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.