After taking a brief hiatus for PAX, it’s time to start of a new series on the Elements of the Game. But before I do that, I’d like to spend one article talking about the future of MMOs. This topic is inspired, in part, by an article that was posted on this website back in April, titled State of the MMO: Industry Luminaries on the Genre, Its Future. While I agree with what the article addressed, it was approaching the question predominantly from the viewpoint of game designers. As a simple gamer, my perspective is somewhat different. The conclusion is the same, but the road to it is different and, I think, valuable to investigate. To facilitate this journey, it will be easiest to compare the super-giant World of Warcraft as it approaches its second expansion with the relatively new Lord of the Rings Online that has survived a year and is working on its first expansion.

Before we begin, I must add the caveat that, while I will be firing many broadsides at LOTRO, I have fundamentally enjoyed playing the game. It functions easily and well, both for group and solo play, while incorporating high adventure, humor, and a respect for the literature on a far grander scale than was shown by the recently released movies.

The fundamental building block of any MMO is the combat system and, as far as that goes, both WoW and LOTRO are identical. Monster AI responds in almost entirely the same way and player characters are structured with the same strengths, weaknesses, and roles. The now classic terms of Tank, DPS, Crowd Control, and Healer are so pervasive that the LOTRO manual helpfully points out what class performs what task. If anything should be taken as a warning sign that the concept is too pervasive, it’s that! Combat moves function much the same too with most classes using mana to power their skills, while others drain focus (Rogues in WoW and Hunters in LOTRO), and others build Rage or Fervour (Warriors and Champions, respectively). Ironically, the much older WoW stands out in combat because it has more character classes to choose from (9 vs. 7) and works far harder to hybridize the various roles. Despite being a much newer game, LOTRO hasn’t really provided anything better or new (I should note that they are finally exploring some differentiation with the Warden and Rune-Keeper classes of the Moria expansion which have clever new ways of using skills).

Some differences exist in their trade skill systems, but it’s only skin deep. In WoW you gradually learn new recipes as your skill improves while LOTRO has five thresholds that unlock large groups of recipes. In WoW you can pick any two professions whereas LOTRO offers three, but only in seven prearranged combinations. Ultimately, crafting is done the same way: large amounts of slow and tedious harvesting of resources followed by crafting at a workbench or forge to slowly inch your skills up. LOTRO has made one minor improvement with the ability for master craftsmen to have critical successes. The Moria expansion also promises a method for forging epic weapons which looks really cool, but sounds hauntingly similar to WoW’s socket system. I enjoy using trade skills in MMOs, but I wonder at the perpetuation of the grueling and mind-numbingly tedious resource harvesting system that currently exists. Farming, in LOTRO, is the pinnacle (or should I say “pit”) of this travesty.

The gross similarities between WoW and LOTRO pervade just about every aspect the game. For quests, instead of using WoW’s ! and ?, LOTRO has hovering rings. The structure, type, and nature of the quests, both in their execution and rewards systems, are cut from an identical mold. The only change in guild structure that I’ve been able to figure out, is actually a step backward: LOTRO doesn’t have tabards. Character growth also follows parallel lines with the major distinction being WoW’s Talents vs. LOTRO’s Traits. But again, WoW wins here. Many of the Traits are earned by monotonous farming of monsters or repetitive use of skills whether they are the best choice for a particular situation or not (I don’t know how many Blade Storms, an AoE attack, I performed against single enemies with my Champion just to unlock a new skill). The end results are stat boosts and a few add new maneuvers in no particular order. In contrast, WoW’s Talents are fundamentally incorporated into the life of a character with skill trees that allow players to carve a path to newer and more powerful abilities.

There is only one facet that LOTRO has made a great leap ahead of WoW and that is in graphics. But who cares? If there is anything that the rousing and persistent success of WoW has shown, it is the minor importance of eye-candy.

The problem is simply that LOTRO is WoW Jr., but they aren’t alone. During PAX, I had an opportunity to check out Warhammer Online and it functions the same way. From what I’ve read, Age of Conan is little different except for some attempts to push the PvP envelope.

So, if just about everything is the same, or very similar, why has WoW been successful for so long? The answer is community. The fundamental rule of the MMO is that gamers will play what their friends are playing and, when their friends quit, they will too. As long as new games are only dishing out WoW Jr., gamers won’t leave WoW’s enormous community. Sure, people will check out the new game for its eye-opening graphics, but they’ll realize the game play is just like WoW except the world has less people.

Too break the WoW vice grip on mainstream MMOs, new games have to dare to be different. The reason they aren’t is because large MMOs cost a lot of money and when you risk, you risk failure. But until someone does, there will be no dramatic success. Everything that constitutes the game should be looked at. Break out of the cookie-cutter roles of Tank, DPS, and Healer, evolve quests to a new level, forge new paths of character progression, open up new functionality for guilds, the list goes on.

The way of the near future seems to involve staying comfortable WoW nest where it’s warm and safe but few people will notice. The gaming world is hoping that next big thing that breaks the market wide open. Until then, odds are you’ll find me on WoW with most of the other gamers, waiting…

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