Since both Gillen and Bengt, my steady co-workers and editors here at GR UK, have started to blog I guess I should do the same. At some point, with fascinating material.
You heard me, fascinating. But it is not this day obviously, since uploading a trailer for Farts vs Zombies to our media server stole all my energy. Instead I leave you with a picture of our unofficial mascot, Kola. Rumours has it he lives under Bengt's sofa, feeding on the feet of whoever is brave enough to sit in it.
As my main in World of Warcraft has been a gnome rogue for the last three years, I decided to ditch my halfling burglar in Lord of the Rings Online, instead settling on a warden, one of the new classes from Mines of Moria. On paper the class mechanics of using combos (called "gambits") seemed like a lot of fun, but in truth it wasn't really as exiting as I had hoped. In Age of Conan the real-time combat allows for the combos to actually be fun to execute, in a more traditional MMO-system it felt more cumbersome and slow than entertaining.
I was also getting tired of The Shire. The zone looks marvelous, and very Shire-ish, but the constant running around got the better of me in the end. So I ditched my warden in the middle of a field and decided to go against my instincts and re-roll a human, finally settling on a captain. The class mechanics for the captain sounded interesting and it was a kind of class I've never really played in a MMO before - I usually go for the high DPS-classes, loving to theorycraft my own rotations to max out my damage (if I'm successful or not is a different story, better left to my old raid leaders to decide).
I'm glad that I did, because the captain is proving a lot of fun to play. I burned through the introduction in Archet, which went a lot faster and was more fun than I remembered (perhaps something Funcom should take a closer look at), and by now I've reached level 12 and is happily helping the dear hobbits of Staddle. My dear standard bearer, Patsy, is tagging along wherever I go, giving me a boost of morale and a helping hand when slaying the enemies of the free people of Middle Earth.
I've also managed to cross of the first post on my list of places to go on my sight-seeing tour, The Prancing Pony in Bree. Up until that point I hadn't seen that many players around, but Bree was (relatively) bustling with activity and I got to see my first level-capped player in all his glorious equipment. At The Pony I spent some time just hanging out, sitting at the fireplace, until another captain got up and started to play Meat Loaf's I Would do Anything for Love on his lyre. I danced along, loving how the virtual world suddenly came to life. I might be on a RP-server, but it's hard to not appreciate some sudden rock'n'roll.
As I slowly start crawling up in levels, my impression of Lord of the Rings Online is split in two. I am enjoying it - I enjoy questing, I really enjoy the epic quest chain, and I'm starting to enjoy the crafting (I went for weapon smith, hoping to one day forge my own, legendary weapon). But there are some problems with it, problems that later levels might be able to fix.
First of all, the game is insanely beautiful. This in itself is not bad at all, I love the vistas and the exploring, but at the same time it can look so realistic that it actually borders on looking boring. Now, the environment hasn't really changed since I took my first steps in Archet, and Bree-land does have the same overall color scheme as The Shire (including the hobbit holes around Staddle), so I am hoping for a bit of change when I leave the zone behind.
Secondly, the character design is generally bad. Most equipment looks like crap. I managed to find a pair of elven boots that looked great, but I had to replace them fairly soon when I got some new boots that had better armor on them. And turquoise leather pants? You are pulling my leg, Turbine. It can't look good on anyone. The equipment does look better at higher levels, I know as much from looking at players running past me in Bree, but it can't save the female characters from looking ridiculous when they run. It's really sad, because with the environments looking as great as they do, the characters and the equipment would deserve an overhaul.
And last but not least, which of course is my personal problem, is that until now Lord of the Rings Online feels a bit like a single player game. Most MMOs, especially when they've been around for a while, suffers from the same problem when a large part of the player base has moved on and is currently occupied in areas aimed at a higher level range. World of Warcraft especially suffers from this (despite Blizzard trying to artificially solve the problem by not adding trainers and auction houses to the new areas). I do see some players, but they are few and far between, and as I noted above it wasn't until I entered Bree that I actually started to see a crowd. This can easily be fixed, either through leveling or joining a kinship. I guess I'll get around to that last part sooner or later.
I don't think Lord of the Rings Online, just like Everquest 2, ever will become my new MMO of choice. But it's fun enough for me to keep my subscription active for a while longer and I enjoy taking a well-needed break from World of Warcraft. And I still have Rivendell and Moria on my list of places in Middle Earth that I need to visit.
Jeff Kaplan, also known as the blue poster Tigole and Game Director of World of Warcraft, has left WoW to work on Blizzard's upcoming, still unannounced MMO, leaving Allen Brack and Tom Chilton to deal with operations.
It's not really strange to see him go - it seems like Blizz has been phasing out him out during the last couple of months, getting ready to move him over to the new MMO full-time officially when the time felt right (probably around the same time as the community has gotten used to, and already fed up with, Greg Street/Ghostwalker).
It's nice to see Blizzard making the move in the open, though. It proves that work on that mystery-MMO, which we've hungrily been waiting for information about, is in full swing and that they feel that they can be open enough about it to openly admit that Kaplan is involved with it (if there ever was any doubt that he'd be). Suddenly, the next Blizz-MMO is back in the semi-spotlight, and speculation is once again free to stir up the Interwebs.
Which, incidentally, is exactly what I will do after the jump. Speculate, that is, not stir up any Interwebs.
So, what MMO could Blizzard potentiallybe working on? Looking back at their history, they only have three major IPs to choose from - Warcraft, Starcraft and Diablo. This is all out the window if they suddenly decide to go for a completely new IP, which seems highly unlikely. It was unlikely even during the time when Blizzard was under Vivendi's wings, but with Activision actively "exploiting" their owned brands, I highly doubt that even Blizzard would be able to get away with launching a whole new, untested IP, no matter Acti's fancy talk about leaving them alone.
Basically - even if Blizzard was working on a completely new IP, chances are that they had to remake the MMO to fit into one of their old ones anyway. So I call the "new IP"-theory highly unlikely.
Like it or not, but World of Warcraft is becoming old. That is not to say that it is in any way dying, we don't even know if the game is even close to peaking in popularity. But it is slowly moving towards its fifth year anniversary, which also was the anniversary SEO celebrated for the original Everquest by releasing Everquest 2. And Asheron's Call 2 was released in 2002, only three years after the release of Asheron's Call.
I honestly don't think that Blizzard will do the same mistake SOE and Turbine did with their franchises, though. Not only did they split their player base by introducing the new games, the new games never reached the popularity of their predecessors. AC2 was shut down in 2005, while EQ2 is still up and running but with user numbers that never managed to get close to the first EQ's 450 000 players. Blizzard is not about to make the same mistake.
You want Warcraft, you get World of Warcraft. There won't be a Warcraft 4 and no World of Warcraft 2. Blizzard has been adding to the WC-lore during the last couple of years and will probably keep expanding it through WoW. The game's servers will be up and running for a long, long time, until it no longer will make economical sense to keep them that way. And with the current player base, who knows when that might be?
What I do believe, on the other hand, that the next expansion for World of Warcraft - be it the Emerald Dream, the Maelstrom or both - will be the last one that Blizzard will put their whole marketing monster behind the way they've done with Burning Crusade or Wrath of the Lich King. There will be new expansion packs, people will eat them whole as they've done before, but I don't think we'll see that kind of "ooomph" that we've seen up until now. It makes perfect marketing sense, World of Warcraft is as noted above getting older every day, and both Blizz and Activision want to put something new and groundbreaking out there - with the marketing to clear the way for it.
But what game will it be, then? Not a new IP, nor World of Warcraft 2. A World of Diablo seems highly unlikely to me, mostly since Diablo already is a highly popular online roleplaying game (although not technically a MMO). As others have pointed out as well, the Diablo IP lacks the lore to be fleshed out to a fully-fledged MMORPG anyway.
So what does that leave us with? World of Starcraft.
I know, most people are tired of the constant fanboi-posts about a Starcraft-MMO that plagues the Internet. Most of them do not go any further than "it wold be awesomz lol" anyway, which makes the whole arguing for the case of Blizz's next MMO being based on Starcraft tiresome to even go into. But looking at what we have, with both WoW 2 and WoD sounding highly unlikely, it's hard at least for me not to draw that conclusion. Simple deduction.
First of all, we know that a World of Starcraft would be an instant hit. If nothing else, the Koreans would eat it whole - they love Starcraft and they love MMOs. And with the Starcraft 2-triology starting to come out this year, the hype for the franchise will just keep building. Blizzard has already added in third-person story segments to what we expected to be a fairly standard (as standard as Starcraft ever been, that is) RTS-game and it would not surprise me if that engine can be (or has been) fleshed out to carry a whole game on its own. Not only will Starcraft 2, which game play looks as rock solid as the original, build up the hype, but the story segments will start to build a feel for the actual characters that drives the story forward - just like Arthas, Jayna and Thrall in Warcraft 3 did for World of Warcraft.
Another reason why Blizzard would go for a MMO based on Starcraft is the simple reason that the market is flooded with fantasy-MMOs. Even if Diablo is more gothic than Warcraft, it's still fantasy - and we got so many fantasy games to choose from these days. A new MMO from Blizzard would have to stand out in a major way, not only by being a game from one of the world's most renowned game studios. Sci-fi is the way to go, unless you choose to follow the road Funcom is taking with The Secret World.
My theory is that Blizzard will release the three Starcraft 2-games over the course of 2009 - 10, ramping up the story to its dramatic and epic conclusion that will open the floodgates for a World of Starcraft. World of Warcraft will keep selling for a long time, new expansion packs will be released and the realms will be online for at least another 10 years (remember, people are still playing the original Starcraft, Diablo 2 and Warcraft 3 online, games that are really old by now). But the market needs something new and Blizzard will be right there to dominate the MMO-market for a long, long time.
It's all speculation, of course. But thinking about it, it makes perfect sense to me. Feel free to point out any flaws in my reasoning - I would love to get the thought out of my head, because right now I can't help staring at SC2-screenshots and dreaming about World of Starcraft.
Update: Tobold pointed out to me that "apparently Blizzard said that the new MMO would use none of the existing brands, so you're probably wrong with World of Starcraft", which might be true. I've heard that mentioned before, but I can't find a source for it. Anyone? I still think it sounds unlikely, especially after the Vivendi-Activision merger, but having a nice, round quote from Blizzard themselves would be great.