I’ve written before that I’d buy an offline WoW and have fun with it. It would be the ultimate solo WoW experience, maybe even something roughly approximating one of those weird Role Playing Game things. I do think the world of Warcraft has some interesting things to offer, and it can serve as a stage for some good gaming that need not be of the MMO variety.
But then… what is an RPG?
Such a question has been bandied about for some time now, so I’m not going to rehash much of it, but rather ask: What would a WoW RPG (offline, solo) look like?
Ignore for the moment, the tabletop version, another interesting iteration of the IP in itself, and yet another flavor of RPG, but not quite what I’m looking for here. This is, of course, all whimsy and conjecture, and is completely incomplete. Addendums are welcome, bearing in mind this is more about curiosity than anything I’d expect Blizzard to actually do. A few thoughts, then:
- First and foremost, it strikes me that a translation of the existing game would almost certainly be a Western RPG rather than a Japanese RPG (WoWWRPG?). As in, more Neverwinter Nights (make your own character, make your way in the world), less Final Fantasy (assume a role the devs crafted and go through a story they tell). The difference between the two styles is significant, and the existing game leans heavily in the Western direction.
- But why translate more or less directly? Why not make an entirely new RPG, perhaps even a JRPG-styled tale of a key character or band of characters within the WoW IP? That would open the floor to big, sweeping changes, which may indeed be the healthiest route overall, but since it could take a LOT of different forms, here I’m mostly wondering about a game that is more of a mild translation of the existing game design rather than a new game. There’s certainly room to imagine a completely new game within the world, but I’ll save that for another experiment.
- With the increased focus on player agency and a largely seamless world of a Western-flavored WoWRPG, the balance between authorial direction and player agency is almost diametrically opposed to the tightly controlled Final Fantasy XIII or even tighter Heavy Rain. (Tangential: Is Heavy Rain even one of those RPG things? You assume roles of characters who already exist and pilot them through a story with a few branching options and different endings, clearly heavily Playing Roles in a Game… but there isn’t much in the way of levels, loot and assorted “character progress” mechanics that some associate with RPGs. How many thorns and petals can you remove from a rose before it’s just a stick? How many games could easily be RPGs if it’s just about playing a role? But I digress…) On the one hand, that’s great for people just looking to noodle around in a cool world, but on the other hand, a good story under a strong directorial hand is more preferable. The WoW IP could do both, but not so much at the same time.
- WoWMMO is designed (perhaps obviously) for many players, from the group content to PvP to the player economy. A single player offline version would either need to drop group content or provide henchmen, like Guild Wars or Dragon Age. Solo-control party-based RPGing isn’t anything new, but neither is it something that exists in the WoWMMO. Curiously, this might make it easier to teach players how to play with a group and teach the holy combat trinity, since the game could have tutorials that show the finer points of group dynamics without the unpredictability of real people monkeying around. You could even make combat pauseable (even if only in tutorials) to make teaching easier. It seems to me that educating people is a better long-term idea than making games so dumb and easy anyone can sleepwalk through them. If we wanted that, we should make movies.
- …and yet, why bother with the trinity when you only have one player? The trinity assumes that multiple parties are in combat, so WoWRPG would really need to either make henchmen or dump the trinity. (OK, snarky aside about Paladins and Druids being able to do everything goes here.) It’s hard to say which would be harder to actually implement, but henchmen fit into the current design structure, while the trinity would be much harder to excise. It’s the foundation of WoW combat, combined with aggro management and crowd control. Lose the trinity, and all sorts of content would be suddenly skewed, and you’d have to lose most dungeons and instances. Add henchmen, and the WoWRPG could offer offline players almost all WoW content.
- Ultimately, that’s what this is about, by the way; content and the world of Warcraft’s lore, not the play experience itself, since that would necessarily change significantly. MMOs offer a play experience that offline games just can’t do. Offering a WoWRPG would be a way of getting the WoW content and lore to more players, thereby building the brand. …if that matters. It may not, which is why this is more of a thought experiment than anything else.
- What of Altitis? Some RPGs have toyed with multiple protagonists, like the Saga Frontier series, but those haven’t really been the movers and shakers of the RPG genre. There are some interesting things that you can do with storytelling when you can bounce between viewpoints (especially between factions) and have different characters illustrate varied angles of an in-game event. (Say, have low level Alliance players actually take part in the smallish Alliance invasion of Durotar, rather than just having that little outpost south of Orgrimmar be a mob spawn point for Alliance mooks for low level Hordies to attack repeatedly.) That starts poking into JRPG territory and significant changes to the game… but it could be interesting.
- Speaking of which… storytelling could change significantly. Time could actually proceed… perhaps even while the player is off doing something else. The world could feel more like a world again (gasp!), as the game moves out of the perpetual now twilight zone that MMOs are stuck in.
- Persistence. This one is huge. If you don’t have to recycle the world for every Tam, Dick and Ratshag, you can actually have bad guys stay dead, rather than respawn every few minutes. This, of course, could run at cross purposes to the notion of letting players advance an Alliance character and a Horde character in the same universe (instead of their own instanced storylines), but at the same time, if you do let players bounce back and forth, and keep persistence, suddenly you’ve made the finite state machine go into overdrive… but also given yourself a TON more knobs to tweak for making the game interesting and telling an interesting story… or letting players tell a story by changing the world. The scope could get out of hand quickly, unfortunately.
- Phasing could still have uses, but the changes implemented could be more permanent as the storyline actually moves on. Still, if alts enter the same world where things have happened and stay… happened… phasing might be a tool to let them replay some content that a predecessor had already gone through, if that were ever needed, then let them rejoin the “real world”… almost like a mobile, personal Cavern of Time.
- Questing and the Yellow Brick Road… there are many, many small storylines in WoW, often tied up in quest chains. Even so, there aren’t many larger, overarching stories. A WoWRPG with persistence and a properly functioning arrow of time could bring those overarching stories into greater focus, and let the grindy tangential stories slip back into the shadows. Kill Ten Rat quests could actually tie into a bigger story, rather than be something you do to level up so you can go kill ten bigger rats ad infinitum. That, or quests themselves could be rarer beasts, especially if the XP curve is revamped…
- Pacing could change significantly. Instead of needing to grind in an area to qualify for the next (or extend subscription time), the XP curve could be tweaked to allow players to naturally proceed through zones as they follow larger stories, pillaging along the way instead of grinding in a zone to prep for the next. To be fair, this is something that many other RPGs, Western or Japanese, still have issues with. Even offline RPGs have grind in them… but structurally, they don’t need it nearly as much as a sub-based MMO.
- Speaking of grind and quests, perhaps a WoWRPG could omit some of the obnoxious time sink quests (FedEX quests that take you back to areas you’ve already been, kill quests that only count critters killed after the quest starts instead of the pile of corpses left on the way to the quest hub, running all over the continent, that sort of thing) that do little but extend playtime (and paytime in a sub model). It really is OK for a game to be short if it’s fun all the way through.
- Saving would be new; MMOs “save” all the time as they communicate with the server. Offline games need to be saved… though that could be automated. Still, if you allow saves, you introduce the Save-Load system where a battle that went bad can be replayed, and players effectively become Time Lords, able to rewind and replay at a whim. That would be a big shift in how the game would play, for better or worse. (Perhaps a little of both.)
- Crafting could be either maintained (almost necessitating alts if you wanted to dig into everything and be self-sufficient, or let NPC henchmen in a party-based system also craft), or characters could be allowed to learn any number of crafting skills. I’ve always thought that the two-skill limit (barring Cooking, Fishing and First Aid) was a silly hammer to try to force player interdependence, so I’d certainly lean to opening the system up. We don’t often see a robust crafting suite in an offline RPG, so this is one area especially that WoWRPG could shine. That, or crafting could be cut completely as another time sink and unnecessary appendix, since a lot of crafting does wind up fueling the in-game economy.
- The game’s economy could either be a static beastie with NPC vendors as the currency fountains and skills and gear being currency sinks… or it could be a bit more dynamic and AI driven, like the economy in something like X3. Either would function to make the game playable, but neither would be anywhere nearly as interesting as the multiplayer economy. This and the multiplayer dungeons would probably be the biggest losses in taking the game offline.
- Respeccing could be interesting. I’ve long argued that a full and complete respec (even all the way down to the class) should be easy and cheap. WoWRPG could offer this function with a lot less fuss than the MMO would see. Of course, if you’re able to swap classes easily, you’d want a larger bank to keep the many, many potential “offspec” treasures that you collect. The alternative would be to make the game less gear-centric… and that’s not likely. Final Fantasy games have wavered between strict classes and very flexible systems, so there’s precedent for both… though it’s notable that strict class-based systems tend to introduce party members to keep a bit of flexibility as an organic party, if not a very mutable single character.
- But why a WoWRPG over something like Morrowind or Oblivion, or even Fallout 3? What does the WoW IP offer that those games don’t?
The World of Warcraft is an interesting, largely attractive place. It’s a grand stage to tell stories on, and I do wonder occasionally what it would be like if it were initially developed as a single player RPG rather than an MMO. MMOs are almost always kind of schizophrenic in their approach, a function of appealing to a large player base. Might a more focused goal (a great story-based RPG) have changed it for the better? Could the world still have some sort of tangential story-based RPG to offer?
The WarCraft universe did come from a pair of Real Time Strategy games, after all (possibly based on tabletop games and Tolkienish flights of whimsy), and it’s not unheard of for an IP to bounce between game genres, even the venerable Final Fantasy series (though that’s less about maintaining a consistent world-based IP as a brand name). WarCraft even had an Adventure Game iteration once upon a time. MMOs and RPGs are different, but not so different as to make such a tangential game impossible. Whether or not it would fit into the WoWMMO timeline proper is perhaps a significant question, but it’s my rambling opinion that Azeroth has a lot to offer. Even though the WoW live team tends to selectively interpret lore to various ends, there is still a LOT of lore out there to explore… and it might be satisfying to explore it in a slightly different vehicle.
…or a very different vehicle. If the WoWRPG were more of a Japanese RPG, with strongly defined preconceived characters and a directed story, you’d lose a lot of what makes WoWMMO playable, but perhaps gain a much more focused experience that could tell a better story. I can see a place for both approaches, actually. All in all, I think that a translative approach that maintains much of the existing game would be more feasible… but I might be more inclined to play a well-crafted JRPG-ish WoWRPG that really digs into the world of WarCraft, finding some meat on the bones of the IP that is often only hinted at in the MMO.
Of course, in actuality, I’m more inclined to play Blue Dragon, Lost Odyssey or Infinite Undiscovery than pick up a WoWRPG… but it would almost certainly make it on the list. The world of WarCraft really could offer up a couple of games that aren’t merely WoWish subscription skinner boxes. Blizzard has shown at least a vague interest in that sort of diversification before, and it might be good to see them branch out again. I’m not an unabashed Blizzard fanboy, but I do see potential there.