First Against the Wall

I listen to a lot of podcasts. The Witty Ranter is a new one for me; it’s now up to Episode 12, which I listened to in the car last night and this morning. This one was all about WAR.

On the one side, you had Michael Zenke, who writes on both 1UP and Massively, and Darren from Common Sense Gamer, both of whom like WAR, and on the other the host, Adam from Troll on Fire and Brent from VirginWorlds, who seems to be dislike it more with each passing week.

Before I get into this I would like to say that all these guys are awesome and you should check out their wonderful sites, and certainly you should listen to this very worthwhile podcast. And that if I thought I would actually push more flames to these guys by posting about it, I wouldn’t do so. But chances are good that anyone reading this blog is already aware of it, and that some flames will happen anyway.

All that said, the tone of the discussion seemed to me to be very negative. Darren and Michael’s moderately positive views seemed drowned in a sea of negativity coming from Adam and Brent. At one point Brent compared WAR to the excreable Star Wars prequels, and Adam stated that WAR will cause people to leave MMOs en masse. The discussion repeatedly framed WAR as a “WoW clone” or “re-skinned WoW”. Protestations that one didn’t actually say that WAR sucked may be true to the letter, but it’s just a little disingenuous when the entire discussion you’re in is built on how bad it is – if you’re comparing WAR to Attack of the Clones, trust me, you’re saying that it sucks.

Let’s all take a deep breath here before continuing, eh?

It’s fair to say that WAR is not going to work equally well for everybody. It’s also fair to say that WAR did not meet the expectations of Adam and Brent. It’s fair to call WAR a disappointment for not meeting those expectations. It’s even fair to say that it sucks. Totally cool. But this leads me to ask the question of whether those expectations were unreasonably high to begin with.

I at least never had the impression that WAR was going to be a tremendously innovative game. Maybe that’s because I wasn’t paying really close attention to whatever it was Mythic was saying about it in 2006 and 2007. Or maybe it’s because I got some hands-on time on it in the summer of ’07 and came away from it without seeing any sign of innovation at all. I didn’t think it was bad by any means – but I certainly was left with the impression that WAR was going to play a lot like WoW.

And it does, in many respects. But the extra year plus devoted to development helped WAR a great deal, I think, and it feels much different from WoW today, in my opinion, even though a good percentage of the gameplay is functionally identical, and much of the rest is at least similar.

Certainly, there are some in the community who have painted WAR, when it was a largely unknown quantity, as the savior of all that is good and holy in MMOs, a triumph of innovation that will descent to earth in a gleaming chariot giving out strippers and chocolate. People who have claimed that WAR will be a revolution, and that those who don’t get onboard will be first against the wall.

If you took any of that seriously… well, shame on you.

There are really two questions here: whether WAR is going to shake up the current state of MMO design, and whether it’s going to shake up the MMO marketplace. While I think that WAR has some fundamental enhancements to basic gameplay, it’d be kind of absurd to claim that anything in it is really revolutionary – even public quests, WAR’s most obvious innovation, is really only a variant on an existing idea. But just as hyperbolic, and just as absurd, is the flat dismissal of WAR as a base WoW ripoff.

About the only area WAR is likely to shake up MMO design is in Public Quests, which would improve any game they’re competently incorporated into. I already yearn for the day when we see them in EQ2 – and I think that’s a when, not an if. At the same time, Public Quests work as well as they do in WAR partially becuase of the open grouping mechanic, so I think that another design team looking to get the most out of the idea is going to need to work that in as well.

But I also think that WAR is at least potentially poised to shake up the MMO marketplace in a big way, if it draws a million or more players. This is well within the realm of possibility – let alone the two or three that some are predicting, and it would have a gigantic impact. Virtually all of that subscriber base would come, by one route or another, from WoW, and you can bet that Blizzard is going to notice the loss of a couple of million subscribers.

Can you imagine the difference in the marketplace a year or two from now? Instead of one company complacently looking on from a position of absolute dominance, not wanting or needing to think outside the box because they don’t need to, we’d have two titles, existing in competition. That’s a sea change on the order of what WoW accomplished in its first year or two. Competition drives innovation – the very thing that some people are finding fault in the lack of may be given an environment in which to flourish.

But there’s another point to make: some of us are looking too hard for innovation. We sometimes fail to realize that innovation most often happens in small, successive steps, not in a whirlwind of change introduced by a single product. It’s the whirlwinds we remember, of course, and not the slow progression. Maybe diehard RTS or FPS players are constantly yearning for something really new and different, but they don’t get it either – they get variations on the same old traditional designs. If I say that Bioshock is fundamentally a re-skinned Doom with a story tacked in, that’s pretty much true, but it’s a loaded and hyperbolic way of stating it that leaves out a great deal of context.

WoW is itself a great example of this, and that’s a part of the discussion those who are complaining about WAR’s failure to innovate are missing. WoW didn’t radically depart from EQ in any huge way, it only improved what was already there and took some of the existing ideas to their logical conclusions. It shook up the marketplace tremendously, netting subscriptions in the millions where previous market leaders had been delerious with glee at getting hundreds of thousands.

WAR does the same thing to WoW as WoW did to EQ – it brings in some reasonably fresh ideas, shuffles some established elements around and makes the whole package more fun. Fun is more important to games because we play them to have fun, not to see the benefits of innovation in action.

Again, I can appreciate that some folks just didn’t think WAR was any fun. That’s perfectly cool. What I’m suggesting is that they may have set themselves up to not have fun. Those of you who have played some WAR, think about it – how did Brent manage to put 30+ hours into the game and not come away with any description of PvP other than ‘chase the red name’? That’s the most notable impression of WAR RvR you came away with? Really?

6 responses to “First Against the Wall

  1. Agree with Cow Nose.

    I of course have NOT changed my mind, and have placed WAR into the “PvP” based game style that I would just not prefer.
    I need a feeling of connection and story, and WAR was not built for this.

    But, I also am not of the “It sucks” camp anymore either. It ran ok, and from all indications really brings people together with something that has been missing from MMO’s for a while…

    Grouping.

    No, WAR does not deserve AoC style feedback, or Vanguard hatred. It works just fine for what it is.

    Enjoy yourself, and I hope the game is what YOU want.

  2. I don’t expect to change anybody’s mind. Bottom line is that WAR is working splendidly for me, and I’m certainly not Mr. Hardcore PvP. I think that the rational WAR fan has room to concede that some folks just won’t like it, for whatever reason. The point of the post was to say that some folks are, I think, judging it unfairly.

    And for the record, AoC didn’t deserve AoC-level flak. Certainly it has big problems, but it has a lot to like as well. Vanguard… well, Vanguard deserved 99% of what it got. But Vanguard has also HUGELY improved, is still improving, and if it’s not yet at it’s potential, it’s really very good now, with the best and most immersive world in MMOs for my money.

    I wrote a few weeks back about the potential WAR has of revitalizing grouping in a hobby that has felt the lack of it, dominated as it is by the solo-centric WoW. From what I saw in Open Beta, WAR’s grouping innovations are not yet being fully embraced by the players to the extent I think they should be. That may well change in the live game with a much larger influx of players, and as people start to feel them out, and I’m hoping it will.

    Still, don’t be shocked if I’m bored with it in two months and back in Vanguard. But I’m also hoping this will be the game that’ll break that curse for me – certainly it has eliminated any temptation I had lingering around to get back to WoW again, which should itself say something about the similiarities between the two games. If it does, though, it’s just as likely to be because of the success of Casualties (if it does succeed – and I would like to think it will,) as anything in the game itself.

    WAR is also the first game I will be playing at the same time as real-life friends, on the same server. They’ll be on the other side on Volkmar, however, which may turn out to be just as much fun. 🙂

  3. Great post! I think people tend to take these games way too seriously. I have had fun with lots of games that others have criticized, like LOTRO and Planetside. At the same time, those super high expectations may drive innovation in the industry. I’ll settle for MOM and hopefully Planetside 2!

  4. I think there is a bunch of elitist people in the blogging community. People Flam anything just for the pleasure to flam…

    That’s why i love your blog, just objective thought.