World of Warcraft‘s second expansion, Wrath of the Lich King, released on November 13, 2008. During its lifespan, the population peaked at 12 million active users. Even by today’s standards, this was an astonishing record, especially when considering that the game had both a retail price and a monthly subscription fee. With the perspective we have today, it’s easy to see why its success was due, amongst other things, to a new design philosophy. The game changed.
The Dumbing Down
As I explained in the first part of this post, World of Warcraft was in itself a simplification of the previously established MMORPG formula. Its success led the newly formed Activision Blizzard, a company resulting from the unholy merger of Vivendi Games and Activision, to believe that streamlining the game further, without any consideration for the genre’s core mechanics, would’ve incremented the sales.
Along with the Lich King, odd novelties had been brought to the game. The LFG system relieved players from the burden of interacting with each other and replaced it with an automated method of finding a Dungeon party which, in time, acquired the unexpected ability to teleport them within the dungeon itself so they wouldn’t have to actually get there autonomously.
Naturally, inside a dungeon or not, the combat required no effort at all and profusely dropped lavish loot. Not that combat was required nearly as much as in the past. Flying had been, at this point, a feature since the beginning of the Burning Crusade, removing completely any player-to-player or player-to-environment interaction strictly unnecessary to questing. The latter took place in confined quest hubs in which an infinity of NPCs offered great rewards for accomplishing trivial tasks conveniently placed in nearby areas.
AoE heals and DPS, stuns, slows, CC, high threat generation on demand, great survivability, self-mending, damage reduction, and so on, were bestowed upon each class effectively wiping class identity and differentiation.
Much in the same fashion, professions and the markets became meaningless, since the easy content didn’t necessitate the advantages that consumables and player-made items offered. Given the high availability of resources, the ready opportunity to gather them, and the lack of proper gold syncs, the few trade goods in demand had deflated prices.
Still, the storyline was incredibly good. Players encountered for the first time the likes of Malygos, Alexstrasza, and the other dragon aspects, in their true form. We witnessed the tragedy of the Wrathgate, the fall of Arthas and, of course, the sacrifice of Bolvar Fordragon. The unforgettable music scores had always been a staple of Blizzard’s games, but Wotlk featured a vastly enhanced voice acting and a more cinematic experience, upheld by a set of technological improvements that allowed for pivotal story characters to be woven into the gameplay, such as Arthas appearing in a dungeon or during a quest chain. Furthermore, the general viability of classes and specializations was better, thus one had more raiding options.
The difficult content, which surprisingly still existed, was situated at the summit of the endgame experience and took the form of heroic raids. These raids were harder versions of the already existing ones, featuring enhanced enemies and mechanics. Those who had the pleasure of raiding Ulduar and Icecrown Citadel have fond memories, understandably so, but the bulk of the game, including the remaining endgame content, was underwhelming, undemanding, and had been transformed into a boring chore, much more akin to throwing the trash and watering your mother’s plants than adventuring through Azeroth.
Northrend forged a new generation of players known as the wrath babies. Trying to underline a wrath baby’s main traits, I stumbled upon Urban Dictionary’s brilliant definition: a type of player “[…] characterized by a lack of experience in difficult content and a sense of entitlement to epics without putting forth any actual time or effort”.
Post-Wrath and the Clone Army
Wrath planted the seed for the tree of mediocrity and it grew lavishly. Each of WoW’s subsequent expansions retained Wrath’s core philosophy, appealing to the lowest common denominator, even at the cost of core game elements, and exasperated the process of dumbing down even further.
Nowadays, with Battle for Azeroth, its 7th expansion, knocking at the gate, WoW is but a grotesque caricature of its former self. Lacking RPG elements almost entirely and void of any player interaction, it is de facto a single-player mobile game with sparse multiplayer elements, and pretty pictures, that just happens to run on PC. Not even wrath babies are bad enough to play it: active subscribers have dropped so drastically that Blizzard no longer declares its player count. To compensate, Activision Blizzard has adopted a more aggressive monetization model, including, but not limited to, instant-max-level character boost which allows you to skip the leveling process. Yes, people pay so they don’t have to play the game.
Post-Wrath wouldn’t take part of a blog post about MMORPGs, since it isn’t really part of the genre, if it didn’t have such a dramatic influence on gaming development itself.
Longing to tap into WoW’s audience and willing to invest safely the large sums required to develop an MMO, game companies have been replicating the formula largely since its first months of life, back in 2004. The resulting titles have been either a direct WoW clone or a similar MMORPG based on the Everquest-WoW model and, consequently, based on the Wrath and post-Wrath model.
Elements such as automatized LFG, with consecutive teleportation, instancing, phasing (both non-RPG in nature), linear quests situated in confined quest hubs, laughable difficulty, lack of exploration, floating exclamation points, deemphasized group content, and many more, are staples of the modern MMO-ish products. The sole feature that didn’t survive the cloning process is flying, as it is so game breaking and dull that even companies desperate for money and lacking any form of originality and creativity understood that it doesn’t suit their games (well, except Blizzard).
A tragic, isolated example of a good game that launched as a Sandbox and later mutated into a WoW clone is Star Wars: Galaxies. A beautiful, original and inspired game, created with an authentic passion for MMOs, that was infected and died in December 2011. Fondly remembered.
The MMO genre wasn’t born for mindless, consolized, semi-automatic, mobile games for children. It was made to embody the dream of boundless fantasy worlds and leverage the endless possibilities of large-scale online human interaction. Thus, while World of Warcraft is being dethroned by the vastly superior Final Fantasy XIV, a new generation of promising games is rising and the call of Vanilla is growing stronger.
I’ll talk about the rebirth of Vanilla and the upcoming MMOs in my next post, The Importance of Being Vanilla [Part 3].