WildStar’s Small Leap Toward the Risk Factor

We’re past the dawn of the MMORPG clones. After World of Warcraft‘s continued success many a moon ago, we saw years of MMORPGs with the same exact UI setup, the same quest setup, the same question marks above NPC heads, the same endgame setup, the same silly currencies to grind for, the same cute fluffy pets, and well– you get the idea. The same everything practically, but with a new graphical skin and sometimes– just sometimes– a different story.

Heck, we still see games mimic WoW almost entirely. The trend isn’t completely dead. Well, when game developers aren’t creating the latest and greatest MOBA that hopes to replicate the success of League of Legends, anyways. The current dawn is pretty MOBA-flavored.

But back to MMORPGs. The problem, you see, is that both gamers and developers are starting to wise up to the tactic of “copy all the things but with shiny colors!” Gamers are starting to specifically look for games in development that aren’t like other games they’ve played. Developers are starting to– slowly but surely– create games that take small, creative risks that set them apart from what’s been made before.

One of the best current examples is WildStar. Sure, there’s no arguing that Carbine followed a ton of the same footsteps Blizzard and other developers have planted firmly in the sand years ago. WildStar is full of familiar in a shiny setting: Loaded quest hubs, old school raids, dailies, currencies, reputations, endgame dungeons, a group finder tool, nodes to harvest, trinity roles, addons, optional damage meters, an obsession with the word “cupcake”… No, wait. That one’s new. Still. Many of the reviews about WildStar come back with the line, “It’s WoW in space!” Yeah, it definitely can appear as though it is. But it’s also more.


It’s the Small Steps, Cupcake

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The main story framework of WildStar takes a break from the norm. Instead of having a huge, overwhelming story unraveled within the first 20 levels, we start out in WildStar with the feeling of “oh, cool new planet!” then eventually find out about the big, deep story stuff as we near endgame. This gives us time to learn more about the planet and its people. We start off as heroes, sure, but we don’t start off as heroes who know exactly how their story is going to unfold. It’s not quite as obviously epic as SWTOR, for example, and in my book– that’s a risk. And a plus.

Raids in WildStar also aren’t a huge source of lore and endgame story. In WoW‘s current model, it’s hard to even get a sense of what’s going on in Mists of Pandaria without stepping foot in LFR. That’s partially why LFR was created, of course, but there’s always going to be a significant fraction of an MMORPG’s community that isn’t interested in raiding. Carbine remembered that and added in the solo story-based instances which is where the main story of the game takes place. This makes a whole lot of sense– even for a raid-centered game. RIFT‘s chronicle feature also does this excellently.

The odd quirky factor that makes up much of WildStar‘s general atmosphere is also a sort of risk. It’s fairly standard to have fantasy and sci-fi MMORPGs be a little “srs business”, especially during a game’s infancy. There’s a fine line between quirky and just plain ridiculous. Blizzard often rides this line precariously with many of their poop quests and pop culture references, but WildStar finds a better balance here.

WildStar is uniquely quirky. Chua are uniquely adorable and psychotic. The random insults from the graveyard-shift-working dude are odd, but uniquely WildStar odd. The game’s best (and most controversial) quirks aren’t found in other games. Even the goofy enemy art style and the character animations are uniquely WildStar. This isn’t a game that people won’t recognize in 10 years. There’s a reason many fans associate WildStar with Firefly. It’s odd, but it’s also unique. And what does that equate to? Yep. Risk. Not everyone loves WildStar‘s style, and that’s totally okay.

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The game’s taken a few smaller risks, too. The attempt to make dungeons and adventures a little more competition/RNG-based was definitely a risk. It hasn’t paid off as well as the developers had hoped, I’m sure, but in theory it was a solid risk to embark upon. Changing the RNG factors as rapidly as they have post-launch was probably not the best idea on Carbine’s part, but the game’s young. The team’s decision-making process will ideally improve with time (along with their bug-nuking methods one would hope).

WildStar‘s lengthy attunement process was definitely a risk, but one well worth taking. It’s essentially proof that yes, there are still gamers who enjoy such chains. There isn’t always a need to make everything super accessible. Niche is okay. Niche can still encourage profit. If there’s any message this should send to developers it should be the idea that not every game has to aim to be the biggest MMORPG on the block. A game can still attract a good-sized fanbase and make a decent profit without being The Best MMORPG Ever™. Gaming’s pretty popular now. Give up the Blizzard dream, guys. We’ll still love you.


Why Games Need that Risk Factor

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The core issue with games that mimic World of Warcraft and similar titles is the fact that copying, pasting, and re-skinning is safe. “Folks like WoW, right? If we repeat that formula we’ll have something awesome.” That’s the hope anyways. The problem with repetition is there’s no risk factor. There’s no “what if?”. What if things could be better? What if we could actually enjoy a well-populated game that didn’t feel as though we’d been there 12 times already? Of course it’s a risk. A completely new game with new mechanics, a new leveling system, and a new endgame is a huge risk. Players could leave in droves. But players could also fall in love.

As gamers get more and more complacent with things as they are, we hunger for risk. We desire change. This is part of the reason why indie games are starting to do rather well and why Kickstarter projects like Star Citizen are seriously taking off. Want something completely risky? Yeah, gotta go to the little guys for that. But here’s the kicker– if what the little guys are doing succeeds, then they’re suddenly able to compete with the big guys. That’s the power of risk.

We’re at a dawn where developers have access to communication tools like never before. They can reach out to fans, receive feedback, and even have talented fans help out with designing new content (Trove, I’m looking at you). It seriously shouldn’t just be the smaller studios and indie games pulling risks. Risks cost money. But if handled well– with receptive fan feedback– they just might be worthwhile.

And that’s why WildStar‘s efforts should be applauded. That’s why ESO‘s focus on a truly open-ended class system (although it does have its obvious balance issues) needs to be applauded. That’s why even World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor‘s focus on garrisons ought to be applauded. No, garrisons aren’t housing, but they are something new entirely– something more akin to an RTS feature. I’d love to see housing in WoW as much as the next person, but something new, unique, kind of risky? I’ll take it.

Risk doesn’t always need to come in huge hurdles. Sometimes small, risky movements can prompt larger changes. Sometimes the combining of features can spur new ideas. This is the benefit of risk, after all. While I’d love to see more game developers taking large risks with MMORPGs that make them a little more niche and thoroughly more innovative, I’m also okay with this notion of teeny risks that can add up to new features over time. We’re finally nearing a dawn of creativity of sorts. It’s about time.

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