View From the Road

A View From the Road: If You Can't Beat 'Em...

John Funk | 31 Aug 2009 17:00
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Ah, to be a "WoW killer." Truly the Holy Grail of the MMO genre, and perhaps the most discussed-at-length question in the industry: How do you beat World of Warcraft? Sure, some have offered their own insights into the matter, but here's the truth of the situation: You don't. Before WoW launched in 2004, a MMOG was considered a massive success if it had half a million players - a million was almost unheard of; out of reach of all but the most popular of games.

WoW didn't get twelve million subscribers by "killing" the games that existed before it - it didn't get twelve million subscribers by stealing everyone who was playing EverQuest, Final Fantasy XI, and Dark Age of Camelot - it got twelve million subscribers because it started people playing MMOGs who had never even looked at the genre before. Any would-be WoW killer is going to have to do the same: Don't steal Warcraft's subscribers, create your own. So, how do you do that? How do you swell the market when everybody and their friends are already in Azeroth?

The answer: You become Facebook.

Now, I'm not saying that developers should all suddenly throw their hands in the air and abandon their current projects to make casual social games like Mafia Wars - the games itself can stay as hardcore as you want. I'm talking about developers get people to give their games a second look - and how they bring them into their worlds to start. Because as much as game developers tout how social their games are, getting started is anything but.

We stress how social these games are. We trumpet the virtues of the Massively Multiplayer idea, playing with people from all over the world. And yet, we force new players to start what should be an epic, social journey in an essential communications blackout. If your friend plays a game and you do not, they tell you to play the game. You, never having played an MMOG before, walk to the store, pick up your copy of the game, take it home - do you have the specs to run it? What server are your friends on? What characters do they play, and what should you play? How will you meet up with them in-game? You'll have to be on the phone with them as you install - why shouldn't developers incorporate this into the whole experience?

Think about Facebook again. For all it can be annoying to delete all the dozens of invites in your inbox if you really don't want to play any of these games, it's a remarkably intuitive system if any of the games do pique your interest: Your friends are all playing this game; you should play this game too! Click button, get plug-in, bam, you're in the game. It's intuitive, it's quick, and - the critical component that most MMOGs lack - it's accessible. Even WoW, which made huge strides toward this end by having relatively low (and incredibly scalable) system requirements, only has "Refer-A-Friend" toward this end, and that's still a bit of a cop-out.

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