WoW Factor: Tarisland and the cargo cult of World of Warcraft

wait what

We’ve all made jokes about Tarisland being “we have World of Warcraft at home.” That’s just a fun thing to make jokes about, and that’s all well and good. But then this week we got a trailer for the game, and… all right, Tencent, you did realize that was a joke before, right? Seriously, watching that trailer makes me think Tencent figured out exactly where the legally actionable line for a company of its size would be and then danced right up to that line, like your brother in the backseat of a long car ride edging closer to you while announcing he isn’t technically on your side.

This prompted a new line of thinking because there’s something interesting going on here. If you somehow missed the news, the week was full of reminders that Blizzard is not a great company. So it’s easy to be inclined to pay a bit more attention than you might otherwise. But I think that also speaks to an impulse that’s authentic but also still kind of odd: the cargo cult approach to what made WoW stick to the ribs in the first place.

First of all, if you haven’t watched the trailer yet… seriously, do so.

You need to watch that not because it’s amazing or beautiful but because there’s “copying Blizzard’s homework” and then there’s this. Right down to landscape and city designs, this is not even pretending to be anything other than “WoW But Now Tencent Makes It.” And considering how Blizzard lost the Chinese market in a truly moronic fashion, yeah, I can hardly blame Tencent for deploying when it did. It is a smart business move.

And as someone who has spent the past 13 years being told in ways both subtle and glaring that Blizzard doesn’t want my kind around no more, I will admit there is some appeal here when the trailer camera swoops in on Just Legally Distinct Thunder Bluff and almost subtly whispers that ooh, it’s all right there. All these things you missed, and you don’t have to play WoW any more, and it’s not even good any more. Come on, don’t you want to come back to Very Much Almost Azeroth But Not By Blizzard?

But even before you look at the website, it’s something that’s worth actually thinking about. Starting with a reminder that, as I’ve discussed before, WoW‘s initial phenomenon was very much of a distinct time.

There were a variety of things together that made WoW successful – some intentional, some largely accidental. That’s not new. But what made the game appealing to me when I first logged in was not that Thunder Bluff or Stormwind or Undercity bore deep emotional ties to me.

They had some ties, sure, I’d played Warcraft III. But what really connected with me was that unlike what had heretofore been my main game, I could log into WoW and just play the game. Let me not sit around Jeuno waiting for party invites and suddenly I will be very invested in gnolls or worgen or whatever the heck I was supposed to care about in the Night Elf zones.

Deer, I think. It was probably deer.

And when you think about it like that, suddenly that trailer looks… a whole heck of a lot worse. It’s wearing a familiar costume, but if you look past that point, what you have looks a lot less like WoW But Now Tencent Makes It. And that only gets more pronounced when you start looking on the official site at the various features that it’s talking up.

Dig a little deeper.

What’s the first feature listed? “No Pay-to-Win.” Setting up a defense against an accusation no one has even made yet is not a great look. The classes listed all have a race listed alongside them, and while it doesn’t say explicitly that these classes are race-locked or gender-locked, it also doesn’t really imply otherwise. Cross-platform is nice, yes, but the simple reality of interfaces on a mobile device means that either the mobile interface is going to suck or it’s going to be designed for mobile first.

And, well… I already mentioned the developer. You know which option the development team would be told to pick. Come on.

All of these factors means that when you look below the surface, the game looks more like a fairly standard mobile MMO with cross-platform service. You’ve seen dozens of these things. It may have a higher budget than usual, but the real way in which it’s taking on WoW is by wearing its art style like it was a Halloween costume.

So in many ways, Tarisland is setting itself up like any number of other games that have a cargo cult approach to WoW’s legacy.

There’s a lot to be studied about actual cargo cults (and anthropological debate over the term), but in the basic sense, a cargo cult is functionally a type of magical thinking in which the trappings of things are assigned significance as things unto themselves. Or, to put it another way, let’s say you see a fast car that is red. You believe that it is fast because it is red, and you paint your car red because you think red makes a faster car. Your car is a 1998 Toyota Corolla, and the car you saw was a Lotus that had a total production run of about seven, but you have incorrectly determined that it’s the color as being the thing that differentiates them.

We’ve seen a lot of cargo cult behaviors toward WoW over the years as if small components of the game were the answer. The raids are why it’s successful; thus, copy that, and we’ll succeed. The battle mechanics are why it’s successful; thus, copy that, and we’ll succeed. The talent trees are why it’s successful; improve on that, and we’ll succeed. Tarisland is another example, ascribing to the art and design that same merit.

But it’s also transparently wrong, and as you can tell from all of the links above, other cargo cult approaches to the game haven’t worked either. The fact of the matter is that there were a lot of things that led to WoW being successful at the time and a lot of reasons it hit at just the right time with just the right balance to really draw in a large number of players. While it’s clear that it’s suffered immensely from the loss of talent and drive that’s affected the company over the years, you cannot simply replicate those traits by copying them.

Heck, WoW has all of the aesthetic elements that it originated, and the art team has only been getting better over time (the one area where the game is indisputably steadily improving). And it’s clear from Dragonflight’s sales that the aesthetics aren’t helping it out.

I highlight all of this not really to dunk specifically on Tarisland, but for two reasons. One, to shine a light on a game that is clearly trying to be the WoW replacement while not yet having demonstrated that it’s done the research. And two, as something that might be a useful thought exercise in general for everyone. Things that work – that stick to the ribs, that have a cultural impact – usually do so for more expansive reasons than just one element. And it’s worth always taking another look at your own viewpoints and asking if you’re simplifying how you look at things down to a cargo cult approach.

All right, third was because I wanted to troll everyone by having a WoW Factor installment that was mostly about another game and this one worked. That’s just my amusement.

War never changes, but World of Warcraft does, with almost two decades of history and a huge footprint in the MMORPG industry. Join Eliot Lefebvre each week for a new installment of WoW Factor as he examines the enormous MMO, how it interacts with the larger world of online gaming, and what’s new in the worlds of Azeroth and Draenor.
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