Where Are They Now: WoW-Killers
Editor’s Note: This is definitely an opinion piece.
Or, “There’s room for more than one at the top”.
I’ve long been a fan of Blizzard’s Warcraft franchise. In fact, one of my biggest pieces I wrote over my first few years with MMOHuts was a retrospective of “Does World of Warcraft hold up”. At that time, I had seen MMO after MMO come up, being touted as the proper “WoW-killer”, the game that would dethrone World of Warcraft as the undisputed “King of MMOs”. It wasn’t the only MMO, but any title that challenged Warcraft would ultimately wind up being free-to-play, if not canceled outright. I think the major problem is that too many MMOs came out with the notion that they were going to overthrow World of Warcraft. Even if the devs wouldn’t say it outright, the fanbase would. “This is gonna be the one!” They’d yell on Gamefaqs forum posts. “This is gonna be the game to kill WoW once and for all!” and why would you want to kill someone else’s game?
There’s room in the pond for more than one game. Blizzard isn’t going around trying to shovel dirt over Warhammer Online; they did that all on their own with poor, unpolished PVE and virtually no end-game in mind. The classes were fun, and definitely had the Warhammer vibe. However, it was also hideous visually speaking. An MMO doesn’t need a serious end-game scene to be competitive (Guild Wars 2, for example, doesn’t rely on one), but it certainly needed something that was not there. And thus, Warhammer Online was quietly ushered onto the Island of Misfit MMOs. So let’s consider some of these MMOs. What happened?
Let’s start with Elder Scrolls Online. When it started and I was in the Alpha/Beta, all I heard were cries of “Why are there people in my Skyrim?” and that’s fair, I suppose. Except the entire Elder Scrolls fanbase seemed to want an online experience. The problem was here, that they built it like a traditional, World of Warcraft-style MMO with levels mattering, and not bringing the story and feeling that is expected of an Elder Scrolls title. When I saw the direction it was heading, I posted in my New Year’s predictions that Elder Scrolls Online would be free to play by that time next year. Turns out I was essentially right. What was the issue? It wasn’t a bad game. But it was not Elder Scrolls. It was a cheap World of Warcraft copy with an admittedly gorgeous, Bethesda/Zenimax art style. Once they moved to “Tamriel Unlimited”, allowing players to level and move around as they pleased, it felt like an Elder Scrolls game. It helped in an unprecedented way. It’s the move they should have started with.
WildStar could have been truly something phenomenal, but what happened to it was itself. That’s a theme that I’m noticing. WildStar was vibrant, brilliant, cleverly written. The combat was fluid and fun, except that the tiniest mistake ruins a raid and makes everyone terribly unhappy. It was buggier than most MMOs I played, waiting for patch after patch to see things fixed. Carbine did a poor job, an incredibly poor job of addressing issues, and the most casual players suffered the most. Nothing is more frustrating than one player making one mistake and killing an entire raid. I get that they wanted it to be hardcore and appeal to that Vanilla audience (that like to suffer in ways that is uncomfortable) but the casual fanbase, that is probably the majority of your players did not enjoy it. You’ll spend so much time focusing and worrying about not dying to a boss mechanic that you lose sight of what you’re supposed to be doing: Having fun. Then there’s the gold sink: death. Repairing and respeccing was expensive and frustrating, and the regular player base isn’t really equipped to deal with that. It’s an issue that hardcore, grindy players will of course, not see an issue with. WildStar wound up being its own proverbial banana peel that it slipped and fell on.
Star Wars: The Old Republic is another prime example. Who couldn’t be excited for a Star Wars MMO? I know I was pumped. I played through most of the beta, but once it launched, the sizzle just died. I am noticing a trend here. Most of these games it’s the fanbase that declares it the next/first “WoW-Killer”. But you know what’s not going to dethrone World of Warcraft? A WoW-clone, which is what SWTOR was! It suffered from the same bloated skill-set, a tiresome crafting system, and a disappointing use of an incredible IP. Now, all was not lost for Star Wars: The Old Republic. Like many of the games that came, once they shifted to a free-to-play system, things smoothed out a bit. What helped SWTOR is the same thing that helped ESO: Storytelling. Star Wars is known for incredible fight scenes and storytelling. It’s not always the best, but it’s always compelling in its own way. When SWTOR made that shift to a more interesting, it felt less like an MMO and more like a single-player experience, but it was still a step in the right direction. Will any of these titles make the money they probably should have? Doubtful. The people at the top fell into the trap of being more like the competition.
Final Fantasy XIV is a sort of a unique example. They looked back at their own success, Final Fantasy XI. However, Final Fantasy XIV was a resounding failure at 1.0. Nobody and I mean nobody was happy. They weren’t trying to copy World of Warcraft, they simply had a really terrible launch with a clunky, disappointing system. So the team took it back and fixed it. They did it nice and early too before it was too late, and they wound up falling into the pitfalls that some of these other games did. Unlike the other games, Final Fantasy XIV thrives and is, in fact, taking people from World of Warcraft. But not by trying to kill World of Warcraft, but by being its own thing. It’s what you want in an MMO in the FF universe: Awesome classes, insane bosses, recognizable characters, and music. When 1.0 was seen to be a failure, they apologized, made it free to play, and began work on FFXIV: A Realm Reborn. ARR was glorious and gorgeous. The content was challenging, and the classes were mostly rewarding. It was not perfect by any stretch and still has some glaring flaws that drive me absolutely insane from a new player perspective. But it thrives with a subscription service, which is impressive. That’s why I included FFXIV, not because it tried to be a WoW-killer, but this piece desperately needed some positivity. You can succeed by doing your own thing, Square-Enix is proof of that.
Perhaps the most galling and absurd was RIFT. I love a lot of the Trion Worlds content and their developers. But whoever decided they would fire a shot across World of Warcraft’s bow with the “You’re not in Azeroth anymore” was who really sealed the doom of this one for me. Because I cannot think of a single person that saw that and got excited. Sure, it was a bold move, and it should have moved people to try RIFT because I did know a lot of WoW fans who were starting to get tired of the story. It was getting more and more ridiculous by this point, and the Lich King high was gone. Currently, we were fighting the destroyer, Deathwing. I was cool with Deathwing, but I still at this point felt that Wrath of the Lich King was the logical conclusion to the World of Warcraft storyline. They could have made a second WoW at that point, or gone back to the Horde vs. Alliance that really made the story shine, without having to resort to alternate dimensions and whatnot.
But I’ll get to that soon enough. The problem here was that I couldn’t find people to do the content with. RIFT had some pretty incredible classes, and the game was sincerely interesting. But calling out Blizzard at one of their highest points was just a foolish thing. RIFT isn’t dead, and they’re still producing content and I’m glad for that. But that opening salvo was such a bad idea. You should let MMOs be their own thing, not try to call someone out unless you’re 100% sure that shot’s not going to miss.
Okay, here’s the part where I make everyone mad. But here we go! I loved World of Warcraft for years. It consumed most of my personal time, way before I got into Games Journalism. I played faithfully for close to ten years, no matter how much I didn’t like the content. I had invested time and effort in, so there was no reason to stop because I hate waste. This is what kept me in League of Legends for as long as I was there. As I said, Wrath of the Lich King was the logical closure point. Arthas’ betrayal of the light was finally put to rest. There must be a Lich King, and we wound up with Bolvar Fordragon, a man of honor and valor, who could keep the hordes of the undead at bay. Now we can get back to the good ol’ fashioned racism Western Fantasy is known for. Hell, despite teaming up to fight the Lich King, the Horde and Alliance were still fighting, right at the gates of Icecrown Citadel. From this point, the stories just got more and more ridiculous. Next was Deathwing, the Aspect of Death. He was going to destroy the world if we didn’t stop him. Okay, that’s reasonable. Next, we found the legendary Pandaria. A whole expansion based on the notion that one Pandaren existed in Warcraft 3. Despite how I feel about the portrayal of Pandaria, the world was beautiful, and I genuinely liked the idea of the story.
Things once again get thrown off the rails though! Next is Alternate-Dimension Orcs have to be stopped from blowing up our world and probably their world too. We succeed there, and now we have to go deal with the Legion because we never really stopped them in Burning Crusade. It’s an endless amount of demons trying to overtake the universe. The next step? Go to their planet and blow it up so they can’t blow up our planet. Do you see this ridiculous progression of story? Where do you possibly go from there? Fight the Titans themselves? There’s clearly something lurking in the next expansion because it’s basically “HEY GUYS! REMEMBER ORCS VS. HUMANS? WE’RE BACK TO THAT AGAIN. PVP! YEAH, LET’S FIGHT!” Don’t take this as a “Lol, I hate WoW now” piece, because I still have a great deal of fondness for the franchise. But what’s killing World of Warcraft in my estimation, is World of Warcraft. We just keep escalating and going further, going further. Last expansion, we had awesome Artifact weapons, to stop the insane grind to try and find the “right” weapon. Now everyone had the “right” weapon. Just for one expansion, anyway. The game just feels like a chore now. All those insane, ridiculous amounts of daily quests, artifact power grinding, which won’t mean a damn thing in the expansion from what I understand. I played World of Warcraft until it stopped being fun, then I kept playing out of spite. I had something like 130 mounts, tens of thousands of gold, piles of achievements and titles. Rare achievements, you name it.
I was one of those players that would remind you when we talked about WoW that I was there before there was really end-game content like Naxxramas (though I never did get to raid Naxx 1.0 except one time). I was around, never great, but I was there. There has never been a point when I thought that going back to Vanilla/having Vanilla servers would be a great idea though. When a game would be announced by players as a WoW-killer, I’d just laugh. There was no way a game could kill WoW. The only thing that could kill my love for World of Warcraft, was World of Warcraft. It hasn’t been fun in years, but I try each expansion, desperate to see that love become rekindled again. So far this has not happened. I’m happy for everyone who still plays the game and gains a sense of enjoyment out of it. But I’ve long-since found it’s better to just write a “Dear John” letter, leave it by Warcraft’s nightstand. We just have to go our separate ways for now. World of Warcraft will continue to succeed, and make money in spite of itself, and will always have new players. But I don’t have time for a second job that tells me a sub-par story. It’s time to move on.
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