The MMORPG: Recycle, Repeat

I’m tired of the tried-and-true formula World of WarCraft seems to have established, but I understand the logic behind it. Because of staggering costs and lengthy development cycles, MMORPGs are a gamble; it makes sense to go with what is proven to work and to take as few risks as possible.

Build on the foundation, streamline some processes, inject it with its own flavor, and you should have a hit, right?

Not necessarily. There’s such a thing as playing it too safe, and it’s my opinion that Star Wars: The Old Republic is the most recent example. The problem is that MMORPGs like SWTOR build an (arguably) very similar experience, but don’t have the years of content updates and expansions that mainstays like WoW do. For the players that jump ship, they’re working their way up from level one through the same gameplay mechanics, finishing the content within a month after release, and then finding themselves with nothing to do. Their free month expires, and they decide not to pay for the subscription until more content is added. In the meantime, they’re back to their old stomping grounds.

That rationale makes perfect sense, but as evidenced by SWTOR’s recent free-to-play announcement, it takes a heavy toll on developers.

The solution to this trend sounds simple enough: Change the formula and make the new standard about quality rather than method. But generally speaking, gamers don’t want that. People say they’re waiting for a “WoW-killer”, but what they really want is WoW+. That’s why community forums are often rife with harsh and unfair comparisons. If a game deviates too drastically from what they know or takes too much effort and time to acclimate to, players won’t stick around.

I tried to introduce a friend whose first MMO was World of WarCraft to Final Fantasy XI and City of Heroes a few years ago. He gave up on FFXI after a few minutes, citing that the menus weren’t user-friendly, and even though he admitted having more fun playing CoH for a few hours than he had had playing WoW in some time, he explained that he wasn’t interested in starting a game from scratch and learning the new mechanics.

No one game is going to change this paradigm. It’ll take a very slow (and painful for some) evolution. For now, the free-to-play model appears to be a potential catalyst in getting players outside of their comfort zone, but once that model becomes the standard, will we be right back in the same rut?

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