Blizzard Entertainment has undeniably dominated the MMO marketplace with their breakout hit, World of Warcraft. A number of factors contributed to WoW‘s success, including fine polish, quality marketing and word-of-mouth, popular setting, brand loyalty, and key innovations. But how much did Blizzard really innovate and how much did they simply borrow and improve? I would argue that WoW’s success has more to do with skillful execution than pure innovation. With that in mind, how long will it be after Star Wars: The Old Republic’s release that BioWare’s innovative features—most notably their “fourth pillar“—will make an appearance in another well-received and wildly popular WoW expansion?
For the purpose of this article, I am going to assume two things. That BioWare’s key innovations in TOR are well-received, and that Blizzard will attempt to integrate them into WoW via expansion. I don’t do this because I think poorly of Blizzard, quite the opposite. I feel that Blizzard is market-savvy enough to keep pace with what gamers want and fully capable of providing it. As the purpose of an expansion is to improve the game and maintain interest, it follows that Blizzard would want to integrate features from—see assumption the first—the wildly successful and popular TOR. These assumptions also allow me to skip meaningless speculation regarding the business-end of Activision-Blizzard and instead focus on what they are capable of integrating from TOR and if making the attempt would actually improve WoW.
To start, let’s take a look at key innovations that BioWare is bringing to the MMO scene with TOR. Without having played the game, we’ll have to take the BioWare devs at their word that these innovations will actually knock our socks off and that highly anticipated features won’t fall flat or be dropped before release. TOR‘s key innovations appear to be voice over, story, companions, unique experiences, and hybridized roles. None of these features are entirely absent from other MMOs—or even from WoW—but the extent to which BioWare is featuring them is what makes them “innovative”. These features have lacked prominence among Western-developed MMOs—of which WoW has become emblematic.
Full Voice Over:
Voice over is a long and expensive process, but the result is tangible. If any feature of TOR is truly innovative, it is the extent to which the game is voiced by professional actors. Not just in cut-scenes, not just in little shouted snippets, but all dialogue in the game. Common in single-player games, this feature has been lacking in MMOs, if only because of the staggering scale such a project entails. The extent to which BioWare plans to voice TOR—that is to say, “full“—is well beyond what could reasonably be expected for WoW to emulate. However, that doesn’t mean that Blizzard can’t put a focus on voice acting for future WoW expansions.
If WoW is willing to invest more in voice acting, if only for epic boss monsters and important narrative NPCs, it can improve the immersiveness of their world (of Warcraft). Unlike some other MMOs, WoW already has set voices for every character (by race and sex). At the moment these are joke phrases that we generally don’t hear outside of emote commands, but there’s no reason they can’t expand that role. Could future WoW expansions include your troll shaman arguing against Thrall when he goes to turn in a quest? It’s certainly possible. And they could give more work to Mr. T that way.
Story is the most advertised feature of TOR if not the most innovative. While nearly all MMOs have story, the story is limited to the ‘world’ perspective. Even with less “sandbox” MMOs, story elements seem to be reserved for important NPCs and quest givers. The player is more of an observer or a generic “hero”. TOR changes this dynamic by “zooming in” on the player. The player character is given a pre-generated background and place in the setting, complete with motivations and personality that show up through fully voiced dialogue. Some hardcore roleplayers might actually dislike this method—wanting instead to pen their own character backgrounds if not act out their own storylines—but it succeeds in putting the player at the center of the narrative. For example, the Smuggler doesn’t start the game in a generic “smuggler village”, his story starts with his ship being stolen, stranding him on a war-torn world. This is a very personal perspective on the war.
Can WoW reasonably simulate this perspective? Sort of. It would be unusual to assign elaborate backgrounds and personalities to each class, race, or player at this point in WoW‘s “world narrative”, but a story could be told with players interacting from an assumed perspective in relation to new content. As most WoW expansions have included new zones, a character-defining event could occur before each player enters the new area. The player can then interact with NPCs from that perspective. The point is not to force a default personality onto the player, but simply elaborate on the player’s role in events. Instancing and phasing technology would be very helpful toward this end (more on that later).
Companion Character NPCs:
Talking about the narrative leads naturally to the next topic, companion characters. Companion characters will serve a number of purposes in TOR. In regards to the narrative, they serve as a sort of walking narrator for quests. They reinforce the player character’s archetype by providing near-constant character interaction. And every mission the player goes on can be commented on by their companion to explain why the player should care. Companions also provide a number of practical benefits previously only attained via multi-boxing. They assist the solo gamer in tackling more difficult content and they can fill out a group that’s lacking a key role. They also act as another collectible reward for players to pursue in-game.
Can WoW integrate companion characters into their design? Do they even need to? WoW certainly isn’t hurting for collectible items (e.g., mini-pets, mounts). While the story benefits of companions are important, Blizzard would have to improve narr
ative interaction generally before they became worthwhile. No, I don’t think companions will really work for WoW, but I could see a simple “hireling” system like in Diablo II working just fine. Players would hire NPC tag-alongs for the help during solo play or to fill an empty slot in a raiding instance. Can’t find a healer for a 5-man raid? That’s ok, just get 4 players together and pay for a goblin-made “Priest-Bot” to follow you around for the next 3 hours.
While not the equivalent of BioWare’s “companion” system, this would go a long way toward making WoW‘s raiding endgame more accessible. Easier to get groups together means more people participating in group content. Not only could I see Blizzard adding this feature, I’m surprised they didn’t have it from the beginning. I can’t imagine the AI having any more problems than Hunter pets.
TOR provides unique gameplay experiences in a number of ways. The most obvious is that the narratives and quests are class-specific. However, alignment choices and narrative branches can also create unique experiences within the same class, something WoW did not have until they introduced phasing technology in the Wrath of the Lich King expansion. What phasing did—summarizing for space—was allow the actions of a player affect the world in a way that other players cannot see. The world (of Warcraft) would remain the same for everyone who hadn’t reached that “phase” yet (or might never see that “phase”).
Blizzard intends to introduce a new type of phasing in their next expansion—Cataclysm—that allows not only for selectively altering NPCs and world objects, but the terrain itself. This goes above and beyond the “flashpoint” concept we’ve heard about for TOR, which strikes me more as narrative instances than anything else. Of all the things Blizzard can take from BioWare, the idea of unique, choice-based player experiences seems to be the one they have the most potential to capitalize on. Not just class-exclusive quests, not just different phases along one universal, linear path, but totally different branches of play. By using their phasing technology to full effect, the world (of Warcraft) can be very different for characters who take opposite sides in a conflict or complete opposing quest lines. Furthermore, this can be accomplished without ever segregating the player population.
All Classes Are Hybrids:
Of all my listed “innovations” by BioWare, hybridized roles are probably the least remarkable or original. Especially as a number of recent MMOs have featured hybrid roles, non-trinity roles, or both. That said, this feature sets TOR apart from WoW. WoW has featured hybrid classes—Druid, Shaman, Paladin—since launch, but still emphasizes the need for the core classes: Warrior (tank), Priest (healer), and Mage/Rogue (damage). A position they’ve been retreating from gradually as they add more flexibility for players to switch between builds (and potentially roles) on-the-fly.
While Blizzard certainly could change to all hybrids, I don’t think that they will or should. The core combat dynamic of WoW is iconic of the game, and Blizzard would mess with it at their peril. The most likely course Blizzard could take is to continue down the path of flexibility rather than hybridization. By which I mean, more alternate player specializations, not by making Warriors, Priests, and Rogues hybrids. As much as I prefer hybrid classes, ditching the classic trinity roles would be a bad move for WoW. This is the only “innovation” I can’t see Blizzard considering for WoW no matter how popular it is for TOR.
BioWare is depending on these key innovations to create a fun, quality experience that will attract gamers to Star Wars: The Old Republic. Assuming they’re well-received, anything Blizzard can do to integrate these features into World of Warcraft is going to reinforce it as the premier MMORPG in circulation. Are they likely to attempt these features? That’s debateable. But I think they could definitely profit from introducing them in future expansions. They are certainly capable of implementing the signature features of TOR, and I would not be surprised if, not long after TOR‘s release, the two MMOs stand on pretty equal ground in terms of features. After all, I suspect will see a lot of WoW in TOR as well.
Do you agree with my conclusions? What about just my premise? Were my assumptions valid? Did I miss any key innovations that BioWare is brining to the table? Please let me know!
- Discussion: “Don’t Be Surprised If WoW Copies TOR“