The WoW Formula: A further look into dumbing down games

Earlier this week I wrote a little blog post about the dumbing down of MMORPG’s in today’s market to meet the WoW Formula Standards set for tomorrow. I received a great deal of feedback on the writeup and I have decided that the topic deserves a little more discussion. Starting off I would like to point out one perspective; that of Tipa from West Karana. In an attempt to prove me wrong she detailed what she felt justified a difficult or hard MMORPG and then went on to say how she feels there still might be a market for that particular style of gameplay. I’ll do my best to clarify my position and explain a little more where I’m coming from when I say that MMORPGs today are being dumbed down to meet their audience.

In all fairness I did not denounce any market for difficult or hard style MMORPGs of the past. Though I did say in my post that Vanguard definitely was the wrong direction to turn since the entire foundation for the game is based on replicating the old EQ experience. The problem with my statement that MMOs are becoming too easy and that they need to reintroduce difficulty and achievement in MMOs is that it’s entirely too subjective and broad. If you’re new to the MMO gaming scene then WoW could be difficult for you. If you’re jaded and have been playing since the Realm and Meridian 59 like myself then you will notice the lack of achievement and move towards a more centralized and streamlined form of gameplay.

Time does not equal difficultyMy definition of a hard MMO is not one that leaves you bruised, battered, and bleeding; rather it’s one that leaves you feeling accomplished. For me when I played World of Warcraft I did have fun (which is what games are all about) but I could not help but feel like everything I did left me feeling unsatisfied and just like everyone else. I went with the herd of cattle into the raid instance and walked out with a shiny toy like a boy on his way out of a toy store. It was a great feeling at that moment but it quickly faded. I received a similar feeling in Lord of the Rings Online when I worked my way through the entire game (yes, I did it all) and at the end was left with an awkward feeling asking myself “that’s it?”. It’s difficult to describe one’s feeling of accomplishment. Perhaps it’s different for each person.

It’s very important to note that time and annoyance are not factors I consider when I look for a difficult or rewarding experience. There is nothing difficult about having to travel for 3 hours to meet your group – that’s just downright stupid. There is nothing rewarding about dieing and losing four hours of hard work – that’s just downright annoying. Being forced into grouping for every little thing is not game difficulty – it’s poor design. Combat that requires working together and knowing your class on the other hand is intelligent gameplay. Requiring more than standing in one place pressing 1-3 on your keyboard while listening to the guy on ventrilo barking “move in! move out” is a necessity to a rewarding experience.

I can think of a quick example to represent my idea of a difficult and rewarding gameplay experience. In Lord of the Rings Online the best thing Turbine did for that game was to create ONE fight that required thinking, pre-planning, and flawless teamwork. Thorog, the last boss of Helegrod (a 24 person dungeon), required that every single person not only know their class but that they pay attention and work individually of eachother. There was no room for someone to slack – no one else could pull your weight in that fight for you. It required that you remove certain debuffs or risk killing everyone around you, forced tanks to know how to swap aggro, forced DPS to push their characters to the very limit. Regardless of how many times you did that fight with your raid it was never easy. Having done the fight probably 12 times I can speak from experience that I had to catch my breath at the end because I was holding it for the entire 25-30 minute duration of the fight. It was epic, it was fun.

Leveling up should be similar. It shouldn’t be a matter of doing quests in this zone then moving to that zone and doing all the quests there knowing that by the time I reach zone XY and Z that I will be level 50. It should be about achieving them through completing objectives and tasks that require true skill. Your sword at your side should give you a proud feeling that you earned it from doing something more than killing 10 boars for that NPC over there. Longevity in a MMORPG comes from constantly having something to work towards. When that runs out the game might as well be over.

I don’t believe that forcing groups upon players to achieve these goals is the right idea nor do I feel forcing players to solo is either. I think allowing multiple paths of progression for the player to choose is best. Something that I look forward to in Warhammer Online is the option for PVP progression. You’re going to level up if you have the skill and teamwork it takes to kill other players. If you stink at PvP then you’re not going to level very fast by going that route. When you achieve the ranks to be rewarded with weaponry and armor you’ll know you earned it through skill and accomplishment.

I know that this is still very subjective and that 8 million of you out there probably disagree with me. However I feel that games are indeed moving away from the overall “aspire to be better!” form of gameplay and moving more into the WoW Formula of instant gratification. WoW isn’t easy being you can solo to the top – it’s easy because of how you can solo to the top. Does that make any sense to anyone out there or am I confusing you all to the point where I’m having a conversation with myself? (Not uncommon.) What was difficult and fresh for us 5 years ago is not necessarily going to cut it today. MMORPGs are ever evolving and changing and the players are too. We’ve evolved beyond the equation of Reward = +/- Time. The entire basis for my original thought was what will happen when MMORPGs are developed for the gamers of today without thinking of those from yesterday and tomorrow.

I read in a gaming magazine a note sent in to the editor asking “why is most all of your magazine devoted to World of Warcraft?”. The reply was far too straight forward for my liking. “Millions upon millions of people play World of Warcraft. We would be stupid not to.”

I’m one in a sea of millions right now. It’s going to take a lot of work to make waves.

  • I find making waves easiest with a large flotation device and a lot of upper-body strength… wait, what are we talking about? Oh, FIGURATIVE waves. Okay, then.

    Really Keen, you shouldn’t feel like one in a sea of millions. You seem to be of the mind that you’re alone in this sentiment, but you’re certainly not. What’s odd to me though, are the people who like you are sick to death of WoW yet keep on paying.

    The only way the mammoth will fall from the limelight is to stop feeding it. Me? I still have fun, and I still play, though I’m currently not subbed until the 2.3 patch hits. But others, and this is truly scary, will whine and bitch and moan about how much they hate Blizzard, how they wish Rob Pardo would “DIAF” and yet, they play more than anyone.

    It’s not you and me or most of this blogging community we’re a part of keeping that monster on the top, it’s the masses who seem more masochistic than anyone I know of in gaming.

  • Oh and one more thing, I too worry for the future of these games. I really and truly hope one of the “unique” ones make it (Pirates, Conan, Spellborn) and show that something different on a basic gameplay level can work, can be lauded, and can be invested it.

    I’m not saying we should all blindly support games that might be crap because we haven’t played them, I just hope we’re all still willing to try new things, like the world was when Nintendo decided to give us the Wii.

    This year’s been boring, but here’s hoping next year we see some of the waves you’re dying to see crash down upon the rocks of gaming.

  • Oh lord, triple post time… more thoughts keep rushing in.

    RE: Difficulty –

    It’s my theory that there is no such thing to be had in today’s standard MMORPG. Artificial difficulty is therefore created. Timesinks. “Elite Mobs” (extra hit points, maybe a bit stronger). Raid Groups. Faction Grinds. Level Grinds. On and on and on it goes.

    The basic interface of our MMOs does not require skill. It merely requires learned repetition of a skill that takes all of 1 hour to get down pat, and then endless hours more of repeating said skill. Selecting a mob with a click of the mouse, and pressing 1 through 0 is not skill. It’s akin to data-entry.

    If I could think of one thing that needs to evolve in our favorite brand of game, it’s the way we play them. But where’s the fine line between simplification over indulgence. I’ll be very interested to see how some console MMOs pan out. I’d like to see other types of games from all walks try on their MMO boots. I want to see Pokemon Online. I’d like to see a full on sports MMO. Someone put money behind a quality RTS-MMO. There’s tons to do in the world of Web 2.0. We’re only at the beginning.

  • I keep playing and paying because I’m a slave to my habits. 😉 I canceled LOTRO for this reason and I canceled WoW for this and many other reasons. I picked up EQ2 which in many ways follows the WoW Formula and strives to more every day… but it’s still fun enough for now and it’s such an older game that I feel like I’m in an uphill battle – fun casual game.

    I hope WAR, Conan, and PotBS all make it. They all offer something new and challenging to mmos. Should be interesting to watch and see how they are received.

    I often find myself in preaching mode though with my hopes and dreams for an MMO that feels epic again. One with accomplishment and rewards fitting of the effort put in. I still have a grand ole time though regardless. I just always hope for more.

  • The best feeling of accomplishment i’ve yet experienced in a MMO was reaching Hero status in AC2. I still remember the serverwide purple chat message: “The arcane energies of the Shrine of Transcendence have empowered Thoms. He is now a Hero!” …and then followed a flood of “grats” from people all over the server.
    I like Laurens description of AC2 hero status on the Mystic Worlds blog:

  • There shouldn’t be a question of whether there is a market for certain play styles, but a question of whether a developer realizes this and plans accordingly. Vanguard went after a very core niche, but with the money and idea that EVERYONE was going to play their game. If Vanguard had scaled back and delivered a product on a budget for 50,000 gamers, we wouldn’t be talking about it as a failure.

    So, any mainstream MMORPG that we are going to be talking about, is going to be “dumbed down” to the point where the barrier for entry is very low and it can appeal to the majority, not the niche crowd.

  • What exactly is “dumbing down”? Because something isnt a time-sucking, exhausting bore, is it dumb? The type of challenge that your looking for (as per your example of the LOTR end boss) is something ALL MMO’s are still trying to achieve and very few have accomplished. I think games have to be flexible and draw in different types of gamers in order to be successful. MMO’s are huge investments, and as uber as we seasonsed gamers are, we probaly won’t be the core group paying the bills. The casuals are. So let’s get over it and move on.

    There are niche games out there (EVE Online comes to mind) that still offer the sandbox and I am sure others will be developed. Look for them. Support them. And please lets all stop harping on WOW. It is what it is. Someone on another blog said this and it bears repeating: It’s likened to comparing a Hollywood Blockbuster with an Independent film. One does not diminsh the other. Independent films aren’t going away anytime soon.


  • Thank you everyone for your replies. It’s clear that there is definitely no single approach to MMORPG’s as everyone playing them receives and enjoys them differently.

    Many of you bring up a very good point which I do acknowledge. Making MMORPGs mainstream does lower the barrier for entry so that more people can enjoy them and I’m all for that now. It’s like the magazine editor said – they would be stupid not to. It’s how they approach all the various play styles of the past and the future that concern me.

    I’m personally less interested in niche games and hopefully that isn’t the perceived direction of this topic. I simply enjoy being able to play these games from more than one single perspective and I feel that it’s been forced upon gamers of all play styles to enjoy the dumbed down version. World of Warcraft really offers one style of gameplay, same with LOTRo, etc. Warhammer Online is going to offer a few different approaches to the traditional leveling system and integrate RVR into the process which to me is a great step in the right direction. Pirates of the Burning Sea will redefine levels as having no impact at all on the combat equation and simply make them a barrier for use of new ships. A level 1 CAN sink a level 50. I think that’s fantastic.

    Thanks again for the replies all. I continue to learn and understand more points of view from all of you.

  • Syncaine from Hardcore casual put it nicely on his blog.

    “While WoW certainly has set a standard for a ‘mass market’ megahit, I don’t think it represents the only way to go about making a successful MMO.”

    That’s definitely the approach I was going for when I said that dumbing down the gameplay and focusing on one path isn’t the only solution out there.  Then I rambled on for about a 20 paragraphs on how perhaps adding achievement to the games could combine with this megahit approach to make a game that everyone would enjoy.  Looking back my blog entry sucked on wording.  Oh well 😛

  • Writing from the hip does that, Keen. No worries. I think we’re all suspect of that. By the way, let me know what you plan on playing in PotBS. It’s nearly time to start planning for Pre-Order launch day… less than 2 months until something new hits! Hehe…

  • I understand your point, Keen, and tend to spend time every now and then trying to figure out the “whys and wherefores” of how it has happened. I put a post up on my blog a little while back called “Forumla Sells” that had some of my thoughts about it.

    The thing I think a lot of people forget (both devs and gamers) is that playing an MMORPG is a one-on-one experience to some degree, just like everything else. It doesn’t matter how many people are around to chat with, group with and quest with (the things that make it an “MMORPG”; they all have these attributes)…it still boils down to how much enjoyment YOU get out of the experience.

    WoW hit on a formula where a broader cross-section got individual enjoyment out of the game.

    I think of it like this…if you compare the community of MMO players with real-world workers, the players (like us) that want that sense of achievement, the ones that want to figure out how things work and turn them to our advantage…they are the entrepeneurs.

    The ones that are satisfied with a different end-result, and have a lower “accomplishment threshold”…they’re dropping fries and stocking shelves.

    And really…in the real world, the second group outnumbers the first by quite a bit as well.

    This, to me, is just a by-product of the maturation of the genre’. As MMO’s become more mainstream, a larger and more representative cross-section of the general population are playing them, instead of the early adopters like us that spent our free time typing code in BASIC from the back of a magazine.

    This doesn’t mean to me that their playstyle is “wrong”, any more than ours is “right”…what it does mean (again, to me) is that the world of MMORPG gaming is starting to resemble the real world a bit more.

    Walk into Wal-Mart, look around the store, and tell me how many people you see that you feel truly have a lot in common with you, other than the superficial things such as “Wow…I like to watch television TOO!”

    Luckily, that doesn’t mean that we’re all becoming stranded on the deserted island of low-achievers…it just means that there appear to be less of us, because the crowd we’re standing in has grown.

  • I think internet speed has a much larger impact than most of us would like to consider. Especially in games like WoW with 9 million subscribers. Could they just say “screw everyone with dial-up?” Sure they could, but i think that’s defeating their purpose, and i think a lot of other companies feel the same way.

  • You nailed it perfectly Inhibitor. I really like the analogies you use and hope you forgive me if I use them in the future! 😀 Btw, you have a phenomenal blog – looks like I get to add another stop in my daily web surfing.

    I appreciate the comments all. 🙂

  • I must, respectfully, disagree with Inhibitor on this one. Although, i think there is some underlying truth to what he’s saying. I can’t, however, accept his analogy correlating a real world work environment to an mmo’s player base for two reasons: 1) People who are flipping burgers and stocking shelves may not actually want to be flipping burgers and stocking shelves. They may not have a choice or are stuck in situations that are outside of their control. Saying they may have a “lower accomplishment threshold” is borderline offensive to be honest. 2) In the real world we’re not all forced to stock shelves and flip burgers just because a majority of people are. In an MMO, however, we are all forced to share the same experience regardless of skill level, knowledge, opportunity and personality.

    I do agree, though, that this is all happening in the natural process of the genre’s maturation. Company’s usually have two main objectives when making a game. The first being to “make the best game we can make” and the second being to cater to their customers as best they can. When you only have 10 customers it’s a lot easier to give them precisely what they want. When you have 9 million, on the other hand, it’s a totally different matter. Again, i truly believe that as the level of opportunity, knowledge and experience rises throughout the “mainstream” player base and as technology becomes faster, cheaper and more accessible companies will raise the bar and games can only get better and better. In other “glass half full” news — Bethesda, Bioware and Blizzard are all said to have more MMO’s in the works. This can only be good news for players. Bethesda and Bioware have built their reputations on shaking up the RPG genre every time it is becoming cookie-cutter and the only reason Blizzard has for making a new MMO is to reinvent themselves. God knows they have the money and resources to do it…

  • […] I’ve also been rambling on about achievement and accomplishment in MMORPGs. Those are byproducts of dynamic and ‘involved’ experiences where you’re more than a character in the world standing next to a mob and mashing 1-3 on your hotbars over and over. I applaud Garriott for daring to be different with his combat system. In my opinion he knows the direction that the MMORPG industry needs to grow and he tried to be the catalyst. Doing so alone I think his attempt is a failure to revolutionize the industry, but it’s a start and that’s darn good enough. “What I feel is most needed in the MMO gaming industry with regard to combat is innovation that makes combat more engaging and less like inventory management for the player. I believe it is possible to make an MMO combat system that provides engagement with the 3D world and encourages using tactical strategy against your opponent’s actions.” – Richard Garriott […]

  • […] I’ve also been rambling on about achievement and accomplishment in MMORPGs. Those are byproducts of dynamic and ‘involved’ experiences where you’re more than a character in the world standing next to a mob and mashing 1-3 on your hotbars over and over. I applaud Garriott for daring to be different with his combat system. In my opinion he knows the direction that the MMORPG industry needs to grow and he tried to be the catalyst. Doing so alone I think his attempt is a failure to revolutionize the industry, but it’s a start and that’s darn good enough. “What I feel is most needed in the MMO gaming industry with regard to combat is innovation that makes combat more engaging and less like inventory management for the player. I believe it is possible to make an MMO combat system that provides engagement with the 3D world and encourages using tactical strategy against your opponent’s actions.” – Richard Garriott […]