A recent article by the Hollywood Reporter states that recently over a million players from China were logged into World of Warcraft at a single time. The game now hosts over ten million players and hasn't shown any sign of slowing down despite long periods between expansions and a very sharp leveling curve that drives most players to the highest levels very quickly.
In a previous article I described five strengths of World of Warcraft as a massive online game. Today we will take a look at five weaknesses in this MMO powerhouse. Let us begin.
Early on in the days of Everquest, the game designers stated that one of the strengths of their game was a requirement for group play. Characters would be very good at a particular slice of gameplay but not at others. Warriors could tank well but did only moderate damage and had very little ability to heal. Clerics could heal but were not able to tank or dish out a lot of damage. Rogues could pour out the damage but couldn't take much and couldn't heal at all. These dependencies forced players to work together which led to the true strength of an MMO - getting people together.
World of Warcraft built itself around soloing. Players can log in, play for ten minutes, finish a quest, get some experience, get a new item, and log out without worrying about leaving others behind. Characters can level from level 1 to level 70 without ever grouping with another player.
There exists a distinct lack of social interaction in World of Warcraft. Friendships aren't as easily forged. Relationships aren't as easily built. You're not very likely to meet someone in World of Warcraft the way you were in the old days of Everquest.
We have seen what sort of success a group-based game would have these days. Take a look at the popularity of Vanguard or the lack thereof. MMO philosopher Richard Bartle states that World of Warcraft has broken the ability for a new MMO to build the sort of world that conducts the formation of rich relationships. No one can make another game that forces groups and expect to succeed.
The ability to solo in World of Warcraft is a great strength, but for it we pay a heavy price.
Unfortunately, one of the few ways players do meet in World of Warcraft is to kill each other. Many players enjoy the battlegrounds full of fast and furious battles but what sort of social interaction exists when the goal is to kill the other players? Player vs. Environment (PvE) is one of the great strengths of an MMO. That becomes broken when one of the primary reasons players play WoW is to fight each other. It has taken one of the deepest games and turned it into Halo.
Players also behave at their worst in the battlegrounds. Unless one forms a select team of people they already know, likely from either a guild or people they know in real life, they are likely to face completely silent allies who are there strictly to farm some honor. There is no longevity to the relationship and no interest in discussion. One simply kills the enemy and moves on to the next battleground.
Battlegrounds is the rotten core of World of Warcraft.
World of Warcraft prides itself on the incredibly vast array of quests. When people saw how many quests World of Warcraft offers, they had to question Everquest's choice of name. There are more than enough quests to move through all of the levels in WoW. The quest system is very robust and easy to use. It is the single path that moves players through the game, often tying them to the lore and giving them reason to do what they do.
These quests are also often sterile and boring. Many of the quests revolve around killing some number of creatures and retrieving some number of items. Many of these quests have drop rates far too low to make them worth while or stories that seem scripted out of a fortune cookie. Sure, a player can quest through the entire game but how many of those quests are unique and interesting? Many are, but many are not.
The dungeons in World of Warcraft could be the one area that truly brings players together and helps them build the lasting relationships that a MMO should allow. However, after getting players used to completing quests in about 20 minutes, having dungeons that require a two-hour commitment is too demanding.
World of Warcraft should cut all of its single-group instances down to an hour. It should also include a few half-hour instances that can bring players together but ensure there is enough freedom to leave when needed. Longer instances should be limited to ten-man raids such as Karazhan. We have become spoiled by the instant gratification of World of Warcraft's quest system. The gap between the ease of solo questing and the heavy time requirements of WoW's instances is too great.
This is the weakness that will likely raise the most eyebrows. With the ease of play of World of Warcraft, the beauty of its design, and the simplicity of the gameplay; it already feels like a console game. However, the complicating factor of the PC will always get in the way. Right now Blizzard spends a fortune tuning World of Warcraft to run on a nearly infinite array of possible machine configurations.
Were it a console game, WoW would only have to focus on a hand-full of possible configurations. While WoW would have to be substantially different on a console, the console world is clearly ready for a good WoW-like MMO and if Blizzard isn't careful, such a hit on a console system could steal their crown.
Ten million players is a lot, but there are currently 20 million Wiis and 18 million Xbox 360s in people's homes all networked and waiting for the next big MMO. If Blizzard is smart, they will begin using their talent for MMO game design on the next generation platform. If they don't someone else will.
19 April 2008