[In the world of MMOs, World of Warcraft is king, and in this vibrant analysis, online game expert Michael Zenke examines just what it is that made WoW so popular in the first place -- including accessibility, polish and simple timing.]
Massively Multiplayer Online Games are officially mainstream. A title from the genre has had an entire cartoon episode made about it, features in an advertisement starring Mr. T, and hosts some ten million players worldwide. World of Warcraft
is a fundamentally important element to the MMO landscape, but more than that it's an ecology, a society all its own.
We know WoW
has hit it big. What we don't know -- what we don't think anyone could claim to know for certain -- is why exactly Blizzard's behemoth was the one to break loose from that nerd stigma. World of Warcraft
's launch and subsequent popularity is a singular event in the history of gaming.
Why this game? Why not titles that went before it, like the comic-esque title City of Heroes
? Why not Star Wars Galaxies
, a title with a huge built-in fan base? Why not WoW
-launch contemporary EverQuest 2
, the successor to the original MMO superpower?
There's no one answer to that question, of course. There are as many theories about WoW
's popularity as there are MMO commentators. It's in between those theories that I think real insight can be found. As much as the venture capitalists might like to hear differently, there's no one reason why World of Warcraft
has achieved the success it has. So with that in mind, let's approach Azeroth as a sociologist might: what drives people to inhabit this world?
Cut the BS
If you had to pin me down, and forced out of me the #1 reason for WoW
's success, it would all come down to one simple word: fun. I'm not talking about some sort of elusive concept here; not the pursuit of fun or the idea of fun, but the real deal. World of Warcraft
was one of the very first MMOs that you could hop right into and have fun -- right away.
Ten seconds after entering the world you've got your first quest. A minute after that you're in combat for the first time. Combat in World of Warcraft
is simple, clean, and well-explained. Every step you take in your first hour of play is right down the path toward fun. There are no barriers, no insane design decisions, no hoops you have to jump through -- WoW
lets you have fun, right away.
This newbie experience philosophy extends all the way up to the heights of endgame play. Certainly no one is going to explain to you how to complete an end-level raid dungeon; there's no tooltip for that. But raids, guilds, groups, they're all put on the path toward the goal of fun. Endgame play is just like the newbie experience, only more so -- low barriers, constant feedback that you're making the right choice, enjoyable rewards.
This all sounds like kindergarden-level obviousness, but I can't overstate how important this low-barrier approach is to World of Warcraft
's success. In the original EverQuest
, at launch, you spent long minutes waiting for your character's health to regenerate after every fight. Spellcasters had to meditate, essentially vulnerable to everything in the gameworld, for even longer minutes to get mana back.
Star Wars Galaxies
ceased having any form of direction or purpose the instant you stepped out of the tutorial. Final Fantasy XI
essentially forced you into a group at level 10, and punished you with level loss if your avatar died too often. Making it easy to have fun, making almost every act of play inside the gameworld an enjoyable experience, may be WoW
's greatest success.
To A Mirror Finish
Fun is an elusive concept, though, right? So let's break it down a bit. The quality of World of Warcraft
's design and conceptual elements - the keys that allow for that high level of fun -- comes from constant clarification and refinement. The lengthy Beta testing phase that WoW
went through before it released, the dedication to great design in Blizzard's corporate culture ... it all adds up to the word polish.
Polish has been taken up as the banner, the rallying cry of game designers both in and out of the MMO genre. Meeting the high quality standard World of Warcraft
has set requires an enormous amount of polish; so much so that WoW
's success is often said to hang on the game's polish.
What's fascinating about World of Warcraft
, and what makes that argument such an easy one to believe, is that Blizzard has applied so many levels of polish to the game. From the Macro- to the Micro-, everything hums and clicks together like so much clockwork. Two opposing factions, both with distinctly different races, offer players two substantially different paths to follow.
Before the Burning Crusade
expansion, these factions also had slightly different classes -- more meaningful choices. The user interface is achingly simple and yet amazingly powerful. The yellow exclamation point above a quest-giver's head -- a blindingly obvious decision, but extraordinary in 2004 -- offers connectivity and continuity for the player.
You can drill all the way down through the game to reach even the smallest level, and still find polish. The mage tower in the Human starting zone of Elwynn, for example, is peppered with memorable characters and stories; there's even a magic globe that you can use to see a far-off locale you won't reach for another dozen levels or so. The game's NPCs are peppered with clever pop culture in-jokes, Easter eggs for the observant player. Lore-addicted roleplayers can comb through hundreds of in-game books to learn more about Azeroth's history.
The game is far from perfect, of course, but the sheer level of sophistication and development that World of Warcraft
shows at every level is staggering. Almost intimidating. The amount of money that was spent bringing this game to market seems almost ludicrous, right up until you experience a new dawn on the docks of Southshore or witness a heated exchange between two vibrant characters in an Outland tavern.
Everybody Likes a Good Story
While most MMO players will tell you they flip past the quest text without reading it, the fact that WoW
had a well-codified questing system at all was something of a minor miracle in 2004. Compared with the guessing games of previous online games, World of Warcraft
's quest journal was a revolution. This system of directed experiences is another well-referenced reason for the game's success.
Even though players may be ignoring the story reasons for completing quests, the rewards of xp and in-game currency lead them down that storied road just the same. Quests act as landmarks and signposts in what would otherwise be (and was, in previous games) aimless wandering and meaningless grinding for rewards.
The trick is that even as quests attempt to tell a story, what they're really doing is leading the player around by the nose. "Kill 10 rabbits and then talk to Bob" is a fantastically simple task, but if the rabbits are halfway across a zone map and Bob is all the way over in another hamlet, that charge carries some powerful ramifications.
Designers know that the player will have to travel to one specific area of the map to carry out the task, and will end up in yet another part to turn in the quest. By seeding the hunting zone and the hamlet around Bob with further quests, interesting challenges, beautiful landscapes and a sense of danger designers are assured that players will have a certain level of quality in their gaming experience.
Again, this seems deceptively obvious in retrospect. Why wouldn't designers create a world with this kind of directed experience in mind? The reason is that word "world". World of Warcraft
is much less a world than it is a very elaborate game.
The Blizzard designers ensured 'game' would be the take-away from their Azeroth; while it might have been interesting to see Stranglethorn Vale with a living ecosystem or provide meaningful AI life to all city NPCs it would have detracted from the reality of WoW
as a game. Whatever wasn't fun was removed, whatever was boring was polished, and the story of a character's adventure through this online world is all that truly matters.
It’s tempting to see the huge number of people that play World of Warcraft
as purely a function of game design and mechanics, but there are other elements at work too. For example, the fact that people can play the game at all ... Going back to the lowering of barriers to fun, WoW
’s low system spec, the incredibly forgiving requirement it places on computers, is another pillar on which the game’s success rests. Despite this, many player cite the game’s pleasing presentation as a compelling reason to play.
The key is that Blizzard solved the ‘issue’ of graphics through artistic presentation instead of raw horsepower. Azeroth’s unique art style, a combination of anime-inspiration and western comics, draws the player in to the online fantasy with minimal stresses on the average PC. It’s something many design houses don’t address well, to their detriment. Vanguard: Saga of Heroes failed miserably at launch last year – it also overtaxed a brand new machine and required 20 gigs of disk space. It’s easy to assume that there was some connection there.
What's the Most Important Thing About Comedy?
Timing. Many people believe the same to be true about World of Warcraft
’s success. That magical moment at the end of 2004, so goes the theory, was a pregnant point in the MMO genre. Games had been released for the past two years that tantalized the gaming public, but didn’t deliver. There was a lot of interest in the genre, but nothing accessible enough to reach a truly mass market.
Pitted against EverQuest 2, WoW
went up against a recognized brand that had completely lost its way. Though modern EQ2
rivals World of Warcraft
in some ways for polish and fun-ness, at launch the game was a confused mish-mash of poor design concepts. Into this special moment, hyped by months of open Beta testing and happy players, Blizzard dropped a bombshell. The rest, as they say, is history.
All Tomorrow’s Parties
As Blizzard’s game has evolved over the last three-plus years, many of these major elements have been further refined. The level of polish is still at a genre-defining level. The narrative that guides players through old Azeroth and into the Burning Crusade expansion’s Outlands area is stronger now than ever.
And – despite the kvetching you see on the official forums – the fun factor in World of Warcraft
has never been higher. The few barriers between the players and fun that existed have systematically been lowered over the last three years. WoW
’s current place in the Western marketplace is unparalleled as far as both numbers and cultural cachet – and, of course, another expansion is just over the horizon.
[Michael Zenke is a freelance games writer. He's a lead blogger at the site Massively.com, and has had the pleasure of writing for sites like Gamasutra, 1up, Joystiq, The Escapist, and Slashdot Games. You can read more of Michael's ramblings on Massive games at the MMOG Nation blog.]
[WoW Box Set photo courtesy karenchu121's photostream]