Editor's Note: This is an opinion editorial written by Staff Writer AJ Glasser. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of MMORPG.com, its staff or management.
In a recent article from 1up.com, EVE Online CEO Hilmar Petursson asked why so many Massively Multi-player Online Games copy World of Warcraft - as if developers do it on purpose.
"...World of Warcraft is the perfect implementation of this [genre]," says Petursson, referring specifically to fantasy MMORPGs. "It's been done. Do something else."
Petursson's game, EVE Online, has the luxury of being unique among MMOs; it's science fiction and it is entirely dependent on social interactions in gameplay, EVE Online has catered to a specific (and loyal) niche of MMO gamers that generally has no cause to compare it to WoW. Other games, particularly ones in the fantasy genre, don't fare so well. The stigma of WoW clone syndrome can cripple an MMO in the early release days, driving away players who either, 1) Don't want to see the same old thing or 2) are completely loyal to WoW on grounds that it's the best of the best.
Take, for example, Vanguard: Saga of Heroes. Whatever you feel about the game, Vanguard brings originality to the fantasy MMO genre with gameplay features like Diplomacy and a robust crafting system that caters to the unique skill sets of the crafter. The game is also designed to be a follow-up to the original EverQuest (as opposed to EverQuest II) and therefore specifically, and by definition, not copying WoW. Even so, Vanguard was dubbed a WoW clone - and a lousy one, at that.
On the other hand, there's Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar. The class systems, crafting system, and PvP mechanics are touted as unique among MMOs; but when you get down to it, a Lore Master is still a "wizard" class in all but name and in terms of gameplay, Shadows of Angmar really isn't that different from World of Warcraft. And yet, this doesn't seem to count against Lord of the Rings Online; it escapes the stigma attached to being a WoW clone.
So what does it mean to be a WoW clone? A World of Warcraft clone can be defined as any MMO game that is 1) based on the core goal of leveling up a player-designed character by means of questing, item-gathering, and combat; AND 2) any fantasy MMORPG with elves, dwarves, and anything that even vaguely resembles an orc. Still, given Petursson's blanket statement, is there more to cloning WoW than genre? Is it a matter of game design, or source material? Or *gasp* does it not matter if a game really is a WoW clone, as long as it's done well?
Case Study #1: Vanguard
Reception - Bad
This game did not do well on many counts. It was pushed back from its release date multiple times, Microsoft gave developer Sigil Games Online the boot for dragging their heels, and the game released broken (really broken). Given this rough start, it's no wonder that many gamers didn't stick around long enough to see the fixes implemented by Sigil; and thanks to the high barrier of entry (would you believe that a lot of gamers are too young to remember the glory days of EQ?), many didn't give Vanguard a chance to prove itself.
Originality - Fair
Sigil dreamed big, but the end result did not reflect the hard work put into making Vanguard distinct from other fantasy MMOs. Saga of Heroes is set in the fictional world of Telon, with three separate continents, each bearing unique races; in turn, each race bearing unique class sets. As we've said, the crafting specifics and the Diplomacy gameplay feature brought a breath of fresh air to MMO gaming. However, thanks to incoherent design plans and a lousy character model creation engine, the people of Telon all look alike (even the animal races, which are basically humans with colored fur textures), the geographic locations and epic back story heroes all sound alike (often because they're too difficult to remember or even pronounce), and the Diplomacy gameplay wasn't executed all that well (not to mention the card names didn't make sense).
Clone Stigma - High
Critics are right: Vanguard does share design elements with WoW. PvE gaming, mounts, and race/class traits and abilities felt fairly run of the mill when compared to Blizzard's giant, even if Sigil head man Brad McQuaid originally came up with the EverQuest formula that WoW polished to perfection. Strangely enough, the places where Vanguard differs from the WoW standard are dubbed as some of the worst pitfalls of the game. The overly-complicated character creation screens, the "realistic" character models, and the free-for-all PvP system did not go over well with the average MMO gamer; thus, "original" or not, it still sucked and the clone stigma stuck.
Case Study #2: Lord of the Rings
Reception - Good
Shadows of Angmar had a lot going for it even before it was released. The Tolkien fan base is huge, spanning many generations, and thanks to Peter Jackson's films, the fantasy world is easily accessible to gamers and developers alike. The rich source material and rigid boundaries of Tolkien intellectual property translated well into the realm of MMORPGs - and the fantasy, well, that goes without saying. So immersive was the game, that many reviewers even had a hard time finding something critical to say about it for the first two weeks or so (after that, the honeymoon was over).
Originality - Not Great
Let's not mince words: the game is interactive fanfiction. On the character creation screens, the game advises players on how to make their character names sound more "Tolkien" by adding suffixes to names such as "-mir" or "-el," and you can pick which part of the Shire your Hobbit is from - right down the road from Bag End. The lack of originality in setting, plot, and fantasy elements were not entirely the developer's fault; the Tolkien license is a huge burden to bear and Turbine had to go an extra mile to work the intellectual property limitations into a balanced gameplay system that would actually be fun. Thus: no wizards, no female dwarves and PvP had to be sectioned off from the main part of the game to prevent the "good" races from fighting each other instead of the "bad" races. A few things stand out as original ideas: traits, titles, deeds, the well-built music system, and plot immersion tactics. But ultimately, the game doesn't significantly deviate from the WoW formula and doesn't change the way we play fantasy MMOs.
Clone Stigma - Low
Plenty of sites and forums engaged in heated debates about whether or not Lord of the Rings Online was a WoW clone; even reviewer Kevin VanOrd of Gamespot.com does acknowledge that the potential for clone syndrome is pretty high:
"Turbine Entertainment could have simply created a World of Warcraft clone with Middle-earth nomenclature on it and called it a day."
But ultimately, VanOrd says that Turbine went above and beyond the call to make the game unique among fantasy MMOs as evidenced by how "enjoyable to play" Shadows of Angmar is, and the game's popularity serves to prove his point. Never mind the similar interface, the similar gameplay, and the semantics exercises in converting HP to Valor.
A Brief History Lesson
The funny thing about WoW clone syndrome is that it used to be "EverQuest" clone syndrome. And before that, EverQuest copied mechanics and ideas from its predecessors in multi-user dungeons (MUDs), which in turn evolved from single-player computer RPGs that originated in pen-and-paper RPGs (like Warhammer and Dungeons & Dragons), which were all based off of... Tolkien - and other classic fantasy writers. Thus it's unavoidable for fantasy RPGs to share elements like elves, dwarves, magic and so forth. Innovations in technology and graphics can help fantasy MMORPGs distinguish themselves from WoW (or the next big thing thereof). But ultimately, the game that outshines and outclasses its predecessors is free from the stigma of clone no matter how much it "borrows."
So... what can we look forward to on the gaming horizon? Only time will tell, but it's fun to think about:
Warhammer Online - There is a huge fan base and a lot of anticipation; but given that all the pre-release stuff we've seen looks a lot like the graphical style of WoW (and developers have even claimed that the combat system will be a lot like WoW), it's unlikely that Warhammer Online will escape clone criticism.
Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures - Like Lord of the Rings, the Robert E. Howard source material is there, and some interesting things are being done with single-player and PvP mechanics... but the fan base might be hard to reach unless there's a sudden revival of Schwarzenegger's movie.
Pirates of the Burning Sea & Tabula Rasa - Both escape the fantasy genre and potentially have a lot of fans to attract based on the pirate fan base and on the sci-fi fan base; but Pirates just might be labeled as "WoW in a Boat."