Tag Archives: Lord of the Rings Online

We Have Enough MMOs

2017 was another year without a lot of big name releases in the MMO space. We’re definitely going through a bit of a drought, especially when compared to the post-WoW boom, and that has a lot of people in the MMORPG community worried. The more hyperbolic voices among us rush to once again declare the genre dead, while more moderate figures simply hum and haw and hope for more new releases in future.

The Wrothgar zone in Elder Scrolls Online

But to that I say, “Don’t worry; be happy.” I don’t think there’s any cause for concern. I think everything is just fine. MMO players don’t need a constant stream of new titles; we just need a solid selection of games that continue to grow and prosper. And that’s exactly what we’ve got.

Simply put, we have enough MMOs.

What We Expect

Of course, it’s easy enough to see where this desire for more and more new games comes from. A steady stream of new releases is the bedrock of pretty much any entertainment industry. We’re used to things working that way.

Imagine if Hollywood put out only one or two movies over a period of several years. It would be disastrous. Movie theaters everywhere would go out of business. The entire film industry would collapse.

Closer to home, single-player game developers also need to keep putting out new titles if they want to survive. Even with an ever-increasing reliance on DLC, micro-transactions, and “long tail” monetization, the fact remains most people finish a single-player game (and stop paying for it) within a few weeks at most. Players and developers alike need new games to be released regularly, or the whole system collapses.

But MMOs are special, you see. MMOs aren’t something you pick up and put down in the space of hours, or days, or even weeks. MMOs are about investing months, even years of your time. Even for games that do charge for entry, subscription fees and cash shop purchases will inevitably dwarf box sales, and from the player’s perspective, long-term investment is much of the appeal. We want to be able to set down roots in a game and settle in for the long haul.

So while it’s easy to fall into the belief that a lack of new releases is a red flag, for MMOs, it really isn’t. The genre can survive for extended periods with little or no new games to speak of.

A town in the action combat MMORPG Kritika Online

If after ten or fifteen years we still haven’t seen any big-name MMO releases, then I’d get worried. Until then, I’m not concerned.

What We Want

Of course, even if you’re not worried about the health of the genre, it’s still understandable to pine for some new games to sink your teeth into. The excitement of something new and shiny cannot be denied.

Often times the hype leading up to a game’s release is at least as exciting as the actual game. Anticipation is fun. We all like to have something to look forward to.

There’s a rush to the first few days of an MMO’s life that can’t really be replicated by anything else, too. Everything is still fresh and new, not just to you but to everyone, and there’s a festival air to it all. Everything is busy. Everyone is having fun. Chat is hopping, and zones are buzzing. It’s the entire MMO experience turned up to eleven.

For those of us who comment on the genre for a hobby or for a living, new releases definitely make our lives easier, too. It’s unquestionably easier for me to review a new game than it is to find some new insight on the games that have already been out for years.

So yes, it’s understandable to want something new to play. But that still doesn’t mean a dearth of new titles is cause for concern. There are other, better ways to measure the health of the genre.

What We Need


A revenant character in Guild Wars 2's Path of Fire expansion

So we’re used to the idea that new releases are how entertainment industries stay afloat, and we have lots of good reasons to find new games exciting, but as I’ve said, MMOs are special, and that’s not what this genre is really about.

MMOs are not, by and large, a one and done experience. They’re not something you finish quickly… or at all. It’s not as though you’re going to play one for a few days and then move on. Not if the developers are doing their job, anyway.

No, MMORPGs are about settling down. They’re about finding a home. They’re games that you build relationships with over years.

We don’t need a constant chain of new games to play. We need games that we can stick with for the long haul, that continue to thrive years after launch.

The health of the MMORPG genre is therefore best measured not by the number of new releases, but by the prosperity and popularity of the games that are already live.

By that measure, I judge the state of the MMO genre to be strong.

We have a strong stable of big name MMOs that are getting regular infusions of quality content, like World of Warcraft, Elder Scrolls Online, and Final Fantasy XIV. We have smaller and older games that continue to chug along, like Lord of the Rings Online and the EverQuests.

We have sci-fi MMOs, like EVE Online and Star Trek Online. We have shooter MMOs, like Destiny and Warframe. We have story MMOs and PvP MMOs and raiding MMOs. We have action combat MMOs and tab target MMOs, photo-realistic MMOs and anime MMOs, subscription MMOs and free to play MMOs.

A warlock character in the MMOFPS Destiny 2

We live in a world where the only way I’ll find the time to play all the MMOs I want to as much as I want to is if scientists devise a way to function without sleep (and even then it would be a challenge). We have all that we need, and while you can probably point to some games that are struggling, there are at least as many that are thriving.

In the face of that, there just isn’t a pressing need to throw a lot of new games into the mix. In fact, I can even think of some downsides to the idea.

The pool of potential MMO players is, I believe, relatively static. A particularly exciting new game might attract some new players, but I know from personal experience that it can be very difficult to convert a non-MMO player into the genre. I don’t think that a new MMORPG is just going to conjure itself an entirely new playerbase.

That means that any new games are going to cannibalize the players from existing games, at least to some extent. These days, most of us play multiple MMOs, but there is an upper limit to how many games each person has time for. At some point you do run the risk of the players being spread too thin between too many games, and the more people hop around, the less opportunity there is for true online communities to form.

Now, I definitely wouldn’t go so far as to say that more new MMOs would be a bad thing… but it’s not an unequivocally good thing, either.

In the years following the break-out success of World of Warcraft, we saw a steady stream of new MMOs coming out all the time, and some may see that as “the good old days,” but in practice all we got was an endless stream of barely distinguishable games that struggled to find a voice and an audience.

MMOs are not the new hotness anymore, and they’re no longer a genre that every other developer is trying to create a “me too” entry for. But that’s not a sign that the genre is dying; it’s a sign that it’s maturing, and that can only be a good thing.

A cutscene in the free to play MMORPG Blade and Soul

MMOs thrive on stability. That’s what we should seek above all else, and that’s what we have.

* * *

So I understand why some people are bothered by the relative lack of new MMOs being released these days. It’s not what we’re used to, and it gives us a lack of sexy newness to drool over.

But it doesn’t mean that MMOs are in trouble, and it certainly doesn’t mean that they’re dying. The genre has settled into a quiet equilibrium, and it’s chugging along just fine.

The gaming community loves to focus on the negative, but when you really think about it, now is a great time to be an MMORPG player. Maybe the best time. There are games for (nearly) every taste. Most of the big names are stable and thriving. We’ve got quality and quantity. We’ve got everything we need.

We have enough MMOs.

Christmas Without “Christmas” in MMORPGs

christmas in mmorpg lotro

Read the following list carefully. What catches your eye?

Selection of popular MMOs featuring an event around Christmas
ArcheAgeWinter Maiden Festival
AionSolorius Festival
EverQuest (EQ) & EverQuest 2 (EQ2)Frostfell
The Elder Scrolls Online (ESO)New Life
Final Fantasy XIV (FFXIV)Starlight Celebration
Guild Wars 2 (GW2)Wintersday
Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO)Yuletide Festival
NeverwinterWinter Festival of Simril
RiftFae Yule
Star Trek Online (STO)Q’s Winter Wonderland
Star Wars: the Old Republic (SWTOR)Life Day event
WildstarProtostar Gala Winterfest Extravaganza
World of Warcraft (WoW)Feast of Winter Veil

Did you notice something odd? Well, I did.

The amount of times the word “Christmas” is used is a whopping 0.

Granted, this is an incomplete overview of MMOs. But even when you dig through Massively OP’s extensive guide of last year, “Christmas” does not seem to be a popular choice of words. Out of a grand total of 51 MMOs (the definition is stretched a bit by including MOBA’s and mobile games), only APB Reloaded and Echo of Soul speak of a “Christmas event” – the first is a Grand Theft Auto-style shooter game and the second I frankly had never heard of before.

Apparently, there’s a huge demand for Christmas events – every big title has one, after all – but MMOs avoid the word “Christmas” like the plague. We’ve arrived at the main scope of this article:

How do game developers implement Christmas in MMOs? Why are Christmas inspired in-game events never referred to as “Christmas”? Which traditional elements are incorporated and which are left out?

Christmas elements in MMOs

The obvious element missing from in-game events is “Christ”. Indeed, when you look at the content of MMO “Christmas” events, all elements of Christianity have been removed. There are no angels, no Christmas carols, no stars, no crosses, no nativity scenes. While you might regularly encounter these symbols in the real, offline world (even if you are not religious yourself), the online game world is completely devoid of them.

My guess is that not using any religious elements is a conscious decision to keep events inclusive for everyone. Nobody wants to take the risk of upsetting someone by adding controversial elements.

Elk mount in the Elder Scrolls Online (ESO) (Source: ESO promotional image)

Elk mount in the Elder Scrolls Online (ESO) (Source: ESO promotional image)

But how do we then set the holiday spirit in MMOs?

A quick look through the MMO scape provides the answer: by implementing a selection of non-religious Christmas elements into the game.

Top 5 Christmas elements in MMOs

1. Throwing snowballs

2. Festive warm winter clothing

3. Presents (sometimes combined with Santa like NPCs)

4. Candy canes, gingerbread and toys

5. Elk mounts

(Note that this top 5 is based on a broad guess after studying the use of Christmas in roughly ten MMOs. I did not track down all elements for all MMOs because that would be a huge undertaking. These elements, however, clearly occurred the most overall.)

The result is a unique blend of elements within each MMORPG. Which elements that are, depends a lot on the MMO’s setting and tone. You can make out three general categories.

1) Sci-fi MMOs

MMOs in a sci-fi setting have the hardest job translating Christmas to something that fits within their lore. Futuristic space simply doesn’t vibrate “homely” and “winter” without some help. Star Wars: the Old Republic (SWTOR) celebrates Life Day, a wookiee event that was introduced to the fandom with the Star Wars Holiday Special. Revolving around family and the renewal of life, Life Day has a lot in common with Christmas. During the event, sparkling holotrees on the Fleet set the right mood. In a way, they represent a futuristic version of the wookiee Tree of Life.

Life Day decorations in Star Wars: the Old Republic (SWTOR)

I chuckled when I found out Star Trek Online (STO)’s creative solution to the problem: Q’s Winter Wonderland. Q, the well known omnipotent and unpredictable character that first appeared in The Next Generation, is truly the only person that would get away with something so silly in the otherwise serious Star Trek lore.

2) Cartoony, light-hearted MMOs

Lighthearted MMOs that allow for more out of character content, tend to go all out with American Christmas related elements: Christmas trees, presents, Santa hats, reindeer antlers… even glowing noses that you can stuck on your character (EverQuest). Whether you love or hate it, these Christmas events often distinguish themselves by an abundance of pop culture references. World of Warcraft (WoW) players, for instance, can get a Red Rider Air Rifle: a variation of the famous gun featured in the 1983 comedy A Christmas Story. Pop culture references are typical of WoW, and their Christmas event is no exception.

These MMOs also often feature a Santa like figure with a twist. EverQuest 2’s Santa Glug (a goblin in a Santa outfit), EverQuest’s Santug Claugg (an ogre dressed in red) and SWTOR’s Master of ceremonies (a bearded old guy dressed in red) are examples of this. WoW players can get a “Santa’s Helper” miniature gnome.

More subtle are satirical views of the commercial side of Christmas, such as present in Wildstar in EverQuest 2. In the latter, a quest called Saving Frostfell invites you to save the spirit of holiday by destroying a factory. These meta references are, however, rare.

Winter Veil in World of Warcraft (Source: promotional material)

Winter Veil in World of Warcraft (Source: promotional material)

3) High Fantasy MMOs

Fantasy MMOs that heavily rely on realism and immersion generally avoid the more modern aspects of Christmas. An electrically lighted Santa flying through the air on his sleigh would be terribly out of place in, say, the Elder Scrolls Online (ESO), after all. More subtle references like cosmetic warm winter clothing and elk mounts prevail.

High Fantasy MMOs often try to give the event a pagan, pre-Christian touch. Many Christmas symbols, such as the Christmas tree, have their origin in pagan festivals that celebrate the renewal of life (Yule). This is apparent in the naming choice: Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) has a Yuletide Festival, Rift celebrates Fae Yule and ESO New Life.

Another tactic is the implementation of more intangible concepts such as the Christmas spirit. LOTRO has a Dickens inspired theme going on in its Winterhome town. Players are invited to side with either the poor or the mayor who exploits them. Siding with the mayor yields better rewards, but can you live with being ruthless? Helping the poor or assisting orphans are recurring motives in several MMOs.


Looking at all these Christmas inspired events, the shared characteristic is that they try to invoke a nostalgic or cheerful atmosphere that provides a break from normal in-game activities. Game developers carefully select elements that fit within the in-game world lore-wise. Without exception, they play it safe: no references to religion are made, apart from pagan name elements that are used to give a exotic favour. Since many Western MMOs are being developed in the US, inspiration is mostly drawn from the American Christmas tradition (incidentally, as someone living in the Netherlands, references are often lost to me). The overall intent is to make us enjoy and there’s no denying that that fits perfectly within the Christmas spirit.

The Best MMOs for Solo Players

To some, “solo MMO player” might sound like an oxymoron, but in reality, soloists make up one of the largest player groups in MMORPGs, and even people who do enjoy group play will usually end up playing solo some of the time.

Soloing MMOs used to be a hard road, but these days most games offer a wealth of solo content. Still, some are more welcoming of solo players than others. To be truly solo-friendly, an MMORPG must not only offer solo content, but also ensure that content is well-crafted and fulfilling, not just generic kill ten rats quests, and there must be meaningful rewards for solo play.

The different types of solo-friendly MMOs can be divided into a few broad tiers, so let’s take a look at what they are.

Somewhat Solo-friendly

These are games that offer a wealth of solo content, but may still reserve the very best content and rewards for group play.

World of Warcraft

A solo player in World of Warcraft

World of Warcraft is a game that definitely requires group play to get the most out of it — all the best rewards and most important story moments are found in dungeons and raids — but quick and effective group finders make them easily accessible to someone without a guild or a group of in-game friends.

The current Legion expansion has also added a great deal of fun and rewarding solo content in the form of class campaigns and world quests.

Overall, WoW’s a good choice for a “soft” soloist who prefers to play alone but isn’t totally opposed to grouping. Pure soloists may want to look elsewhere.

Lord of the Rings Online

A cutscene from Lord of the Rings Online

LotRO has no shortage of solo content, and the “epic story” of the game is quite solo-friendly. However, the quality of its side quests — which are necessary to level — tends to be fairly weak, and it does shift focus to a more raid-centric endgame once you’ve progressed far enough.

Play Lord of the Rings Online here.


A solo player in the MMOFPS Defiance

Trion’s MMO shooter has a strong focus on open world events and story-driven missions, both of which are quite approachable for the MMO soloist.

The strikes against Defiance from a solo player’s perspective would be that some of the best rewards are still locked behind group content, and that it can eventually become exceptionally grindy, which can tax the limited free time many solo players have.

Very Solo-friendly

These games have made solo players a priority and offer solid quantity and quality of solitary options.

Guild Wars 2

A thief character in Guild Wars 2

In the past, I would have considered Guild Wars 2 one of the best solo MMORPGs, but these days it’s not quite as welcoming to the soloist as it once was. Open world content has become more difficult and unforgiving, encouraging (though not requiring) the assistance of fellow players, and the endgame has shifted more toward high end raids and dungeons.

The majority of GW2 is still soloable, and you’ll still have a lot of fun content and satisfying rewards available to you, but it’s just not quite as flawlessly solo-friendly as it used to be.

Play Guild Wars 2 here.


A promotional image for the MMOFPS Warframe

Recently I’ve been considering giving Warframe a try, and reading up on it, the consensus seems to be that you can do most anything in the game solo, but some things may be difficult, and you may require a specific build to do it. So it seems like a good choice for a solo player, but perhaps not quite an ideal choice.

Play Warframe here.

Cryptic MMOs

A story quest in Star Trek Online

I’m going to lump Neverwinter, Star Trek Online, and Champions Online together because they all follow more or less the same formula. There’s an emphasis on solo story content, usually heavily instanced, and while the quests aren’t the best in the genre, they definitely are above average.

Endgame in Cryptic MMOs tends to be split between traditional dungeon content or PvP and more solo-friendly daily quest grinds. It’s not the most thrilling solo content in the world, but it’s there.

Of them all, I’d rate STO as the most solo-friendly. It has the most story-driven and overall best quest content of Cryptic’s library.

Play Neverwinter, Star Trek Online, or Champions Online here.

Exceptionally Solo-friendly

These are the crème de la crème of solo MMORPGs, where solo content is at least as fun and rewarding as any other option, if not more so.

Secret World Legends

The character creator in Secret World Legends

The Secret World was pretty much the pinnacle of the solo MMO experience, with impeccable mission design, purely optional group content, and an egalitarian endgame that allowed most anyone to get the best gear eventually.

I haven’t delved as deeply into Legends, but the general philosophy of the reboot seems to have been to move away from MMO mechanics, so if anything it should be even more welcoming to solo players (if that’s even possible).

Star Wars: The Old Republic

A story mission in Star Wars: The Old Republic's Knights of the Fallen Empire expansion

SWTOR does lose some points for having an endgame that still puts raids and dungeons at the top, but most would agree that the real attraction of the game is its story, and all of that is entirely soloable. Even if you only play the class stories, you’re still essentially getting eight high quality single-player RPGs for free… ish.

The endgame doesn’t entirely shut out the solo player, either. Most anything can grant you experience toward Galactic Command ranks, including soloable heroic missions and the like.

Play Star Wars: The Old Republic here.

Elder Scrolls Online

A nightblade character in Elder Scrolls Online

Like the other top tier solo MMOs, Elder Scrolls Online has a strong emphasis on story content, which can all be completed solo, and while the mechanics are not quite so unique as in Legends and the story not quite so powerful as in SWTOR, ESO’s questing is nonetheless a cut above what most other MMOs offer, and the sheer volume of it is staggering.

There are dungeons and raids, but they’re not at all essential to understanding the story, nor are they the only path to advancement at endgame. Crafting provides an effective, if somewhat grindy, path for solo players to achieve high-end gear, and any content will give you the XP needed for Champion Points.

Can MMOs Provide Satisfying Endings?

I’ve been thinking about endings lately. About how and if MMOs can end. I’m not talking about when games shut down — or at least not entirely — but about the stories within MMOs, and whether they can ever be given satisfying conclusions.

The ending of The Secret World's Whispering Tide event

This is a complex topic, so let me explain.

The Rock and the Hard Place

Although MMORPGs are not often thought of as a particularly narrative-driven genre, story is nonetheless a fairly essential part of the MMO experience — or at least the themepark MMO experience, anyway. It’s what steers the direction of the game and gives what we do a sense of purpose.

Even if you’re not the sort of person to delve deeply into lore, most would agree that it’s more interesting to fight the traitor Arthas Menethil atop the Frozen Throne than it is to fight Raid Boss #3.3.12 in a gray box.

So story is important, but MMOs are unusual in that they are meant to be continuous. There isn’t the same beginning, middle, and end structure. That persistence is a large part of what makes MMOs appealing, but it’s a double-edged sword, because it cuts out something terribly important to any good story: the end.

To see how important endings are, look at Mass Effect 3. This is a game almost universally reviled, and that’s purely on the basis of its ending. I vehemently disagree with the criticism of ME3’s ending, actually, but that’s a discussion for elsewhere, and either way it illustrates how much an ending colors people’s perceptions of a story.

The trouble with MMOs is that their entire point is to not end, so the story just forges ahead endlessly. This usually results in one of two things, and neither is desirable.

The first is the game sunsets and shuts down entirely. Since no one plans to lose their job, the developers will be unprepared for this, and the story will either end unfinished or be given an ending that’s far too rushed.

A paladin class story in World of Warcraft

The other is that a game just keeps going on and on, and inevitably, this is going to take a toll on its story-telling. I’m sure we can all think of one or two TV shows that ran for too long and stretched the story past its breaking point. This is no different. A story you love going on forever is one of those things that sounds great until you achieve it, and then you realize that no story can remain compelling forever.

But what can be done? Can MMOs ever truly achieve satisfactory endings?

Saying Goodbye Is Hard

MMOs are, in the end, businesses, and while I do think many developers also care about the artistic side of things, the fact remains that choosing to end a profitable game based purely on artistic integrity is going to be a hard sell, to put it mildly.

Perhaps it is then up to the players to choose their own ending, to simply stop playing whenever they reach what they feel could be a satisfying conclusion to the story. You’d be surprised how many people stopped playing World of Warcraft after Wrath of the Lich King simply because the Lich King’s story was what they cared about, and with it done, they no longer had any investment.

That’s not an ideal solution, though. It can be hard to judge when the right moment to leave is. I know a lot of those people who quit after Wrath missed out on some of WoW’s best story-telling by not playing expansions like Legion and Mists of Pandaria. And it can be hard to make a clean break, especially if you still have friends in the game.

There are some examples of developers delivering true endings to their MMO’s story, but they’re few and far between. The original Guild Wars comes to mind, but it ceased new development largely to make way for its sequel, so I’m not sure that’s really an ending per se.

The Iron Marches zone in Guild Wars 2

One other example is Final Fantasy XI, which as I understand it did try to deliver a conclusion to its story before entering maintenance mode. Unfortunately I’ve never played that game, and as an old title with a small community, it’s hard to find a lot of information about it, so I’m not sure exactly how that panned out. Did it wrap up every loose end, or was it simply an end to content updates rather than a true conclusion of the story?

That’s a rare case, too. Square Enix is a very successful company with another popular MMO under its belt. Few have the resources to give a proper send-off to an aging game like that.

The one other option I see is to wrap up the big storyline of a game, then continue with smaller, more minor story quests for so long as the game persists.

There is actually a recent example of this. Lord of the Rings Online was a game whose story had a clear conclusion: the destruction of the One Ring. I honestly thought they’d keep procrastinating about getting to that forever, but now with the recent Mordor expansion, the Ring’s journey has finally ended, yet the game persists, now forging new ground as it deals with the aftermath of the War of the Ring.

This seems like an excellent idea to me, but again I do not play LotRO, so I can’t speak with authority on how well it’s worked out. I like the idea, at least.

I’m not sure this would work for every game, though. World of Warcraft defines itself by being as bombastic and epic as possible. Abandoning major threats for smaller stories of character and culture just wouldn’t quite work there. It may instead be doomed to continue on until it becomes totally ridiculous (some might argue it’s already there).

This is another situation that lacks an easy solution.

How would you give closure to MMO stories, and do you have any examples of it being done well?

LOTRO vs. SWTOR: Who Handles the IP Better?

Many games are based on pre-existing imaginary worlds. Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) and Star Wars: the Old Republic (SWTOR) are two such MMO games that have become popular, not in the least due to their IP. But which of the two handles the IP better?

IP and Licensing

Intellectual property (IP) is an intangible ownership that is based on creations of the mind. While the word technically focuses on the possession of creations, fans often use it to refer to the collection of ideas themselves. This is how it will be used in this article.

For a fair comparison, let’s look at what intellectual property each MMO has access to. I’m going to assume you are broadly familiar with the fictional worlds of Middle-earth and Star Wars.

SWTOR screenshot of Yavin IV

Yavin IV 3000 years before the rebel base (SWTOR)

LOTRO is based on Tolkien’s Middle-earth, or ‘Tolkien’s legendarium’. However, the MMO only has a license for The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) and The Hobbit. This means the game is not allowed to refer to events or characters from other works by Tolkien, such as The Silmarillion.

SWTOR is based on the Star Wars universe. The license covers the entire IP, but as the game takes place about 3000 years before the events in the movies, a large part of game design is left to the imagination of its developers. We know from interviews and livestreams that SWTOR’s developers have regular contact with Disney’s Star Wars team to discuss whether new story plans fit.

How do you measure the ‘essence’ of an IP?

Needless to say, the translation from book or movie to MMO is never going to be direct; they’re different mediums, created by different people at different times. Nobody is going to do a perfect job, and judging how good of a job has been done is subjective by definition. To come up with a convincing argument, I will measure three attributes: worldbuilding, aesthetics and story.

Worldbuilding is the process of constructing a fictional universe. One could argue that Tolkien was the ‘ultimate worldbuilder’. He described the imaginary world of Middle-earth in incredible detail, including history spanning thousands of years, genealogical trees of historic figures and entire languages (complete with alphabets and scripts) for the various races inhabiting his world. Some of Tolkien’s books are fictional historical works that are completely dedicated to worldbuilding and do not contain a plot. Because worldbuilding was such an important part of Tolkien’s writing, a successful use of the IP in an MMO would require a detailed and immersive virtual world.

Worldbuilding in Star Wars is done in a visual, cinematic manner. Think of the much celebrated first scene of Episode IV: a seemingly never-ending Star Destroyer dwarfs the helpless Corvette ahead. The Destroyer has a slick interior design; the many people working on it are faceless, void of identity, in their uniforms. No word has been said, but everything about the Empire radiates power and dominance. With the blink of an eye, the visuals explains the power structure in a galaxy far, far away.

LOTRO screenshot of Rohirric sky

The sky of Rohan: birds circle in the air (LOTRO)

Aesthetics is not so much about how the fictional world is constructed, but rather about whether its representation holds true. Think of auditive, textual and, above all, visual information. When judging aesthetics, we should not only look for obvious iconic elements (e.g. a Star Wars MMO should have lightsabers; the Shire needs hobbit holes), but also for less tangible aspects, such as immersion.

Finally, story is an important aspect. Both IPs feature an epic story with heroes that play a vital role in reshaping the world. But because MMOs are inhabited by many player controlled characters, not everyone can be the main hero. How are these stories handled? Do players have the feeling they are part of the narrative?

Use of IP in LOTRO

I wrote earlier that a successful use of the IP in LOTRO would require a detailed and immersive virtual world. I can already give away that the game has succeeded in this regard. Every detail that is in the books can be found in-game. Regions that are only briefly mentioned in LOTR, such as Dunland, have been believably filled in with the help of anthropological and archaeological knowledge.

LOTRO Screenshot hobbit hole

A hobbit hole in the Shire (LOTRO)

In one aspect, LOTRO’s developers have deliberately opted to deviate from Tolkien’s worldbuilding. The Lord of the Rings namely was written almost 70 years ago and is a product of its time: it contains some elements of racism and the narrative is dominated by males. From the Rohan expansions onwards, LOTRO has made a clear effort to make the voice of women and children heard, giving them a larger role than in the original IP. Children play out in the streets of villages you pass; several quests introduce you to how the war is experienced by them. Meanwhile, women are left in the charge of towns while their men are fighting in the war. Without deviating from the medieval inspired setting of Middle-earth, LOTRO passes the Bechdel test effortlessly.

As for aesthetics, all iconic elements that you would expect are present. Bag End, the Prancing Pony, Weathertop… even the Black Gate can be visited. Landmarks are an important aspect that makes players connect with the IP and carry over LOTRO’s feeling of realism. LOTRO’s landscapes are celebrated in the MMO scape, and with good reason: they are incredibly detailed (day-night cycles and a weather system) and are still competitive with new titles even though the MMO is a decade old. The in-game music varies by region and adds to the immersion.

LOTRO’s ‘epic story’ follows the fellowship to Mordor. The player character is no known hero, but helps persons of note from behind the scenes. This is a clever way of handling the unwritten rule that players are heroes, while all seats are already taken. However, it could be argued that the player is too much of a Mary Sue, being pals with all the important figures while saving countless towns and people in the time-span of one year – not very realistic.

Screenshot of the Eternal Throne of Zakuul in SWTOR

The Eternal Throne of Zakuul (SWTOR)

Use of IP in SWTOR

We have seen how the Star Wars movies use the visual to support intuitive worldbuilding. This method is also heavily utilized in SWTOR and is something that sets the MMO apart from others. ‘Visual worldbuilding’ is everywhere: from the black and red, slick design of the Imperial Empire to the Eternal Empire depicted above. The row of golden outfitted Zakuulan knights on the way to the Eternal Throne, situated on top of the Spire, signal wealth and power much like the aforementioned intro to A New Hope.

Of course, visual worldbuilding is not done exclusively in SWTOR, but the emphasis on the visual and cinematic throughout the game is undeniable. For instance, the overwhelming majority of quests have a cutscene. Cutscenes in SWTOR don’t merely consist of stationary NPCs, but are also action based and show your own character in their custom outfit. To strengthen the cinematic experience, quests in SWTOR have voice acting. Both NPCs and player characters are voice acted and a stunning amount of 16 different (base class and gender determined) voices are available to represent the player.

Developing cutscenes and recording voice actors must have taken a good chunk out of SWTOR’s budget, meaning that less funds were available for other aspects of the game. Landscape design seems to have suffered a bit. This is not to say planets in SWTOR look bad. Indeed, the landscapes are quite decent, but they lack the amount of detail and immersion of LOTRO: no day-night cycle nor weather are present. As for other aesthetics: iconic Star Wars archetypes are represented in the base classes, such as smuggler, jedi knight, bounty hunter and sith warrior. Lightsabers and weapons both look great and SWTOR easily beats LOTRO when it comes to animations. A clear effort has been made to meet the visually appealing combat of the movies. The in-game music gives the player the same feeling of epicness as in the IP and is of more consistent quality than in LOTRO.

Screenshot from SWTOR's desert

The iconic two suns of Tatooine (SWTOR)

Storytelling is another strong suit of SWTOR. Between its well-written, compelling stories, player choices (sometimes granting dark or light side points) and sheer amount of story content, every other MMO I’ve tried out since has disappointed. SWTOR’s base game comes with 8 distinct class stories that continue up to level 50. The game also features companions that have conversations and small stories attached to them. The latest expansions have focused on story exclusively and allowed players to make choices with more consequences.


So which MMO handles the IP best? I feel compelled to go with the boring answer: there is no clear winner. Both MMOs are inspired by the worldbuilding of their respective IPs and have made a unique translation of their IP to a virtual world. LOTRO has focused on superb landscapes and immersion while SWTOR stands out for its storytelling and cinematic spectacle. If you prefer one over the other, I suspect it is because you enjoy certain aspects (aesthetics, story etc) more than others. Or perhaps you have a preference of IP, or simply care about other (non IP related) gameplay matters more. It is not because one MMO has done a worse job with the IP than the other.

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.


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 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.


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.