WoW Clones and the Point of Divergence

Labeling an MMO as a “WoW Clone” is generally meant as an insult. Such games were developed to match the features and mechanics of World of Warcraft in order to duplicate its success but in actuality the popularity of WoW has been a singular event in the history of the genre. To some extent the criticism is warranted. Foregoing creativity and risk in hopes of making a quick buck is hardly a development tactic to be applauded however two of these games have been in continued development for 3-4 years and warrant a second look. Both Rift and Star Wars: The Old Republic began by closely approximating the gameplay of WoW but since their launch have diverged along their own path offering players a “WoW that was” or a “WoW as it could have been”.

As someone who enjoyed World of Warcraft for several years, I am biased toward games of similar mechanics and feature lists. I enjoy storytelling on rails, instanced group play, and traditional combat but I haven’t always agreed with the development decisions Blizzard has made over the last 12-18 months or the features they have neglected to improve in favor of others. Garrisons for example are an interesting addition but the transmogrification system is grossly outdated. At a time when nearly every other MMO is improving cosmetic customization for player gear this is a significant oversight. And so I find myself enjoying the type of MMO WoW represents but not the game itself in its current state.

However when I take a look at both Rift and SWTOR I see games similar to WoW that have developed along very different paths. Looking at their evolution over the last 3-4 years is like catching a glimpse of two possible alternatives to the current iteration of WoW, a multi-verse of MMO development as it were. Each game features many similarities to the MMO they were developed to mimic but since their creation both games have changed systems, mechanics, and feature lists independent of WoW’s own development cycle.

Consider talent trees for example. In early 2012 all of these games featured three branching skill trees for each class and a pool of skill points for players to use in order to customize their characters. From the beginning Rift brought an interesting twist to this system by allowing each class to choose three options from a broader selection of skill trees called “Souls” and the game continues to maintain this approach. WoW on the other hand has eradicate the branching trees in favor of three talent choices offered every fifteen levels and relative freedom in adjusting those choices on the fly. SWTOR held out on traditional talent trees up until the end of last year at which point Bioware adopted a talent system of their own featuring three tiers of seven choices of which players could choose seven total across all tiers by level 60. There are limitations in place that prevent overpowered combinations (like players choosing all seven in the highest tier) but overall the system offers more choices than the one in WoW.

Did you prefer the branching skill trees that World of Warcraft offered prior to the launch of Mists of Pandaria? Rift provides you with that choice and from the start has doubled down on the character building freedom that the system offers. Or have you liked the stream lined talent choices MoP introduced but wish for a little more flexibility in choice amongst the tiers? Then you may want to try SWTOR’s implementation of talents in their discipline paths. The point is not that one design choice is inherently superior to the others, but rather that for those of us who enjoy the MMO model presented by Blizzard in World of Warcraft, we now have alternatives with slight variations. Sure Rift, SWTOR, and many other titles may have been clones of WoW at their point of launch but since then they have developed independently. For my preferences these two games offer features and mechanics that I enjoy more than those present in their parent MMO. If you enjoy World of Warcraft but haven’t sampled either of these “clones” in the last two years I’d highly recommend you do so. They may have been replicas at the start, but since that point of divergence both Rift and Star Wars: The Old Republic have matured into MMOs reminiscent of World of Warcraft but refreshingly distinct.