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Red 5 Studios CEO: I think WoW killed a genre

Mark Kern says MMOs have become too easy in the hunt for casual gamers

The CEO and CCO of Red 5 Studios and a former team lead at Blizzard warned that attempts to attract more casual players to MMO games with easier game play have damaged the genre.

"Players came in droves, millions of them," wrote Mark Kern in a blog post for MMORPG

"But at what cost? Sometimes I look at WoW and think 'what have we done?' I think I know. I think we killed a genre."

"Every MMO that follows the WoW formula is a trivial exercise"

He explains how during his time working on World Of Warcraft tweaks to accommodate new players became quests that babied the audience and sped up their progress through the game, removing any real sense of achievement. In turn, developers knew quests would be completed quickly, so didn't spend any time working on making them richer experiences.

"Every MMO that follows the WoW formula is a trivial exercise, dominated by rote and convention, trading off the joy of the journey for a series of meaningless tasks. And when we race to the end, we expect some kind of miracle end-game that will keep us playing. It never does."

Kern worked at Blizzard between October 1997 and April 2005, and contributed to World of Warcraft as team lead and the Diablo and Starcraft franchises as a producer. In 2008 he took his current roles at Red 5 Studios, which is currently working on shooter MMO Firefall.

"Firefall is not a trivialized distillation of an MMO. We found that adding a little difficultly and depth has actually made the game more fun, not less. Maybe, just maybe, as an industry we've made things too easy, and its time to get back to games being challenging as well as fun."

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Latest comments (22)

Samuel Verner Game Designer 8 years ago
he is right. wow killed the mmog genre. everyone is looking at the revenue and thinks this can be achieved by copying the formula, but wow is just an exception and so they fail. this killed any kind of innovation in the genre. before wow came, every mmog was very different and a pool of fresh and innovating ideas. nowadays mmogs are just uninspired wow clones which become boring after an hour or two.

...especially when it comes to pvp content. every time i see an mmog (persistent game world is the key feature of this genre!) with instanced pvp battlegrounds, then i just want to scream the designer in his face that he should quit his job and start selling roses in cafes.

10 years ago mmog where my most favorite genre and i thought 10 years from then everything will be possible there... nowadays i just hate them and the guys who design them.... if you can even speak about "designing them". most of them feel like they just copied/bought the design document from another former and now broke mmog studio. its like there is only one concept in the industry and everyone is passing it around to develop the same shitty game.

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Samuel Verner on 1st July 2013 10:16am

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Andrew Watson Tools Programmer 8 years ago
As someone who played both "vanilla" (around 2006, before any expansions) and modern retail WoW, I completely disagree.

They're practically different games by this point and very few, if any, of the people who played vanilla still play retail. Most of the "old" players I've talked to usually quit around the 1st or 2nd expansion, their reason being that the game changed too much and went in a direction that they didn't like.

WoW got very popular very quickly when it was first out, true, but I feel like Blizzard failed to understand what drew players into the game in the first place, opting for making the game more "accessible" to draw in more players instead of investing in things that attracted its audience in the first place. Namely, how the game was more difficult and took time and effort to do things that you could be proud of, and how many things forced you to interact with other players which helped build a community, compared to modern WoW where everything's just handed to you on a silver platter and other players can be completely ignored.

Sure, they've kept the game going for a very long time now, but recently they've had to do all sorts of things just to get people playing, like free trials, paying extra money for ingame rewards (both cosmetic and not), "scroll of resurrection" (invite a friend to play and gives them a max levelled character and X days free), paying extra for special mounts, etc. Since new content is so easy, practically everyone can breeze through it in a couple weeks and then there's nothing to do until the next content release. So a growing problem that Blizzard is having, is people unsubscribing once they've finished the new content and not resubscribing until there's more new stuff. (Compare that to vanilla WoW, where it took guilds literally months until new stuff was cleared)

The worst part isn't how much WoW has changed, it's how many new MMOs just copy it so much. And they copy the modern WoW, and not the old one that got millions interested in the first place.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Andrew Watson on 1st July 2013 2:01pm

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Sam Van Tilburgh Chief Discovery Officer, 22 Cans8 years ago
To me it stems from the idea that an MMO has to be level-based. I had many heated debate with my friends as we started playing the WoW beta and to this day we are divided. I think having "levels" causes that entire issue, look at UO; it never had levels and instead you never rushed a quest, or tried to get to the 'end game'.
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Show all comments (22)
John Bye Lead Designer, Freejam8 years ago
The other problem with levels in most MMOs (and the main reason I stopped playing WoW, less than a year after release) is that the level range for a particular zone or quest is often very narrow, as the game is constantly shuffling you along through the theme park instead of giving you a proper open world to explore at your own pace. Inadvertently wandering into a zone designed for players even a couple of levels above you leads to a frantic dash for the exit, while zones that are a couple of levels below you generally offer slim pickings.

I don't know if things have changed since then, but even being just a few levels apart in WoW made it almost impossible to party with a friend on something that would be interesting and achievable for both of you. Either one of you was slumming it, getting very little reward for killing enemies well below your level, or one of you was creeping along in your friend's wake in constant danger of near instant death in a zone much too tough for your level.

Personally I didn't have the free time to spend hours a day keeping up with the Joneses, and didn't have the patience or inclination to make a whole new set of virtual friends every week or two as my old friends levelled up past me. I just want to be able to play a game with my real life friends and have some fun doing it. It's one of the reasons I loved Realm of the Mad God so much - I could reach the level cap in a matter of hours, save spare equipment to give new characters a head start, and play alongside friends who were higher or lower level than me and still have fun and gain XP and loot, even if it meant hanging back a bit.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by John Bye on 1st July 2013 2:28pm

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Benjamin Crause Supervisor Central Support, Nintendo of Europe8 years ago
I think saying "wow killed a genre" is a bit stark but he certainly got a point thou. WoW is a phenomenon and they deserve the credit and rewards for it. The problem is that too many companies and customers alike think they can copy this. Making the next mega-hyper-MMO. That does not work. Copies barely ever work. Do you really want to play the same game twice just with a different outset?
While WoW is undoubtly the most successful MMO (in subscriptions and revenue) to me it is also one of the most boring ones and attraced way too many people. Yes, too many because this means the number of bad people is expotentially high.
My personal MMO crown is still sitting with Final Fantasy 11 (evne thou they shot hole into their ship with Abyssea) and I like the fact that FF14ARR is adressing casuals and hardcores, easy and challenging at the same time.
What we need to do is to learn from WoW but not trying to make a copy. If you start with a mindset of the "wow killer" you will fail and so far all who tried did.
"wow generation" is both an accurate coined term but also a derogative description to the demands of people who think another game like WoW would be fun. Look what worked and then apply something new. Innovation drives the genre. Not bland MMO mechanics and the neccessary (seriously) fetch quests.
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Joshua Rose Executive Producer / Lead Designer, Storm Eagle Studios8 years ago
EVE Online. Most complicated game I've ever played to date.

'nuff said. lol
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Andrew Watson Tools Programmer 8 years ago
@Benjamin Crause
The problem is that too many companies and customers alike think they can copy this. Making the next mega-hyper-MMO. That does not work. Copies barely ever work. Do you really want to play the same game twice just with a different outset?
Unfortunately, copying often does work in other genres. MMOs are not one of those though.
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Mariusz Szlanta Senior Producer, Natural Motion8 years ago
It's impossible for casuals to run HC content and it takes long weeks for many hard core guilds to clear the newest raid. Many guilds struggle on normal raids now and Blizzard actually had to respond to it with easy difficulty level to be introduced in next content update.

Every time I see WoW discussion, it boils down to how casual game become. I think that's far from truth. Game is quite challenging in many aspects and balances hard core and casual sides nicely. It also tries to expand in both directions.

Its problem is formula that runs since 2006 - level up, level professions, farm some materials, chase best in slot bunnies, repeat.
There is no equivalent of EVE living world created by players or profession fragmentation that would allow for endless specialisation. After some time, most people hit the wall and another add-on must be released.

As far as levelling goes - it is boring for anyone who knows the game but it's the best way to have tutorial in game. Yes, it's a long tutorial but there are many things to do and many buttons to push. It can be replaced by artifical borders or instanced locations but would it really work better in educating new players?

Last but not least, WoW evolved under pressuer of its players. Log into any heavy population server, PvE especially and you'll see how many casual guilds full of 25+ and older players with kids and jobs are around. Many of them are former hard core players that simply grew up and changing the game was the only way to keep them interested.

If anything, it expanded genre a lot and it's not WoW's fault that competiton cannot come up with better product.
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Andreia Quinta Photographer 8 years ago
Killing the genre is a bit of an overstatement, but I think he realizes the exaggeration.

He thinks they killed a genre because 12 million (8'ish now) flocked to what was an amazing experience, and not just a gaming one but to a very big extent, a social one. And since no one else seems to be able to mimic that experience with their copies, and even the original is losing it's appeal, Mark Kern seems to think gamers are afraid to try the genre again since it became so diluted and trivial these days.
I think it just needs to be thought over and set it a specific objective.

EVE has been thriving longer and it still going strong, without significant decline of subscription rates. The developers at CCP simply have their mind set on what their game will and will not abide to. The game [EVE] is still hard, it still punches you hard in the face everytime you lose a ship, the tutorials are still 'boring' to read through and the economy is... complicated to get into it. The learning curve is steep even after 10 years. Yet it's still expanding through free expansions and Dust 514, pulling in a (old and) new demographic to contribute to the universe.

WoW on the other hand grew too fast in popularity, with a boom during The Burning Crusade. Blizzard eventually confronted with a dilemma so subtle that I don't think they realized they were at a crossroads, listening to customer feedback and abide to the whimsical nature of new fans, or keep on a straight track of what the game should be.
Unfortunately too many changes were made over-time that invalidated the very sensitive line that is +Difficulty = +Sense of Value, nothing in this world worth having is easy, and to some extent it also applies to the sense of accomplishment in games.

The mere fact a dungeon now lasts 10/15 minutes (even in heroic) with barely mind-capturing bosses compared to the dungeon-crawling for 1h to 2h there was during Vanilla times is too much a difference to appeal to both vets and new players. Blizzard wants to please both greeks and trojans and therein lies the mistake I think they've made. They should have stick to their guns and only make the absolutely necessary changes, find the target people you want, and share with them the world as you originally intended.

The other problem, that is not necessarily the developers fault, is the age of the game. The mechanics are extremely old and everything is known, how it works, how it's done. I remember by the time Onyxia was killed for the very first time worldwide it was a feat like no other, the mechanics were still new, fresh, unknown to players how exactly to work out a specific encounter. So over the years it's been increasingly difficult for them to implement new mechanics or unpredictability into the game. Regardless of what creature or boss, everyone knows how to respond to certain situations, so over time the entire game became a pattern, from farming ores to killing the toughest boss, it's just a matter of learning the pattern, and there's no way around it until a new game engine comes into play.

And to avoid extending myself much further, one of the main reasons WoW peaked at 12M when it did during Wrath of the Lich King was precisely because of the ending of Arthas's story-arch. It was the long awaited conclusion of a story that began in July 2002 and a lot of heads turned when the Northrend expansion was announced.
Despite Cataclysm being the end of Deathwing's story-arch, people had lost interest upon release since so many changes had been made not only to the world itself, but to the way of travel, to the talents trees and the watered down content patches.

It was a good run, and I'm not alone when I say I've made some few real flesh and blood friends within the social aspect of the game, and I believe that's what holds a lot of people 'hostage' to it, the fact friends and family still play it.

I just wished Blizzard sticked to their original design and ideas to the end. Of course adaptation = survival in this business, but I believe it unnecessary in this instance.
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Emily Rose Artist 8 years ago
The old style mmos still exist and still get the hardcore crowd, the genre is fine.

And tbh I am really loving Firefall, it's quite sandboxy :) There is enough room for products for casuals and hardcores in this genre.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Emily Rose on 1st July 2013 4:45pm

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Axel Cushing Freelance Writer 8 years ago
I have the dubious distinction of having picked up all of the Collector's Editions for WoW (what can I say? I'm a sucker for soundtracks.) and the last one is probably the only one that I regret getting, and that was well after it's release. Far enough after that I got it for less than half the original street price. And I still feel like I didn't get a good value.

When I started WoW, yeah, it was tough and grindy, but I'm one of these weirdos who goes exploring in areas ten or twenty levels above mine just for the thrill of seeing new areas. Friends of mine who were also playing raced above me, but I was OK with that. I was having more fun seeing the sights. BC came out, all new sights to see, new races to play, new stories that added to the world in a meaningful way, very exciting. WoTLK, no new races, but plenty of new sights to see, excellent stories. That was probably the high water mark for the game. The right balance between grindy and accessible. Cataclysm gave us some new sights, and redid some of the old ones, but the stories weren't quite as good outside of the new races. MoP comes out, and it just completely felt empty to me. The stories didn't engage. The Pandaren came full circle as a joke race choice when they could have been something better. The sights were....meh.

WoW killed itself chasing the casual segment without doing anything to retain the more hardcore players, and the player base is hemorrhaging badly. Between WoTLK and Cataclysm, the numbers stayed north of the 10 million mark. Yeah, there's more hardcore stuff out there (EVE, for example, though that's way too much like work for me), but the best MMOs in the future I think are going to be the ones who can split the difference between the casual and the hardcore without either one feeling like they're getting the short end of the stick.
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I agree with the comments about MMO's being so limited due mainly to the constant use of character levels, and level constraint content design crutches.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Todd Weidner on 1st July 2013 7:19pm

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Justin Trautmann Studying Digital Media & Multimedia Technology, Hillsborough Community College8 years ago
Mr. Kern's article reads a lot like someone trying to distance themselves from their previous work so the spotlight can be on their most recent project.

His overall opinion of World of Warcraft killing the MMO genre is something I do not agree with - but I am very interested to read more on why he thinks that. Does he really believe the success of one company is the failure of all others? Is he speaking strictly on fantasy MMOs or those that copy/clone/imitate World of Warcraft? Does he believe EVE and Guild Wars 2 are not a success - or that success is only measured in the tens of millions?

This opinion piece he wrote could prove to be an interesting interview - especially if he is stating that many of the things a large group of former WoWers found dissatisfying about the game was under his watch and responsibility.
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Samuel Verner Game Designer 8 years ago
why are so many here are trying to use eve as an example for a successful different design beside wow? eve is a pre-wow-era mmog. it is a 10 year old game and its the only remarkable game in the genre since wow. if eve shows something, than its how dead the genre is.

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Samuel Verner on 2nd July 2013 11:00am

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Craig Page El Presidente, Awesome Enterprises8 years ago
All I can say is... FOR GNOMEREGAN!!!!!!!!!
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Andreia Quinta Photographer 8 years ago
why are so many here are trying to use eve as an example for a successful different design beside wow? eve is a pre-wow-era mmog. it is a 10 year old game and its the only remarkable game in the genre since wow
You answer your own question. The reason it's used as an example is because EVE is pretty much the only successful comparison to make that is still going strong. UO and EQ are pretty dead and decomposing now, so the only other MMO performing on par to WoW is EVE, of course it's used it as a comparison. Like you say:
the only remarkable game in the genre since wow
Comparing it to a free-to-play would be an faulty comparison since it lacks mandatory subcription, so active accounts tend to be a lot more dynamic.
Whilst comparing it to a more recent MMO that isn't old... Well, it just takes a minute to think about which one is AS successful.
- Guild Wars 2 is free, scrap that one.
- Tera is now free, lasted a year or so with subscription and not that many subscribers, scrap that.
- TORtanic was what it was.
- Age of Conan went free a long time ago.
- Rift was a WoW clone, and went free.
- Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach is still limping away.
- Final Fantasy XIV was terrible and only about to be re-released.
- Everquest II was average and lost itself to the freemium model.
- Lineage is freemium now.
- Lord of Rings had a chance to take the crown and blew it.
- Tabula Rasa was interesting enough and science fiction instead of sword fighting, but got killed.
- Warhammer online got hammered by the competition
- The Secret World isn't turning enough heads, just like AoC.

So, who would WoW's success be comparable to? besides the obvious choice of EVE. In terms of stable subscribers and little fluctuation of active memberships, WoW and EVE seem two giant freaks of the MMO nature, only comparable with one another.

We can't compare a Lamborghini to a Range Rover Defender, we have to compare Lamborghini to Ferrari or similar.
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Andreia Quinta Photographer 8 years ago
oh, and "FOR THE HORDE!"
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Alfonso Sexto Lead Tester, Ubisoft Germany8 years ago
I think the genre killed itself by trying to emulate WoW instead of offering something different.

And "Remember the Sunwell! "
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David Serrano Freelancer 8 years ago
"Maybe, just maybe, as an industry we've made things too easy, and its time to get back to games being challenging as well as fun."

Read the research:

"The Conqueror style of play identified by the DGD1 survey, which corresponds to Nicole Lazzaro‘s ―Hard Fun and its associated emotions of frustration (i.e., anger) and fiero (Lazzaro 2009), draws attention to an important aspect of the emotions of play: even negative emotions may have a role in enjoyment. About one in five (20.5%) respondents stated that anger increases their enjoyment of play (consistent with the Conqueror play style), while the majority (42.0%) of respondents had a powerfully negative response to this emotion, reporting that they avoided games that make them feel that way. This distinction may be an important aspect of any future trait theory of play."

Why are millions of players leaving WoW? Because after lvl 85, WoW has nothing to offer players beside PvE or PvP challenge. So beyond peer pressure, players who are not motivated to play by a desire for challenge (casual and hardcore) have no reason to continue paying to play.

What the game industry must learn is it can't create the future by clinging to the past. The concept that "games are about challenge" represents the past, not the future.
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Renaud Charpentier Game Director, The Creative Assembly8 years ago
Killed the genre?? Where? When? WoW is still big, EvE keeps growing, EQ and EQ2 are still updated, GW2 sold a lot of copies, Planetside 2 is a success, Eastern MMO are searing hot, great new MMOS are in the making with huge budgets, the genre has contaminated many others (Minecraft, Clash of Clans, Diablo3, ...) ... killed the genre, really?

Shoot Them Up, Point and Click adventure, Beat them All, these are genres bordering extinction, not MMOs, even the "next Halo", Destiny, is a kind of MMO.
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Edward Buffery Head of LQA (UK), Testronic8 years ago
The only thing WoW is guilty of is sucking in and holding so many players that could have potentially played other MMORPGs instead, if Blizzard hadn't released enough content fast enough and continually updated the core mechanics to include all the latest features from other games to ensure they didn't get left behind. I played it religiously for the first 6 years or so and yes I miss the older, more difficult days when it was a fun just to try and solo elites in Winterspring, and soloing a 2 or 3-man quest was genuinely difficult and usually involved more than a few attempts.

I ultimately stopped playing only partly because it got too 'easy', but mainly because my life had moved onto a stage where I just wasn't interested in MMORPGs in general anymore. There was about a 7 year period when I had space in my life for an MMORPG, and WoW managed to successfully hold me for pretty much that entire period. Kudos to Blizzard imho. Lok'Tar Ogar!
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Anthony Chan7 years ago
I think "Killing a genre" is very much a gross exaggeration, however, the tone of that comment underlies the frustrations many core gamers have with WoW. I personally consider myself in between casual and core, as during my vanilla days did not complete MC due to its difficulty (boss wise AND finding a guild/group to actually power through the raid).

I agree with that WoW made something normally reserved for the most seasoned of gamers, gamers who could dedicate countless hour; and converted it something that can be loved and enjoyed by everyone. They knew the costs and consequences trying to appeal to the masses, and they definitely alienated many gamers in the process.

However, they did not kill a genre, in fact, I would argue they may have created their own. I look at WoW as a social game with much more depth than any facebook game-lite could offer. They took the MMORPG and brought in more non-gamers into a community and thus created positive appeal to this genre in general. Before WoW, only the most knowledgeable gamers really delved into online RPGs. Now every kid, mom, dad, family knows what WoW is and enjoy playing it.

So realistically, Blizzard did the industry a favor, by increasing the number of people, developers can reach by tapping into this genre. It will be years before any developer is able to create something new that can do what Blizzard accomplished and the scale of its achievement.
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