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The Digital Continuum: On WAR comparisons

Kyle Horner

I'm going to start this week's The Digital Continuum off with an obvious, yet necessary, disclaimer: This is my (ie Kyle Horner's) opinion and not Massively's.

A high horse can be ridden and a dead horse can be beaten, but can some people get over their assiduous horse fetishes? Apparently, no, they can't. I'm speaking of course about knee-jerk, marketing-mannequin reactions that some people seem to have when Warhammer Online is compared to World of Warcraft. It's almost as though doing such a thing has become a sacred cow, which cannot -- and verily should not -- dare be brought up. Why? "Well, because such discussion occurs ad infinium." someone will say. I say to them, "And rightfully so." Because for all the things Warhammer Online does that are unlike World of Warcraft, it's still a very comparable MMO.

Are we supposed to just accept that all MMOs will forever come with levels, loot and a pseudo-real time battle system? No, of course not. Unfortunately, the lengthy nature of MMO development makes the genre evolve slowly, but that doesn't mean we should exempt WAR (or any other game in the genre) from criticism or at the very least, comparison. The reason being that many MMO mechanics such as experience-based level systems, Tolkien-based fantasy settings, pseudo real-time combat, tired control mechanics, ridged class design and repetitive-reward structuring all still exist in WAR -- yet they don't have to. There's nothing terribly wrong with these mechanics, but many developers have long used them as something of a crutch for the genre.

I know there are going to be those of you who hate me for saying this, but WAR is not immensely different from WoW. Mythic Entertainment's Paul Barnett has said many times that they're not trying to be like The Beatles and instead are aiming to become the Led Zepplin of MMOs. That's cool, in fact that's great. However, Led Zepplin and The Beatles were both English rock quartets who's musical styling wasn't rooted to just one source of inspiration. They were different from each other, yes, but also shared many similarities too. Really, there's nothing wrong with that, especially since both bands did incredibly well for themselves. I'm certain both WAR and WoW will do fine in their own right, too.

Still, some people seem to think that comparing WoW and WAR is like comparing The Beatles to Parliament-Funkadelic instead -- it's not. Even when you trade out a largely PvE end-game for PvP one, it's still not. It all goes back to the slow evolutionary nature of the genre, where developers usually play it safe and keep within the traditional expectations of classic, legacy mechanics so as not to alienate and confuse veteran players. Plus, it comes with the added benefit of not having to fine-tune as much, either. After all, these are multi-million dollar games we're talking about here and that means watching the budget.

So what's my point? Instead of gnashing teeth whenever someone compares two truly similar games to each other, take a deep breath and just let it go. Until a developer is enabled to take some serious chances on a different breed of MMO (All Points Bulletin, anyone?) we're going to be seeing lots of comparisons between plenty of titles, simply because they're in fact similar. Of course if certain predictions are right, we'll soon be seeing genre innovation from indie developers over the next fives years anyway. Wouldn't that be nice?

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