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Vicarious Existence

To blog about what is going on in the MMO genre from a casual MMO player's viewpoint.

Author: UnSub

The WoW Equation For Success (And Why No Upcoming MMO Will Match It)

Posted by UnSub Wednesday November 28 2007 at 2:37AM
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World of Warcraft has become the dominant paradigm within Western MMO design, for some very obvious reasons. WoW has come to define pretty much everything else in the market. It's become the common touchpoint (again, for very obvious reasons i.e. it's popularity). A shorthand description for any MMO coming out has become "WoW with ________" or "WoW without ________" or even "the WoW-killer".

Of course, that's a gross simplification. But I've seen a lot of people apparently think that only one or two things were responsible for WoW's success and that if their upcoming MMO-of-choice "does <insert system here> right" then it's a shoe-in to beat WoW. I don't see it that way - I see a whole host of factors went into making WoW the market giant that it has become (and remains, at least in the short term). In my opinion, WoW has a success equation that will probably never be met, simply because they aligned so perfectly for WoW that whatever replaces WoW as market leader will have to do so in a way that few see coming.

As a bit of disclosure - I don't actually find WoW that thrilling a game, but respect what it's done for the MMO genre.

The success equation, as I see it:

Time to polish + large development budget + refinement of existing genre conventions + low barriers to entry + established online competitive computer game IP + gameplay that connects to the IP + the Blizzard brand + lots of reasons to keep playing + popularity + good word-of-mouth from beta + luck = WoW's success.

To break it down:

Time to polish: Blizzard made a point of polishing the in-game systems at every opportunity (or at least they've said they did). It wasn't left to the last month to feverishly try to pull things up to scratch - it was a priority from day one. And it shows. I won't pretend WoW is bug-free or perfect, but it tends to outperform its peers in this area.

Large development budget: My understanding is that the cost to launch WoW in North America and South Korea was in the US $65m range. This includes all development costs, server farms, network operations and all customer service infrastructure. In an industry where most MMOs appear to have budgets of between US $15m and US $30m (and may outsource servers, CS et al to a publisher who only wishes to have another MMO as a 'client' and cares very little about how the end player feels about their experience) WoW spent more than double its existing competitors.

Refinement of existing genre conventions: Lots of people say that WoW just took what EQ did and made it better. Although a bit of a cheap shot, it does have a grain of truth to it - WoW devs looked closely at what came before, polished up what worked and threw out what didn't. Combat was sped up. Advancing your character was sped up. Huge death penalties were thrown away. And so on. WoW's innovation was not in designing hundreds of radical new features, but improving the ones the genre had. They chose evolution over revolution.

Low barriers to entry: this has two different aspects - 1) a high end computer wasn't necessary to play WoW, and 2) you could level up quickly and by playing solo. No getting shut out of playing if you didn't meet the system specs (rare in a genre where system creep is a real issue) and no getting shut out by not being able to advance without a group behind you.

Established online competitive computer game IP: The Warcraft series was a well known franchise among gamers, especially those who played online games competitively. As such, it was very easy for players to be aware that the Warcraft MMO was coming and to anticipate playing it. Lots of players had fun in Warcraft games, so they could also reasonably expect to have fun in a Warcraft MMO even if they'd never played a MMO before. Competitive online players, very familiar with Warcraft and Starcraft, looked forward to competiting in a new space within Blizzard's new game. MMO players, who sometimes appear to care less about the IP than they do the MMO part, could be interested that a well-financed, big name MMO was coming out.

"Ahh," you may be thinking, "but don't other games have good, recognisable IPs only to flop after launch?". Yes, which is where the next factor comes in to play.

Gameplay that connects to the IP: Playing WoW fit in with how you'd expect to take part in the Warcraft universe. Warcraft is all about one side battling another - Humans Vs Orcs, and so on. WoW continued this aspect pretty seamlessly - you picked a side and your character fought for that side while increasing in power. Also, while the Warcraft IP did have major characters in it, they were more like representatives of a side, while the player was left to be the 'hero' of the game. WoW continues this to some degree, although (as with all MMOs) being the hero in a world full of 8 million others can stretch the credibility of this somewhat.

Looking at other major IPs, such as The Matrix Online or Star Wars Galaxies, it is clear that the gameplay often didn't connect well with the IP. In The Matrix films, you see the established heroes of Neo and Morpheus taking on Agents and winning - this was suicide for most players to try in MxO. So immediately the player feels reduced in scope and disconnected from what their character 'should' be able to do. Thinking about Star Wars, the films are space operas of lightsaber fights, aerial dogfights and blaster battles. SWG had no player Jedis on launch, no space combat on launch and turned players into canteen dancers or hairdressers - hardly the stuff of space opera. In both these cases, the games had the stylings of the IP, but not the heart of it. WoW launched with the heart of the gameplay linking strongly to the IP.

The Blizzard brand: Let's face it - the Blizzard brand helped WoW quite a bit. Blizzard is associated with high quality games that are fun to play. If Blizzard created WoW, then it follows that it must also be a high quality game that is fun to play; the mantra that "Blizzard doesn't release bad games" is one that is repeatedly echoed over the internet in gaming circles.

Lots of reasons to keep playing: WoW gives the player a relatively easy route to max level, but then offers them a lot of things to do to keep them playing. They can get better loot, do raids, PvP in a number of areas, roll up an alternate character, skill up, buy an epic mount... Blizzard realised (at least at launch) that not everyone wants to acheive the same things and provided a number of options that players could get into. That people were still apparently having fun having reached max level no doubt helped keep players involved.

Popularity: This worked as a snowball effect - players were interested in WoW, told their friends about it, those players got interested in WoW, got them interested in it, etc, etc. WoW hit a critical mass where hordes of players joined because all their friends were playing it.

The worldwide launch also comes into play here - being able to say you've got 8 million players (even if half are in China) makes the game sound like it must be good in order to get that kind of attention.

Good word-of-mouth from beta: Although there were some grumblings from beta about certain things, few MMOs seemed to have the overwhelmingly positive word of mouth coming out of beta that WoW did. Given the strength and importance of word of mouth, I'd suggest that players were swayed by hearing so many good reports about WoW that interest built where it wouldn't have before.

Luck: Yes, WoW got lucky. A large number of factors lined up perfectly to exceed any predicted subscription numbers for WoW. It came along at just the right time and offered just the right mixture to attract a lot of new players into the MMO genre. That said, it also did a lot to make its own luck and grab hold of the opportunity that Blizzard faced.

I don't believe that any upcoming MMO will be able to match WoW's success by duplicating one or two of its systems, or 'fixing' some sort of perceived deficiency. Copying WoW is only going to see players leave any new game since they'd already experienced WoW before. If you believe in the Anna Karenina effect, WoW's success was unique to the combination of factors behind it. Simply duplicating one or two factors - say, the budget and good word or mouth from beta - isn't going to drive player numbers up to the same level because other critical factors are missing.

So what can unseat WoW at the top of the heap? I can only see three things that could - 1) WoW devs shooting themselves in the foot through unpopular choices that see players driven away, 2) lots of niche games splinter the WoW playerbase to numerous other targets so that no one MMO is "the WoW-killer", or 3) some new MMO comes along that succeeds completely on its own terms.

But in any case, trying to out-WoW WoW is a strategy that will never work.

AssAssin_666 writes:

after reading it , i realized i never really looked at it like that . But i do agree with every word ur saying . Think u said it perfectly ;)

Wed Nov 28 2007 7:30AM Report
NightCloak writes:

I think the biggest factor is the Blizzard Brand. There is a reason why its a good brand. And for those reasons it makes other reasons of success that much easier to do. What current MMOs lack is the commitment to quality that WoW had. Or planning and forsight. WoW planned many end-game things before they were released or even started work.

You can see other MMOs that dont plan ahead and just add crap.

I dont play WoW anymore, but its a great game.

Wed Nov 28 2007 8:50AM Report
Kenny3000 writes:

I think your correct. Every thing you said is true the only thing that could unseat wow is another wow. the closest we will probly ever see is going to be a StarCraft mmo witch if done right would be awe inspiring.

Wed Nov 28 2007 9:07AM Report
soulwynd writes:

WoW's success is similar to Diablo's. They took something people have been doing for years, put a mood in it, called it something else and launched it as something new and better. Anyone who has been in this cringe for over a decade will probably know where every tiny bit of game play from wow came from. I'm not saying there's no originality, but I'm saying the originality is in how they put those elements together.

To be perfectly honest, wow bored me to death. I look for more complex games with sandbox elements if possible and to be even more honest, I'm glad those types of game do not receive the hype simple games do, they would have to bend over for way too many people instead of keeping it complex.

Wed Nov 28 2007 10:29AM Report
gualterio writes:


Age of conan and of course Warhammer. 

Wed Nov 28 2007 11:50AM Report
grimfall writes:

You're misusin the term 'barrier to entry' but you're pretty accurate in a lot of things you said.

One of the 'luck' elements, actually was EQ2.  EQ2 was to Everquest what New Coke was to Coca-Cola, except that SOE didn't have the brains to kill EQ2.  By telling their subscribers that there was a new better game, they opened the door for probably 150K of them to choose WoW, which gave a great boost to WoW's launch.  And it wasn't 150K, 'hey what is this, play a game online?' players.  It was 150K 'I run a guild with a website and know how to build a player community' players.

WoW will most likely decline and fall, eventually.  The graphics will become too dated and the game too repetive, just like UO and EQ, but it will reamain as the king of the hill for another two years.

The Bioware MMO, with a good IP, would be my best guess for the next king of MMORPG's.

Wed Nov 28 2007 1:08PM Report
Interl0per writes:

I totally agree that the "WoW killer" will remain a mythical beast for quite some time.  Even if something comes along as well done as WoW (and there are already a couple), people don't need another WoW when they already have WoW, lol.

Your point about gameplay that connects to the IP is precisely parallel to my own thinking on the failure of so many recent releases to engage players.  You'd think SWG would have been the ultimate object lesson that dropping WoW's combat system on top of Universe X is *not* the secret formula for success.  OTOH, I was perfectly happy playing music in cantinas and camping out on Talus :D

Wed Nov 28 2007 4:11PM Report
Pepsipwnzgod writes:

there are only 182731823718 other posts that explain the same exact thing man, no offense to you or the time youve taken out of your day to create this - but omg man, it's enough, everyone likes to say wow is the trump - and ZOMG!? we all know this, but everyone doesnt really need to see it all the time

Wed Nov 28 2007 5:04PM Report
sonicwhip writes:

i heard warhammer will kill warcraft or aion and the killer of those two games will probably guild wars 2.


but WoW isnt really that good i've played it for a year and a half it got boring from time to time i kept on trying to like it and trying to get myself to think it was good but i quit when i figured out that everything is just a whirling cycle were no1 can be the best at anything which is how blizzard makes so much money by making players thing they have to play for years so they can be the best and famous but it wont happen which keep players even trying more and for longer periods so there blizzard makes even more money as soon as i figured out that fact i packed my bags and moved on to guild wars figuring out that with guild wars you dont need to spend hours on end to be competetive with the rest of the bandwagon or neither do you need to go so crazy collecting the best gear because its not that gear dependent and i also figured guild wars fits best with my playing style because it has no monthly fees it doesnt keep me playing everyday worried that im wasting a day and wasting money i also like that the pvp is much more balanced were everyone has a fair chance of beating any class unlike WoW were those 3 classes that will go unnamed dominate all of pvp giving nobody a chance to have a some pvp success.

i also hated how in WoW you have to spend a long time traveling from one continent to another to meet up with your friends or that you cant play with your friends because there on a another server among the other hundreds so that is another aspect i like about gw is that it is serverless with instant map traveling.

its also good that you can kill monsters in peace because you get your own private copy of the map and dont have to deal with any jerk killing your targeted lvling monsters.

i also like how gw has a mission based design which is good for roleplaying and creates a very nice and compelling storyline since WoW has a very weak storyline almost none i thought i should list that also.

so please dont go saying how WoW is the best from head to toe something is always better than something else i also have very high expectations for the upcoming future release of guild wars 2 which will probably introduce the most unthinkable content no one could every imagine i think i will stick to gw from now on.

Wed Nov 28 2007 8:16PM Report
tazarconan writes:

fellow mates...things are simple..Blizard brand noeffect at all...if a game is good i ll stick to it and inform my 10-12 friends about blizzard or could play some part only in advertising aspect..

Wow success? Only for these reasons..

1/ Smooth ansd easy to use interface ,

2/good animation and nice effects

/3 Great designed enviroments check Darnasus starting area of night not talking if the graficks are cartoon or not ,just the quality of outdoors and places your eye meet

/4 Blizzard is listening and makes the favor of 4 million young kids that are requesting things for their classes and other stuff concerning pve or pvp aspects

As for the wow beater? Be patient cause all these mmos are based on the combat system ofc...And the one wow is using i mean the click and AUTO-atack has become boring..Age of conan and Darkfall have masnual combat system which requires skill and not gear ..All good pvpiers will go ther eby launch ...if those 2 developers at least present something with few bugs and at least the half of what they promise...torch out!

Wed Nov 28 2007 9:56PM Report writes:
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