Everyone is quivering with anticipation at Blizzard’s upcoming “major” announcement. They have been hiring MMO developers, and they have a terribly neglected (but still hugely popular, especially in Asia) franchise in Starcraft.
Although an RTS Starcraft 2 might be desired by some, Blizzard has no choice in this matter but to go MMO. First, the revenue opportunities of even a mediocre (by Blizzard standards) MMO are far superior to a blockbuster RTS– a fact most likely first and foremost on Blizzard’s parent company, Vivendi’s, mind. Now that Blizzard has established itself as such a cash-cow, they will be held to those standards until they fail (capitalism is great…just ask the USSR). Just to give you a flavor of what we’re talking about, the WESTERN MMO market broke $1 billion in 2006, according to this report with WoW accounting for 54% of that marketshare.
Second, because of all this success, Blizzard already has the infrastructure and the core competency of running an MMO (call centers, billing systems, international infrastructure, etc), so to continue to support MMO creation. And last, because of their tremendous success in the gaming industry, by having brought a record number of gamers into the MMO fold, by NOT making an MMO, they will lose credibility in the industry (and would deserve to).
It’s possible the new Blizzard game will be Diablo 3 (Diablo 2 shown here).
And so Blizzard will undoubtedly announce a new MMO in the next few days. But will it succeed? They’ve got a number of challenges to overcome. First among these is creating a successful sci-fi MMO. Conventional wisdom is that fantasy MMO games are done–Blizzard won. With a 54% marketshare, it’s hard to disagree with this statement. But I do. Perhaps they’ve won in this generation, but keep in mind EQ was the juggernaut until Dark Age of Camelot came along. I don’t think Mythic’s Age of Reckoning will rock WoW like DAOC rocked EQ, but I do think it may surprise people. And if not Age of Reckoning, then some other game: nothing stands forever– just look at the quagga.
There are many challenges in making a Sci-Fi game: not the least of which is that Sci-Fi typically revolves around higher technology weaponry. I, and most gamers, can almost inexplicably accept that an axe to the body causes 50 points of damage. It’s a tougher sell that a laser to the chest does anything less than death. Further, ranged combat, always a sticky situation in MMOs (with issues of lag, etc) is very hard to resolve. Tracking bullets? Instantaneous lasers? Perhaps homing rockets? All of these weapons should deal nothing but death.
For whatever reason, gamers just don’t like standing around waiting for their weapons to fire in a pseudo FPS environment governed by what is ultimately D&D mechanics. Get hit by a fireball and live, but survive a missile–that’s just not real! It’s also harder to build a compelling magic system in a Sci-Fi setting. Magic can heal people, sure, but a bandage doesn’t make skin close. Despite the absurdity of these double standards, the fact remains that Sci-Fi has been a tough genre to crack.
Fortunately for them, Blizzard has some major design advantages going in. Undoubtedly, a triple faction system (a nice evolution of the dual faction system WoW made famous) will exist. Starcraft did a nice job of mixing melee and ranged, thanks to the shields and heavy robotics of the Protoss, the alien nature of the Zerg, matched up against the more conventional Human faction. The fact a machine gun does “50” points of damage is more bearable when it 50 points of damage against a Protoss shield, or a Zerg carapace rather than a squishy human.
From a business advantage, working in Blizzard’s favor is the tremendous love of Starcraft the Asian market has. Not only do the Koreans love Starcraft, they still televise competitions of the game. Given WoW’s popularity there, in conjunction with the love of Starcraft, and the general size of the Asian market (3.5 million of WoW’s 8 million subscribers are in China), it’s safe to say Blizzard will be entering the market on very favorable terms.
Maybe the space vaginas of Starcraft Ghost will make a bloody return.
The real question and concern I have is if the Starcraft MMO will be WoW in space, or if they’ll break new ground in terms of game experience. To me, the greatest victory Blizzard had with WoW was the level of polish and playability. The game was pretty, it was fun, and it was relatively stable (as MMOs go). I did not think it was terribly well balanced, for PvE or PvP: the PvE game is balanced around necessity, not fun, and the PvP game is balanced around crowd control (which is absolutely no fun if you’re on the receiving end of it). The crafting system was better than other games because it was well designed, but it wasn’t particularly innovative: bronze swords are still resold en masse as a result of skill up, and few items, except for high end resist gear for raiding, were actually better than monster loot or quest rewards.
WoW won because it was pretty, polished, articulate, and fun– like the girl no gamer will ever get–which was enough to put it ahead of the competition. It set a new standard because it wasn’t as sloppy as those MMOs past, but it was still troubled by its own share of incompetence and poor design.
If gamers aren’t cattle (which isn’t proven yet), MMO games that are simply polished, articulate and fun won’t be enough to satiate them in the next generation. I believe that what has kept MMOs alive historically wasn’t necessarily their design, but rather the sense of continuity, the sense of community, and the investment of time that makes it very hard to quit. WoW stepped this up by making the process (more) fun.
For Blizzard to prove they are more than a one trick MMO pony, the Starcraft MMO has to innovate. There needs to be more than a good quest system, factions and mediocre PvP. That’s not to say Blizzard can’t make a game with these characteristics in the Starcraft Universe, and not pull in four million subscribers without trying. But it will be a disservice to the medium and the gamer community if they settle for mediocrity in that manner.