Bring on the clones: Sometimes all you want is a new setting with same core mechanics

If anyone has played tabletop RPGs, you’ll be familiar with the idea of using the same core mechanics for multiple different campaigns.

Dungeons and Dragons in particular is well known for the wildly different settings (including PlanescapeDragonlance, Forgotten Realms, and loads of others) and that’s before you even start on individual GM’s homegrown settings. These are all, incidentally, settings with radically different geography, histories, races, and can vary widely in genre and theme. (eg. Ravenloft is a gothic horror setting, Spelljammer is about space pirates on flying magical ships.)But they are all based on the same core rules.

Part of the appeal of an expansion or DLC to an existing computer game is having an expanded setting with the same core mechanics. Probably even the same core player character.

Part of the appeal of playing a game in the same genre as an existing one is having a new setting with similar core mechanics, but with a different player character. And maybe enough tweaks to add a learning curve. OK, this doesn’t explain why Blizzard like to tweak their mechanics for each expansion, but you can assume the gameplay experience will be familiar enough to not put people off.

So I never quite understand why people complain about ‘WoW Clones’. Do players who like FPS complain about CoD clones (or whatever the ur-game is for FPS)? By all means complain if the game isn’t fun, or the balance is off. But if you’re bored of the core mechanic, don’t know what you want, or just feel burned out in general, then play something else. It is entirely possible for a game to use typical MMO core mechanics (and we probably wouldn’t even be able to agree what those were) and still provide a breath of fresh air in other respects, to people who don’t actively hate that gameplay.

In some ways, I wish one of the big MMO companies would find a way to open source their mechanics and let other developers work on a wide range of different expansions, so that players could take their favourite character into multiple different games. Just like the D&D campaigns.

15 thoughts on “Bring on the clones: Sometimes all you want is a new setting with same core mechanics

  1. . Do players who like FPS complain about CoD clones (or whatever the ur-game is for FPS)?

    Until 1998, FPS games were almost universally referred to as “Doom clones”.

    Then came Unreal and Half-Life.

  2. Well, here’s the thing. Unless you do something really creative with your setting (Ravenloft, Spelljammer, Planescape int the tabletop end, for example), the mechanics pretty nearly ARE all that distinguish one game from another. If I detail a city in Greyhawk and a city in the Forgotten Realms, unless you’re quite familiar with both settings, you won’t have an idea which is which.

    In a tabletop game, that’s an advantage; you can sell more material to people already familiar with the core game.

    In an MMO, though, most people – you and I and other bloggers aside – won’t subscribe to more than one game, so they’d be dividing their audience – or, if you can move a character from one setting to another and back, providing a “content-only” expansion.

    And, of course, the amount of content that’s possible to pack into an MMO is far lower than the amount of content you can pack into a tabletop game, for a variety of reasons. So there’s a scaling problem.

    So I think the different mechanics are, in some ways, a disguise for the thin content.

    • That’s a good point and in some ways, new mechanics are content. But you could also offer different mechanics via minigames or that sort of thing.

  3. Having an industry settle on core mechanics is also efficient. It allows innovation to focus on fine tuning.

    IMO the game that finally competes successfully with WoW will brilliantly solve the community problem, or at least take a step in the right direction, while remaining essentially a clone.

  4. Oh man, I remember some Quake vs. Unreal rage back in the day.

    Do people… people who care about cars… complain when Hyundai makes a car that just happens fit almost exactly into the same dimensions as the current Honda Accord? They do as well.

    Trying to copy somebody elses schtick is almost always viewed with at least mild disapprobation unless something new is brought to the table with it.

  5. Maybe jaded MMORPG players are hoping for innovation because the novelty of the current set of mechanics has worn off and they are not good enough to support an extremely large genre? The “core” set of mechanics haven’t been found yet.

    Personally, I do not want a core set of mechanics for MMOs. They are supposed to be hugely complex virtual worlds. I want to be mystified every time I begin anew so that I can stick with the game and the people I’ve met there for years. Once I’ve learned and mastered the game, my interest wanes. That is why I cannot play WoW in Telara, or WoW in a galaxy far away, or WoW in Middle Earth–I’ve seen all this before. And WoW-ology has the additional problem of preventing a mutually beneficial and long-lasting community.

    • See, I actually think combat mechanics are not the more interesting play in MMOs. Interesting core mechanics are around how large groups of players interact, such as the auction house, public quests, raids (PvE or PvP), organised RP events, social challenges, etc and how single player mechanics fit into that.

      And for everyone who grooves on learning new and complex mechanics, there are thousands more who would prefer something they’re more comfortable with (there are better rulesets that D&D for example, but it’s like pulling teeth to get some groups to even consider them.) There can be plenty of new things to learn even if the core combat stays the same, is my point.

    • I can’t quite figure out how to word this so it doesn’t sound confrontational (dratted text only communication), but it’s not meant to be. I’ve always been baffled by the learn and master the core mechanics and then it’s boring version of MMO playing, probably because what I think are the core mechanics aren’t what you or others who feel that way think of as the core mechanics. So… what are you talking about when you say that? If you don’t mind my asking, that is.

      I mean, to me, yes, all MMOs play about the same. You move with the same buttons/mouse, you push the number keys and stuff happens, you’ve got the same general sorts of abilities (hit them with weapons, hit them with spells, hit them with your fists, hit them with other long distance items), there are usually dances people are supposed to learn for boss fights. But all of that gets learned very quickly. Like within minutes/hours/days of playing the first MMO. I suppose there’s a little fine-tuning, but… This can’t possibly be what’s under discussion. I mean, it describes every video game ever, for one thing. (Barring those where you have to aim, I suppose.) Am I just really badly missing the fine points of gaming?

  6. But if you’re bored of the core mechanic, don’t know what you want, or just feel burned out in general, then play something else.

    The problem, of course, comes when there are very few alternatives on the market that *aren’t* ‘clones’.

    But yeah, I basically agree with what you’re saying. When I was planning the handover of my WoW guild so I could move over to SWTOR, I heard a lot of critiques of SWTOR, basically “it’s just a WoW clone in space”. And what they didn’t get was that that was fine with me – that’s what I wanted.

    That said, I don’t think the tabletop/MMO comparison is 100% transferable. I think for most MMO players, the game system & mechanics get more conscious attention and are a bigger part of the ‘gaming experience’ than for most tabletop gamers, where the system is really just the framework that you don’t think about outside of character creation. That might just be the kinds of gamers I play with in both arenas, though 🙂

  7. The way the pencil and paper RPG field has been changing over the past several years, there’s plenty of new mechanics for people to use in MMOs. However, I’m not sure if people really want new mechanics.

    I think what they want is that ‘magic’ back, and they don’t know how to get it. So they complain about mechanics, raids, quests, and they try every MMO to see what they can find. The trouble is, old habits die hard and they race to max level and then say “That’s it?”

    It reminds me more of an addict looking for a hit than anything else.

    (For the record, I do my share of bitching, but in the end I still do love the virtual worlds. I just get annoyed at the people who were expecting to recapture their past, when they should be enjoying the present.)

  8. Ryzom is open source.

    No idea whether anyone’s developed anything along the lines you’ve suggested.

    Also The Secret World can be regarded as contemporary Lovecraftian horror on a WoW type engine. It’s broadly similar in tab targeting, hotkeyed special attacks, even a combo points resources system. Someone will probably get very annoyed with me for saying that, but I think it’s as you write Spinks that adding more settings onto the core system is a great deal if fun.

  9. Pingback: [Links] So are we finally at the end of the (MMO) era? « Welcome to Spinksville!

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