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A Dirty Word

If you've been following the 200+ comments in the thread below our recent discussion of our experiences in the Warhammer Online closed beta, you'll have spotted that a vocal minority of the WAR community, having made their way here thanks to a link on the frontpage, are absolutely furious with us. All those that were simply critical remain, but there were at least another 50 abuse-filled tirades we deleted, consisting of the usual expletives, judgements about our intelligence and sexuality, and a surprising amount of racism towards the British. It's true: we do drink a lot of tea.

Whether expressed politely or furiously, there were three or four central complaints about what we said - but one stands above them all.

We said it's got its similarities to World of Warcraft. Well, in fairness, John said it was exactly like World of Warcraft, but clearly the fact he went on to list several ways in which it wasn't meant the tongue-in-cheekiness of that statement was lost on some folk. (My sneaking a WoW screenshot into the post as a gag was probably a bad idea in retrospect, but it made me giggle). We did, admittedly, come back to the comparison quite a lot, but that we were generally very positive about the game was either dismissed or unnoticed - the simple fact of making that comparison enraged a fair old slice of the WAR community. All the incensed comments weren't a surprise, nor were they especially distressing - this is, after all, the internet - but I think there's more at play than simply another case of Angry Internet Men.

A similar outpouring of abuse happened to Richard Bartle when he made a somewhat reckless judgement about WAR's WOWiness a while back, and I'm sure similar venom's been poured on a thousand forum posts and news stories the web over. So I'm aware that this post is a little akin to saying 'Candyman' into the mirror three times, and fully expect further fury below, but let's try and have some considered conversation about this.

It's without a doubt true that dismissing WAR as a WOW clone would be wrong and stupid - there are important differences, and with its perma-war theme and PvP foundations it's genuinely aimed at achieving a different overall atmosphere than WoW's cartoon high-jinx and endlessly repeated dungeon runs.

There are also important similarities. Huge similarities, in both its mechanisms of play and its appearance. It's bizarre that so many people won't allow this observation to be made. WoW was not the first of its kind, and no-one here is saying it is. It is, however, by far the biggest of its kind, and as a result of that it's the grandest inspiration for any current MMO developer: 13 million subscribers means cash and glory beyond almost anyone's wildest dreams. WAR exists because of World of Warcraft. Of course, it also exists because of a number of other factors and influences (including Mythic's own earlier Dark Age of Camelot). It's also very true to say that World of Warcraft might not exist without the Warhammer tabletop game, as many WAR fans never tire of mentioning.

The reason we don't explicitly state that Everquest did it first and Blizzard borrowed from Games Workshop and yadayadayada every we talk about Warhammer Online is not because we don't know it - of course we know it - but because it doesn't alter the simple truth that EA's interest in making and funding WAR is, I have no doubt, because they want a piece of Warcraft's pie. WAR does a lot of stuff better (and some stuff not as well), and in being so PvP focused does ultimately head to a slightly different place, but WoW's landmark success is why Warhammer Online looks as it does, why major elements of it play as they do, and most of all why it's being released now.

I think it's going to work out, too - I'm expecting an awful lot of dispossessed WoW players to head WAR's way. It bundles in some new ideas at the same time as evolving and streamlining certain core WoW/Everquest concepts that had, over time, proven themselves a little tired, and that's enough to make the game seem newer and fresher than it perhaps fundamentally is. There is nothing wrong with that; MMO players have every reason to hope WAR will be a rewarding place to spend their online time.

Still though - why are these guys so angry? There are, I think, two root causes for the unchecked fury. One is that 'WoW' has become a negative term to a lot of gamers. It carries connotations of grinding and repetition and dumbed-down cartoon noobishness or whatever - witness too the anger around Diablo 3's art style. There's also the simple fact of its popularity - Coldplay sell a lot of records, and it's for precisely that reason (as much as the fact they make awful music) that a lot of people despise 'em. The ubiquity is cloying. There's crossover with the Sims too - the games' own interestingess ignored by a certain slice of gamers because they consider them aimed at a different audience, thus somehow beneath them. So WoW is a dirty word, interpreted as an insult even when it's not intended as one.

It's beyond simply gamers' own distaste for WoW, though. In the wider world, that is to say the tabloids and worried mothers, WoW is a by-word for the worst stereotypes of PC gaming: anti-social fat guys, killing pretend boars for 24 hours a day, speaking in tongues of statistics and cod-Shakespeare. While the stereotypes may be largely inaccurate, no-one wants to be associated with that - you say WAR is like WoW and people feel insulted. While there are plenty of concrete reasons to be given why WAR is not the same as WoW, it's telling that a great many of the angry comments haven't listed them - they've just called us stupid and wrong (and much worse). And it's because they're offended as much as because of traditional web tribalism. With its darker theme and focus on all-out war, Warhammer Online is considered cool where other MMOs are not. Say it's like WoW and people feel you're undermining its cool, and that you're accusing it of being old news rather than this impossibly momentous upcoming event in their lives.

Which leads onto the second reason. MMOs aren't like other games. They're closer to a lifestyle choice, for a lot of people defining how their spare time is spent, how their lives are lived. So if you criticise the game, you criticise the player. God knows there are plenty of non-MMO games that people treat as though they're bound to their very souls - witness the pile-on for Eurogamer's MGS4 review, or even the outrage about various RPS writers being down on Stalker: Clear Sky - but it's even worse with MMOs. Telling a WAR player that his game is similar to WoW is like telling a goth that he's emo. No-one wants to be told they're not unique and interesting, to be dismissed as a stereotype they're not.

WAR is not WoW. But it is a lot like it in a number of crucial ways, and for one essential reason: money. I suspect Mythic and EA aren't too concerned about the comparison themselves - they might disagree with the sweeping generalisation, but if they didn't want to be compared they would have gone for an entirely different interface and art approach. Saying WAR is like WoW is not the same as saying it's a bad or a lazy game, but unfortunately there are guys who do intentionally make the comparison unfavourably, and that's perhaps understandably made a lot of WAR fans very touchy. I wish they wouldn't take it so personally, but it can't realistically be stopped.

We'll be talking a lot more about WAR over the coming weeks, and will be able to better discuss the RvR/PvP elements that were so marginal in the underpopulated EU closed beta, but I suspect we'll still end up making the occasional WoW comparison. It's not meant to be an insult.

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