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Tarisland scores a clone goal with its too-blatant nostalgia pandering

Ask an AI to make a game like World of Warcraft and you’d probably get Tarisland.

It’s somewhat fitting that the new trailer for Tarisland’s global release should land on the same day that GameForge announced the shutdown of Sword of Legend Online’s global servers. While they don’t share the same aesthetic, they do share the same crucial design flaw. A blandness which begs the question: why would I, or indeed anybody else, want to play this?

Look, I’m aware that I’m getting ahead of myself here. Tarisland has barely even been announced, so I’m not going to write it off entirely just yet. What we’ve been shown and told about the game so far though leaves me with a feeling that hovers somewhere between apathy and despair.

From the off, Tencent has been very blatant in pitching Tarisland as World of Warcraft’s replacement in China, where the Blizzard-developed behemoth of the MMO genre was dramatically shuttered earlier this year. Clearly, this event has left a sizeable gap in the market, and it stands to reason that a company with the clout of Tencent would step in to fill it.

Though Tarisland must surely have been in development for a while prior to Blizzard and NetEase’s conveniently timed spat (three years, apparently), its announcement has leaned hard into exploiting the events which left China’s WoW playerbase heartbroken and without a (virtual) home.

While the game may have been conceived as a major rival to WoW in the Chinese market, it has now found itself in the fortuitous position of being its heir apparent.

That a game which is by every perceivable metric a WoW-clone just so happens to be primed to step up to the plate in this very moment would, on the surface, be as much of a boon to those WoW players left adrift by January’s shutdown as it is to Tencent.

The term WoW-clone was, for the longest time, a derogatory term. One which indicated a lack of imagination and a cynical attempt to capture a slice of a burgeoning market by copying the brightest student’s homework.

After a long decade of failed attempts to resurrect the ‘hardcore’ pre-WoW era of MMOs however, there is undoubtedly once more an appetite for something which is tapping unabashedly into WoW’s proven DNA.

Just, not like this.

Tarisland’s ‘Worldview’ trailer is monumentally uninspired.

Sword of Legends Online launched alongside two other prominent MMOs in 2021: New World, and Elyon. One of those games has found itself a happy spot in the market; the other is, well, it’s now only playable via a volunteer-operated rogue server.

You could make the argument that New World survived while the other two games didn’t due to the share clout and resources at Amazon’s disposal, and to a certain extent that’s fair. New World isn’t a game of any great uniqueness or expert execution, but it does enough in both categories to set itself apart from the rest of the pack. It’s not the game changer you’d want to kick off a new era in the genre, but it’s at least interesting.

SOLO and Elyon both looked pretty, and they played at least as solidly as any other medium-profile entry into the genre. Is that really all we want out of our MMOs though? Something which just looks and plays ‘nicely’. The answer, apparently, is no.

Lest we forget that Elyon began its life as Ascent: Infinite Realm. Sure, that game had the same uninspired graphic stylings of any number of other titles in the genre, but at least it looked as though some thought had been put into making the world-building stand out from the pack just a little bit. People were excited about the game’s eastern-steampunk theme, and aerial combat. This was, at one point, one of the most hyped games in the genre, but all that hype vanished when the game was rebranded as the far more generic Elyon.

Good looks just aren’t enough to keep players sticking around in your MMO.

There’s an argument to be had that the “big five” MMOs are all a bit generic themselves. They are, after all, all fantasy games, and other than WoW, none of them have a particularly distinctive aesthetic. However, it doesn’t take much digging beneath the surface to find that, while they’re not necessarily the most original worlds ever created, they’re far from derivative. They all have, in varying proportions, a healthy mix of compelling storytelling and deep gameplay systems.

Tarisland may indeed have these things – it’s too early to tell based on what little closed beta gameplay footage has leaked onto YouTube. You can say the same about any number of upcoming MMOs, and I always remain optimistic that they deliver the goods.

I think, what really galls me about Tarisland in particular, is just how content it seems to be as a ‘WoW-clone’, or ‘the Chinese-WoW’, or ‘the WoW-replacement’. There’s something deeply cynical about that. An underlying statement that says “We’ve got your number you addicts. Here’s that thing you need, now empty your pockets”.

Yes, I get it, games are a business, they need to turn a profit, blah blah. If, as I suspect, Tarisland does turn out to be nothing more than a cut and paste WoW-clone I think, and honestly, I hope that it will fail.

Because I don’t want the MMO genre to just be the fast food of gaming. I want it to aspire to be more than something that’s predictable – served up to its playerbase with a sneer of contempt.

I understand the risk aversion to making something totally out there; especially given that there are a lot of people right now who are explicitly asking for something which tickles that nostalgic appeal for the kind of themepark-style MMOs that were being released in abundance in the post-WoW boom. Just please, give us some evidence of artistry.

Tencent is making a big song and dance about the lack of pay to win monetisation in Tarisland. Obviously that’s great, but I wouldn’t exactly call it a ‘feature’.

The biggest problem facing an unoriginal MMO launching in 2023 (and beyond) is that without a hook, why would anybody choose to play and stay in the new game rather than an already established one?

Sure, there’s a whole lot of (sometimes justified) whining about how X or Y game’s meta has changed over the years, but on the whole, the bunch of MMOs which are still kicking around 10-20 years after they first launched are well polished, and they have mounds of content. History tells us that it’s unlikely to downright impossible that a new MMO can launch with an amount of polish and content that could equal those games.

I think that’s something we just have to accept, and I think it’s something any reasonable person is willing to accept, so long as the new game is offering us something, well, new.

Everything about what happened to World of Warcraft in China just sucks. I would imagine that in an ideal world the players over there would like nothing more than to just be able to play their favourite game again. Supposing that doesn’t ever happen I’d imagine they would be pretty happy with what Tencent is offering with Tarisland.

Time will tell how the game shakes out here in the west. If WoW Classic failed to do the trick, will nu-WoW fair any better in conjuring the return to Eden which so many MMO players yearn for?

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