This past weekend I finally decided to start reading Robert E. Howard’s sword & sorcery classic Conan the Barbarian. At one point the author felt the need to write a history of the world that Conan inhabited in order to give him a greater sense of “realness”. It’s remarkable how both Howard and Tolkien both supplemented their fantasy worlds with such detailed historical backdrops in order to fully immerse the reader.
In many ways it was those authors who laid the foundations for the idea that worlds beyond our own could be imagined and created. Today’s virtual worlds and MMORPGs owe both of them a debt of gratitude.
However, it was during my reading of this history in the book entitled “The Hyborian Age” that something caught my eye that gave me pause and may be of interest to MMO enthusiasts.
Here’s the passage in question from Conan the Barbarian:
Then the Cataclysm rocked the world. Atlantis and Lemuria sank, and the Pictish Islands were heaved up to form the mountain peaks of a new continent. Sections of the Thurian Continent vanished under the waves, or sinking, formed great inland lakes and seas. Volcanoes broke forth and terrific earthquakes shook down the shining cities of the empires. Whole nations were blotted out.
Sound familiar? Notice that Cataclysm is capitalized. Substitute Atlantis and Lemuris for the Barrens and the Badlands and suddenly you get what sounds like the promotional description for Blizzard’s upcoming World of Warcraft expansion: Cataclysm. As many of us know by now after witnessing the 2009 BlizzCon promotional barrage, Azeroth will be besieged by volcanoes, earthquakes and floods — all eerily similar to the catastrophic events described in Howard’s Conan the Barbarian — except that in Conan’s history the cataclysm is not apparently caused by a dragon.
On a side note, even the WoW: Cataclysm trailer which seems to be narrated by a male Asian voice actor sounds strikingly similar in style and cadence to the opening narration of the Conan the Barbarian movie by veteran Asian character actor and Conan cast member Mako. Coincidence?
Now if there wasn’t an Age of Conan MMO out there, it might not pose a problem. Still, you have to wonder what the developers and publishers of the Conan MMO think about this revelation.
Imagine if the roles were reversed and another MMO company borrowed the title of a major historical event from Warcraft lore and named their expansion after it? Given the protective nature of Activision’s legal department that recently shut down a volunteer project and had an iPhone app pulled it’s safe to assume they might do something about it.
I am shocked, shocked to see Blizzard borrowing concepts from other sources.
Well the story of The Flood appears in almost every religion. It’s actually kind of freaky, or if we take ancient religious texts as mythological dressings up of real events a reference to some ancient disaster.
Howard borrowed heavily from ancient mythology, the stories of Atlantis being submerged are first known from the ancient Greeks, specifically Plato.
Maybe they were influenced by Howard, maybe not, but I think that a Cataclysm is simply a generic mythological concept like Ragnarok/Armageddon or The Creation.
The trailer is clearly inspired by the world-changing nature of the cataclysm in Robert E. Howard’s hyborian world. I also noticed the similarity of the voice acting between the intro of the Conan movie and the Cataclysm trailer. But this does not necessarily mean the idea to change the world came someone because he knew Conan lore. Cataclysms are a quite generic fantasy theme.
Legal action against this is would be interesting. I do not think it would have any chance of success.
There are too many cataclysms in fantasy literature and games. There is even a cataclysm in the Bible, it is just less volcanoes but more water, and called “Deluge”. Which might be the name of the follow-up patch to Catacylsm? 😉
Part of Blizzards ingenuity was always always being a good copycat and making more out of the original. They always polished the gems that others found, and one can hardly blame them for that. Check Westwood’s “Command & Conquer” series. Warcraft was so inspired by this game that it hurts! Starcraft then was basically just shifting the setting to science fiction.
There is nothing that can be done against this. Cultural references or inspirations cannot be protected that much. Blizzard are also great at walking this fine line. There is also the question if there is really any reason except trying to piss into Blizzard’s coffee pot to accuse them of permanent borderline intellectual property theft. They are not doing that, they are always adapting enough to make it their own story.
I think if Blizzard had run the many private Lord of the Rings shards based on Ultima Online, they would have changed the world enough that it is Lord of the Rings with their own twist, different enough that no lawyer could have closed them down, as it happened to many lore-oriented un-official LOTR servers.
Take Arthas. Partly King Arthur, partly Darth Vader. But not really a copy. Blizzard are really good at finding out what works and making these things shine.
The worlds of Tyria (Guild Wars) or Norrath (Everquest 1/2) have more original and genuine qualities than the whole World of Warcraft, and there is indeed a part of me that wants to call Blizzard “damn Copycats” very often.
But they have created their very own universe, it is just more pop culture oriented and inspired than others. The inventors of World of Warcraft were not genuine creators per se.
Asking “who created World of Warcraft?” yields this result:
“World of Warcraft was pitched by Bill Petras and Kevin Beardslee to Jeff Strain (Nomad project lead). Strain then pitched the idea to management who within 3 days approved the project. Project “Nomad” was cancelled and the original 7 developers from that team lead by Allen Adham (Blizzard founder) and Shane Dabiri (Proucer) began work on the World of Warcraft.
The idea came about after multiple team members had begun playing Everquest and the idea to make a better version was conceived.
Rob Pardo and Bob Fitch among other Warcarft III developers contributed to the design as well.
Jeff Kaplan (Tigole) joined the WoW team roughly a third to halfway through development as a quest designer and contributed heavily to the raiding experience as well as Alex Afriasabi (Furor).”
Warcraft’s lore was created largely by Chris Metzen, who also created the typical Warcraft look and style. Metzen himself cites Dungeons & Dragons, the Dragonlance series of novels and Star Wars as the primary inspirations for his fantasy and science fiction creations. No wonder that there are so many prototypical dragons causing all kind of fuss and a Cataclysm in WoW, eh? 🙂
Still, he is a creator “He defines his artistic style as having been heavily influenced by Walt Simonson’s and Jim Lee’s pencilling styles for form while preferring the costuming, themes and general feel of Larry Elmore and Keith Parkinson’s fantasy paintings” (from Wikipedia). As I am a huge fan of Parkinson and know Simonson as well, I cannot really say he copied them at all.
I think it is time that Blizzard finally shows their genuine creator qualities in their upcoming next generation MMO. 😉
They have already shown that they are an inspired bunch, not so much stealing or copying in a shallow way, but expanding upon ideas and indeed polishing the gem till it shines like a proper diamond. Diablo was probably their most innovative product so far, and even then we could argue they just took Dungeon Hack to the next level.
But they did it, and nobody else. It is a bit like blaming Columbus for the trick with the notorious “Egg of Columbus”.