Niche MMOs

Your favorite MMO is becoming WOW.  Little by little, gameplay mechanics and design philosophy from WOW are being copied and pasted into your world with a thin coat of paint on top.  The question is… do you like it?

No producer can ignore WOW.  It’s the only MMO which can measure it’s subscribers in the millions.  So producers think, “What can we copy in order to get millions of subscriptions?” and “What do we need to have in order for a few million WOW subscribers to feel comfortable making the switch?”

Blizzard does a lot of things right with WOW.  So it’s kind of nice to have concepts that work transported to your favorite game.  But there is a very large and very real draw back to WOWification.  The individual uniqueness of each MMO is being washed away.  WOW is the McDonalds of MMOs.  If McDonalds has a dollar menu, every other chain will have one soon.  Every place you go has basically the same stuff to offer, just wrapped in different packaging.

It’s the niche titles that really suffer the worst.  When you have a game which is distinctly not WOW, a title which does things so different that it couldn’t exist in a quest-driven level-based world like WOW, the very thing which made the game extreamly appealing to a small market is erased in favor of being just another watered down version of McWOW.

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Suzina is a 27 year old who usally plays the same MMOs as her husband. Games played: UO, EQ2, FFXI, SWG, LOTRO.

29 thoughts on “Niche MMOs”

  1. Devil’s in the details, I think. What’s being copied and how well does it mesh with the rest of the game and the desires of your target audience? I wish more games had a WoW-style Auction House, for example, but I wish those stupid yellow quest punctuation marks would never appear again. (Both things I first saw back in SWG, mind you.)

  2. “Your favorite MMO is becomming WOW. Little by little, gameplay mechanics and design philosophy from WOW are being copied and pasted into your world with a thin coat of paint on top. The question is… do you like it?”

    Little by little? If you mean, every game since WoW has entirely copied it to the point where I’m not even subscribed to MMOs anymore, then yeah, you’re right. It’s sick and wrong and its why this industry is losing all the veterans that founded it.

    It seems the market is just barely recovering from the plague that WoW gave us and starting to put in some features. It’s really, a sad sad shame that games that came out 11 years ago had more features and depth than WoW does after 5 years of release, and all games that followed it. Shouldn’t technology ADVANCE as we’re going? No of course not, WoW proved all you needed was a few recycled ideas from EverQuest made insanely simple, and magical floating ! over everyone’s heads and you’ve got a best seller. To this day I think WoW is the only MMO I’ve ever seen to not have a single unique feature to call its own.

  3. “To this day I think WoW is the only MMO I’ve ever seen to not have a single unique feature to call its own.”

    But that’s not what Suzina is talking about, really.

    McDonalds didn’t become successful because they offered new dishes and culinary delights (?) no one else did. They are successful because they found a way to combine what everyone else had been doing into basically five or six offerings, and found a way to sell them cheap and fast with minimum hassle. Also, good advertising with a solid company backing them meant they reached a nice critical mass of customers early on that soon enough began to grow by itself.

    The problem with other food chains was never the type or quality of the food they offered. It was that they didn’t know how to make things massively attractive and didn’t know how to sell them as such.

    Of course McDonalds doesn’t offer pheasant or filet mignon, but that’s not what their business is. So telling them that is barking at the wrong tree. The problem is not McDonalds, they do what they do. The problem is everyone else thinking they have to be like McDonalds instead of becoming better versions of themselves.

    The biggest thing McDonalds did had nothing to do with the food itself; it was the introduction of a change in the way this food was presented and offered. Little more. The Next Best Thing(tm) is not going to be a new single dish or a new type of burger, it will come from whoever can present and offer things in a more attractive way than McDonalds did.

  4. Who, me, Ravious? Not quite sure what you mean, but lemme try again. Gives me an excuse to babble some more, in any case.

    When fretting about how close something is to something else, I think it’s a matter of degree. Richard Bartle pissed people off when he compared Warhammer to WoW, but both are very close to each other when put next to Wizard 101 or Pirates of the Burning Sea… which are quite close to each other compared to Neopets.

    Of course it’d suck every game became exactly like WoW, just with different skins, since we already have WoW. If you want to play that, play that. Not every restaurant should be Taco Bell. That seems so painfully obvious, though, that I can’t believe Suzina’s truly asking that.

    So I’m with Matthew in wondering which game Suzina’s talking about, particularly when she says “It’s the niche titles that really suffer the worst. When you have a game which is distinctly not WOW, a title which does things so different that it couldn’t exist in a quest-driven level-based world like WOW, the very thing which made the game extreamly appealing to a small market is erased in favor of being just another watered down version of McWOW.”

    What game? What “very thing?” What remains unique about the game? Is this appeal to a niche market because most sane people wouldn’t put up with your crappy design idea, and you’re only doing yourself a favor by punting that Very Thing to the curb?

    (Mind you, I think radically changing your MMO isn’t usually a good idea, but that’s because once you’re established you have a hard time attracting new players and an easy time losing existing ones – WOWification aside.)

  5. No, Sok, not you. It was for Suzina.

    Julian: “The problem is everyone else thinking they have to be like McDonalds instead of becoming better versions of themselves.”

    If this is indeed the point of the post, I wholeheartedly disagree. But we can argue conclusions all day…

  6. Why does it matter which game she may have had in mind? She had X in mind. X is the game she was thinking of. X is the only game that matters. X matters the least. X is.

  7. @Kendricke

    Because when she asks: “gameplay mechanics and design philosophy from WOW are being copied and pasted into your world with a thin coat of paint on top. The question is… do you like it?” My answer is: “Depends — what’s changing? Is it the parts of my world that suck and are best improved by copying and pasting from WoW?”

    Otherwise the post seems to be “Not every game should be/become WoW,” which, while true, isn’t much of a conversation starter. ;)

  8. @Kendricke
    I am interested in the context of what she had in mind. This topic came about because there are mmos out there that she would feel are being ‘wowified’.

    I agree, mmos have always been taking the best parts from each other (eg ui of asheron’s call II brought to wow), it just so happens that blizzard at this point of time being the 800 pound gorilla in the room, is able to find the right features that are able to appeal to the masses.

    A single case in point : ‘achievements’ in mmos started in lotro which rewarded players with improved attributes and honourary titles (correct me if i’m wrong.). Warhammer then took it further with an in-game book(forgot the name of it =( ) that not only provided achievements and titles, it also furthered the lore of the game better than the deed book in lotro. Lastly, wow came up with its own achievements.

    Would this be a case of wow being lotroised?

  9. “Otherwise the post seems to be “Not every game should be/become WoW,” which, while true, isn’t much of a conversation starter. ;)”

    Well, I agree not much of a conversation starter, but a valid topic nonetheless.

    I’m not privy to this kind of of things, but I imagine it must have happened to many devs after brainstorming the game and going around to talk to investors, show it around, and the investors (those of them who have a clue about gaming anyway) would say something like “We want to put our money into something that competes with WoW. Can you make it more like WoW?”

    And the sad thing is, they’re both right. Devs trying to make their own games, and investors wanting to keep their investment as safe as possible. What? If you’re an investor and next to you, you see Blizzard that turned a more or less $150M investment into a billion-dollar cash printing machine in all of 5 years, won’t you -at least- ask your devs “Hey, can you take a look at what they’re doing?”

    I imagine this would change once investors in general get more knowledgeable about gaming, in the sense that they’d be able to better see that niche is not bad, and a game with a solid 50-100k playerbase can still be profitable if the whole thing is done right.

  10. Which games am I talking about exactly? I have a couple in mind. Every MMO I’ve played since WOW came out has had people complaining about changing to become more WOW.

    SWG: Star Wars galaxies started out completely different from WOW. No quests, no raid bosses, a one character per account rule and dozens of non-combat classes such as “merchant” and “image designer”. There were huge wait times for shuttles, 20 person groups (not raids), and huge empty areas filled with random spawns. Honestly, the game sucked in my opinion… but some people truly loved it. Now they have 8 person groups, a small handfull of classes, multi-character servers, quests for xp, and “heroic encounter instances”. When SWG first came out, I would have called it a niche-game had the words “star wars” in the title not automatically made it main stream.

    Darkfall, WAR, EVE, Secondlife, A tale in the desert, and FFXI are all games which would lose everything that makes them different if they became WOW, but none of them are right now.

  11. “Of course it’d suck every game became exactly like WoW, just with different skins”

    Too late, the MMORPG industry is virtually dead. You had all the amazing innovation of the big 4, Dark Age of Camelot, EverQuest, Asheron’s Call, and of course, Ultima Online. Then after WoW hit…. completely dead market.

  12. @Tiber: don’t be silly. CoH is still innovating (e.g., mission architect). EVE is innovative and still growing (they just passed the 300K mark). FFXI (500k subs), AoC (?subs now), and WAR(300K subs) were all innovative in different ways. Puzzle Pirates is so innovative it’s practically not an MMORPG and by all accounts has more paying customers than EQ ever did. I could go on.

    Further, when you look at the total size of the MMO market, it has clearly grown compared to the heyday of your “big four” even when you exclude WoW.

    @Suzina: SWG is a good example of an MMO being “WoWified.” EQ II maybe as well…but honestly the changes that have been made to that game were absolutely needed. Launch EQ II was a nearly unplayable grind fest. Got to teir IV crafting back when you had to craft every single subcombine….”shudders and weeps silently…”

    Other than those, I just don’t see it over all. Apart from direct clones (e.g., Runes of Magic) LoTRO is arguably the most “WoW like” post WoW MMO. And even in LoTRO, for every feature Turbine adds that is “WoW like” (quest tracker, quicker leveling in the mid levels) I see many more added that have nothing to do with WoW (the legendary weapon system, crafting instances, 3 man “raids”). The oddball PvMP system is also nothing like WoW, and the crafting is much deeper than you find in WoW. If you can call having prose in quest text that’s better than the average high school fan fic an “innovation,” then LoTRO continues to innovate in that area as well.

  13. Edit: I was high when it comes to my Puzzle Pirates factopid. real numbers are something like 80 million visitors to their website, little over 4 million registered users, close to 200K paying customers (compared to a peak of 500K for EQ). Still, a highly innovative and financially successful post EQ MMO.

  14. @Suzina
    I agree with you. SWG’s NGE was a wowification gone extremely wrong. I have not played it myself, but judging from the fallout, it seemed as if the developers misjudged what the majority of their audience was interested in.

    I guess one major factor when making core design changes is whether your current consumer base would accept it, or if the influx of new players that stay make up for the loss. (Which hasn’t been the case thus far).

    I agree that if these mmos (Darkfall, WAR, EVE, Secondlife, etc) would lose if they threw away their core gameplay and copied wow, but i rather doubt they would go that way. Darkfall, being a hardcore pvper’s dream and very loyal fans, i doubt the producers would make such a drastic change. War, which already takes the good bits from DAOC and Wow even to make a more pvp oriented game addressed to the hardcore and casuals alike. EVE… has it really showed any signs of wowification?

  15. The real problem is all these people seeing WoW as a beginning, when in fact WoW is an end. You see, fantasy MMO games have been progressing. From MUDs to UO to EQ to AC to DAoC etc… WoW came in, took “the best” elements of all the games before it, polished it up, and put out a blockbuster. Trying to out-WoW WoW is a losing battle. Meanwhile, you’ve got EVE over in the corner sort of doing a UO-style thing, but for space ships. Now we have two or three other space ships games coming down the pipe… these may just be the EQ, AC or DAoC of the genre. Another four years, and someone (maybe Blizzard) is going to gather up all the good space ship MMO ideas from all these games, polish them up, and put out a blockbuster. And the same will happen to other genres being explored by smaller companies looking for niches. They’ll be successful, in that they’ll be profitable, but they won’t be the WoW of their genre. You can’t be first and be WoW, you have to be “last”.

  16. I’m not sure what you mean by WoWified. I play FFXI, and while they have made it easier and more soloable, it was more player driven. They just got tired of a lot of poor design choices that were pure timesink.

    I mean, stuff like having a basic new player tutorial, or not being punished by losing exp for failing a mission, since you can often go 1/10 on many and lose an entire level’s worth of exp in the old days. Or not being able to solo well at all. A lot of things that just were often too punishing, and also getting harder to do as the game ages.

    The core of FFXI is still there, but the game had to adapt so it was less punishing for players. It made it stronger in my opinion, FFXI has actually grown to the point of having a couple of overcrowded servers. We’re celebrating our 7th anniversary.

  17. The FFXI and EQ2 examples set us up with a nice little bomb: How much of all that “WoWification” was truly and sorely needed and necessary?

    Yeah, I guess it’s okay to ask ourselves and be concerned about all these titles “pulling to the same side” and blurring differences, but on the other hand I think much of that pulling is necessary. Do we really -want- to go back to the good ol’ days of supermegahuge grinding? Ginormous zones with little in them and their biggest challenge being their size? Actually -needing- spreadsheets to have a chance at being efficient? Arcane mechanics? Fascist death penalties? Forced grouping?

    I’m not gonna say WoW solved everything, but it did solve a few things. If nothing else, by force of successful example. Not all of WoWification is bad.

  18. Since I’ve never played WoW, nor seen it played, nor even watched a video of it, I have to take it on trust that the MMOs I do play have copied WoW.

    In general, I like the changes I’ve seen over the last 5 years, so if that’s happened because of WoW then WoW has, on balance, been a positive influence.

    As for niche games having to follow this model, well clearly that isn’t true now and will become less true in the future. There are already a ton of MMOs out there that haven’t really reacted to WoW, many of which have been around for years; A Tale in the Desert, Ryzom, Monsters of Mirth, Rubies of Eventide, Istaria…all of those continue to exist as if WoW had never happened, and there are many, many more, and more still on the way.

    The sky isn’t falling.

  19. @Suzina: SWG is an interesting case. Given WoW’s release almost exactly a year before the NGE, I agree that the changes were WoW driven. I also agree that it wasn’t a niche title and that the game had severe problems that drove SOE/Lucas into making the changes. I use Dan Rubenfield’s reflections as evidence:

    So, yes, WoWification on a massive scale. Given the game was bleeding subscribers like a gutshot hemophiliac it apparently seemed like a worthwhile gamble at the time to the suits, but after two years of live release you don’t get to scrap your entire design and try again.

    Now, I’ve never played FFXI and I barely touched EQ2, but I suspect those games were already pretty close to WoW, compared to SWG. I doubt the changes to those games were nearly as drastic as the NGE was. (Holy initialisms, Batman.) So while people may grumble that EQ2 or FFXI are getting too much like “easy mode” or “WoW” or what-have-you, it’s not nearly the same scale as the utter redesign the NGE brought about.

    Based on the comments from Dblade and Julian, it also sounds like the changes were for the better, while still allowing the games to be distinct enough (decidedly not becoming WoW) to maintain their own playerbase. A Good Thing, in my book.

    (I want more games to nick ideas from City of Heroes, personally. Sidekicking/Exemplaring and the Looking for Team interface spring to mind.)

  20. FFXI has a pretty different feel from other MMOs. It’s heavily group-focused. I remember waiting for a group in an area for 3 or 4 hours at a time sometimes. There was nothing else I could do with my character but sit and wait patiently, because it wasn’t possible at my level to kill even a single NPC that gave xp. I don’t remember there being any quests that actually gave you xp as a reward.

    Basically, you formed up a six person group and you fought tough elite mobs. Everything you fight would be considered a boss-fight difficulty in other MMOs. You don’t go into a fight if you don’t have the perfect group make-up, and you certainly don’t attempt to kill anything with five people.

    The feeling of FFXI (at least when I played at US launch) was very different from WOW like games. FFXI gameplay may sound boring because it’s just killing things for xp, but the combat itself was very fun and extreamly challenging.

    I’ve heard that it’s possible now to kill some things solo. If this is true, FFXI has changed from what I knew.

  21. It has changed a bit, but I’d probably have to write a book about how much. The solo change was needed because people wound up waiting for parties a lot more as the game aged, and waiting 3 hours every day was driving people out of the game. You can make progress solo now, but everyone except veterans usually prefers to party.

    FFXI is weird. The core gameplay is still pretty difficult for new and casual players, but the hardcore in it just seem to steamroller it to a high level. So any change to make it easier would be viewed by them as WoWifying it.

    It needed to be done though. FFXI had a ton of poor design decisions. One of the better neckpieces in the game came from a mob called argus. He wasn’t tough at all, a too weak to a capped player, but once he was dead, he would respawn anywheres from 18-30 hours. That means to camp him, you needed to wait often 12 hours straight in the same place, camping that mob. And he only had a 20% chance of dropping it.

    What’s worse is that he was a shared spawn, so he might not even show up, instead a different mob with a different drop may spawn, and if it did, you’d have to wait another 18-30 hours to try again.

    They fixed him by letting his prize drop in other instances, but a lot of the changes in ffxi were designed to make bad decisions like that a lot easier to deal with. Some remain still, and some just made the game easier for players overall, but I think they have a long way to go till they become a wow clone.

  22. Thing is, a bad design such as one just mentioned by Dblade might be looked upon as a challenge by another player. Comes down to demographics.

    Yeap, the waiting to group was horrid in FFXI, but once you got going, its one of the more fun stuff in the mmo genre.

  23. Also muddying this topic is the fact that WoW becomes like other games, but since most people only play WoW, they assume WoW did it first (battlegrounds, arena, achievements, etc)

  24. Yeah, you definitely have all types, and some ffxi players fiercely defend the old ways. It is a mixed bag, not everyone will like how the game changed. However I don’t think retaining that level of challenge would have grown the game much, and you can’t really make content to that hardcore a player.

    I guess you could use a scale between Darkfall and WoW. Darkfall, niche by design, focused clearly on what it wants to be with no accomodations to soften the experience, and WoW, which wants to be the market leader and does so by trying to accomodate the widest variety of people.

    Maybe we will see more striation in the market as more MMO’s try to target a specific demographic instead of all the bodies they can.

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