Category Archives: MMO Retrospective

Checking up on the WoW Clones of Yesteryear

When World of Warcraft achieved a heretofore unknown level of success for an MMORPG, everyone and their monkey wanted a piece of the action. As a result, the MMO industry experienced a long stretch where nearly every big name release sought to copy most of the core mechanics of Blizzard’s juggernaut.

An Elf character in Lord of the Rings Online

“WoW clones,” they were dubbed, and while fans often rankle when the term is applied to their favorite game, more often than not the shoe fits. Sure, most of them had some special twist to the formula that they shouted from the rooftops in an attempt to stand out, but at their core they embodied the same core formula. Tab target combat, copious but simple quests, and an endgame focused on instanced PvE.

The years passed, and eventually the procession of new WoW clones slowed down. Nowadays MMOs aren’t as afraid to forge their own paths. But most of the bigger WoW clones are still chugging along. Now that the fad is passed, it may be interesting to look at how these games have fared over the years, and whether they’ve stuck to their WoW clone guns or started to establish identities of their own.

Rift

I don’t know about you, but personally, when I hear “WoW clone,” Rift is always the first game that comes to mind.

Nearly everything about Rift, from its game mechanics to its setting, seemed copied directly from World of Warcraft, and all this was thrown into a starker light by the masterfully if unintentionally ironic “We’re not in Azeroth anymore” marketing campaign.

Its soul system, which allows you to essentially build your own class, and dynamic events gave it a bit of a twist, but in the end it still looked like a game that had been separated from WoW at birth.

But I should not be too harsh to Rift. What it lacks in originality it usually makes up for with polish. I have always found Rift to have incredibly solid mechanics and an almost overwhelming amount of content. If you’re going to do a WoW clone, this is the way to do it.

A landscape in Rift

And for quite a while Rift’s reputation in the community reflected this. I remember a long period of time during which Rift seemed to be something of a golden child in the MMORPG community, earning acclaim even from those who did not play it.

These days opinion has soured somewhat, but I suspect this probably has as much to do with the lingering fallout over ArcheAge as anything Rift has done. It’s had some stumbles — notably the most recent expansion, Starfall Prophecy, has had some uncharacteristic issues with quality control — but for the most part it still seems to be the same game it’s always been.

Indeed, Rift has been nothing if not consistent over the years. Like most WoW clones, it had to undergo a free to play transition, but for the most part it’s stuck to its guns.

Aion

Aion has always been a little more creative than some other WoW clones. Its surreal setting is a refreshing change of pace from the standard Tolkien-inspired high fantasy, its endgame places a much greater emphasis on factional PvP, and it integrates flight directly into its combat… at least in some parts of the game.

However, it’s not done much to shake up its original formula or further differentiate itself from the pack since its launch. Its added plenty of new content, but it hasn’t done much to change the core of the game experience.

Like most WoW clones, it eventually dropped its mandatory subscription in favor of a free to play model, but that’s probably the biggest change it’s undergone.

Fighting mobs as a gunslinger in Aion

Aion is one of those strange games that never seems to get much attention within the community and yet seems to be quite successful all the same. It’s still getting significant updates on a fairly regular basis despite being relatively long in the teeth these days.

Much of this can probably be attributed to its popularity in South Korea, where it has long been one of the more popular MMOs on the market. But it must also have a decent number of fans in the West, or it wouldn’t still be running over here. You may not hear much from Aion players, but clearly they exist.

Star Wars: The Old Republic

SW:TOR has had a more turbulent lifespan than most WoW clones, and that makes it perhaps the most interesting case to study.

Despite or perhaps because of massive pre-launch hype, Bioware’s first and only entry into the MMO field had a pretty rough reception post-launch. The phrase “TORtanic” became a favorite of the ever-hyperbolic comment section. Lack of endgame content and oppressively generic gameplay significantly damaged the game.

This eventually led to a conversion toward one of the industry’s more restrictive free to play models. It proved economically successful but severely damaged SW:TOR’s reputation within the community, a stain that lingers to this day.

SW:TOR continued to struggle with direction for a time. It had sold itself on a greater commitment to story than any other MMO, but it had never achieved the level of success necessary to fund continued development of unique story for all eight classes. It tried to strike the balance between an endgame-driven WoW clone and a story-driven RPG and never entirely satisfied either side of the equation.

Emperor Arcann in Star Wars: The Old Republic

This changed with the game-changing Knights of the Fallen Empire expansion in late 2015. KotFE redesigned much of the core game systems, implementing global level-scaling and greatly streamlining the leveling process. The net result of these changes was an experience with a much greater emphasis on story. While Bioware still couldn’t manage to continue the unique class stories, KotFE’s new content did feature more and better story content than previous expansions.

This makes SW:TOR arguably the only WoW clone to shake off its lineage of aping Blizzard and establish a clear identity of its own. It’s now less of an MMO and much closer to Bioware’s single-player titles, but there is something to be said for focusing on what you’re good at.

And the gamble seems to have paid off. Knights of the Fallen Empire seems to have heralded something of a renaissance for the game, and by all reports SW:TOR is doing very well. It is a bit hard to say how much of this is due to how the game has changed and how much is simply due to the greater hype around Star Wars in general caused by the new films, but at the very least, KotFE’s changes don’t appear to have hurt it any.

Lord of the Rings Online

In contrast to SW:TOR, LotRO has been pretty consistent in sticking to traditional designs. Its one major change came when it joined the ranks of free to play MMOs in late 2010. For a time, it seemed to be giving up on raiding, but now raids are once again on the menu.

LotRO’s popularity has dwindled somewhat over the years, but it maintains a very devoted core playerbase, and most would highlight its community as one of the more tight-knit in the MMO space, with a strong role-playing contingent and frequent player-run events.

Until recently, Lord of the Rings Online seemed to be heading down a dark road, coming to a head with its developer, Turbine, giving up on MMOs altogether, but the development team has now struck out on their own as Standing Stone Games, and the future for LotRO now seems cautiously optimistic, with a new expansion centered around Mordor on the way.

Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn

Confronting a large mob in Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn

I was hesitant to include FFXIV in this list. Not because it’s not a WoW clone — it absolutely is — but because it’s a more recent game and thus doesn’t quite fit in with the explosion of WoW clones that produced many of the above titles.

Interestingly, though, it’s probably one of the most successful WoW clones to date. By all reports it’s one of the more successful MMOs period, with a strong playerbase and an incredible frequency of content updates. It’s even managed to hang onto its subscription-based business model so far.

This despite the fact it’s no more original than Rift or any number of others. One could attribute FFXIV’s success to its obvious polish and quality, but even then it’s not so far ahead of the competition. Perhaps it’s simply the strength of the Final Fantasy brand, but it’s an interesting aberration all the same.

Conclusions

Unfortunately it’s difficult to draw any firm conclusions from all this. There aren’t a lot of clear patterns to be seen.

The one thing that can be said with certainty is that none of these games have matched World of Warcraft’s success, but given that many of them rival WoW in quality (and may even surpass it in some specific areas), it’s hard to say that’s the result of any failing on their part. Perhaps WoW was simply a fluke of timing that cannot ever be replicated.

As a gamer, I wish that more games had taken SW:TOR’s path and established firm identities for themselves, but I can’t know whether or not they would have been more successful if they had.


Past History Shows a Rocky Road for Secret World Legends

The blessing and the curse of being an MMO writer is that there’s never any shortage of hot button issues to talk about. Hardly a month seems to go by without some massive controversy exploding within the community.

A seemingly prophetic shot from The Secret World

Right now, the bombshell du jour is Funcom’s decision to “relaunch” The Secret World as a new game, Secret World Legends. It is a massive overhaul and reboot with very little precedent in the MMO world.

Funcom is therefore sailing into uncharted waters, and its fans are therefore understandably anxious about what is to come. Let’s take a look at what this relaunch entails, what we can learn from similar overhauls of other games, and what it might mean for the future.

What’s Happening

Secret World Legends both is and is not a new game, depending on how you look at it.

On the one hand, most of the content is carrying over from The Secret World. There are going to be some small tweaks here or there, but for the most part it’s going to be the same story, the same zones, the same missions, and so forth.

However, many of the core systems of the game are being totally overhauled. The combat has been redesigned from the ground up to be more of an action combat system similar to Elder Scrolls Online and Neverwinter.

The game’s unique progression mechanics are being thrown out in favor of a much more traditional leveling system. Players can still customize their playstyle a bit by choosing what weapons to wield, as abilities are still tied to weapons, but the virtually infinite customization potential of the ability wheel is gone.

Falling through Agartha in The Secret World

It’s also worth noting that players will initially be locked into whatever weapons they chose at the start and will only be unlock more by grinding in-game currency or paying cash. Flexibility seems to be the first casualty of the transition to Legends.

Speaking of cash, the business model will also change. Whereas TSW is buy to play with a DLC-focused business model, Legends will offer all of its content for free while more heavily monetizing progression and convenience.

Finally, existing players will be losing all of their current characters and progress and be required to start over from scratch. They will be able import some of their cosmetics and reserve one character name, as well as have all weapons unlocked by default, but it’s clear that veteran TSW players are losing a tremendous amount in the change.

TSW servers will remain online for now, but it will receive no more content updates and is no longer for sale, so expect it to die off before too long.

It’s hard to predict exactly what effect these changes will have because such a major change is almost unheard of in the MMO world. However, there are a few past events that are at least a little similar, so let’s look at them.

Three Hated Letters

NGE.

Just by typing those letters, I’ve made a Star Wars Galaxies player somewhere in the world grit their teeth in anger.

A shot from Star Wars Galaxies

If you were to run a competition to find the most controversial decision in MMO history, the so-called “New Game Enhancements” would be the odds-on favorite. Even years afterward, years after Star Wars Galaxies as a whole has shut down, the NGE remains a nearly endless source of debate, frustration, and resentment.

The NGE rewrote nearly every aspect of SWG’s gameplay, resulting in a radically different experience. Entire styles of play and types of abilities were unceremoniously deleted.

And the reaction was not good. People quite understandably were upset to find themselves playing a completely different game from the one they’d initially paid for. It wreaked havoc in the community, and the game was thrown into chaos.

Now, in time, players learned to adjust to the changes. SWG ran for some years after the NGE, and these days you can find more than a few devoted SWG fans who will tell you the NGE made it a better game in the long run.

Still, it’s hard to look too kindly on an event that has become the poster child for MMO blunders, an acronym that has become an epithet to long-time MMO players. And that should make TSW players nervous, because the similarities between the NGE and the transition to Legends are immediately apparent.

Both are radical overhauls of core game systems. Both replace a more freeform skill-based progression system with traditional leveling. Both represent a shift toward a more twitch-based form of combat. Both are leaving players with less choice, not more.

A Realm Reborn

The logo for Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn

One of the few other examples of an MMO overhaul on this scale is Final Fantasy XIV’s death and return as A Realm Reborn, and unlike the NGE, this is a change that seems to be viewed mostly positively.

I’m sure that somewhere out there someone prefers FFXIV as it existed following its initial launch, but it’s clear that the large majority of players don’t regret the change to A Realm Reborn. That should seem to bode well for Legends, as in some ways it’s closer to A Realm Reborn than the NGE.

However, there are also some key differences.

Firstly, pretty much everyone would agree that FFXIV was broken beyond repair at launch. Even those fans it did have will be happy to tell you that the game was a mess.

By comparison, people who don’t currently play TSW might say the game is in a bad state, whereas the people who actually play it tend to be pretty happy with the state of the game, at least mechanically. You’ll find some resentment over the lack of content updates, but Legends won’t include any new content — at least at launch — so that doesn’t exactly help matters.

In other words, FFXIV had very little to lose, while TSW does. They risk alienating what fans they do have in the hopes of winning over people who’ve already decided the game isn’t for them.

There’s also the fact that A Realm Reborn was truly a new game, with fresh content for longtime players. As previously noted, Legends will have mostly the same content as TSW, so veteran players are just going to be slogging through the same stuff they’ve already done, just to catch up to where they were.

A town by night in Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn

There’s also a sharp difference in how the transitions have been handled. Square Enix were quick to admit their error with the poor state of FFXIV’s initial incarnation. They even went so far as to make the game free to play — truly free to play — while they worked on improving it.

Meanwhile, Funcom sprang the relaunch as Legends on players more or less out of the blue, despite several months of implying that new content for TSW was in the pipeline. They were happy to continue taking players’ money all while planning to abandon the game. They’re still charging for subscriptions and cash shop purchases.

The Big, Terrible Picture

The upshot here for Funcom is that games have tended to survive their major reboots, but the good news seems to end there.

The fact is that this is still for the most part uncharted territory. Game reboots on this scale are very rare, and none are an exactly perfect analogy for Secret World Legends. However, it does seem to hew closer to the negatives associated with such reboots — poor or dishonest communication, upending life for veteran players — than the positives, like fresh content.

Let’s not forget that FFXIV and SWG are both games from popular franchises, which gave them a lot of built-in publicity and fan support. Legends has no such luxury of name recognition.

The end result is a fairly grim picture for fans of The Secret World. We’re looking at a change that seems like more of an NGE than a Realm Reborn. We’re looking at a game that was the definition of a cult classic — with a small but fiercely loyal fanbase — tossing its fans aside to chase a market that may not be interested in what is still ultimately a five year-old game with a bleak, difficult to understand setting.

A shot from The Secret World

Already rifts are forming in the community. The lines are being drawn between those who want to support Funcom no matter what, and those who feel betrayed by the abandonment of TSW in favour of Legends. People are fleeing TSW in droves, and whether they’ll be back when Legends launches is an open question.

Even in the most optimistic scenario — that Legends becomes a bigger success than TSW was and goes on to many more years of operation with lots of new content — it seems all but impossible for Legends to escape unscarred. The community will be divided. There will be resentment. There will be losses in the transition.

And that’s the optimistic outlook. The pessimistic outlook goes without saying.

For fans of The Secret World, dark days are truly coming.


MMO Retrospective: Shadowbane

Shadowbane MMO Retrospective

Back in 2003 I thought that Shadowbane was going to do for free for all PvP MMOs what Dark Age of Camelot did for faction PvP. Other than nasty bugs, poorly optimized code, and some serious server issues Shadowbane delivered exactly what I wanted at the time. That may seem like I’m being sarcastic, but I was honestly able to look past the technical issues for such a unique experience. I wasn’t alone with that sentiment either. A not-insignificant number of players with similar interests joined me in heralding Shadowbane’s launch. This was finally an MMORPG where players could shape the world.

True Freedom

The vast majority of cities were in fact owned by guilds, which were in turn run by players. It was they who decided the layouts and buildings of their settlement, not game developers. Sure, there was PvE in the form of generic monsters to kill, but that content only served as a appetizer to the main course. Maxing your characters level wasn’t the goal in Shadowbane, maxing your nation’s territory was. In fact, maxing your characters was actually pretty difficult. Shadowbane used a soft cap system where players’ powers would plateau well before the actual hard cap level. It allows players to continue progressing without developing insurmountable advantages over more casual players.

The combat itself was nothing particularly revolutionary. Standard hotbar combat, really. What was cool was that instead of designing abilities around PVE encounters with taunts, and heals, and damage aggro, the classes in Shadowbane were designed around player warfare. Some classes preferred open battlegrounds, some preferred sieges. To exemplify how specialized roles were in Shadowbane there was a even a class focused around destroying walls. No catapult? No problem. Just send in “Frank the Wall Killer”!

For the most part, playing Shadowbane felt like you were constantly stockpiling arms for an upcoming historic war. And really war was exactly what the playerbase wanted. We were players who read epic fantasy novels, imagined battles with hundreds or thousands of participants, and wanted nothing more and then to take part in it. The thing is, when the wars actually came, everything seemed to fall apart.

Shadowbane’s Demise

This was where Shadowbane’s technical issues really started to ruin the experience. Players would find their town under siege and unable to even log in to defend it. Computers and internet connections would strain to keep up with all of the data being processed from nearby players’ actions. It dampened the entire experience (putting it lightly). In hindsight that shouldn’t have been too surprising. Even with relatively stable code, we’re just now getting to the point where servers can handle the massive load of such large battles. Technical issues weren’t the only thing that spelled doom for Shadowbane though.

In fact it was the very freedom of player rule that would make it so unappetizing. You see, eventually every server got to the point where one nation essentially ruled over all. As was inevitable in a game almost purely about war, the majority of guilds would eventually watch their cities and their allies cities topple to the ground. As much as building a city from scratch with fellow friends motivated players, losing it demoralized with a strength ten times greater.

Those with the will to fight back and reclaim their homeland eventually saw the futility of their ways. Not only would stopping a now even stronger foe be impossible without a major political shift in the rival nation’s members, but there simply wasn’t much else to see when a group “won”. Everything in Shadowbane was built around war, but all wars must come to an end. When the dust settled there wasn’t much of a game left to be had. Having seen basically all there was to do, it was no wonder that players were left without any reason to stick around.