Last month Mark Kern asserted that World of Warcraft destroyed the MMO genre. After reading his column and some of the reaction, I feel a bit bad for Mark. Whether or not his columns are veiled advertisements for Firefall, the simple fact that he has a weekly column places him in an untenable position. In writing about the MMO genre (and as someone who helped push the genre to its heights, his opinions are certainly valid) he is going to espouse his thoughts and philosophies. These thoughts and philosophies are also what is driving his development for Firefall; or at least, they should be. To criticize an industry practice and then implement said practice in a game would be uncreative and hypocritical.
It’s only logical that any discussion of failed or broken MMO designs would culminate in a comparison with how Mark is fixing said design in Firefall. Whether the point of Mark’s thoughts are to criticize the industry or ultimately promote Firefall can only be assumed. Mark’s problem is that any valid points that he makes are subsumed by claims that he is pushing Firefall. Regardless, Mark’s opinions as an acclaimed MMO developer are available and deserve to be praised when correct and rebuked when wrong.
Kern begins by yearning for the days of hardcore MMO’s like Ultima Online. He contrasts these games with the rote level design Blizzard implemented for Warcraft — the kill ten rats, rinse, and repeat style of questing to level. Kern chastises Warcraft‘s linear nature of questing, complaining that following breadcrumb quests restricts players from exploring and enjoying a vast, open world. Technically, he’s not wrong, but he’s ignoring the vast complaints about quests being too scattered or the problem that players would sometimes complete a tier of content and them not know where to go. The state of Warcraft is due to Blizzard carefully listening to players and (more importantly) studying their habits to determine just how to improve the game. Kern is correct that these decisions made the game more casual, but he leaves out the result of these decisions.
Kern’s ultimate thesis is that leveling and reaching end game should feel like more of an accomplishment. That works well for new games where all content is freshly designed, but WoW has the distinct problem of being almost a decade old. Even with the Cataclysm revamp, older content is going to feel more dated than the newer content. Plus, newer content is what the developers are most excited about and want all players to see. As much as it is lamentable that older zones become ghost towns, the fact is that developers want players to be experiencing end game content. Kern disagrees with Blizzard that reaching end game should feel like an achievement, because Blizzard understands that end game is where the game really starts. While Kern’s model of being able to experience vast amounts of content while leveling will improve the early experience, it will be interesting to see how that meshes with Firefall’s evolution in the future.
To be fair, Kern’s assertion that marrying location and level is a terrible practice is correct. It’s an abstraction that has carried over from the RPG’s history. It makes little sense to find a group of level 20 orcs combating level 20 quillboar in the barrens when one level 90 grunt from Orgrimmar could be sent over to fix the issue permanently. As much as the Mogu and Zandalari struggled to reclaim Pandaria, with an army of level 90 soldiers, they could claim just about anywhere in the rest of the world, except the capital cities. Kern is entirely correct that the genre needs to advance beyond the practice.
At its peak, World of Warcraft had over 12 million players, and at last count still possessed over 8 million. Blizzard was able to achieve these numbers by appealing to casual players in the way described. The only way any media can become so staggeringly successful is by appealing to casual fans. It’s not hardcore cinephiles who propelled Avengers to its heights last year, and while shows like Community or Arrested Development often receive critical praise, there is a reason those shows have battled cancellation. What Blizzard did (almost too well) was draw in casual gamers, and in doing so dominated the MMO market. As someone entering that market, Kern is right to lament this. WoW has made it all but impossible for any subscription-based MMO to gain traction. Kern knows this and surely Firefall‘s model bears this out.
If World of Warcraft was detrimental to the MMO genre, it’s only because it was so successful. If MMO players (and their subscription dollars) are a limited resource, then Warcraft claimed so much of the market that the best its competitors could do is fight for scraps. Warcraft is an apex predator, and other MMO’s need to settle for finding their own niche (Eve), adapt to live off other sustenance (DCU, TOR, Rift), or starve (Star Wars Galaxies,City of Heroes). The problem is that any such ecosystem is terrible for diversity. Dominant sports teams are generally despised outside their home market because dominance is boring. And Warcraft’s dominance is similar in that now that they have lost subscribers and appear vulnerable, it’s easy to criticize them and appear superior. WoW may have lost subscribers, but they still have more than their rivals by at least three or four times. It’s a level of success that Firefall would be lucky to come close to.
Ultimately, that’s why Kern is taking potshots at WoW. The game is long in the tooth, but it still is the big dog in the yard. He knows that he can parlay his association with Warcraft into attention for Firefall. If Kern is lucky, all the players missing sandbox gameplay in the MMO genre will make Firefall a huge success. To Kern’s credit, he has conquered the genre once before.
As a footnote, here’s a link to Mark’s latest column, which does not include any mentions of Firefall as it laments the state of MMO development.
Statless helmets for transmog are now available in the Blizzard store. Cuz Blizzard needs to make those 8 million pay like they are 12 million… http://us.battle.net/wow/en/blog/10452531/Cosmetic_Armor_Pieces%E2%80%94Now_Available_on_Blizzard_Store-7_17_2013
Blizzard’s going to be at Comic-con this weekend! Get your epic lanyard now before Blizzard puts it on the in-game store and everyone has one! http://us.battle.net/wow/en/blog/10326036/