Tobold had a great post in October in which he told a story about an elephant sculpture. To paraphrase, he wrote that an artist created an exquisite sculpture of an elephant which sold for millions of dollars. Other artists saw this and began making elephant sculptures, albeit more quickly and not of as fine a quality. None of these elephants sold very well. Meanwhile, the original artist was working on a tiger, a huge tiger and also of exquisite craftsmanship.
More elephants in the room
Sometimes the most obvious explanation is simply the best explanation. The clone just isn’t as good as the original. Which, in a market where users typically only subscribe to one MMO, is a terminal flaw. Being “almost as good” just isn’t going to keep people subscribed for very long.
In many ways, the issue is that clones are imitating an older outdated version of WoW. When a competing game goes into development, Blizzard isn’t just sitting on their hands collecting a check. They are innovating and evolving their own game. The result is that the when the competing clone is released, it’s an offshoot of what WoW used to be, not what it has become since they began development.
The simple fact that Blizzard is continuing to evolve their product creates a huge barrier to entry to anyone trying to copy or imitate the game. Without some unique and compelling innovation, players who want a WoW-like game will likely have the best experience by simply continuing to play WoW.
The fact that WoW itself is largely a clone of other MMOs is irrelevant. I’m sure that artist wasn’t the first one to ever craft an elephant – but he was the first one to sell it for millions of dollars.
So while it’s a mistake to ignore WoW, it’s an equally huge mistake to simply attempt to copy WoW.
Emulate the Success; Not the Game
No one is going to attract millions of players in a single day. The key is growth. People need to first try your game, then STAY because they like it. The issue nearly every single non-WoW MMO has had since 2004 is that people haven’t STAYED.
To me, that’s really the defining characteristic of success in an MMO. Growth. Obviously, there are other factors like financial health and the scope or scale of your subscribership, but at the end of the day – the best measure for whether or not you are doing things right in your game is growth. This is because growth implies two things: 1) retention of existing users and 2) recruitment of new users.
The key to growth is to create something that makes people want to stay and is appealing enough to attract new people to try it. This is why games like EVE, and even Darkfall, should be considered successes. That’s not to say the scale of that success mirrors WoW in any way, but I do think it’s worth pointing to both of these games as examples of what competing MMOs should be doing. Which is to say, retaining customers.
Competing with WoW
Applied to Tobold’s elephant sculpture analogy, it can be easily argued that EVE is a success because a) it’s not an elephant, and b) it’s finely crafted. Albeit, perhaps that craftsmanship wasn’t immediate and took some time to develop. Or in the case of Darkfall, is still developing.
In any event, any MMO which competes with WoW (and by definition, all MMOs are competing with WoW) needs to address those two things. First and foremost, be finely crafted (or at least, have a solid enough foundation that users can see the potential craftsmanship). And secondly, be innovative enough to distinguish itself from being an imitation.
Those two things will lend you success. The scale of that success is going to be somewhat determined by that which you sculpt. EVE, in this analogy, isn’t an elephant – it’s an extraterrestrial alien. Lots of people like aliens, but more people like elephants. Darkfall is a shark. Some people love sharks but very few people are willing to jump into the water with one.
Now I would argue that while people don’t like aliens and sharks as much as they do elephants, there are lots of things people would enjoy if they shared that exquisite craftsmanship. Also, people are kind of sick of elephants. So why not a Tiger, or a Monkey, or even a Dragon? People love dragons – so let’s try that next.
What would your "Dragon" look like?