I always enjoy the schizophrenia that World of Warcraft seems to cause in MMO players and creators.
Some days people love World of Warcraft. Here is a game that is solid, a game that is polished, a game with a light memory and CPU footprint that looks good and behaves well. WoW has raised the bar for future games when it comes to quality and content. And, most importantly, WoW has increased the size of the potential MMO marketplace by introducing the MMO gaming experience to millions of people who never experienced this style of gaming before.
Viva World of Warcraft! Savior of MMO gaming!
And then on other days, WoW is the whipping boy for so much that is seen as wrong with the who MMO gaming experience. It is the lowest common denominator of MMOs catering to those too lazy or uninspired to play a real MMO. It is an MMO with training wheels. It leads you by the hand and sends you off to kill 10 of this and 20 of that and to deliver package X to NPC Y in zone Z over and over again. It never truly breaks from the mold of the games that went before it and represents mere refinement. Its success will lead to more clones of the same formula while obscuring anything new or innovate in the space.
Boo! Hiss! WoW is killing MMO gaming!
This week we are all astir about WoW again because of Dr. Richard Bartle‘s closing remarks in an interview in The Guardian this week.
The bulk of the interview has been ignored, mostly because The Guardian went with the most sensational title for the article they could find:
“”I’d close World of Warcraft!” MUD creator Richard Bartle on the state of virtual worlds”
Around and around the arguments have gone on the last paragraph of this interview, the paragraph that gave the article its title, which was prompted by a question of approximately equal value to asking somebody, “What would you do if you won the lottery.”
So when asked what he would do if he could take over control of one major MMORPG, which would it be and what would he do with it, he chose WoW and said he would shut it down.
I am Bartle, destroyer of worlds?
Yet the rest of the interview would lead me to believe that this would be of little or no value in anything but the extreme short term in any case, so why bother?
He bemoans the limitations of the 3D worlds we play in today when compared to the flexibility of the text environments of the MUDs of yore. (Or, specifically, his MUD and MUD2.) I certainly feel his pain there. As somebody who came from 10 years of playing Toril MUD, a world built in text that I can picture in my mind in full, living color, I often feel oddly, inexplicably constrained in the 3D environments.
He is glum on the future of virtual worlds, feeling that they will become common, but with that broad availability will come a further reduction in the immersion and excitement of such worlds. They will primarily be banal, places of commerce, no more exciting than your local grocery store is today. Virtual worlds of adventure and challenge, of fun and enjoyment will still exist, but they will be the exception, not the rule.
So why choose destruction? Why not pick WoW and suggest something that would improve the game, the world, or the industry as a whole? He has played WoW to the extent of having three level 70 characters. Surely his designers mind has had some insights into improving the game.
Of course, maybe he does not want to give that away for free, but even some impossible vision would be better that suggesting the best thing he could do for virtual worlds is shut one of them down in my mind.
Nothing he said in the interview makes me believe that the removal of WoW would make even a small difference in the future of virtual worlds. The next-most-WoW-like MMO would get a bucket of new players, some niche games would make a few more dollars, but things would go on as before.
Others, in comments here and there, have supported the “close WoW” thesis with arguments about how hard it is to compete or how WoW has made huge budgets a requirement which automatically stifles anything innovative. Money men like safe bets, after all, not innovation.
But the genie is out of the bottle on that one. There having been a WoW means that it will ever be a yardstick against which other games will be measured, against which success itself will be measured. If you are going to wish WoW away, you have to wish it away completely.
And then we are back in the pre-WoW world. Virtual worlds are still a niche, popular with only a very small set of stereotype gamers with sallow complexions and no life outside of their game of choice. All of the good things that Blizzard brought to the MMO market when they launched WoW fade. Not having WoW does not make any given game more popular, it just makes it look bigger relative to its competitors once WoW isn’t standing over them all.
At least until some other game emerges in the dominate position. Maybe not as strongly as WoW, but as so many have pointed out, no individual aspect of WoW is particularly stunning. The brilliance (and success) of WoW is just getting so many things right compared to the industry up to that point. Somebody was bound to get there sooner or later.
So I am unhappy with Dr. Bartle’s answer. I hope it was a spur of the moment thing during the interview, flippant or provocative, as opposed to some deeply held view.
He is a designer at heart, a visionary and consultant for virtual worlds. Why couldn’t he have said something constructive?