The fact that we currently have a Big Five in the MMO space is a big change from not so long ago, when the market was so thoroughly dominated by World of Warcraft that everyone else kind of slid into the “other” category. Now, obviously, this did not stop other MMOs from coming out and many of them from being successful, but none of the current big games that are not WoW (and several second-tier games that are still doing fine) came out trying to pick a fight directly with WoW.
The games on this list, however… all kind of did. Whether from developer interviews, design principles, release dates, or just general vibe, today I’m looking at games that looked at the biggest guy in the metaphorical prison yard and decided to start there in their quest to become top dog. Some of these stories wind up sadder than others; I’m just going to warn you about that right now.
1. Warhammer Online
This one wasn’t subtle about it. Between its split into two factions (as opposed to Warhammer’s usual nature of being split into about four dozen factions at a minimum), its class design, and so forth, Warhammer Online very clearly positioned itself as the death metal headbanging older cousin of WoW that even had the unmitigated cheek to come out with Wrath of the Lich King due for the same year. This was just shy of throwing down the gauntlet directly. (Someone else did that.)
How’d that work out for you? Well, the game shut down after completely failing to make a free-to-play pivot and never launching an expansion, although there is a good rogue server keeping it alive nowadays. So… not great! This one didn’t turn out super.
2. Age of Conan
Part of the same release year as the prior title, Age of Conan didn’t really try to pit itself against WoW in the same way, but comparisons were inevitable. And it very much was in that same general vein of “here’s an MMO with way more blood and guts and visual signifiers of maturity, play a real title.” In a more mature fashion than that, thankfully, but only just.
How’d that work out for you? It got expansions! It’s in a quiet maintenance mode now, but it did earns some expansions and kind of slowly walked along to that point, so that’s something. Never really made the splash that was expected, though, and doesn’t get any attention from Funcom now.
Yes, someone will no doubt deny this, but it was very clear from playing it that Alganon was WoW with an added skill system stapled to the side. It was kind of a low-rent knockoff from the word go, although later developments made it at least a little bit more unique and more of its own thing.
How’d that work out for you? Well, the game went down for maintenance and then never came back, although its owner still says it’s going to happen – perhaps even in the near future.
4. Star Wars: The Old Republic
It was very clear at launch that while no one was saying it out loud, Star Wars: The Old Republic was Electronic Arts trying again to do what it had already failed at once with Warhammer Online. It’s a lot like WoW, but it has story, it has lightsabers, it has a familiar faction split, and so forth. And it was made by BioWare, to boot. You can almost hear the muttered, “This time we’re going to get them.”
How’d that work out for you? Well, the good news is that it’s still running now and it has gotten expansions. The bad news is that it fell hard from its initial population burst, it’s long floundered a bit in design, and the total amount of content in the game’s most recent expansion can be finished in less time than it will take you to read through this column from beginning to end. It wasn’t a slam dunk, in other words.
Remember how I mentioned throwing down the gauntlet before? RIFT literally went there with advertisements claiming, “We’re not in Azeroth anymore,” which is definitely some big energy but also is going to really backfire unless you can back it up by being absolutely rock-solid and exquisite on every level. That’s kind of a big gamble, in other words.
How’d that work out for you? Look, thinking about RIFT makes a lot of people sad right now. The game got expansions and was a critical darling, but it petered out, got shuffled around in a firesale when Trion went under, and now it’s in a maintenance mode that has never officially been called that, with fans still hoping for a resurrection but being continually disappointed despite all of the good stuff that is in the game. It really does not look good in comparison to the game’s aggrandizement, in other words.
6. Runes of Magic
As the free-to-play revolution was taking over the MMORPG space, Runes of Magic felt like a bold step forward as a game that was always meant to be a free-to-play title. Especially since WoW wasn’t stepping toward free-to-play, RoM seemed like it was the prospect of getting WoW gameplay without paying WoW’s up-front price.
How’d that work out for you? Not as well as it should have, but RoM in no small part was less a matter of developers overreaching and more a matter of just not having been built for a world where suddenly everything was free-to-play. When high production values for a free-to-play title no longer make you stand out, you kind of lose some of what you were banking on in the exchange.
7. Allods Online
A lot of what I just said about RoM holds true for this too, but Allods Online was also following off a successful Russian game franchise and had even more polish than RoM did at launch. This immediately looked like a high-quality free-to-play title that could deliver not just what WoW did but things the developers had no interest in doing. What could stop it shy?
How’d that work out for you? Insane prices in the cash shop stopped it pretty cold in the West, and while those prices were adjusted and a lot of the worst elements were removed, it didn’t really change those first impressions. Ultimately the game has kept running, although who even knows what its fate will be now given the state of world events. It never lit the world on fire, regardless.
This was a title that had been in development for so long that people, including me, had written it off altogether before it was finally announced. It’s pretty clear from its art style, sense of humor, faction split, and so forth that the game was taking a pretty solid aim at WoW, and unlike a lot of these titles, it came out late enough that it had dodged initial trend-chasing and could iterate on the ideas that made WoW a success instead of just copying a formula. This one looked like a slam dunk.
How’d that work out for you? Well, except for the part where it decided to be so hardcore that no one wanted to do dungeons at all, much less the insanely huge and insanely difficult raids. Imagine 40-person raiding where you needed 40 people to all be really good instead of largely ablative meat, and you’re starting to see the problem. The game coasted along for a while before a whimper and a shutdown, and some people (me) are still very sad about how its designers torched it.
9. Project Titan
Yes, even Blizzard itself wanted to take aim at its own game and prove that it could make a better MMORPG than it had done before! This one never even had a real name, though, so you can guess how that turned out.
How’d that work out for you? It didn’t at all. The project was cancelled, elements of it got imported into Overwatch, and now Blizzard is working very hard at overwatching all that goodwill go up in smoke with its actions around the sequel. (That was a tortured walk to the joke, but I stand by it.)
10. AdventureQuest 3D
This one wasn’t designed to take on WoW at all. But the designers did so, very recently.
How’d that work out for you? It made me laugh, which was the goal of the whole exercise, so… mission accomplished?