Love WoW, Hate WoW, Destroy WoW?

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?

12 thoughts on “Love WoW, Hate WoW, Destroy WoW?

  1. darrenl

    Nicely written….I have no idea how some think that if WoW did close that others would just go find another MMO. I just don’t think that would be the case. People would find another game, sure, but that game may not be an MMO.

    …regardless, the more I think about it, the more flippant the whole comment becomes.


  2. Rick

    Bartle explains it a little more on his blog here;

    and has commented on the Broken Toys thread he references in that link. He calls it a “thought experiment”, and I think it has value in that context. He’s from academia, and it’s common to throw out something controversial to provoke discussion. Darren and I went back and forth about it at The Common Sense Gamer, and the more I think about it, the more I think the longterm value from Bartle’s quote isn’t the actual idea, it’s the discussion that arose from the idea. Being a teacher and writer, that’s probably what he intended.

    I think too many people took the quote too literally. When the industry folks who know Bartle and know what it’s like to try and design and fund mmorpgs in the current market are nodding their heads in agreement at his comment, there’s an element of truth in the hyperbole. Bartle’s got three level 70 WoW characters, it’s clear he sees the value of WoW. It’s interesting to consider the other effects of WoW on the entire industry, though.


  3. Wilhelm2451 Post author

    Yes, I read his blog, the thread at Broken Toys, and the thread at CSG before I wrote this, including Dr. Bartle’s after-the-fact statement about it being a “thought experiment.” I even state in my own comments that he has three level 70 characters in WoW, so he could have brought more insight into the discussion.

    But as your own comment indicates, he wasn’t exactly shining a bright light on some dark recess of the industry if people in the industry all nod their heads in agreement. So my disappointment is more of, “was that the best he could do?” It came across to me as cheap sensationalism. It had a little more credibility than, say, Richard Stallman saying that closing down Microsoft would help the software industry, but not much more.

    And, as I said above, people jumped on the “down with WoW” wagon pretty darn fast without so much as a nod to what WoW and Blizzard have done for the MMORPG industry. Were things better for the industry when EverQuest was the most successful MMORPG ever?

    I’m sorry, but the world is a tough place. Many of the comments I read about how WoW is making it tough for the industry sounded like a lot of whining and self pity dressed up as “insight.” If that is the net result of the thought experiment, I question its value.


  4. Pvthudson

    “Were things better for the industry when EverQuest was the most successful MMORPG ever”

    I would like to think so yes. But in reality it is not true. The unfortunate side effect of WoW is now game hopping and easy mode titles that come out.


  5. Wilhelm2451 Post author

    Yes, that is the nostalgia talking. We all want to believe that things were better in the past. I am a prime example. I keep talking about going back to EverQuest based on my idealized memories of playing it back in 99-01. But every time I get back in Norrath, I am reminded of why I not only stopped playing the game, but swore off MMOs for three years after I did.

    Heck, I’ve been logging back into Toril MUD some of late.


  6. nobiggy

    World of Warcraft has, for sure, set up new gameplay standards in the MMO world. Maybe not that fine on the immersion side.
    However I have been a great fan of Anarchy Online, and some SOE Games (…). And I have this kind of “thing” that makes me want to test every MMO that comes out.
    And it is always the same story ! You start playing, and then some of your Character movements are just annoying you. They don’t look natural, smooth.

    You knew they were ugly. But it was ok because it was the right thing a this time… Not since you played World of Warcraft for a while..

    To all the developpers who still think that you can release a MMO with Characters animation (and gameplay as a global rule) close to an Iron Bar and think that it will be fine you are -at least- 10 years late and wasting a lot of money.


  7. yunk

    It sounds to me like everyone needs to buy a bunch of Copies of The Innovator’s Dilemma and hand it out to all the upper management of their companies and start to kick their asses! I’ve read plenty of stories of people buying that book for their executives and it causing sweeping changes.

    Gates and Ellison both transformed MIcrosoft and Oracle after reading it. And it sounds like even EA has gotten religion, though many are cynical.

    I think everyone should read that book, it is awesome, and one of the most transformative books I’ve read in my life. Even if you don’t run a company, its lessons are applicable.

    It all boils down to this (not the book, but what I think is wrong with some of the things being said):

    1. You can see “no” as an obstacle or opportunity.

    2. Someone, somewhere, is going to do something great. You can be a part of it, or complain that others won’t “let” you.

    3. You can take risks, or complain that others (managers and VCs) won’t take risks for you.

    4. Sure there are barriers to entry, and risk. Think of those problems as risk and costs, not obstacles that stop you.

    5. If you don’t do it, I guarantee someone else will. Someone will be willing to assume the risk and cost. Human greed and desire for greatness will drive someone to to do it, no matter the cost.

    6. Just DO IT.

    I’ve done the startup thing when I was younger. Yeah, when you’re in your mid 30s it’s not very attractive. I work for someone else now, So I also “play it safe”. But I can’t complain about my company playing it safe if I do it too. It’s a lot easier to say than do.


  8. yunk

    Money men like safe bets, after all, not innovation.

    I would disagree with this. I know only 5-7 self-made millionaires, but none of them got there by playing it safe. What I think is this:

    What they say: Let’s be more like the leader
    What they mean: Show me something that will totally shock and amaze me to risk my money on, or else I’ll play it safe.

    What they say: I don’t like this idea it’s too different than the leader
    What they mean: Show me something that will totally shock and amaze me to risk my money on, or else I’ll play it safe.

    What they say: this is too risky
    What they mean: Show me something that will totally shock and amaze me to risk my money on, or else I’ll play it safe.

    That seems to be the way the people I know with money and looking for investments think. They want to take risks, because bigger risks mean bigger returns. If they say “no” it doesn’t mean they don’t want to risk their money or only play it safe, playing it safe is just a place to park your money while you look for a better opportunity.

    The people I know are all in either restaurants or auto technology (I have eclectic friends :) ) though I do know a guy who sold his business to Oracle recently. It’s a small sample; but I think most other VCs are like that too. (though.. the guy that sold his software company wouldn’t be a VC, he’d be an innovator I guess). I could be wrong, but it just seems like that’s how my friends think.

    Not only that but, regarding the “complaining” Wilhelm mentioned, they all seem to be real hardasses. If even one sentence in your proposal is a complaint or comes across as whining, you probably won’t get the money even if they like the ideas. I mean, seriously, I hear my friends talk about other people and they just outright dismiss anyone not full of confidence and determination. Even if I, as a friend, dare to complain about anything at all I’ll get a lecture or yelled at to stop complaining and suck it up and do something. I get yelled at a lot :)


  9. Wilhelm2451 Post author

    I’ve done the start-up thing three times myself. (1 success, 2 crash and burns.) Fun and exciting when you’re young, less so when you’re married, a parent, and have a mortgage to cover every month.

    In my comment about money men, I was being somewhat sarcastic, but only a bit. I would not consider your self-made millionaire friends, nor the average aggressive VC firm, as the finance source for new MMORPGs. They just are not going to pay off big enough unless there is something wonderfully new about them, to attract that crowd.

    They just won’t be interested in “WoW with a cherry on top” because they’ll know that to succeed in a big way will require a plan that changes the model in a big way. And most of what we do see, and will see for a while is “WoW with a cherry on top,” and WoW is, frankly, “EverQuest in a fancy bowl with whipped cream and chopped nuts,” just to push the analogy too far.

    And, on complaining, I agree. One of the things I have learned working in the real world is that nobody wants to hear your problems, they only want to hear your solutions. “I can’t” is the biggest telltale sign that “you won’t.”


  10. yunk

    Yeah I have only a mortgage and a dog, maybe I should look for more opportunities.

    All this talk has got me wondering why I didn’t parley my last company into something at least worth selling. I had a video surveillance software company (can’t call it “security” due to not having the right certifications for my state, but it was basically a small business security product). The product was great, but the business had no barriers to entry, which is why we had no competition when we started, and tons by the time my partners got in a huge fight and it collapsed.

    I read about products I had already thought of and had the ability to create and think “why didn’t I do that instead of thinking about it” or just yesterday I saw a product and thought “why didn’t I think of that first” I’m too complacent – I spend too much time gaming. I’ve been reading Tipa’s posts on that puzzle game she’s programming solutions for, that sounds interesting just to get my brain juices flowing.


  11. Yunk

    Dammit here’s another idea I toyed around with but never implemented, but someone else did:

    I thought of it because how many times do you go to the mechanic and make funny noises but he can never get the car to do what you describe. If there was a record feature you could record what’s going on while it’s happening it would help.


  12. Mud

    I have played WoW since 2008, it’s almost October in 2011. I have come to despise WoW. The players mostly, and I feel I have wasted enough time on something useless, incredibly so useless. I was above average player, always doing well, etc. it’s all about the peps in the game…The “people” (if you want to call heartless self centered, ugly folks people, maybe human waste may be a better word, and I feel so sorry for the good players that are caught up still in the whole…scene…get out now before Blizz changes into something so laughable, you’ll not get the joke…dig it>?


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