Friday Ramblings: The Michael Jordan Syndrome

If you are one who pays attention to the MMO community, chances...

If you are one who pays attention to the MMO community, chances are you have heard of Rift. I will admit that I have no first hand experience playing Rift. I know some other folks have, such as Rilgon who has shared some stuff over on his site. I read an article last night, which you can read here, about how the company behind Rift was going to revolutionize online games.

Revolutionize Online Games

That is a bold statement. Revolutionize. Big shoes to fill.

From the article: “For instance, if players fail to save a town that is being attacked, it will still be burned to the ground when players log in tomorrow.”

It will still be burned down for who? For the player? For the whole server? Raise your hand if you participated in the opening of the Ahn’Qiraj gates. There are not many of us. And those who did may have had fond memories of it. But how often do you see a Scarab Lord or his mount? Players who join the game now will never experience that event. They will never have a chance to ring that gong. The gates are open, the event is done. They will also never be able to participate in the reopening the Dark Portal which only few of my characters can claim they did, with the tabard to prove it.

This alienates a huge portion of the player base. In a single-player game, the world can change as much as the developers wish. They don’t have to worry about making anyone feel left out since the entirety of the game world consists of one person and their computer-controlled entourage.

But perhaps they mean that it changes for just the player? Perhaps the zone “phases” just for that person. And that is not unique. World of Warcraft does it (now). Lord of the Rings Online does it. That is not revolutionary. A good idea, yes.

The article also states the company is creating a second game, already in the works, that is suppose to coincide with a television show that is going to appear on SyFy. Interesting concept indeed. They state towards the end of the article “Likewise, if a player does something heroic during the game, they might find their feat being discussed on the show.”

I think they overestimate the maturity of the population sometimes. Not every person loves roleplay quality names. You end up with names like Freshmaker, Bandaidspec, Drhorrible, Uglybear, or Toast. And then they devolve into names more cryptic or vulgar. I have my doubts that they will change their television show to tell everyone that the town was saved by the heroic endeavors of Iwhipmyhairbackandforth. I know that is a minor argument, as names are easily changed and enforced.

It would be awesome to see guilds fighting for a world first so it appears on the TV show. You can also imagine the fuss that people would raise if a server crashed and another guild got a world first kill and subsequently got mentioned in the TV show. Fun concept, but I see it merely as a ploy that says “We *may* mention you, but probably not since our scripts are written for the whole season already.”

This might appeal to a lot of people, but I hardly watch television at all. It usually involves the Food Network on Sunday nights, and Psych when it is on. I tried to keep up with Chuck but slowly stopped watching. I am told I should watch the Bing Bang Theory as well. But ultimately, I have no desire to watch television. But a lot of people do so my personal opinion definitely doesn’t speak for a majority.

The CEO makes this statement: “A traditional video game is played in your machine, in your local console, and is a static experience…the game does not evolve and it’s also not really social because you cannot play with all of your friends against the environment that is created in the video game.”

The definition of traditional video game is interesting. His definition fits Mario Brothers and other old-school platformers like Contra or Sonic the Hedgehog. Saying a game doesn’t evolve poses a question. What is he expecting to evolve? If, as a player, a town burns down in my MMO, and it is only burned down for me since my friends were able to save the city, this isn’t different than Aries getting killed in Final Fantasy 7 (I know, spoiler, but if you haven’t played it yet there is no hope for you.) or failing to keep Jack alive in Mass Effect 2 because I sided with Miranda and my persuasion skill sucked at the time.

I know these are both single-player games, but the world changed with me and things I had access to at one point were no longer available. Creating a list of games and how the world “evolved” is extensive. And a lot of modern MMOs are already doing this.

But that is me being pessimistic about the capabilities of the company. Maybe the television show idea with turn out fantastic. In the same vein, however, there have been a lot of fantastic TV shows that have gone the way of the dodo for less than stellar reasons. I don’t need to make that list for you, as I am sure you can come up with your own. What happens if the show receives terrible ratings? What kind of impact will that have on the game? If the TV executives decide that since the show is doing poorly, continued funding of the game isn’t worth it either?

The Michael Jordan Syndrome

Everyone knows who Michael Jordan is. You would be hard pressed to find a person in a marginally developed country who didn’t know who he was. While great players came before him, he transformed a sport. It became what it is today because of the dominance and excellence he exhibited.

And if you are old enough to remember when he played at the top of his game (I can’t believe I am asking a “are you old enough” question about MJ) you will also remember that every year when new players came into the league, people were obsessed with finding the new Michael Jordan.

Afernee ‘Penny’ Hardaway, Grant Hill, Reggie Miller, Kobe Bryant, Dwayne Wade, and Vince Carter were some of the people who were prophesied to be “the next MJ.”

How many of them were actually the next Michael Jordan? Not a single one. Did many of them go on to be fantastic, dominant players in the NBA? Absolutely. Did some buckle under the pressure? Arguably, yes. There was plenty of room for great players in the NBA, but people were trying to force this mantle of being Jordan on to people.

Enter World of Warcraft. In a room of monkeys (I use the term monkeys lovingly, not as an insult), World of Warcraft is a 1,200 pound gorilla. And since Blizzard’s entry into the MMO market has shattered what used to be preconceived notions of the mass appeal of the MMO genre, people have been quick to dub other games “the WoW killer.”

Age of Conan, Aion, Warhammer Online, and Dark and Light are some games so lovingly bestowed with that title.

How many of them “killed” World of Warcraft? None. And this goes back to the Michael Jordan statement. Is there room in this world for other MMOs to be successful? Absolutely. Are they going get 12 million subscribers? Probably not, although I am sure their investors hope so.

But there are plenty of people looking for a different experience. Pirates of the Burning Sea is sailing along with it’s player base (Pun totally intended). They recently went free-to-play and their doors are still open. Lord of the Rings Online tripled their revenue after going free-to-play but seem to be doing well and creating new content.

A unique challenge is distinguishing your game from all the others. A game like Pirates of the Burning Sea isn’t going to be mistaken for World of Warcraft, and neither will be DC Universe Online. However swords, mythical beasts, spell casting, dragons, and demons tend to look the same to the untrained eye. I could show my mother screenshots from different fantasy-based games and ultimately the difference would be lost on her outside vague appearance variations.

The gameplay will distinguish the games from each other. You won’t reach 12 million subscribers, no matter how unique your game is, if your user experience doesn’t have the ability to reach out to a new player, take them by the hand, and show them your fantastic world.

If you’ve played any other MMOs recently, even their free trials, you will find that the beginner experience in WoW  is second to none, and it’s only gotten better. Once you reach past the beginner’s level, what’s left is the stuff that keeps people interested. Blizzard has an intricate set of mechanics, and regardless of what people say about ‘balance’, it keep folks interested. The subtle differences in the numbers following decimal points can make the difference in one spec being top DPS in comparison to another spec. Combat is responsive, feels fluid, and your character seems like it reacts to you.

In comparison, Lord of the Rings Online felt “rubber-bandy.” While that’s not a technical term, I am sure you have experienced the effect of pressing a button and the subsequent action not feeling natural. In Pirates of the Burning Sea, ship combat is fantastic if you have the patience for it, which I would imagine most of the population does not. But the avatar combat still feels like a relative afterthought and suffers from the same “rubber banding” I felt in Lord of the Rings Online.

If you already drive a Lamborghini…

It seems popular to make fun of WoW, but at the end of the day, Blizzard is raking it in, and that’s not on accident. Ultimately the challenge other companies will find is convincing that their $15 dollar subscription fee is best used on their game instead of World of Warcraft.

World of Warcraft is the Lamborghini of MMOs currently. The Michael Jordan. And if you are already paying $15 a month for that Lamborghini, you might be hard pressed to be convinced to spend that $15 (or another $15) on something that’s not the Lamborghini. Sure, maybe a Lambo isn’t everyone’s favorite car. But the quality of the Lamborghini is not being questioned, as any level-headed individual can admit, it is a fantastic car most of us will never have.

That’s why Lord of the Rings started doing so well. People didn’t have to pay $15 to drive their car. I could go play the game at will. And if I wanted something extra for it, I could chip in a few bucks through micro transactions. More quests, more zones, whatever I felt like I wanted. Without the obligation of a monthly fee, since my $15 was already being given to my Lamborghini. But as they say, variety is the spice of life.

As I mentioned, this doesn’t mean there isn’t room for other monthly subscription games. Of course not.  You can pay a monthly fee for Lord of the Rings. Or Pirates of the Burning Sea. Or Rift when it comes out. Each game bringing something different to the table. And maybe there is something you like a lot more in one of the other games. I also know that every MMO I play in the future will be held to a high standard. From the leveling experience, end-game content, PvP, content patches, and UI customization will always be considered and compared to what WoW offered me.

Conclusion

So I feel like I am rambling so I should close this novel. A lot of basketball players were heralded as the next Michael Jordan. But remember this:

There was never another Michael Jordan, and there probably never will be. Eventually Michael Jordan retired and left the door open for other great players to take the spotlight.

I expect many people share a very different opinion then I do and I am eager to hear your thoughts or comments!

About Drotara

Drotara (or BehemothDan) considers himself a geek on many levels. A web developer and programmer by trade, he has no shortage of geeky hobbies. When not fulfilling husband and daddy duties, he enjoys WoW, the WoW TCG, Magic: The Gathering, and great board games with friends and family.