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ARTICLE

Weekend Argument: Virtual "worlds"?

With the launch of Cataclysm, the discussion about virtual worlds and theme park vs sandbox design is more relevant as ever. Petter takes on the subject in this weekend's argument column.

Over the many years it's been running now, World of Warcraft has evolved quite a lot. As someone that has played since the days of Vanilla, before the arrival of any expansion packs, I've seen not only the world change - the entire game has more or less been remade. While the basics are still the same, the World of Warcraft of today is far from the game we started to play. It might have been a streamlined version of old MMOs when it came out, but as I noted in The Gnome Journals, today it is a streamlined version of itself.

With Cataclysm, Blizzard took the opportunity to reboot even the old Vanilla content. While many quests and areas remain the same, a lot of the level 1-60 content must have been an eyesore to the developers. While Wrath of the Lich King pushed for new ways to tell stories through the phasing technology, Azeroth itself was a relic of days gone by. High-level players could pit themselves against the horrors of Icecrown and take part in the interactive WoW-cinema of the Battle of Undercity, while new players still had to face off against the Defias in Westfall and look for Mankrik's wife in The Barrens.

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm
World of Warcraft: Cataclysm feature long quest chains more reminiscent of single players games than MMOs.
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Before Cataclysm changed the face of Azeroth forever, the developers had been limited to introducing rather small improvements to it. The elite Ogres in Loch Modan and Alterac turned non-elite to allow for easier soloing. A new Goblin settlement popped up in Dustwallow Marsh. But new players still knew that the real fun of the game started later - if not at level 58, when you finally can pass through the portal in the Blasted Lands, then at 68 when you can head to Northrend. And veterans would have to go through it all again when leveling their umpteenth alt. Azeroth was terribly outdated, and the Cataclysm allowed for the reboot many of us had been hoping for for a long time (ironically enough, Outland feels outdated now, but that's a whole other discussion).

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm
Do you remember when getting to exalted reputation with the home cities was terribly hard? Or when no one except dwarves and gnomes could ride mechanostriders?

Except for the places that didn't feel the full wrath of the Cataclysm, these changes bring with them the streamlining that the questing had already seen in Wrath of the Lich King - now taken even further. Even before Cataclysm, critics like Wolfshead had already claimed that Blizzard had killed adventure and replaced it with a focus on unchallenging "fun". Pete Smith of Dragonchasers and IT World felt similar as he leveled his new character through the new content and likened it to Dragon Age: Origins (even though it should be pointed out that he is also enjoying the game). I talked briefly about the new linearity in the first part of The Gnome Journals and how I felt locked in by it. Famous MMO-blogger Tobold wondered who Blizzard consider their core audience, while Syncaine of Hardcore Casual was his usual snarky self.

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm
Icelandic CCP Games' EVE Online is still going strong, still growing - but their subscriber numbers can't even begin to compare to Blizzard's.

According to Blizzard's own numbers, World of Warcraft currently holds 12 million players worldwide. That makes it, by far, the biggest (subscription based) MMO in the world. Simply by virtue of their success, Blizzard directly influence other games in the genre. The word "WoW-clone" has been thrown around countless times over the last couple of years. At the same time, smaller titles like EVE Online (which still is big, even though they hold 11.7 million less players than WoW) and Darkfall Online (subscription numbers unknown) chugs along quite nicely. But the sandbox design, where players get a lot more freedom and have to craft their own fun, is becoming increasingly niche. Star Wars: The Old Republic puts even more focus on story than Cataclysm, while Tera and Rift both look to be quite similar with their focus on PvE questing. And while Perpetuum, Ryzom and Wurm have built sandboxes to play with, they are both indie games with small player bases.

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm
Perpetuum, developed by indie company Avatar Creations, launched last month and offers the player a sandbox world to drive their mech around in. The question is how successful the game will be in the long run.

The question is if this is a good thing or not. It's been discussed over and over again, but with the introduction of Cataclysm it's more relevant than ever. World of Warcraft has undoubtedly been driving Western MMO design for years now, even having an effect on games that released before it (the infamous NGE patch for Star Wars Galaxies, for example). Cataclysm brings even more streamlining to the genre, tipping it even more towards solo-friendly single player territory. Star Wars: The Old Republic, if it is a success, looks to be doing the same. We're moving away from the virtual worlds of Everquest and Ultima Online, and we've been doing so for a long time. Not that it stops some players from crafting their own sandbox fun, but still...

So this weekend we ask - is this something that you want? Are you an old-time MMO player that hate or enjoy these changes? Are you a newbie that have just started out, either in Cataclysm or in any other MMO, and did these changes help you when you decided to start? Do you loathe MMOs, but still have an opinion on what you would want from a virtual world? Let us know in the comments below!

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