The MMO bandwagon has trundled along since World of Warcraft won over gamers back in 2004. Countless rivals have attempted to overtake, but even the biggest brands have run into a few potholes.
Star Wars: The Old Republic failed to draw in enough subscribers and switched to a free-to-play model after less than a year, and even a new expansion couldn’t stop WoW from losing more than 1.6m subscribers since January.
But MMO specialist NCsoft strives to be the expection to the rule. 2012’s Guild Wars 2 was a hit, and hopes are high for its next title Wildstar.
In fact, the team at Wildstar dev Carbine Studios believes talk of ‘struggling’ MMOs is misleading.
“WoW is not hurting,” explains producer Stephan Frost. “It still has 7.7m players, so there is demand. Other MMOs have struggled, but I think we can see the weaknesses and why they failed: it’s the ones that have no elder game. There are people that get through games in three days. It should take months, but these hardcore individuals get through them. You need something to keep them busy for long periods.”
The lack of endgame content is just one of the many issues Frost believes is behind the decline of the MMO. The team has taken it upon itself to ‘fix’ the other design choices that hinder other titles in the genre.
For one thing, the gameplay caters to different play styles. Players can avoid combat if they choose, and focus instead on the Explorer and Scientist quests, or generate resources for the world as a Settler.
Carbine says simple things like the ability to automatically pick up loot from fallen foes, and quests that adapt if you play them out of sequence, can massively improve the experience for players.
“We’ve had people that worked on WoW, City of Heroes, Warhammer, so it’s easy for us to identify any of those games’ weaknesses and address them,” says Frost. “I’m not going to name names but there are a lot of crappy MMOs out there. And that’s not to say these people are no good at making them; it just takes a lot of money and time to make a solid game.”
Crucially, NCsoft and Carbine isn’t just targeting MMO veterans but newcomers and console gamers, too.
The combat feels like something out of a console action game thanks to moves like dash and double jump. As a result, Wildstar will be less daunting than other more stat-heavy MMO battle systems.
“MMOs are scary,” says Frost. “If you’ve only been playing console games, there’s a lot to learn. But our gameplay is pretty quick to pick up and it’s a lot more skill-based, so it’s more fun for a console demographic.”