Too WoW-like, a positive or negative?

Tobold has a post up today questioning the wisdom of designing an MMO with features too similar to WoW, speaking specifically about Age of Conan. His point is that why would someone play something WoW-like when they could just play WoW, which has 3+ years of development and refining behind it, not to mention the overall high quality polish and design that made it a hit to begin with.

While a good point, it makes me wonder how far we have to get away from WoW in order to be ‘different enough’, and what exactly are we aiming for here. The bottom line of course is to have a game that’s fun to play, regardless of which design you follow. Whether you go PvE, PvP, a mix, or something entirely different, the game has to just be plain old fun in order to work. It’s a bit of the EVE Online theory, in that EVE nails almost every design-related issue spot on, yet for many it’s missing that key component that makes it fun to log on and play consistently. For many EVE is more fun to read about than to actually play, which says a lot about the game, in both a positive and negative way.

But back to the original question; how much different does an MMO need to be in order to compete, and what does compete actually mean? As fans, I think we get too caught up in the numbers, looking at WoW and saying ‘the next MMO has to get 10 million subs in order to beat WoW’, forgetting that WoW has ‘only’ 4 million or so subs in the US/EU, and that the other 6 million or so are in Asia, where the profit margin is far, far lower on a pre-account basis. So are current developers focusing on that magic 10 million subs number, or are they just looking to make a quality game with enough subs to make a profit? After all, any game that makes a profit is a success right? The servers stay up, new content is produced, the company makes money, players continue to enjoy a world they like, and everyone wins.

Moving away from the bean counter aspect of MMO development, let’s talk about what really counts; what do fans want. Recent releases show us that WoW-like games (LoTRO) do well, while games that try to break the mold seem to struggle (PoTBS, TR), and that future releases (AoC, WAR) seem to be moving away from their original ideas and seem to be going the WoW-like route.

Now the above paragraph contains a slew of over-simplifications, and counter arguments can be made for almost all points, but the overall view of the current MMO space holds true, for whatever reason.

And finally, it’s important to note that everyone will have a different opinion on what ‘too WoW-like’ means. For example, many people wrote off LoTRO because they viewed it as WoW set in Middle Earth. Yet for Aria and I, we are really enjoying LoTRO right now (and did before when we played at launch), even though we still play WoW. While LoTRO is indeed similar to WoW, its difference enough to be fun, and in many ways (combat speed, graphics, community) it feels/plays better for us. The best thing of course is we have both; we raid casually in WoW, and quest/level in LoTRO, but if we had to cut one out, it would be WoW right now, simply due to having already done most of it.

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I’m very excited for Warhammer Online, especially the PvP aspects. Am I worried that it will be too WoW-like to be fun? Not really. My one concern is that Mythic balances PvP on PvE and not PvP, but given Mythic’s track record and experience from DAoC, I doubt they will make that mistake, especially when WoW is giving them the perfect example of what a disaster PvP is with PvE balance, and what a hole that type of design puts you in. If WAR has WoW-like PvE elements, that will just be a plus in my book, as even PvP diehards like to take a PvE break once in a while.

With all that said, what’s my stance on the whole issue? Make a fun game that on day 1 is ready to go. If it’s WoW-like, it better have enough to separate itself and offer compelling reasons to play. It could be just one difference in design; if that change is good enough, people will play it. If it’s not very WoW-like, it better live up to the standard WoW set, as no amount of good ideas will allow fans to see past glaring errors, like fans did in the late 90s, early 2000.

About SynCaine

Former hardcore raider turned casual gamer.
This entry was posted in Age of Conan, Dark Age of Camelot, EVE Online, Lord of the Rings Online, MMO design, Pirates of the Burning Sea, PvP, Warhammer Online, World of Warcraft. Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to Too WoW-like, a positive or negative?

  1. Jason says:

    Moving away from the bean counter aspect of MMO development, let’s talk about what really counts; what do fans want. Recent releases show us that WoW-like games (LoTRO) do well, while games that try to break the mold seem to struggle (PoTBS, TR), and that future releases (AoC, WAR) seem to be moving away from their original ideas and seem to be going the WoW-like route.

    As someone who played both PotBS and TR, they failed for a much different reason than just being different. They failed because they were horrible games. I found TR to have the depth and breadth of an egg wash for breading fried chicken, and PotBS took awesome design and turned it into WoW on the high seas.

    LoTRO does well, but not exceedingly so. They have a solid subscriber base, but nothing to write home about. It’s a wonderful game, but I personally found it flat, and nowhere near as rich as the books. Tolkien’s books just don’t leave much room for the random heroes that players are stuck being. I think a lot of interest was drummed up, and people were let down by that aspect.

    WAR and AoC.. I’m kind of split on these. WAR looks like it’s going to be DAoC gone horribly wrong, and AoC… well, suffice to say that reports from Open Beta haven’t been very positive, and I hope that they at least get the bugs cleaned up. The ‘pseudo-twitch’ gameplay doesn’t exactly inspire much personal confidence there either. It could be good, but that much effort, even with the output scaling accordingly, just doesn’t make me go nuts about it.

    All in all, I’ve gotten bored with WoW, my account was cancelled about a week ago. As you can tell, I’m not a fan of EQ, DAoC, WAR or AoC. I have, however found a love of EVE. I’ve been having a blast, and plan to continue with that for as long as it’s fun :D

  2. syncaine says:

    Well when you says LoTRO numbers are nothing to write home about, you are comparing them to what? WoW or all other MMOs? If we are talking WoW numbers, no game comes close. All other MMOs? LoTRO is right up there and has a VERY healthy base.

    Which really is kind of my point. I don’t need WoW numbers to make LoTRO. As long as the servers stay up and new content is created, its all good.

    I agree that PoTBS had some serious issues (that have been discussed here before), but how much of that was due to trying to be not WoW-like? Same with TR, although that game has deeper problems than just simple design according to many.

    If anything, I think WAR is shaping up to be DAoC done right, with mistakes like ToA that won’t (hopefully) be repeated. In a way, the issues WoW is having with PvP now are little different than DAoC had AFTER ToA.

  3. Swift Voyager says:

    Users are a fickle bunch. Take a look at the RTS or FPS genre for example. There are games that use the exact same engine, with different graphics and sound, but are essentially the same. One may be a stellar success and the other a failure. It’s extremely difficult to quantifiy what makes a game good, while another may be similar or nearly exactly the same in every way but it sucks.

  4. syncaine says:

    Got any examples Swift? Of the RTS games I mean. FPS I know a bunch use the UT3 engine, but what can be done with that engine is rather diverse.

  5. graktar says:

    I think a lot of the ‘it’s too wow-like’ comments come from a lack of perspective by people making the comparison. ANY MMORPG in a fantasy setting with spells, swords, armor, and dragons can be called wow-like. What are the features of WAR that make it too wow-like? That it has PvE and leveling? That you have character classes and collect gear? That it has quests? What do people expect? None of these things were invented by Blizzard, they’re all ‘industry standards’ for a fantasy MMO.

    If Dark Age of Camelot were to come out today, would people be complaining “oh it’s WoW, but with more pvp”? Almost all fantasy MMOs follow the same basic formula, but WoW is currently the most well known. I recall when WoW first came out a common comment from existing MMORPG players was “oh, it’s EQ but with more polish”.

    To answer your question, I think a game being too WoW-like is simply a matter of what criteria you use to compare the games, and that fundamentally it cannot be either a positive or a negative because you can’t really make a fantasy MMORPG without it resembling WoW in some fashion, because WoW follows the same general principles as every other fantasy MMORPG.

    From what I’ve heard, Chronicles of Spellborn uses a combat system vastly different from WoW, but I look forward to hearing people complain on forums and dismissing it as ‘too wow-like’.

    /facepalm

  6. Swift Voyager says:

    The Genie engine from Age of Empires was used to create Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds. I loved AoE but couldn’t stand SW:GB, and judging by sales, neither could anyone else. Also, how about Warcraft II and Starcraft? While warcraft was popular, it never has had the kind of success that Starcraft has had worldwide. Populous was extremely successful and it was made from the same engine as Magic Carpet, do you even remember that game? Warhammer 4000 was made using the IC+ engine from the game Impossible Creatures. There’s quite a few other examples if you google it.

  7. Swift Voyager says:

    Here’s another example of an RTS engine that got a lot of mileage: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SAGE_engine

  8. sid67 says:

    Also, how about Warcraft II and Starcraft?

    Bad example. War2 was only playable by multiplayer over an IPX network and at that time the only way to play it over the internet was through a third party program called Kali. Despite that, it was still an extremely popular LAN party game and by far the most popular game on Kali. Starcraft released after Blizzard had already pioneered Battle.Net with Diablo. It also had a completely different engine.

    Back on topic… Cameron Sorden had a good article on the subject a week or so ago. The basic thesis of the article is that players whose only MMO experience is Warcraft will not leave WoW for another game without a monumental leap in gameplay.

    I don’t agree entirely with the logic, but I do agree with the sentiment that any game company that hopes to unseat WoW as the MMO of popular choice can’t simply re-package the WoW experience and expect to woo customers away from Blizzard. As Cameron points out, “WoW took the EQ formula and fixed everything that sucked.” In turn, the next MMO champion is going to need to take all the things that suck about WoW and fix it while keeping all the things that made the game so popular.

  9. Talyn says:

    If I recall, War2 was also playable on what used to be the MSN Gaming Zone (zone.com) which used an IPX emulator similar to what Kali did. Then a few years later, Blizz released War2: Internet Edition, placing it on their battle.net. Obviously it was popular enough to warrant continuing the series…

    Bottom line: everything will be compared to WoW for years to come simply due to WoW’s success. Whether we’re comparing WoW vs. X based on subscribers, based on polish, based on UI scripting, based on tech/system specs… it won’t matter. We’re still going to do it. Then we’re going to turn around and complain when *other* people do it. It’s ok if we do it ourselves, of course…

    I may have said something along these lines on Cameron’s post but, why do we *need* people to leave WoW at all? Why do we *need* a WoW-killer? It’s just because we are a fickle public and we love a train wreck. We like nothing more than to put something or someone up on a pedestal, then knock them down again. We built up WoW. We’re the consumers. Ten million+ of us world-wide voted on WoW with our wallets. Now, just like Microsoft or Google, WoW is the biggest and baddest, so we can’t wait for some new shiny to come along and smash the “evil” WoW into obscurity. Seriously, we need to just get over ourselves. And WoW players in particular… I met so many in WoW who’d never gamed before. Of the ones who decided they weren’t interested in the raiding end-game treadmill, WoW ended at level cap. They may have made an alt or two, but by and large they were done with the game, they canceled their account, and they were back to being non-gamers. They weren’t itching for a new MMO at all. WoW was “the best” as far as they were concerned, and they’d been there, done that and moved on with life. We’re the sick ones who pine for the next big thing, the new shiny to garner a bit of our fickle attention.

    Syncaine and I are both currently playing LOTRO (not on the same server, unfortunately) and look how many people, especially at launch, put 5 minutes into the game and said “meh, it’s WoW.” I honestly have no idea what that even means. I have a little 3D character on a 3D world where I use WASD to move the character around and 1-0 + hotbar buttons to use skills. Last I checked, Blizzard did not invent that game play. From the moment I logged into the LOTRO beta, I thought “ok, it’s a traditional (ie. DikuMUD-based) MMO, no problem.” So are EQ2, Vanguard, CoX and countless others. If anything, it was more a feeling of it being a re-skinned, toned-down and fixed-up AC2. In the past year playing, I have yet to ever have an “it’s just like WoW” feeling. Most actual LOTRO players seem to be of a similar opinion.

  10. Khan says:

    I’ve posted on my blog about design elements in MMOs and I think we’re seeing some form of standardization regarding them. A UI with simple default movement keys (WASD), a paperdoll showing items you’re wearing, an inventory of items you’re carrying, a basic map / navigation hud are all becoming fairly standard fair and I think that’s a good thing. It cuts down on the learning curve of “how do I interact with the world?”

    Where I’d really like to see innovations are in things like quest structures (or whether we need them or need more of them), types of quests (kill ten boars, then ten slightly tougher boars…) and basic world design. I’d like a move away from instancing (or perhaps a way to instance where you’re not really even aware you’re in an instance). I’d like some dynamic world changes to shake things up (ie: a landslide uncovers a hidden ruin; taking a PvP objective in the world alters a zone). I love the ideas in Oblivion about quest-givers not just standing around all day waiting for you to give them boar parts, etc.

    I think with regard to newer games, we are seeing innovations in each but taking small steps. LotRO has some interesting quest structures not found in WoW (like the mail / pie / egg delieveries or the Book Questline). The changes aren’t monumental, but they are subtle and they are there. I suspect that will be the way of it over time: little changes in each new game with successive games copying the stuff that worked from previous games. Innovations are likely to happen slowly in small amounts.

  11. Openedge1 says:

    The issue with LOTRO was minor design decisions that hurts it’s overall appeal.
    The lore? Awesome, The landscapes? awesome

    UI is bad, Models are bad, overall quest structures…bad and boring…
    And it felt like WoW with a new coat of paint…

    The quests while there are a ton…so many to choose from…yet, so many the same thing over and over…
    The wall of text describing the quests, meh…no voiceovers, the whole “Woe is me..” voice that everyone has…
    And as everyone notes…the endgame is almost a non-game…

    The combat leaves a lot to be desired, as you either have control of the situation or you do not. If I am solo for example, if I pull one too many mobs, I am screwed…I feel like I cannot get away…yet, in other MMO’s, I can, or I have a way to turn the tide..it is the reason we are “Heroes” in these games…in LOTRO, I felt like data!

    As to AoC, the cutscenes are great, the combat is fun, the game runs well for me, the music is excellent, character creation is top notch with ZERO elves or dwarves……and I have yet to have that “WoW” sameness….
    People are fickle though I guess…

  12. sid67 says:

    Why do we *need* a WoW-killer?

    I wrote about this on my blog about a month ago. It boils down to variety. At the very marrow of our bones I think many people are just looking for something different. Of course, leaving WoW isn’t just about leaving a game – it’s about leaving your friends. Presumably, a WoW-killer would attract entire guilds to switch games. Even within my own tiny circle of real life friends who play it is difficult for us to reach consensus on switching to another game.

  13. swiftvoyager says:

    Ahh, but Warcraft 2 and Starcraft are actually a good example, because that one little change in multiplayer functionality made all the difference. The two games are largely the same otherwise.

    With an established MMO, there is a tremendous force that keeps players going back to what they have played before: THE AVATAR. After someome spends 3 years of rather obsessive gameplay building up an avatar (or several), they will not want to let the subscription expire without much deliberation. In order to build a successful WoW clone, you just need to get enough people interested in their avatars to the extent that they come back before the account expires. I think this is one reason WoW has started making it quicker to blast through the lower levels. Once you get people hooked into a mid-level character they are more likely to feel a need to max out that character, and once you have a maxed out character, you need to buy the expansions to get them back up to max.

    Personally, after looking at the RTS games that became FPS and MMO games, I wonder when we will get an MMO based on Command and Conquer? I’d probably try it.

  14. syncaine says:

    Well they do have a C&C FPS, with another on the way I believe, guessing we will see it in MMO form at some point.

  15. Rog says:

    Oh man, way to hit EVE bang-on, I ~do~ find it more interesting to read about, some of their features strike me as so smartly innovative yet I still cannot feel compelled to play it.

    My biggest thorn in this debate, which has been crossing all of the MMO blogs as late… is the all-or-nothing scope of “it must beat WoW” or it’s somehow a failure. I’d say it’s indicative of our entire culture this #1 or nothing perspective, but not that my saying it changes anything.

    Age of Conan in particular has always struck me as a niche game and while Funcom’s PR probably advises them to be all things, I think the designers were thinking niche from the beginning. And it just so happens to be the niche I want to play.

    Finally, Tobold’s opinions I’ve had a hard time jiving with overall, he automatically discounts PvP out of hand and as a PvE player myself I just can’t concur.

  16. swiftvoyager says:

    That #1 or nothing mentality is a given for an MMO. I have a whole stack of single player games that I can pick up and play for an evening and then put back in the closet. I can’t do that with an MMO. If I’m not paying the subscription then I can’t play. Half the fun of an MMO is the relationships you build in-game, and unless you are online enough to maintain those friendships you miss quite a bit of the game. That prevents people from casually playing several MMO’s. So, if you are forced to pick only one MMO and stay with that MMO for long periods of time, then why not play the best one?

  17. syncaine says:

    Well what if you already played the ‘best’ one? While playing with good people is certainly important (perhaps MOST important), at some point even with good people, you just need to move on.

    That’s basically the case with WoW for me. I’ve played it to death, especially pre-BC. I love the people I play with, but aside from a raid or random 5 man, I don’t care for anything in WoW. I still think WoW is the ‘best’ MMO out, but I’ve seen it / done it, which is why I’m playing LoTRO now. It’s fun as hell, different enough from WoW (for me of course), and I’m having a good time.

    Granted I’m able to pay for more than one MMO at a time, and if thats not an option for someone, it could lead to some tough choices, but even then, just because WoW is dominate, does not mean people play it and continue playing it forever. The content runs out eventually, unless you find daily quests and the raiding circuit to be gods gift to gaming.

  18. swiftvoyager says:

    One thing the developement company can do to prevent burnout is release frequent updates and expansions. Heck, they could even make the expansions free to any subscriber. They could introduce major graphics updates, major new gameplay features, etc, all for free. Naahhhhh, that’s silly, why would they do that? Oh wait, Eve does. Maybe that’s why Eve has increasing subs? They may not be the best MMORPG out there, but they certainly know how to keep people coming back.

  19. syncaine says:

    LoTRO is similar to EVE in that regard, as the Book updates are not only frequent, but also packed with content. Plus the fact that they are announced and disclosed so frequently really keeps fans with something to look forward to.

  20. Jason says:

    *munching on crow*

    Well, color me surprised at what LotRO has done. I honestly hadn’t heard they’d gotten a tenth the numbers that are out there, so good on Turbine. That said, they have seen a very steep drop off, and it’s leveling off around L2’s sub numbers. Not bad, all in all.

    With regards to WAR, one thing that greatly concerns me is the amount of people breaking NDA for no reason other than to trash the game. Isobelle from Not Addicted is probably one of the more notable bloggers in that circle, but not the only one. Everything about it, despite the developer press, shows it to be very lackluster, IMO. I’ll be honest, it’s greatly disappointing to me, since I’ve been looking forward to a Warhammer IP MMO since I saw the alpha version of Warhammer Online at GamesDay Baltimore, which was killed back in 01 or 02, I don’t recall off the top of my head. The DAoC model didn’t bother me much, but the direction it’s running in now certainly does :(

  21. sid67 says:

    Too little, too late? I don’t know. What I will say is that I am pretty bitter about the current state of the game. It’s absolutely ridiculous that there has only been one expansion and it was released 17 months ago with no expansion anywhere in the foreseeable future.

    I won’t deny that it is a great game. Or that it was greatly improved in the expansion. But in most respects, it is still the same game that rolled out at release. It would be ludicrous to say the game lacked repeatability — but even the most repeatable games have a finite amount of longevity.

    They can distract me with new content and I can ignore the same old tired mechanics for a bit longer. Of course, in turn, they will find it’s getting harder to keep me distracted. It makes it even worse that they keep repeating themselves. Even now I find many fights are very boringly predictable and just different combinations of the same old flavors.

    I’m certain I’ll play WoTLK on day one, but fat chance in holds my attention for another 17+ months.

  22. swiftvoyager says:

    I just saw this hillarious post from one of the CCP developers on the Eve Online forum. The thread is about the upcoming expansion (probably to release in the next 4 weeks or sooner from what I can tell), which includes what they call “Factional Warfare”. The initial description kinda made it sound like there could be “battlegrounds” and I think they even used the word “battleground”. The thing is, they didn’t say battleground in the WoW Battleground sense of the word, but rather in the pre-WoW sense of the term “battleground”, as in a place where people have wars. Since you know a thing or two about Eve, you know that they would NEVER have anything like the WoW battlegrounds. Well, some people are morons and kept asking the devs if this is gonna be lame like a WoW battleground arena. Finally, one of the dev’s got pissed and lost it. Here’s a piece of his post:

    “Well, sure. I guess if that is the best simile you can come up with, then yes it’s a battleground in the sense that they are made for people to fight. It’s EVE style in the sense that it’s non-instanced, you can come and go as you please and it will still be there. It’s not a mini-game within a game, it’s just EVE combat mechanics adding another reason for people to venture out of high-sec into low-sec and you don’t need to sign up to get in on the fight.
    It’s EVE in the sense once you’re dead, you’re dead. There’s no immediate return point which will take you back into the fight. You go ahead and try AV tactics there and see where it takes you, mkay? You’re also still in the realm of EVE as if you decide to go AFK and grind some honour through your team-mates… well you’re AFK in EVE, go figure.
    So, It’s Factional Warfare Combat Zones: Say it with me “FWCZ’s”.. or FWZ’s.. sounds kinda the same, don’t it. You can call the Funions for all I care really, but they’re not WoW-Style battleground.”

    I especially love the “mkay?” and the part about “AFK in EVE”. They certainly don’t have to worry about being too WoW-like. LOLZ all around.

    With the new expansion going live on the Eve test server next weekend I’m surprised that I haven’t seen any talk about it outside of Eve itself. There was an especially interresting back story plot-line released this week culminating with a video trailer for the expansion showing a suicide attack where a Gallente mothership captian rammed his ship into an NPC space station. Truely epic back story stuff.

  23. syncaine says:

    That sounds about right for EVE. I love how the biggest fear from the players of that game is any design move towards WoW. Just an entirely different MMO, in every single way.

    I also like how the devs at CCP know that what WoW did was laced with failure from a design standpoint, yet they can’t come right out and say “no we are not going to follow WoW, b.c WoW PvP is trash and we know it, relax”. I bet they joke about it daily at work though…

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