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Monday, July 22, 2024

World of Warcraft Has a Lot to Teach the Twitter Clones

Another week, another catastrophic failure of policy at Twitter that’s being eagerly exploited by its myriad competitors—and they truly are myriad. Mastodon, Bluesky, Hive, Cohost, Post, the late Parler, Gab, Truth Social, GETTR, Substack Notes, Spoutible, and now, of course, Threads. And yet, in spite of the momentary success of some of these platforms—Threads has gotten over 70 million signups as of this writing—none has quite ascended to the lofty heights of Twitter’s influence at its height, where it seemed, for good or for ill (let’s be honest, mostly ill), to be at the heart of every conversation among our world’s epistemic elites. To understand why, we have to go to Azeroth.

Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker once, tongue-in-cheek, called Twitter the best video game of all time, likening it to the then-still-popular wave of Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games, or MMORPGs, that were led by titles like World of Warcraft. Aside from the obvious connections—adopting an online persona in a gamified system entirely governed by earned metrics—we can also look at the fact that Twitter, like World of Warcraft, is surrounded by failed imitators. The reasons for this are numerous, but they boil down to a few key factors: The market was never as vast as investors hoped, the imitations were not feature-complete, and all this gave each platform an inescapable gravity.

For a long time, World of Warcraft was easily the world’s largest and most popular Western-made MMORPG, gaining not just millions of subscribers, but a cultural footprint that was dramatically outsize for something seen as the epitome of nerdiness. Its arrival shook up a small scene dominated by games like Asheron’s Call, Everquest, Anarchy Online, Star Wars Galaxies, EVE Online, and Dark Ages of Camelot. Where Everquest was once considered a mighty success with nearly half a million subscribers, World of Warcraft achieved millions in short order and then just kept growing; with millions of people both buying the $50 game and subscribing indefinitely for a cool $15 per month, this type of game was a seeming gold mine, and other studios wanted in.

The MMO Boom lasted from roughly 2004 to 2014, a period when it seemed like there was at least one marquee title in the genre coming out annually—sometimes two, or even three. Where once the genre had admitted a diversity of styles, from both Asia and the West, this period saw significant consolidation around the World of Warcraft model. There was a new game all the time: Everquest 2, Lord of the Rings Online, The Secret World, Vanguard, Guild Wars 2, Warhammer Online, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Final Fantasy XIV, Tabula Rasa, Star Trek Online, Rift, and many others burst onto screens during this period.

What resulted was, in some ways, a textbook example of how vast outlays of capital can actually constrain innovation. The model, at every stage of the MMO boom, seemed to be: Make WoW, but with x minor tweak, y aesthetic distinction, and z IP. But even that isn’t the whole story; both capital and the players themselves seemed to be pulling in the same direction. The more outré and experimental the games were, the less richly they were rewarded by players, even during the phase of exuberance and forgiveness that extends through the first month after launch. Titles like Tabula Rasa and The Secret World tried to take some big swings at redefining the genre, partially through unique mechanics and a greater narrative focus. The Secret World’s adventure-game-esque puzzles were incredible, but such games were ultimately deserted by the masses required to keep them going.

A similar phenomenon arises with Twitter clones. Like the tyrannical gravity of Jupiter itself, Twitter and WoW wield the crushing weight of a failed star, drawing all else into orbit around it, destroying anything that gets too close. In the case of both platforms, their popularity dictated imitation; the very thing that doomed the clones.

For all the tyranny of Twitter’s unique features, for all that people cry out for something different, they don’t actually want to deviate from the Twitter formula all that much. Mastodon—an experience that replicates some of Twitter’s affordances, but not all—remains frustrating and confusing for new users. Truth be told, Mastodon isn’t that difficult to understand, but it is different, and it will deny you the firehose of content that so readily addicts you to Twitter. This is good for you, which is probably why you’re not the biggest fan.

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Bluesky’s initial surge of success seems to have come from the fact that it feels like Twitter, save for the depredations of its current owner. But, as Bluesky seeks to mature and evolve into a protocol rather than a platform—something more like Mastodon, with its own twists on decentralized authority and moderation—it will test the loyalty of these Twitter escapees to the breaking point.

In the end, we are all Ariel: We want to be where the people are. You go to Twitter or play World of Warcraft because that’s what everyone else you know who cares for this sort of thing does. If Theads finds any success, as its early numbers indicate, it’ll be because it cracked the code of how to move a Jovian mass of people all at once—engaging in an unprecedented leveraging of its vertical integration by creating frictionless signups and data-transfers for the literal billions of existing Instagram users. If you have any presence on Instagram, Threads makes it easy to not only start an account, but move over all your friends. and its gravitic attraction of celebrities and longstanding Instagram influencers means their audiences will, at least for now, follow. But this Meta-tastic explosion illustrates the degree of wealth and monopolistic influence it takes to stand up a rival platform that can go gangbusters this quickly.

Most Twitter clones don’t get that far, of course.

In some ways, “clone” is an inapt metaphor; it implies a perfect genetic copy of the original. Oftentimes, platform clones are anything but. They frequently pantomime only the appearance of the original—a user interface, for example—but rarely the user experience.

For instance, the parade of WoW clones—several of which I’ve played for more hours than I care to elaborate—often came across as cheap imitations of the real thing, lacking key features and polish. When you migrated to a new MMORPG only to find key features—from stack-splitting, to spam reporting, to mailing multiple items at once, to robust chat tools—missing, you had to ask how long you were willing to wait for these quality-of-life features to be added before you quietly slipped away. Sound familiar? (Just take a look at Threads’ complete absence of a usable web client, as of this writing). Or, in the case of platforms that were not trying to directly pantomime Twitter, like Mastodon, they offered an experience far afield of what transplants truly wanted. The novelty quickly wore off, and the familiar beckoned.

Conversations about that very phenomenon have played out on Post, Bluesky, and Hive in recent months. The delicate phase between launch and the rollout of a full suite of features is always vulnerable to user attrition, but it seems especially pronounced with these types of platforms—and it may be due to the fact that, in the case of both World of Warcraft and Twitter, there was, by design, only room for one of its kind to rule them all (sadly, in the case of MMOs, it wasn’t Lord of the Rings Online).

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Final Fantasy XIV has, at last, nearly dethroned WoW—by some admittedly very dodgy estimates. But it must be said that prime time in Limsa Lominsa, one of FFXIV’s largest cities, feels as vibrant and alive as WoW’s Orgrimmar or Stormwind did a decade ago. The game is cartoonish, colorful, silly, and self-serious in equal measure as WoW ever was, with a welter of distinctions created by its venerable and beloved IP. And yet, as MMORPGs go, it is king of a far-smaller hill. It won when the market had moved on, after the tide of capital had flowed elsewhere. MMORPGs turned out to be an experimental pitstop on the way to the true El Dorado of video gaming executives: always-online experiences in every game, further garnished with microtransactions aplenty, and social interactions reduced to their basest parts.

Looked at in that light, the question of “What will Twitter’s FFXIV be?” is a deeply loaded one. Twitter’s true successor will be a refuge for an idea past its prime. And while I mourn that with MMORPGs—gone far too soon and lost to a tide of avaricious investment in ever more exploitative ideas—it’ll only be a blessing for Twitter’s firehose microblogging model to lose its centrality in civic life.

But, considering all this, is there a FFXIV-style sunset successor to Twitter on the horizon? For the moment, it could be Bluesky, if it manages to hold on. It has managed to pick up more than a few celebrities and journalists after all, and it is, for this season at least, the hottest ticket in town for anyone unwilling or unable to give up what Twitter represented.

Threads is now a possible contender as well, having rapidly hoovered up a lot of signups, particularly from extremely online politicians and celebrities like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Kim Kardashian, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Both sites are further buoyed by Twitter’s catastrophically poor management. Unlike the makers of World of Warcraft, which has had hiccups but has always managed to be both functional and polished as an experience while making it easy for lapsed players to return, Musk is finding new ways to break Twitter, robbing users of its chief value propositions and all but pushing people away. Blizzard always understood what made WoW work; Musk continues to demonstrate he does not understand the platform he spent $44 billion on.

Still, unless and until the day comes when a Bluesky or Threads handle becomes the essential networking lubricant that a Twitter handle once was, we can say there are no worlds left to conquer for microblogging. And all the breathless milestone-marking of however-many-million signups for each new platform reminds me of the post-launch hype for titles like Star Wars: The Old Republic or Warhammer Online, whose studios proudly touted their millions of new subscribers only for those numbers to fall off a cliff after six months. Meta Threads’ 70 million signups, much touted in headlines on the day of this writing, mean little if they don’t stay. And the troubled history of platform cloning exemplified by WoW’s imitators offers little cause for optimism on that score.

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The real question is not what social media’s Final Fantasy XIV will be, but what its exploitative cash-grab apotheosis will be: something more akin to the always-online experiences of your average Ubisoft game, or perhaps a “free-to-play” MMO stuffed to the gills with microtransactions? Threads, with its sleek soullessness, might represent that final descent.

To sum up, Bluesky could become the Final Fantasy XIV of microblogging, if that means “well-liked, vibrant, and fun.” But if one is going by sheer numbers, Threads might well have the edge and overwhelm with sheer numbers from its frictionless signups. Will either ever be as essential or influential as Twitter among epistemic elites? We can only hope those days are well and truly behind us.

For all the failures of Elon Musk’s tenure, in the insular bubble of the superrich elite who govern the internet and have him on speed dial, his peripatetic scorching of Twitter’s earth has inspired them and given them permission: first, to cut jobs, and then to consider charging users directly for services and experiences, diminished in quality, that were once free. The only question is: Will we pay or will we walk? The world of video gaming doesn’t offer much cause for hope. But we do have a choice when we decide whether to let the extremely-online nonsense of any platform have an outsize influence on our lives and our politics. Whatever else may be said of World of Warcraft, it didn’t sway elections or drive moral panic targeting vulnerable minorities—and that might be the best lesson we can take away from the game.

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