First of all, it's difficult to define "art". The all-knowing ever-truth of Wikipedia says that "Generally, art is made with the intention of stimulating thoughts and emotions." But my question is; for what purpose? Because it really makes all the difference. Thing is, there is an important difference between "I made this for the heck of it" kind of art, and "I made this so I could make money out of it" kind of art. The first is probably what is more generally considered art, and the second is probably more generally considered any commercial product. But it's not really that simple of course. Beethoven might be considered art and Justin Bieber definitely isn't considered art, but why not? They're both musicians (excuse me for using the term to describe Bieber) and they both did/do music mainly to earn money or make a living. In fact, it is quite impossible to know why one person decides to create what he creates, you and me can never know for sure if the creator has "for the heck of it"-reasons or "want to make money of it"-reasons. And if we don't know, does it matter? Yes, of course it matters. Otherwise we wouldn't even try to distinguish between "true" art (whatever that is) and commercial
I'm not naïve enough to think that there used to be a time where game developers didn't care about what the general public wanted or money and just went their own way (although of course there are plenty of good games created that way). Game development has always been a costly undertaking and most creators tried to develop something that would sell, of course. But I do think that in the early years of gaming, most game developers didn't even know what people wanted. They created games they thought they would like - "this is what I want to play" - because that was really the only idea they had of what would make a good game. Fast forward to today and games are even more expensive to develop, the competition even more murderous. Game developers can no longer afford to think "what would I like?" but have to look at the market and think "what do people want?". The commercial ideas sell and there is nothing wrong with that, but where do we end up if we keep that course? What will happen if the safe choice is the only choice and when indulging the consumer is the only factor that determines game design? David Wong asks us exactly this in his article "6 Most Ominous Trends in Video Games" over at Cracked.com.
"For instance, each of the Big Three game console makers took the stage at E3 to show off their biggest games of the upcoming year. Microsoft led off with the aforementioned Modern Warfare 3, which is really Call of Duty 8 (game makers like to switch up the sequel titles so the digits don't get ridiculous). Next was Tomb Raider 10 (rebooted as Tomb Raider). Then we had Mass Effect 3, and Ghost Recon 11 (titled Ghost Recon: Future Soldier). This was followed by Gears of War 3, Forza 4 and Fable 4 (called Fable: The Journey)."
Sequels and remakes don't have to be a bad thing. And it kind of goes without saying that the longer something exists, the likelier it is that it will be remade. In the early years of gaming we had a lot of new games simply because there were no old games to make sequels of. But it also seems to make game developers comfy and cowardly - they prefer going for a sequel that they know will sell for a certain amount, rather than trying to invent something new that might not (and who can blame them really?). And yet, people who create games because "I would like to play this" still can make loads of money. Just look at Minecraft.
Sequels and remakes is just one part of the problem. The other is the simplification of every concept. Making games more accessible generally means making them both easier to understand and play, but also rewarding continously smaller achievements. I see the point in this in games that are designed to be played only a couple of minutes at the time, like Angry Birds. But this kind of thinking and game design is sneaking its way into other games as well - because this too is what people want (and therefore ultimately where the money is).
"(...) the most profitable game company right now isn't Activision/Blizzard or Nintendo or EA, it's Zynga, the makers of Farmville.
But do we really want this in every game? Just because it's a working concept in one game really mean that it will be a good idea in another? I don't think so. We're making the mistake of thinking that all games can be treated alike.
"(...)what we're now calling video games will cease to be a thing, and will break up into several different art forms, each with their own medium. We'll have true "games" where we perform simple tasks to kill a few minutes or get a high score (Angry Birds, etc) that will cost a dollar or two. We'll have interactive stories that are less about "winning" and "losing" and more about relating to characters and following drama (...)"
We could discuss the gamers responsibility in this. With big costs come big fees, and few people are interested in paying a lot of money for something they don't know will be good. I'll pay for the next Pokémon, because I am quite sure I'll like it. But I might be more reluctant to pay for some new title. Game developers are comfy and cowardly because the market is comfy and cowardly. But it doesn't really matter who's to blame, point is there might be a problem which we need to acknowledge. The core of the issue is that gamers think they know what they want so game developers feed them what they think we want. But I'd like to argue that we don't actually know what we want. I sometimes get the feeling that the gaming industry treats us like a parent would treat a 5 year old who could decide for themselves what kind of food they want and whether they have to go to school or not. I know what 5 year old me would've chosen, and 26 year old me is glad my parents lovingly forced me to grow up - not by removing the easy and appealing choices, but by making me understand why I should try something else. Instead of giving us CoD 4 for 50 euro, they could give us Minecraft for 10 euro, making both choices about equally appealing.
So what does this have to do with WoW?
I like to think that when WoW first was released, it actually brought something new to the gaming arena. It was definitely not the first mmorpg, but it sure did something first to become so big as it did, basically making mmorpg to not only a viable gaming genre, but perhaps setting a new standard for how games must look at all in the future to make players interested. I don't think the Blizzard crew sat down one day and said "ah screw it, let's put millions into this project just to see where it will take us". I think they really did believe it would become a hit - but they didn't know. Nothing like it had really been done before, Blizzard just had to have that gut feeling that this is what the gaming market was ready for, without being able to look at a competitor and say - hey look, they made it, let's copy that concept. They must've thought "this could work, because we think it would". Gamers didn't say "we want mmorpgs", Blizzard said "we would want mmorpgs, and we think you will too". There will always be some mmorpg veteran who'll say "WoW didn't invent anything new", but again - they did something revolutionary to the genre.
Putting on my rose tinted goggles I'm going to say that WoW initially started out as a vision, an idea, which might or might not work. But since then it has been treated less and less like an idea and more and more like a product. Blizzard is doing a tremendous job, almost unlike anything else in the gaming world before, keeping in touch with their consumers and trying to find out what we want. Almost too good a job if you ask me. There is nothing more important for a game developer that being able to steer firmly between the idea of the product and what the consumers want. There is no doubt that there should be some work done to improve the game towards what the gamer wants, but you also have to be able to sit down and think - is this really a good idea? We all want immediate satisfaction, we all want to win. When given the choice, it is damn difficult not to cheat or get something the easy way. If Blizzard asks us what we want, we'll probably yell "TO PWN!" (and this goes especially for the whiners on the forums), but when given the IWIN button we quickly realize that it didn't actually make the game as fun as we thought it would, or at least not for a very long time. Syl over at Raging Monkeys makes a similar case regarding the removal of the key ring and attunement quests in WoW;
"Maybe they get us straight to where we want or at least, to where we think we want to be. (...) Maybe "timesinks" are where life really happens."
But "takes a lot of time to complete" is not the same thing as "timesink". There is a huge difference between having to travel 5 minutes to vendor something while questing and having to spend 7 hours on an attunement quest. The first is inconvenient and in my view a waste of time, the second is part of the game design and part of the idea of the game. Blizzard have to be able to point at something else and say "this is probably a better idea" and not force us to like it, but design it to be equally appealing as the easy choice. We bust our asses in heroic modes not only because of the greater feeling of accomplishment, but because our characters get even cooler gear. We spend hours with archaeology, not because we all secretly hope to become the next Indiana Jones, but because some of the rarest (and in some cases best) gear can be found that way. We will struggle if the reward is good enough. Instead Blizzard tends to remove the struggle more and more, and also minimizing the reward more and more. Back in Vanilla, blue was the epic - epic was TRULY epic. Nowadays we sigh when we group up with someone who, god forbid, has a green item equipped. Most achievements and novelty items, such as mounts and pets, aren't that difficult to get either. Having Val'anyr wasn't as cool as having Thunderfury. Heck, having Shadowmourne isn't as cool as having Lok'delar/Rok'delar (not to the individual anyway). Soon, having a legendary will be standard while not having one will have people sigh at you (if you're the appropriate class).
Making the game more accessible isn't automatically a bad thing, but it mustn't be taken too far. At some point, Blizzard have to tell us that they won't change what they think is the core concept of the game, just because we feel it is the best thing to do for the moment. We're not paid to know everything about game development, they are. We must trust that they ultimately know better than us what this game needs, and they must trust that too. Yes Blizzard, we think we want it easy, we think we want fast epics and easy gear - but we probably don't. Don't listen to us.