Making WoW - The Games Magazine Industry, AMA with Author John Staats
Last year, John Staats published The WoW Diary, a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of vanilla Warcraft. With Classic WoW now launched, we thought it was the perfect time to check back in with Staats and highlight the book again!
We're excited to announce that every week or so, we'll be publishing an essay about vanilla WoW by John Staats. This week's essay is
Inside the MMO Bubble
, discussing drawbacks of the games magazine industry, the dominant PR machine before the rise of Twitch.
Have any questions on the essay or vanilla WoW development in general? He'll be checking out the comments section and answering them, so you may learn something new!
A million years ago, I designed and built half of the dungeons in vanilla WoW. If you have any questions about making the game, I’m happy to answer, here on Wowhead. - John Staats
In my time in the gaming industry, I witnessed a somewhat dubious relationship between game journalists, developers, and publishers. It was rare that magazines or websites gave negative reviews of anything, for fear of being blackballed. Journalists served more in a PR capacity, and it was uncommon for any of them to have development experience, so game companies could easily bluff their way through tough questions: The press generally lets companies hang themselves with their own rope, even if customers became collateral damage. Devs can usually tell when someone is faking it or making promises (to customers and investors) that will never happen. Such was the common case with MMOs. Many improbable titles were announced that caused many on Team 2 to roll their eyes and shake their heads at the MMO bubble around our industry. The bubble was so big that most audience members at a GDC talk raised their hand when a panelist asked if they were currently working on a massively multiplayer online game.
The lack of critical journalism complicates the riskiest part of computer game development, which is the backers’ inability to evaluate their investment. This is why many massively multiplayer online games went out of business—investors couldn’t tell if they were being scammed until the money was gone. Even if funding comes from a publisher or another game company, which is often the case, only the most invasive scrutiny has a chance of identifying show-stoppers. It’s similar to the film industry—a movie’s weak link isn’t evident until after the film is in the can.
Too often unethical developers would fool the press into writing glowing reviews with exaggerated expectations. These same reviews were used to convince investors to commit even more capital to doomed projects. The inevitable failure could then always be blamed on lack of funds, unforeseen difficulties, or even competing products.
And publishers are always portrayed as the bad guys. Much publicity was made about studios closings, mistreated employees, and destructive executives, but little attention was given to the culpability of irresponsible studios who bilked investors. Sadly, the MMO bubble was inflated with too much dumb money, with everyone trying to cash in on the same success that EverQuest was enjoying. Everyone in the games industry knew what a risky bet massively multiplayer games were, and yet ambitious, unwary executives still greenlit scores of them.
Author’s note: There’s quite a bitter tone here, is there not? Reading it now makes me laugh. This excerpt looks back at the games industry at the turn of the century. The 1990s games were particularly infuriating, when there were so many dubious fly-by-night studios cranking out buggy games. I loved games and I loved working on an MMOs, but at the time, the WoW team was deeply concerned that the stink of MMOs would affect our ability to tempt people to try for another subscription-based game. Industry gossip like the above excerpt was so depressing sometimes.
I, for one, do not miss when gaming magazines ruled the earth.
A dev who joined the WoW team once worked for a studio that forced him to fake promotional screenshots. It was typical of the place, he told me. The studio head (at this long-defunct company) was a real salesperson; a guy who talked his way into winning multiple awards for an unshown MMO. Their booth had a cinematic that looped on a big screen; there were no screenshots, there was zero in-game footage, and no developers or representatives were present…and yet, behind closed doors, they talked two big-name gaming websites (at the time) into giving them the Most Anticipated MMO Award (this was after WoW was announced). Another one actually gave them Best of Show. For an unshown game.
If you found this essay interesting, consider purchasing The WoW Diary on Amazon:
WoW Diary Book on Amazon - $29.99
Special Boxed Edition on Amazon - $79.99
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