Syncaine of Hardcore Casual and Tobold of…well, Tobold’s MMORPG Blog have been at each others throats during the last couple of days, the subject being the always tricky (and somewhat infected) “WoW tourism”. I won’t go into much detail about my own stand on the subject, I’ll just say that I tend to agree more with Syncaine than with Tobold, but I can’t stay away from reacting one thing Tobold wrote in his latest post on the subject.
Back in 2004 the fans of Everquest claimed that World of Warcraft won out against the nearly simultaneously released EQ2 due to better marketing. It is possible that there are undiscovered gems out there few people are playing. But that argument falls flat the moment a game gets a huge wave of initial subscribers, who *after* playing the new game for a while decide that it isn’t for them. In that case either the gameplay is less appealing, or the quality of execution, the programming is inferior. Nobody would ever react with “Hey, this new game is more fun and runs better than WoW, lets go back to WoW”. A customer who leaves and goes back to WoW means the new game failed to attract him. WoW might be the standard by which he measured that new game, but obviously he was willing to try something else, and would have staid [sic] if that something else had had sufficient quality.
Simply put, I don’t agree. Age of Conan and Warhammer Online, the two games that often get brought up in this discussion since they did see a huge wave of initial subscribers that fell away rather quickly after launch, did have their problems which did make some people leave. Absolutely, there’s no use in denying that fact (I have written a bit on the subject before). What I don’t agree with Tobold on is that people would never say “this is more fun than WoW, let’s go back to WoW”. Because, trust me, that happens.
The question “why do people keep going back to World of Warcraft” can, of course, be answered by just stating that WoW is a better game than its competitors. Some would claim that people go back to World of Warcraft after playing another MMO because the new game wasn’t as polished, a polish which more or less no new MMO would be able to live up to since Blizzard have had 4 years to improve WoW. Some, who are more sceptical of the WoW tourism phenomenon, would say that the players that bounce back to WoW do so because they expect the new game to be World of Warcraft, just in different clothing. Tobold is going for the first option, Syncaine seems to mix the two latter.
I would like to add another answer to that question, an answer which would include people saying “this is a better game, let’s go back to WoW”*. Syncaine is touching on it when he writes that…
…most WoW tourists did not even play WoW at launch, but jumped on at a later (and more refined) time. Now you add in the first love aspect to the expectation that all MMOs look like WoW did to them for the first time in 2005-2008. No matter what new MMO game launches, it’s not going to meet those expectations, and hence will suffer the WoW tourist effect.
For a lot of people, World of Warcraft is their first MMO. When the first wave of players picked up World of Warcraft in 2004, they did it because it was another Blizzard game, the next part in the Warcraft-saga. It wasn’t because it was a MMO, even though of course people from EverQuest or Dark Age of Camelot decided to give it a try as well. World of Warcraft helped introduce people to the MMO-genre, but most of all it introduced them to World of Warcraft.
Which means that, when a new game comes out, not nearly all World of Warcraft-players decides to try it out. In the case of Age of Conan, many did, but far from everyone. Unless you were in a guild that was so disillusioned with WoW (some were, some are, some will be – as always) that you all together decided to jump ship, you probably left a lot of your friends behind – friends that are interested in playing WoW, not a MMO.
So the tourist arrives at the new game, fresh with 30 days of playtime. If he bought a gamecard for World of Warcraft recently, chances are that his WoW-subscription is still active. He plays for a bit and experiences one of the points mentioned above – he thinks WoW is better, he thinks the new game lacks polish, or he expected a new World of Warcraft instead of a brand new game. Or he could actually really like the new game – he loves to RvR, or he truly enjoys the more reactive combat system of Age of Conan. But back in World of Warcraft his friends await him. All his characters, that he has invested so much time and energy in, are there. He knows what he has and what he is able to get. The new MMO, even though he really enjoys it, is still a bit of an unknown – just like WoW was, once upon a time. So taking the step back to World of Warcraft is not really a sacrifice, it actually feels like coming home.
Simply stating that a player would have stayed in the new game if it was better, that going back to WoW “means the new game failed to attract him”, is not taking the social aspect of MMOs into consideration, or how personally invested in a certain MMO a player can become. During my time in various MMOs, I’ve found games that appealed a lot more to me than World of Warcraft, but I have still left them behind to rejoin my friends, to play together with them, to come back to a game I know. For the last couple of years, many of us have lived a large part of our lives in Azeroth. That is a bond that can be very hard to break, despite finding a new game that really appeals to us.
The same goes, of course, for someone migrating from Vanguard to WoW or from EVE Online to Dungeons & Dragons Online. It’s just that during 2008 we saw the extremes of all these cases. It’s a fascinating subject, no matter what the true reason behind the “tourism” we’ve seen lately might be. Hopefully it won’t harm the genre in the long run.
(* I of course acknowledge that I am hardly alone in reaching this conclusion. Check out the comments to Tobold’s entry quoted above, there’s some nuggets in there and several people reaching the same conclusion as me. And some flaming. No answer from Tobold himself, though.)