the flawed but revolutionary Ultima Online in 1997.
However, EverQuest Next will likely be done in by its own trepidation. Hesitant to allow players free reign over the world of Norrath, Sony Online Entertainment has segregated the building and questing mechanics of the game into two separate pieces of software. With an approval system serving as a baby gate between creation and implementation, EverQuest Next feels less like an Ultima Online successor and more like a WoW-clone with Steam workshop support enabled.
I’d be remiss not to mention the deluge of Kickstarter games that have embraced the Ultima Online model as well; however, most – if not all – of these titles are doomed to failure. Pathfinder Online has already started soliciting players for exploitative sums of money for early access and cosmetic items. It’s not entirely surprising given that the game only asked for about 5% of its prospective development costs during its Kickstarter campaign, but there is going to be a shitstorm of Campbellian proportions when Goblinworks inevitably closes its servers.
The future of online games does not belong to MMORPGs. The frontier era where every major developer cloistered away a team to craft their own rival online world has passed. It’s hard to pinpoint an exact moment when confidence in the genre faltered, but the needle lands somewhere between the shocking failure of Bioware’s Star Wars: The Old Republic and the $1.6 million debut of The International in 2011.
We will never see again see another MMORPG of WoW‘s magnitude. Hell, at this point I’m skeptical if the original game will ever die. With the unanimous praise Warlords of Draenor is receiving in the gaming press, the franchise looks like it might have another decade of life left in it.
My questing buddy and I recently made a decision: we’re going to cancel our Wildstar subscriptions once we hit the level cap. From what we hear, there’s not much to do once you hit level fifty besides raiding, and we can’t bother with that kind of time commitment.
As I peer out over the vast deserts of Malgrave from the back of my mount, a comment reverberates into my ears from my headset.
“They might as well have named this zone Tanaris.”
I laugh. “I hated that zone.”