I'm new here but I've been lurking around for awhile. Recently I have been thinking about the current state of the MMO industry and I'm interested to see how you guys feel about the direction it's headed. My intentions are not to create a new MMO, I'm not delusional, I understand that such a game can easily take upwards of $100 million and even if completed it still has a high risk of failure. Not to mention that I have never launched a game nor developed one, I'm an experienced programmer of 7 years mostly working on distributed systems and large scale public APIs.
This post isn't about me, it's about MMOs and some lifecycle observations that I've made in my time playing MMOs. The examples I'm going to use will be taken from both Everquest and World of Warcraft. I believe there are other MMOs that could be included in these examples; however, I'm going to stick to the two that I've played when the game was first launched. Maybe some of this analysis applies to other games as well. I think all games evolve and change rules over time, decisions are made primarily based on the number of players and their current progression in the game.
I believe this is one of the more critical parts to a successful MMOs and I think the social changes as the game evolves have been rather drastic. There have been many well polished MMOs that are very similar to WoW. Many of those MMOs have great potential and some of them may even be better than WoW. So you might be asking, why are these games not successful? Why would anyone play WoW when there are other games with better game play or more interesting content? The core reason is the social bonds formed while playing the game. The majority of people who play MMOs are already in a guild or have a lot of friends. They enjoy logging on and playing with their friends and socializing, they don't want to change games. Does this mean that all future games don't stand a fighting chance? No, not necessarily, I think if done correctly there's no reason more games couldn't succeed. If I believe its possible then why are almost all of these copycats of WoW failing? I think it's because they look at where WoW is today and not where it was at launch. Now that WoW has the critical mass they don't need to force the social bonds on people. Many of the newer games seem to try and skip the beginning of this social evolution and jump straight to the end. I think this is the wrong way to go about launching a game, let me give you some examples.
Social Evolution in Everquest
When this game launched it was very difficult to do anything alone. I remember dying repeatedly at level 3-4 trying to kill an NPC the same level as me. Especially if the class I had chosen was a healer or enchanter. As the levels got higher around level 15 - 30 almost every form of leveling required a group to get good experience. Sure if you wanted you could go out alone but for the majority of classes this method just wasn't very effective. Having a close group of friends and or being a part of a guild was almost required to reach the max level. You also needed help from friends in many other ways, each class has special benefits to people and this helped form friendships and increase the social aspect of the game. If you died down in some dungeon somewhere you almost always needed help from someone to recover the corpse. If you wanted to move to the other side of the world you needed a wizard or druid. I can go on forever with this list but I'll stop here since I think I've made my point, when the game started people were forced to be more social it was difficult to play alone.
With so many high level characters in the game there were less people to group with at lower levels and as a result the rules had to be changed. Leveling up alone had to be easier for new players. Everquest realized this and they started making it easier to level up alone, they made it easier to transport without using a wizard or druid. Buffs that help the leveling progress had increased duration and were easily accessible even if you didn't have a friend with the buff. You could just run to town once every 2 hours and get a refresh and some could even be purchased as potions. This seems like the right thing to do but what happens to all the new people to the game? How do they meet friends? It use to be easy to meet friends and find a group but now it’s difficult and new people get bored playing alone.
Social Evolution in WoW
WoW also had a similar evolution throughout the game. At launch WoW's quest system enabled people to level up and play the game without ever grouping with another player. To supplement their quests WoW had a dungeon system that required a group. The motivations for joining a dungeon were strong for players like healers and tanks because doing quests was hard and slow for those types of classes. It was beneficial to almost everyone to be in a guild or have a close group of friends because it was difficult to form group with complete strangers. The dungeon crawl was much more laid back and relaxing because people must be on their best behavior. If any player started to cause problems nobody will want to group with them again. Everything they did emphasized a strong social tie to the game.
As the game progressed WoW added a few more features that changed how people level. The number one culprit was the ability to have multiple talent trees. Leveling was made easier because all classes had the ability to level solo. Nobody really cared about grouping because it was considered a much slower leveling with groups than questing. If you wanted to hit the max level and start doing things with your real life friends who were level 80 then you needed to level quick. People stopped playing dungeons as often and started questing more. Something had to change because all the content wow developed wasn't being played. So what did they do? They added the auto queue system to ease the difficulty of finding and creating a group. This has an obvious impact on the social aspect of the game as now you don't need to make friends anymore. You could just click a button and the computer would find temporary friends to play with you. This also changes the players behavior while in a group, because you will never see these players again you can be a complete dick and it doesn't matter. I don't remember the last time I met any friends in WoW that weren't a new guild member. There aren't many other ways to meet people, everyone plays alone. The fact is, it doesn't matter anymore WoW has so many people playing and everyone already has friends. As a result their focus has changed, now they're more worried about what content to add then forcing people to make friends.
I know this has been a long post but maybe I'm not too crazy after all. All of the new games try to jump into the game with all the features that are offered by WoW such as instances and cross-realm instances. You don't need to form groups any more you can just auto-queue for an instance and when its ready you get paired up with 4 other people you'll never see again. I believe that if a new game was to succeed they would need to re-think the game play a bit in order to force socialization between players. You have to build MMOs with a strong foundation of friendships and guilds to be successful. This is something that most new games miss now a day. What do you guys think? Are these changes good? Do you like them? Do you agree with my analysis? Are there any other examples you can think of from other successful games?
Edited by bwight, 05 September 2012 - 01:01 PM.