“If I can do it in WoW, why can't I do it here?”
Enter a newly launched MMO, or an MMO's beta phase, and there is one game's name you will hear more often than the one you're playing: World of Warcraft. WoW has become the measuring stick by which all other games are rated in the general community. Over the years, the comparison has gotten more stale, while remaining a cinder to light flame wars and draw trolls from beneath their bridges. Even now, the torches are being lit, looking to burn heretics on both sides of the fence.
I alluded to the problem of using WoW as a measuring device for MMOs in my last column. Each MMO should be judged on an individual basis, and not stacked up unfairly against an MMO juggernaut. It's as silly as grading every restaurant you visit based on McDonald's. Certainly comparisons can be made, but you'd laugh at the food critic who used McDonald's to define a restaurant.
There is no denying that World of Warcraft is a successful MMO. Subscriber numbers, active characters, open servers, all the data points to a game that is profitable and popular. Whether it is a good MMO is a matter of opinion, and an opinion that the majority of the MMO player community possesses. In fact, the huge numbers surrounding World of Warcraft is exactly why it has become the standard; with so many millions that have played the game over the past five years, WoW has become a dialect into which we translate other games in the genre.
For World of Warcraft to be a dialect, there of course must be a language – and it is one that most of us are proficient in. A decade of MMOs have led the community to create a whole list of terminology that embed certain concepts such as threat, crowd control, and raids. Some of the terminology came before the time of MMOs, but many were created and fine tuned by the community. And within each game, these concepts have different ways of working; just as when I hear “dog” I think first of a Golden Retriever, but my friend thinks of a German Shepard.
Consider a scenario: a regular instance group from World of Warcraft is transported into Dungeons and Dragons Online. The tank of the group expects multiple ways of gaining threat, including snap taunts; he is given one ability. The healer and casters expect to be able to use all of their mana for each fight if necessary; they are forced to rely on potions until they reach a rest shrine. Without adapting to and learning the new “language,” the players give up, say the game sucks, and return to their homeland where things make “sense.”
The problem with this attitude, prevalent in any new MMO, is that players are failing to expand their horizons. The community demands innovation, yet turns away in disgust from newer games because of this MMO language barrier. Like the above example, players often fail to make comparisons to what they're comfortable with simply because they can't be made. Much of the community's expectations come from World of Warcraft; yet to meet these expectations, a game must aspire to be like World of Warcraft – which immediately labels it as a “WoW clone,” no better in the eyes of the player-critic. It's a catch 22: we want new games, yet can't be satisfied.
Despite the community's harsh dilemma, new games are still thriving, and independent developers are still pushing new products out for us, some of them such a break from the standard MMORPG that they simply can't be compared at all. You can't compare the mechanics of a baseball game to a 25 player raid. Although a standard formula still exists, new sub genres of the MMO – first person shooters, sports games, real time strategy games, arcade style scrollers – are emerging and finding new players. None of them are “WoW killers,” but they don't need to be. They reach their niche audience, and do so well.
That still leaves the MMORPG relatively defined by World of Warcraft (whose own definition was built upon games like Neverwinter Nights and EverQuest.) It's a stale comparison to hold up every MMORPG to World of Warcraft, to say that X game is like WoW expect with more this, less that. The difficulty in breaking from this comparison is that the community doesn't have much else to work with. Take Alganon for instance. A game praised for its indy innovation, it sorely repeats the mechanics of World of Warcraft; a prime example is the Soldier's building up of “Anger” and utilizing three combat stances. Similar arguments can and have been made for many other MMORPGs that have launched after 2004. The community is often forced to make the WoW comparisons because the games themselves force them to. How do you not compare an “anger building mechanic” to a “rage building mechanic”? How do you not compare “scenarios” to “battlegrounds”?
What the MMORPG community needs are niche games, games that retain the RPG feel but shed the formula familiar to us through WoW, games that don't attempt to cater to the mass market. Some are out there already, some are in development. When we begin to get new experiences as players, we'll start learning to talk a new language – a tongue not of the millions, but of gaming diversity. Or we can continue to find new, popular MMOs to translate our gaming into, pining for MMO idealism while settling for second best.