Sunday, May 4, 2008

The trap of imitating WoW

Having had my first glimpse for Age of Conan, and from all what I hear about Warhammer Online, the games of 2008 are falling into a terrible trap: developers think that with World of Warcraft being so successful, their games need to include a maximum of features simular to those of WoW, because that is "what the customer wants". But by imitating WoW they end up competing head-on against it, and people can't help but compare the games directly. And in that direct comparison, the new games lose out against WoW's superior craftsmanship and polish. Why switch from WoW to another game which plays exactly the same, but is less polished?

Of course Blizzard themselves are the master of imitation, WoW itself imitates earlier games like Everquest. But they get away with it because their imitation is better and more polished than the game they copy. Beating them at that will be extremely hard, if not impossible.

That doesn't mean that other companies shouldn't develop MMORPGs any more. They just have to differentiate themselves more from WoW. If you look at AoC and WAR, both games started out with a premise of being all about PvP, but then turned more and more into WoW-like PvE games with some PvP added on top of it. The so-called AoC "PvP mini-games" (horrible name) are nothing but battlegrounds. And while both AoC and WAR will have keeps and siege engines, WoW will be adding the same in the Wrath of the Lich King expansion. Meanwhile Age of Conan announces a PvE game that will include soloing, grouping, and raiding, and ends up playing just the same as WoW, and having the same problems, like a tank class that can't taunt in PvP and is thus useless there.

The very basis of the leveling and gearing up PvE game is incompatible with perfect PvP. If you have a game in which playing longer means your character gets stronger, not because the player skills increase, but because the level and gear of the avatar increases, you lose all chance of having a well-balanced PvP. Balancing character classes for PvP is already hard enough, but if you then also have to balance them at the same time for solo PvE and various forms of group PvE, the task becomes impossible.

If you want to beat WoW, you need to be different, not sameish. Over the last years WoW's most successful competitor in the western world was Guild Wars. In Guild Wars you can log on, make a max level character from the start, and play reasonably balanced PvP right from the start. Or you can level up from 1 to 20 in PvE, but still end up with having only more options, not a higher power level than a instant level 20 character. Plus Guild Wars business model is different than WoW's, and doesn't compete for monthly fees.

There is still hope that WAR will pull off something similar, but it is already much closer to WoW than Guild Wars. And Age of Conan is closer still. You just can't have raiding and PvP endgame in the same game. There is room in the market for a good PvP MMORPG, but it has to downplay PvE. PvE needs to be a sort of tutorial on how to play your class, and end relatively quickly with everybody at the same power level before PvP can begin. After Trials of Atlantis one would hope that EA Mythic knows that raid epics destroy PvP. In a good PvP game, character development in the sense of increasing stats has to end. There shouldn't even be PvP reward epics making your character stronger, because every battle needs to start with all players at the same power level. People who play more should win PvP because they are more skilled, not because playing more gave them rewards that make the powerful than the newbies.

And yes, that would make a good PvP MMORPG to resemble Counterstrike more than WoW. But Counterstrike uses a completely different setting, and a completely different type of combat. What I am talking about is a PvP game with classic MMORPG combat and a classic orcs and elves fantasy setting. But by minimizing PvE and concentrating on being different from WoW instead of imitating it to the max, such a PvP game could succeed better in today's marketplace. People will play it because it is different, even if it isn't as polished as WoW. It is a hell of a lot easier to make a game that is different from WoW than trying to make a better clone of it.

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