Player vs. Everything: The MMO clone wars


You can say a lot of things about a game you don't like. You can say that it sucks or that it's poorly balanced. You can say that the art direction is all wrong, or you can say that it's lacking in any number of features a good game should have. But sometimes a game takes flak for committing the most grievous sin of all: copying another game. One of the most commonly cited complaints about any given game is that they copied "feature X" from "game Y."

For some reason, MMOG players in particular just love to cite the classic "It's just a clone of (whatever)" when they're trying to challenge the very essence of a particular title. If a game is a copy (the reasoning goes) then clearly the designers are wholly uninspired, worthless, and incapable of creating anything interesting or original. It really seems to irk players who feel that their game is being somehow wronged when another game uses similar ideas. But is this really such a bad thing? Might cloning features, or even cloning games, actually be the best possible thing for the games industry?

Those who clone learned it from the professionals.

The most successful games out there got to be successful in the first place by stealing features from other games. These games took what was already out there, made small improvements, and fit it together in a new way that worked better than what had come before. EverQuest was literally a text MUD with graphics dropped over it. In fact, EverQuest itself bore such a striking resemblance to the DikuMUD game that it was accused of deriving its code from it (though Verant officially denied it). You can still see the legacy of those humble origins in the modern combat log, which looks suspiciously like the scrolling combat in a MUD fight.

World of Warcraft took most of the things EverQuest did that were good, chucked a lot of the bad out the window, added a little dash of perfect storm marketing, polish, and that amazing golden touch unique to Blizzard, and presented the multi-million player powerhouse you know and love to the world. There's plenty of originality in what WoW brought to the table, but if you think that the game's core is more than a polished copy of what came before, you'd be dead wrong.

These days, you'd have to be crazy not to steal from Blizzard. Look at any game on the market, or any game in development, and it's going to have bits and pieces of World of Warcraft mixed in. Doesn't the user interface look a little familiar? Do those floating marks above NPCs' heads remind you of quest markers? Does the reputation grind in this game give you deja vu? That's not a mistake. Copying the features that are good is a proven way to make a successful game in this industry, and ignoring that to maintain some idea about "game purity" is a pretty much guaranteed one-way trip to the bargain bin.

Imitation is the finest form of flattery.

Even if a game were made that was a blatant and obvious rip-off of a game that worked, why would that be a bad thing? As much as people like to slam games for being "WoW clones," I have yet to see a title that actually comes anywhere close to being a WoW clone. Copying a user interface and quest indicators doesn't make a clone. That just means that a game studio saw a good idea and used it themselves (even if the rest of their game sucks).

If a game came out that was a carbon copy of WoW in terms of combat, accessibility, amount of content, art direction, and gameplay balance, but had a completely new set of races, classes, quests, items, dungeons, and zones, I think that it would be a bit of a sleeper hit. Scratch that--it would be a smashing success. Why? Because the formula works! There are a lot of reasons why WoW carries however many million players, but at the heart of it is the fact that WoW is a damn fun game to play.

You don't copy something unless it's good, so when someone copies your game's features, you know you have something good on your hands. Rather than being upset about another game using ideas from your favorite game, you should be thrilled that those features were worth copying in the first place. When you get bored of your chosen title, you might even be able to step into a game that copied lots of its features and bypass the worst of the learning curve.

Why is having more of what you like ever a bad thing? It doesn't bother us when this happens in any other format. Does it bother you that Megaman is basically Mario with a gun, or do you just enjoy both games? Does it bother you that the Wheel of Time, Sword of Truth, and Dune series all have strikingly similar protagonists and social structures? No, you just enjoy reading the various fantasy novels. Do the billion spin-offs and copies of the CSI formula ever make you think, "Jeez, how about a change of pace?", or do you just revel in the tried and true trappings that makes the crime drama format so wildly popular? I think you get the picture.

When something works, people can't get enough of it (until they get tired of it).

It's all been done, and there's a lot less variety these days.

Most of the arguments you've read about game design have already been hashed out time and time again, long before they were whipped out for their 2,477th consecutive beating on a random forum or blog. Back when MUDs were flourishing, most of the games were built off the same, open-source codebase, which means that there were more similarities from game to game than differences.

That was the beauty of it though. If you liked the basic formula but you hated the trappings of an individual game, a similar game with exactly the features you wanted was just a quick search away. If you still couldn't find exactly what you were looking for, the tools were there for you and a few buddies to go make it yourself. "Cloning" features wasn't an issue (at least, not for the players); it was a way to make sure that your game was as great as it could possibly be. The point here is that in such an active primordial pool, it was a perfect place to test all of the things that are way too risky for an MMOG in today's market. Permadeath was relatively common. Weird themes abounded. Nobody thought twice about overwhelming their players with race and class options.

We don't have anything comparable to that environment in today's MMO market. If you're tired of WoW, there's nothing else out there that will scratch that itch properly. The same thing can be said about City of Heroes or Dungeons and Dragons Online. The big commercial games tend to be so unique, in fact, that players groping around for something new generally have to learn an entirely new type of game (the few similarities aside).

Lets start some clone wars!

Arguably, a little more cloning and copying is exactly what the industry could use right now. A lot of people are making angry noise about how similar World of Warcraft and Warhammer Online are looking (for the very good reason that the Warcraft Universe was inspired in part by the Warhammer Universe), but in my opinion, that's fantastic. The only thing that can come from a little competition is that both games will have to try harder and be better than they would have if either were standing alone.

We call a business with no competitors a monopoly, and we tend not to like them, but that's exactly what most major MMOGs have right now. Where are my spin-offs? Where are my eerily similar copies of games that are perfectly successful with 500,000 players? Competing in this industry is hard, but the truth is that individual games only sort of compete against each other. Most people find a game style they like and get turned off by others. Most MMOGs are not perfect substitutes for one another. Instead of slamming games that try to copy existing games, we should welcome them with open arms. They're forcing the games we love to be even better!

What's so wrong about the best clone coming out victorious? I don't see it as anything but a win-win proposition for the players.
Cameron Sorden Cameron Sorden is an avid gamer, blogger, and writer who has been playing a wide variety of online games since the late '90s. Several times per week in Player vs. Everything, he tackles all things MMO-related. If you'd like to reach Cameron with comments or questions, you can e-mail him at cameron.sorden AT weblogsinc.com.

This article was originally published on Massively.