The whole notion of MMO ‘generations,’ while interesting fodder for discussion, is wholly subjective. I had a friend tell me that the ‘first generation’ consisted of UO, the second of EQ, Asheron’s Call and DAoC, and the third of WoW, EQ2 and vanguard, among other things. To his way of thinking, WAR is the first fourth generation MMO. That’s all well and good, but it places the boundaries in an arbitrary way – they could easily be defined differently.
But I think that the ‘generation’ verbiage is deceptive at best. To my way of thinking, EVE Online is the only MMO out there that really pushes the boundaries of the genre in a ‘generational’ way… and it’s five years old now, older than World of Warcraft. It is then ‘second generation,’ as its age implies? Is it third, despite being radically different from everything else with that label? Or is it still on the cutting edge? This last bit is rhetorical – whether you actually like the game or not, EVE is the cutting edge of MMO design.
Viewed in this light, WAR clearly isn’t ‘Next Generation’ anything, and neither was WoW. But there are still very clear differences between these two games (and EQ2 and Vanguard) and the earlier efforts. The largest impact that WoW has had, though, has been to greatly expand and effortlessly dominate the marketplace, and its design is part of that. Whether it was ‘next generation’ at the time or not, it changed the MMO paradigm.
WAR has the chance to do that, too, if its numbers end up looking like Paul Barnet bets they will. There are almost certainly people playing WoW who aren’t even aware that there are other MMOs – but if WAR is as successful as it has the chance to be, it’ll be hard to ignore that, in the face of a couple of million subscribers and at least some of their friends and guildies departing WoW to play Warhammer.
Make no mistake: the great majority of WAR players will have played World of Warcraft at some point. Some people are saying that WAR will appeal to a different demographic, and no doubt that’s true up to a point, but consider this:
Blizzard has been shaping WoW for some time to be more PvP-friendly. Maybe they did this in response to the threat from Age of Conan and WAR, maybe not. And to some extent, they’ve succeeded, in that PvP as a player activity is now far more popular than it used to be – the majority of North American WoW players are now playing on PvP servers, and PvP is a popular activity even on normal shards. Blizzard has built an audience for PvP by aggressively pimping it and growing the game in that direction. And WoW’s audience past and present largely defines the MMO marketplace. But WoW’s PvP fundamentally sucks in a fundamental way, even though many WoW PvPers don’t realize it because they’ve never done PvP in any other MMO. It’s probably not really even possible to fix it without scrapping the whole subsystem and starting fresh, which would have major implications across the entire game even outside of PvP. That’s an effort that Blizzard is extremely unlikely to attempt right now. But by their efforts at making PvP more popular, haven’t they themselves also built up the potential audience for Warhammer?
You’ll see the problem now; WAR’s PvE experience is about on par with that of WoW. It’s not quite as good in some ways, but it’s better in others, so the net result is kind of a wash. But WAR’s PvP is unquestionably far better than WoW’s in every respect. It’s so much better as to be a generational change, and it may have a generational effect, a shift to a bipolar rather than unipolar market – a space with competition rather than near-monopoly. Nothing comparable has happened since the launch of WoW.
Yeah, it’s true that a lot of what WAR does with RvR was done earlier with Dark Age of Camelot. But in Dark Age of Camelot’s day the MMO audience was defined not by WoW but by EverQuest, with its absolute focus on PvE. It was an environment in which PvP was no more than an occasional distraction for the vast majority, and in which hardcore PvPers were regarded as somewhat aberrant. To some extent, even though it helped to shape the modern marketplace, that marketplace was not ready for DAoC.
Which is too bad. As I myself recently learned in my brief sojourn in that game, it has a lot to like, and a lot to offer. But RvR doesn’t work without players, and the rest of the DAoC experience, while on par with its competition, wasn’t enough to keep the game viable for so many years by bringing in new people. The player base matured and essentially all DAoC play now happens at the level cap. It’s not like EverQuest, which can still conceivably bring in new people for a meaningful experience. For structural reasons, DAoC’s core gameplay simply doesn’t happen anymore unless you’ve already invested a lot of time and effort in the game. It’s too late for Dark Age of Camelot.
But WAR is another matter. The quality of the game, the big marketing push, the overwhelming buzz and the readiness of the market for an MMO with PvP as the focus, helped along by Blizzard itself, could all conspire to make WAR the kind of lightning-stroke that WoW was in 2005. Just as RvR doesn’t work without players, it works better the more players you have. WAR was a very strong game even with the limited beta population, and more people make the game better in a tangible rather than abstract way. The better the game gets, the more attractive it becomes, and the more attractive it becomes, the more player’s it’ll get – it’s a self-feeding cycle.
Can WAR fail? Certainly, if by that we mean that it fails to shift the marketplace to a bipolar one – its success by any reasonable financial measure is all but assured at this point, at least for the next year or two. But as time goes on it’s going to take a significant failure on Mythic’s part to make that happen. A failure to properly manage populations is an obvious potential problem, and the WAR team is clearly on unsure footing there, but there are other ways Mythic could mismanage WAR – the ‘substantial grace period’ which turned out to be less than 32 hours, screwing paid players who haven’t gotten their retail boxes in the mail yet, is an excellent start, as is the insistence of retaining the inconvenience of scrolling and clicking through the EULA every time you start the game. They could even cock up post-launch fixes like Age of Conan did, but few people think that will happen, and the game hasn’t been launched for two full days yet – it’s way too early to start fretting over that.
WAR is poised to cause a paradigm shift – a generational change in the way the MMO marketplace works. Maybe it won’t happen, but if it does, Blizzard helped it along.