In 2004, World of Warcraft was released and changed the face of the MMO-genre as we knew it. Millions of people flocked to the game, driven by Blizzard’s brand and reputation and the now almost legendary streamlining of the genre. At the same time, some critics say, the genre changed for the worse and the “virtual world” became a thing of the past. World of Warcraft was easy, too easy, and by now everybody want a piece of the cake that they set the table for.
From that criticism comes the term “WoW-clone”, a term that describes a game as nothing except a lazy copy of the WoW-formula. Just like the idea of the “WoW-tourist”, a WoW-clone is a derogatory term that has been used against more or less every MMO released since. While World of Warcraft itself copied shamelessly from games that came before it, like Everquest and the DIKU muds that EQ itself took its foundation from, but it is the streamlining and the sudden ease of play that is important here.
It’s an interesting term. Perhaps it is because I’ve taken one of the most hated MMOs to heart that I’ve started to see things differently. For a long time, I had the same ideas – that MMOs were killing my interest in them by too much streamlining – but lately I’ve tried to take what I think is a look at the bigger picture. Is WoW actually killing innovation in our genre? Do developers constantly play it safe?
To find out, I’ve decided to compile a list of some of the most important MMOs that has been released since World of Warcraft was released, including events that happened as a reaction to its sudden popularity (the SWG CU/NGE). Will such a list point towards the end of the virtual world that certain critics seem to believe is happening?
I’m not a fan of the direction Blizzard took the game after Wrath of the Lich King, don’t get me wrong. If there’s one MMO right now that I have no interest in playing, it’s World of Warcraft. I will return in Cataclysm, there’s no use denying that, but I feel that the game as it stands right now does not cater to my tastes at all.
Despite this, the list and my take on these various games will be tainted by a pretty positive outlook. It is not objective. It’s as much an examination for my own sake’s, as for anyone that actually bother to read it through. Also, even if an innovation “failed”, I will try to bring it up – after all, ideas can be a lot better in theory before thousands of real players are released on them.
So, without further ado…behind the cut are the games (in no particular order):
THE HUGE LIST OF GAMES
Everquest II: Everquest II is a tricky beast to put on a list like this, because it shared development time with World of Warcraft. Released in the same year as WoW (actually, only a few weeks before), some of the stuff we take for granted in WoW came to be as a direct reaction to what SOE was doing with EQ2. The basis of the two games are similar, as both build a lot on EQ/DIKU, but EQ2 includes an advanced housing system for both guilds and players, more sandbox features and a different form of factional tension. The graphical design is also a lot more different from World of Warcraft, opting for a more realistic look. Despite the human-sized walking frogs.
Star Trek Online: Love it or hate it, but Cryptic’s STO took ground based missions and added a deep and tactical space combat feature on top. While it does have a leveling system, it’s quite different from the standard DIKU-fare and there’s a lot of customization options available – not only for your own character, but also for the ships and their crew. A crew whose officers you can bring with you on ground missions, with the various members performing different roles.
Star Wars Galaxies Combat Update/New Game Experience: The NGE update to Star Wars Galaxies is probably the best example of a company panicing and trying to “WoWify” their game. 35 different skills that could be learned by all characters became nine specialized classes. Despite this, and the revolt by the SWG playerbase, the game retained its sandbox features such as guild cities and a deep crafting system – making even the “WoWified” version of SWG much, much more complicated and open than the game that it was trying to emulate.
Runes of Magic: At first glance, Runes of Magic looks like an utter WoW-clone, with the graphics and the overall art design looking like a poor man’s World of Warcraft. But Runewaker have been working hard to add more and more features to their games, including a rewarding housing system (with some inspiration from EQ2, SWG and Final Fantasy XI), different PvP systems, horse races and a slew of other gameplay modes. It’s still very much entrenched in DIKU-land, with a dual-class system added on top.
Vanguard: Poor Vanguard, it hasn’t had an easy run. Originally hailed by some as the “real” Everquest 2, the game failed to deliver a coherent experience at launch (hard to be coherent when the client/servers keep crashing). Telon, the world of Vanguard, is huge though with tons of places to explore and tons of content to wade through. Also very much DIKU-based, the game includes non-instanced housing for both guilds and players, the Diplomacy card-game and one of the best crafting systems in the MMO-genre (with only SWG and Ryzom coming close).
Warhammer Online: For some, including former Mythic CEO Mark Jacobs, WAR was seen as the first game that could potentially dethrone WoW, which it has failed to do. The graphical design of the game might in many places be similar to WoW’s, but it also is very true to its Games Workshop source material. Drawing its main inspiration from Mythic’s first MMO Dark Age of Camelot, WAR was much more PvP oriented than WoW and tried to make PvE more interesting by having strangers work together towards a common goal in the so called Public Quests. Also, the game allowed leveling through PvP – personally, that was my preferred way of leveling my characters while playing the game.
Age of Conan: Funcom tried a lot of things with Age of Conan. At released not all of the things the developers had talked about made it in, but we got a combo-based combat system that relied a lot more on positioning than previous games, beautiful (and demanding!) realistic graphics, player made cities and a very different take on crafting. It also went down a more mature route, featuring a lot of blood and nudity in order to stay true to the Conan-lore.
Allods Online: By now, Astrum Nival (the developer) and gPotato (the publisher) should not be strangers to controversy since Allods Online has been dodging it from day one. While the graphics are almost shamelessly inspired by World of Warcraft, AO has some interesting races, a big focus on PvP and Astral Ships that guilds can build and need to co-operate to steer.
Lord of the Rings Online: A lot has been said about Lord of the Rings Online playing it safe and copying a lot of the World of Warcraft-formula. In some ways that is true, but it does add a lot to it as well – a long, epic storyline that sees the player following the progress of the Fellowship, patched-in player owned housing, a deeper crafting system and a totally different world design and graphical design philosophy. While it is very true to its DIKU-roots, the whole feel of LotRO is very different from WoW.
Aion: NCsoft pushed hard for Aion, and the hype machine started rolling early. While I believe the system was inherently flawed in itself, the flying was supposed to add a new dimension to the game – both in PvE and PvP, the latter being the actual main focus of the game. It pitted the players not only against each other, fighting for dominion in the Abyss, but added a third NPC faction into the mix.
Fallen Earth: We clearly don’t have enough post-apocalyptic MMO games. Fallen Earth do have levels in a sense, but you are free to form your character in whatever way you see fit (and have the ability to completely gimp yourself in the process). Actual gameplay is more reminiscent of Star Wars Galaxies than any other game, and the time-based and deep crafting system does a lot for the title.
Champions Online: One of the few superhero-themed MMOs on the market, Champions Online probably stole more from its predecessor, City of Heroes, than from WoW. The game might have had levels, similar to most other MMOs, but with highly customizable power sets and costumes at least it offered players the option to play exactly like the superhero they wanted.
Tabula Rasa: Tabula Rasa tried to do a lot of things at the same time. It wanted to be a shooter-MMO with a world that shifted and changed due to constant attacks by an alien enemy. It added the concept of “clones”, where you could go back to a previous version of yourself and make new choices. It wanted to add moral choices to the quests, which would then branch out depending on the choices you’ve made. Also, it was sci-fi. That’s always neat. Sadly, it never got time to shine and NCsoft closed it down.
EVE Online’s expansion packs: EVE is the odd one out here, and the only reason I’m adding it in is because it hasn’t really changed itself to try to grab any players from WoW. It’s still a complicated, team-based, PvP-centric, unforgiving beast of a MMO. In space!
Darkfall: Aventurine’s Darkfall is certainly one of more hardcore MMOs released over the last few years. Skills level up as you use them. Full PvP, with the loser leaving a lootable corpse. Player cities that can be put under siege and be attacked. A non-intuitive (for many, at least, including me) UI. The boys and girls of Aventurine are really hardcore and so are most of their players.
Alganon: Oh! Hello, mr WoW-clone. It’s quite hard to take a game that initially copies even the UI from World of Warcraft seriously. Sorry. Add an art design which is more or less completely ripped from Blizzard, and well…I haven’t played Alganon, it’s the only game on this list I’ve never tried, so I won’t say much more about it. But it did add a skill-training system similar to EVE Online.
Future titles (SWTOR, GW2, TSW, FFXIV, etc): As usual, there’s a bunch of new MMOs to look forward to – I won’t list them all. But they are all giving a certain spin to the genre. Star Wars: The Old Republic seems to be playing it pretty safe when it comes to the basic game mechanics, using the old tank/DPS/healer-triad and DIKU-modelled levels, but is adding a strong storyline on top. The game will also have a form of player owned housing, with every player getting his or her own ship, even though not much has been said about actual customization. It also adds companions, which we are supposed to develop our own relationships to, and will be fully voiced.
Guild Wars 2 has received a lot of hype recently, and probably with good cause – the game looks really good (Asura FTW!), the developers claim to be challenging all we know is true about MMOs, and Arenanet is approaching quests in a very different way. Exactly how all of this will come together remains to be seen, but at least on paper it sounds extremely promising.
Then there are games like The Secret World, that not only has a unique Lovecraftian-setting but isn’t supposed to feature any levels, and Final Fantasy XIV which looks to draw more inspiration from Final Fantasy XI than World of Warcraft.
First of all, what do most of these games have in common? Certainly, it’s the DIKU-system of leveling. Even Guild Wars 2, that supposedly will do away with a lot of things we’ve come to expect from the genre, features levels. You move through the world, completing quests or missions, and you get experience points. Then you grow in power, can use new equipment, and move on to more dangerous territories.
Of course, and that goes without saying, World of Warcraft wasn’t the first game to use this concept. So that first, and more obvious, point goes out of the window straight away. Experience points and levels do not make a WoW-clone.
So what is it? What we’ve seen over the last couple of years is of course games becoming “easier” – this usually connected to death penalties. I will claim that to bea semi-truism. While dying in a MMO isn’t really as annoying as it once was, there are still death penalties to be found – Vanguard and Runes of Magic both have experience loss, for example. In games like Age of Conan and Star Wars Galaxies you always run the risk of being sent back to where you came from, which can be quite annoying enough thank you.
There’s also the idea that games are getting “dumbed down” to reach the level of World of Warcraft. Several of the games mentioned above are actually more complicated than World of Warcraft, especially when it comes to crafting. Vanguard’s crafting is tough and demanding, SWG’s crafting is still a science despite the NGE, Lord of the Rings Online added a mastery level and takes a lot more time than crafting in WoW, Warhammer Online has gone down a completely different route and Aion uses a crafting system that in some way mixes World of Warcraft with the work orders of Everquest 2 and Vanguard while having a material harvesting system that demands flying.
Finally, there’s the idea of a lack of innovation in the MMO-sphere. Perhaps it’s just me, and perhaps I’m approaching this with a much more happy-go-lucky perspective than others, but seeing a bunch of the games that’s been released since WoW like that…it makes me happy. All of them have their own ideas, all of them have added their own twist to the DIKU-formula. While some of them have taken a lot of inspiration from WoW (Runes of Magic, Allods Online, Alganon), and some might be accused of playing it safe when it comes to innovation (Star Wars: The Old Republic), they’ve all tried to do at least something new. Did they always pull it off? No. Did the players always like the new ideas? Hardly.
I’m not sure if the World of Warcraft-clone exists at all (except for Alganon, perhaps). Not even World of Warcraft itself is always as bad as some say it is. The MMO-genre is only a bit more than ten years old, at least as we know it today, and there is still a lot of innovation and ideas out there. A rotten egg here and there might be expected, just look at all the bad copies that always pop up whenever a new Disney-movie comes out, but the pure WoW-clone doesn’t really seem to jump out at me while I listed the games above.
If you’ve managed to make it this far, let me ask you – is any of the games above a WoW-clone? What am I missing? Am I, in my bias, missing something? Is there a piece of the puzzle that I’m glancing over that proves that the MMO-genre is heading down the crapper? Because I can’t see it. I don’t see a lack of innovation, I don’t see companies going the easy way for a fast buck.
I see innovation, I see ways of thinking outside of the DIKU-box. I don’t see clones, I see chances of entertainment and immersion.