Friday, 2 October 2009

Of Elephants and Tigers

I linked to an article by Tobold a while ago in which he argued that the MMORPG market might be saturated. It is true, we see various new MMOs launch with reasonably high sales numbers but a very low amount of long-term subscribers. Is Blizzard god and everybody else just fails at making games?

Tobold certainly seems to think so. Today he posted an interesting analogy of a master craftsman making an elephant statue and selling it well. Then many other craftsmen trying to copy his success but failing because their statues are just bad copies. Meanwhile the master craftsman works on his next project, a tiger statue, that then sells well again. The message here is obvious - Blizzard is the master craftsman making a brilliant game, then Mythic and Turbine and NCSoft and whoever come along, try to copy it and fail. His prediction is, that Blizzard's next MMO will be drastically different from WoW but will succeed because it is once more very well crafted .

He certainly has a point, many of the MMOs that launched in recent years were just WoW copies and not very good ones at that. But his analogy seems to say that copying leads you nowhere and success comes from creating something very different - which is simply not true. WoW didn't invent the wheel, in fact very much of it was copied from previous MMOs. The smash hit success that World of Warcraft was did not come from great innovation but only from a great combination of previously seen features. Great craftsmanship if you will. To stay in Tobold's analogy, there were many elephant statues before WoW, Blizzard was just the company that crafted the nicest statue around. The problem of current MMOs is not that they try to copy successful features; Warhammer for example didn't fail because it tried to out-wow WoW. The problem is that there is an elephant in the room now that they have to beat.

Clearly, it is easier to craft a different animal and be somewhat successful because some people don't want an elephant statue and will settle for a less well-done statue of a tiger instead. Eve Online is the classic example of how this can work. Eve is not like wow and Eve is also not very good. There are some people, however, that prefer an Eve-like game to a WoW-like one and those will buy and play Eve for a lack of other options. Tobold's analogy would tell us that creating an Eve-clone would be fruitless, but it doesn't have to be. There are many things about Eve that are bad and can be improved, it is absolutely possible to create an MMO that is to Eve what WoW was to Everquest. In fact, Eve is so bad that it is likely much easier to create a promising successor for it than for WoW.

To recap, the better the games in one market segment already are, the harder it will be to create a successor. The logical choice would therefore be to do what Tobold suggests and move into a new segment instead of trying to improve on an existing one. Following this approach we would never have gotten WoW, however, and would still be stuck playing Everquest. WoW's success is living proof of the theory that (well-crafted) clones are a good thing. The only time that you should stop trying to improve on something that already exists is if that something is already perfect. If you are sure you can't beat the master craftsman's elephant statue, then don't try to make copies of it.

But WoW isn't perfect, far from it. Gameplay is repetitive and not very immersive, content is very static, and PvP is irrelevant - just to name a few flaws. If there was an MMO that did all the things WoW does but better, it would succeed, even if it looked like a blatant copy on the outside. Warhammer didn't do that. Warhammer did some things much better than WoW, but failed on core competencies. Making a good MMO is much harder than most people think and companies like Mythic improve on a few concepts but make bad copies of the rest either because they don't really understand how MMOs work or because they don't have the time/money necessary. It isn't easy to beat that masterful elephant statue, but you can do it. Branching out into different animals is an easy choice, but if you are confident in your crafting skills - go make an elephant!

Syncaine over at Hardcore Casual makes some similar points to those in Tobold's analogy, but additionally claims that "WoW’s financial success is not tied directly to it’s design, but to the fact that it launched in 2004". This is a very odd point to make. Obviously WoW as we know it would be less successful if it launched today, because there would be much better established competition available. Stating this is ignoring the real factor of WoW's success though - it was simply much better than all competition at the time. Even with the launch issues Syncaine mentions, WoW just blew every other MMO out of the water by copying what they did and improving on it. Today is no different to 2004 - we have a market-dominating MMO that is far from flawless and indeed struggling in certain areas. Back then it was Everquest, today it is WoW. In the future it will be something else.
Syncaine is obviously right that we don't need more "soulless WoW-clones" - but the stress has to be on the focus soulless there, not on the clone. Give me a WoW-clone with a soul, a good budget and a good development house and I'll bet you anything that it won't end up being a 300k dud.
Comments have been disabled because the blog has moved to Please head over there, bookmark the new site and comment away :)