Many gaming genres have a particular title that is absolutely the leader and it’s most apparent in the MMO world. The undisputed king is World of Warcraft. Why can’t any other game dislodge it? A recent CNN article on why Star Wars: The Old Republic (SW:TOR) is adopting the free-to-play (F2P) model ends with this absolutely correct point about MMO games: none of these games [other MMOs] are substantially different from one another.
If you look at MMO games released prior to, or around the same time as, the release of WoW you can find tons of variety. After the release of World of Warcraft, however, MMO games start to look like clones of it. Consider the design elements, for example.
Virtually every MMO on the market uses a level-based system. Characters are typically designed by class and race. Abilities are accessed through a hotkey bar, usually along the edge of the screen. Players live and die by hit points. Better gear means better results. The user interface (UI) has been refined to work extremely well with the MMO game style.
World of Warcraft even helped define the terminology used in just about every MMO. Players chain abilities together in a rotation. Groups of players going after a particular objective are called a raid. Effective parties contain the holy trinity – a tank, a healer, and DPS (damage per second) character. If there’s a term used in MMO gaming it probably originated or gained traction in WoW.
In essence that’s the problem – there’s nothing in MMO gaming. WoW has already done everything noteworthy and everything else seems like a copycat.
Consider: WoW is a swords-and-sorcery fantasy-themed MMO. SW:TOR is based on the Star Wars universe. In practice, though, many differences between them are merely cosmetic. A bow in WoW and a blaster in SW:TOR are nothing more than ranged attack objects with different onscreen appearances. An axe and a lightsaber are just melee weapons that look different. Horses and speeder bikes are just transportation objects.
So what can an MMO do to actually set itself apart from WoW and equal or exceed its success? It has to be genuinely different from WoW and include valuable new ideas WoW does not.
EVE Online has the deepest in-game economy I’ve ever seen. Players control essentially everything from the most trivial sources of materials to the creation of finished products. It has a market system conceptually similar to a major commodities exchange. Players can successfully pursue riches and power through economics. It’s so deep you can even track it on the game’s market conditions website.
Games like APB: Reloaded have enormous open-world environments that players can affect in real time. They can move objects, destroy them, and splatter the landscape with graffiti. A WoW-killer needs an unprecedented level of ability for players to affect the game world.
Deep character customization is also key. APB: Reloaded has it in spades with players able to use an in-game art program to design everything from custom paint jobs on cars to personalized clothing to tattoos on their characters. Champions Online has a powerful character generator allowing players to design their avatar’s appearance down to details like “chin size.” Players identify with their avatars and love personalizing them.
Combat mechanics should be based on first person shooter ideas. Right now MMOs tend to follow the “press the hotkeys in the right sequence” method of play. Players don’t generally even need to aim – they just press a button to auto-target.
Combat resolution and other aspects of interaction must be handled server-side to eliminate aimbot and wallhack problems. World of Tanks does this very well. I’ve yet to see an aimbot problem there and have never encountered tanks ghosting through walls.
Character advancement should use a mechanic other than “leveling up.” An old text-based MUD (Multi-user dungeon, the precursor to graphical MMOs) called Amageddon MUD did this very well. Characters had skills that became more effective by practicing with them. There was no such thing as a “level” in that game, and a brand new player could defeat even the most powerful characters through brains.
I once saw a character in that game trick another player into following him to the top of a building – and then pushed the older, more powerful character off the top. It was pretty harsh since players get exactly one life in that game, but it shows the point.
Actual mystery would be helpful. That same MUD has a unique mechanic for handling magic. Spells required players to type in a set of magic words to make a spell go off – but the combinations of words were not public. The combinations for the most powerful abilities were closely guarded secrets.
A new and unique theme is critical. SW:TOR is based on one of the best known fictional realms in the world, but when you look at it you realize something: It looks dated. Star Wars was revolutionary in 1977. Personal computers the size of industrial refrigerators don’t look so impressive by present-day standards.
A game that can beat WoW must use a genre people can connect with and do it with style. The appearance must be amazing, sound effects must be incredible, and voice acting must be superb. It should have an engaging backstory. The game should create a world so deep and rich that it inspires people to write novels about it.
In short it would have to do everything World of Warcraft does, but better; and it would have to include all the elements of modern gaming WoW could not include due to its development era. Instead of trying to beat WoW at its own game, a real contender has to raise the bar and change the genre entirely.
If you have further ideas on what a “WoW-Killer” should include add your suggestions in the comments section.