Weekly Warcraft Wednesday: The Future Of WoW

The other night my wife and I had an impromptu and in-depth conversation about the future of WoW, and MMOs in general.  The conversation began with me saying the following, “I’m sad because I used to be waiting for the next ‘WoW’, but now I just don’t think it’s ever going to happen”.  There are some pretty solid reasons why I think that I might be right so let’s talk about them.

The Holy Trinity

World of Warcraft didn’t really invent the holy trinity of roles but the tank, healer, damage dealer trifecta is one that they implemented in a way that is almost perfect for the MMO playstyle.  Classes and roles feel different, but no one class is capable of doing everything at the same time.  The game is set up such that you must have players from each of the different roles in order to progress in any meaningful content, and those players are highly reliant on one-another.

In practice, this forces socialization between players, as no one player can progress all alone.  Without group socialization your character can achieve very little.  This forced socialization creates a symbiosis which is a big part of what makes WoW so addicting.  You must socialize to continue to play, and once you socialize during play you make friends and thus want to play more.  Socialization leads to progression, plain and simple.

The trinity of roles can feel boring and outdated, though.  It’s been a part of WoW for ten years now, and part of RPGs in general for a lot longer than that.  A lot of new MMOs are trying to get away from this, advertising that they aren’t constrained by the boring old tank-healer-damage dealer trope.  These new MMOs advertise gameplay based on skill, not gear or role.

Gameplay style is paramount.

What new MMO developers don’t seem to understand is that there are very few gameplay styles that fit an MMO very well, and in their desire to de-throne WoW as the king of the genre, they lose sight of that.  In the most boiled down, practical sense of the argument, there are simply no reflexive skill based gameplay systems that work in an MMO.  Let me explain.

In WoW you can dodge attacks, but you as the player don’t actually do this.  You have a “dodge rating” on your equipment, and when an enemy hits you it factors in this dodge rating, rolls the dice, and decides if the enemy hit your or if you dodged.  You don’t actively do anything to dodge.  Suppose you changed that gameplay mechanic to an active dodging system where the player could move out of the way of the boss attacks.  This would mean that with enough skill, one could potentially defeat enemies that were significantly more powerful than the player.  In simpler terms; if you could dodge all of a bosses attacks and kill it by yourself, why would you ever want to play with anyone else?

The forced socialization I talked about before is a pillar of any good MMO, and when you remove that requirement, the whole thing comes crashing down.  Most people don’t want to socialize, or said a different way, they only want to socialize to the degree that it benefits them.  If you could beat every boss in WoW on your own, why would ever join a guild and make time in your real life schedule show up to a raid?  But if you could circumvent all of that hassle it would also fundamentally break the game.  The MM in MMO stands for massively multiplayer, a term which means very little when the entire game can be played as a single player experience.

My point here is that one small change to the gameplay, actively being able to dodge, is enough to potentially upset the delicate balance between socializing and progressing, and therefore undermine the entire MMO system.  This effectively rules out many forms of gameplay as a successful basis for an MMO.  First person shooters won’t work, platformers won’t work, action RPG gameplay like Dark Souls won’t work.  The gameplay cannot be based around your reflexive skill as a player.  I must be based on progressing by way of equipment upgrades.  If you can out-skill the game on your own, that’s most like what you’re going to do.

(A quick aside here: I’m aware that games like Planetside 2 are FPS games, and that there are other successful MMOs out there with other types of gameplay.  Most of those games are heavily PvP oriented though.  I’m speaking specifically about PvE oriented MMO games)

No one wants another WoW.

WoW captured lighting in a bottle with its gameplay formula.  That special sauce they created has been quite tasty for many years now, but how many people want a new MMO that’s exactly like WoW?  If Blizzard announced Starcraft Universe and said that it would feature the same gameplay as WoW who would want that?  I think most people would be disappointed with that approach.  People want something new and different, but the crux of the problem is that there really isn’t a whole lot more to be done with the genre.

As I mentioned above, maintaining the delicate balance between socializing and gameplay is so important and so restrictive that almost every new MMO feels largely the same.  In some form or another, they’re all trying to recreate the WoW formula.  The problem is that no one wants another version of the WoW formula.  If you want the WoW formula, you can play WoW.

For another MMO to be as successful as WoW there needs to be some kind of massive revolution in the overall MMO landscape.  Someone needs to prove that the trinity of roles and the restrictive gameplay can be circumvented while still making socializing and teamwork a pillar of the experience.  That’s a task that’s much easier said than done.

So what does the future hold, then?

Several months ago Blizzard announced that it was cancelling project Titan, their secret new MMO.  This had the effect of changing the long-term landscape for WoW.  Before Titan was cancelled I, like many others, figured that Blizzard would wind down WoW as it wound up Titan.  We’d get a couple more WoW expansions and then players would move on to Titan.  Since that’s clearly not going to happen, and since WoW is Blizzard’s biggest cash cow, it’s not going away anytime soon.  The player base is still huge, so there is really no reason for Blizzard to let go of it.  In practical terms this means that we’ll probably get expansion after expansion for the foreseeable future.  Some new features will be added, maybe they’ll overall the graphics and engine at some point, but WoW will continue to barrel forward as long as there are people out there willing to pay to consume the content.

This isn’t what I want as an MMO fan.  I love WoW but I don’t want to play it forever.  I want something new.  I’m not sure when, where, or how that’s going to come about, but I’m trying to remain optimistic that somewhere out there is a new game that’s being developed that will truly breath some new life into the MMO genre.