With the annual award season behind us, Gareth "Gazimoff" Harmer shares his opinion on what they mean for the MMO genre
Opinion: The champagne has been drunk; the party poppers have been brushed away. We've waved goodbye to yet another year of MMO gaming awards, hung up our tired tuxedoes and ball gowns and moved on to anticipating the year of gaming goodness to come.
It's during this period of limbo, where 2012 has barely finished and 2013 hasn’t really started, that we tend to reflect on the year. The awards themselves are a great starting point - handing out accolades to big success stories or critical darlings. But the badges and trophies are just the tip of a far greater MMO iceberg, with commercial winners and losers chosen by a fickle army of genre fans who are slowly changing direction.
We've given out our awards again this year, as have GameBreaker, Massively and MMORPG.com. Almost universally, critics and fans alike have chosen Guild Wars 2 for a slew of awards, from Game of Year, to being recognized for superb music and art direction. Likewise, Planetside 2 picked up awards for delivering a superb mass-combat shooter and very reasonable free-to-play implementation.
But there's a peculiarity in all of this; World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria picked up scant few awards this year. Although there are signs that fans are starting to trickle away from Blizzard’s veteran franchise, this isn’t the start of a decline in one of the dominant forces in MMO gaming. After eight years, players are still logging in week after week to enjoy adventures with their friends.
Instead, WoW’s absence from the winners’ table is more indicative of a change in focus for the genre itself, where polish alone isn’t enough. Firstly, massive multiplayer shooters and MOBAs are expanding the genre to encompass new audiences, supported by monetization models that debunk the myth of having to treat an MMO as a second job. Although we play our favorite games just as intensely, we're less inclined to spend every waking hour logged in to get the most out of our subscription. Instead, sharing time among several games is becoming more normal.
The MMO genre also had a second change in focus, with innovation arriving in huge amounts this year. Guild Wars 2, arguably this year’s strongest example of the genre’s changing emphasis, has been almost universally celebrated. But it’s hardly a perfect MMO – GW2 struggles to provide context and narration beyond the personal story, while the elder game doesn't offer much for fans of large-scale PvE experiences. Where ArenaNet did succeed, however, was in looking at the common problems suffered across the MMO spectrum, and solving them in unique ways. An artistic approach led by Daniel Dociu and musical score composed by Jeremy Soule certainly helped, but I doubt it would have been as successful without clever game design.
That said, ingenuity and fresh ideas will only get you so far - just ask Funcom about The Secret World. While many gave the Norwegian developer a great deal of kudos for their modern-day MMO, it lacked the refined polish that ArenaNet delivered.
The same is true of expansions. Mists of Pandaria is coated in so much polish that you can almost smell Mr Sheen every time you log in. And yet, the experience is largely more of the same Warcraft we’ve had before. Comparing Blizzard's latest with RIFT: Storm Legion and there's no contest - Trion Worlds had bigger ideas and loftier goals, and delivered on them. The stark contrast between Warcraft’s farms and RIFT’s dimensions is just one example.
Throughout 2011, I’d witnessed an undercurrent of opinion develop, postulating that MMO gamers were crying out for better quality storytelling. BioWare looked set to deliver it, spending huge sums of money to bring their signature narration to Star Wars: The Old Republic. On that point the team in Austin succeeded, and yet lightsabers and lightning struggled to hold on to subscribers beyond the first few months. While SWTOR's design pitfalls are a whole other topic for debate, 2012 demonstrated to me that fresh ideas trump fresh storytelling. That said, I don't want BioWare and EA to give up on MMOs, but instead learn from the experience, to create something truly incredible.
Because MMOs cannot rely on identikit mechanics and genre clichés and still expect to be successful, it makes them incredibly difficult to theorycraft. There’s no formula that’s guaranteed to pull in players and keep them, beyond being bolder in your ideas and implementing them well. MMO studios are now relying on game and system designers who know the genre problems intimately, and can respond to them in ways that amaze us. And even then, the new mechanics might not resonate, or gamers may simply choose to stick with their existing friends.
The year has also been a tough one for MMO studios, with game closures, downsizing announcements and layoffs being a recurring theme. It demonstrates just how hard it is to make a profit from the genre, with the underpinning technology now changing in order to find further efficiency savings. Hero Engine failed to make much of a splash beyond SWTOR, but SOE’s Forgelight engine is now planned for use in all their future games. Hosting arrangements are also changing, with Red 5 using Amazon’s cloud services for FireFall.
2013 will be a difficult year for our favorite genre. Those games that launched this year will be doing everything they can to cling to players and grow their communities. Fresh entrants such as WildStar and Elder Scrolls Online will have to convince us that they offer new and interesting worlds that we want to spend time in, with mechanics that are unlike anything we've seen anywhere else. Defiance will need to aim high if it's going to last beyond a single season.
This time next year, I think we'll be celebrating the same types of games - those that dared to be different, delivered with confidence and strength. With budgets getting smaller and gamers becoming more demanding, reaching that goal will be harder than ever.
For us as players, our hardest choice will be where to spend our time, and which games to persuade our friends to play. As one developer told me, it doesn't have to be the perfect game, just good enough so that everyone can have fun together.
Happy New Year
Gareth "Gazimoff" Harmer, Senior Contributing Editor