Thursday, October 2, 2008

What makes an MMO fun?

What makes an MMO fun? What keeps players coming back, day after day? And ultimately what causes the game's user base to grow over the long term? Interesting questions, yet no single answer seems to answer them. Really what I'm driving at is what made WoW into the titan among MMOs that it has become, and why have its competitors not been able to catch up? I ask this because another stalwart competitor has come along--WAR--and many people have expressed opinions that it's the WoW killer. Something that has been said of almost every other MMO that has been released in the last year and a half that I can recall. Yet WoW is still the titan, and most of those other MMOs have faded into near forgotten status. EA and Mythic released WAR, and if you were to judge by the amount of press it's received over the last several weeks, people were flocking to it by the millions. And yet in my own very informal poll of various WoW realms, they seem no less populated than they did prior to WAR's release.

So again, what makes WoW the titan it is, and why can't others seem to catch up? Why, for instance, will WAR not supplant WoW as the 800 pound gorilla on the block? In WoW the main "end-game" is raiding, with a PVP mini-end-game added on. It caters to both types of players, though I must say that real PVP only happens on PVP servers. That being world PVP, where ganking is the norm and leveling beyond the 20-something zones can become a real pain in the rear. I haven't played WAR all that long--a few days all told really--yet I can't really glean what awaits me at "end-game". WAR is really not about gear, and raiding doesn't seem to be an end-game in WAR. Which leaves us with capital city-raiding. WoW, on the other hand is very much about gear. And invariably, where you get gear is through raiding and instance runs. Unless of course you are strictly a PVPer, in which case you get your gear entirely through PVP. And I think that point begins to touch on why WoW was able to attain the position it did, and has yet to be supplanted. In games like Star Wars Galaxies, which I used to play many moons ago, and WAR, where the central focus is PVP related, that focus relies very much upon there being enough people to keep people occupied. If you play during off hours, or if the player base drops below a certain threshold, then the game quickly becomes boring. Case in point, I played a Rifleman/Doctor in SWG and would spend hours every day trolling through all the cities on the major planets looking for PVP. In the last several weeks I played, that PVP was very hard to find. I grew bored and desperately sought for a release which just couldn't be found in other aspects of the game. I wonder if the same thing will happen in WAR in the coming months.

Yet that largely doesn't happen in WoW. The population has remained high, and the game has a different focus, based on time sinks. While PVP can and does happen, and you can always run instances or raid, the focus is on gear progression. Which gives you something to do over the long term. And there is almost always something bigger to strive for. So the utter boredom that results in games like SWG doesn't seem to happen on the large scale in WoW. People came to WoW in droves because of it catered to multiple play stles, and because most of the game was accessible to the average person. With the release of the Burning Crusade, even more of WoW became accessible to the average player, and that accessibility was extended further late in the Burning Crusade when Blizzard removed the vast majority of attunements. And now we know there will be no attunments in WotLK. Access to raid content now focuses on gear issues, which are somewhat easier to attain now. Is that the case in other games? Is the "end-game" in WAR as accessible to players as it is in WoW? That of course remains to be seen.

From my point of view, what makes an MMO fun is its focus and accessibility. What keeps players coming back, again in my view centers around the focus and accessibility issues. And likewise, what enables an MMO to grow into the size that WoW has centers around those issues as well. I don't believe PVP-centric games offer a broad enough focus to attract and keep enough players to keep it vitalized, though they might be very fun during the hay-day, so to speak. All-in-all, I think what we'll be seeing in November is a great many of the players who are playing WAR now will come back to WoW. And even if some of them again leave WoW, I really don't see the current player base shrinking any time soon. In a world where MMOs are now pervasive, that indeed says quite a bit.