If you want a sense of how big World of Warcraft is consider that The Burning Crusade expansion sold nearly 2.4 million copies within the first 24 hours at retail. A big number to be sure, but not only did that 2.4 million break the single day PC gaming record for sales, it broke the PC record for sales for an entire month. Let me say that again, The Burning Crusade sold more copies in 24 hours than any PC game had ever sold in entire month. That's how big a deal this game is.
Yesterday Blizzard piled on a few more largely deserved heapings of self-praise, pointing out that the expansion has gone on to sell roughly 3.5 million copies in its first month, expanding the total player base for the game to a staggering 8.5 million worldwide, it is worth thinking a bit about what makes the game arguably the most successful title in PC gaming history. It's the question every developer in the business is asking themselves: what makes World of Warcraft so great?
-- Genre Specific --
Successful Launches – The launch of the game in 2004 may have been somewhat imperfect, a victim of its own bloated succes, though the key point is that the fault lay not in the software itself, but predictably because Blizzard underestimated the immediate and sustained demand for their game. Equally significant is the swift response from Blizzard in launching new servers, and controlling the flow of new product hitting the street. The important point is that once players were in the game the experience was nearly flawless, and because of Blizzard's consistent diligence in putting only finished products on retail shelves, they are rewarded with a loyal and large fanbase.
Perhaps even more significant is the tremendously successful launch of The Burning Crusade, which learned every lesson of 2004. It was taken for granted, particularly in the corners of the net that were anxious to see Blizzard's baby implode, that the expansion would bring the entire World of Warcraft to a tremendous trainwreck of mosntrous queues, server instability and crashes. The peanut gallery topped off their endless supply of peanuts, took their seats and anxiously taunted WoW players to make other plans for all the downtime to come. None of those dire predictions manifest, and even against the tumult of 2.4 million new players, Blizzard pulled off an absolutely stellar expansion launch.
Appeal To Everyone – It's the lesson that games like Vanguard and Everquest 2 stubbornly refuse to learn, though EQ2 eventually conceded many points in a massive revamp. Given the choice between appealing to a minor niche market or a broad consumer base, why would a company consciously choose to severely limit one's market appeal? Granted that World of Warcraft leaves a fractional sliver of players frustrated with the accessibility of the game, often the most difficult gamers to please anyway, but their numbers are so small as to be commercially unsustainable, which is pretty much why successful games ignore their often elitist demands.
This isn't the classic question of pitting casual MMO gamers against the hardcore, though an argument can certainly be made that no MMO gamer is casual. This is about appealing to both, which leads to ...
Content For Everyone – Building on the theme of broad appeal, don't force the dynamics of individual styles of play at your players. It's fun to do the things I like in a game, and when I'm having fun I keep playing. It's just basic psychology here.
While WoW is known to suffer from an end-game problem where those who invest heavily in raid and PvP have an advantage over those who solo, this issue only manifests because there are optional paths leading to both end games. Except for the raiding end-game option, World of Warcraft doesn't favor one style of play over another, and infuses most classes with skill options that can be applied to either method. Blizzard has diligently ensured that every class can be constructed to be viable in every setting, and while Hunters may have an advantage at soloing where Priests clearly have a strong group role, both classes still have their place in nearly every situation.
The concept of the "rested state" alone could be seen to give the more casual player an unfair advantage, but what it really does is encourage the most difficult to retain customers, those who are most put-off by the idea of 'grinding', to keep their subscriptions. It balances the field while keeping the revenue flowing. Don't underestimate its genius.
Zones – This used to be a dirty word in MMOs, and as the genre tried wandering toward the goal of fully seemless worlds, I felt like the only person on the planet who thought that zones were one of the many things that games like Everquest really got right. Yes, it's not very realistic to go from a landscaped of barren and twisted earth to moist, giant-mushroom infested swamp in the matter of a few footsteps, but neither is it particularly realistic to have crossed through an inter-spatial portal onto a mangled world populated by orcs, so my suspension of disbelief is already working in full.
Zones offer designers great freedom to manipulate the landscape and create well-populated and varied points of interest. In seemless worlds, so much time is lost in transitions from one landscape to the next that the sense of wonder at crossing into an entirely new environment is lost. While World of Warcraft's original landmass might not be the size of other MMOs, it is more densely populated with interesting things to look at and compelling landscapes, which encourages players to keep playing.
-- Non-Genre Specific --
Work on Every Machine – I don't care how realistic and detailed a game looks if it becomes a slide show at crucial gameplay moments. Nothing turns me off a game faster than having to endure significant framerate issues, and very little impresses me more than an artistically vivid world illustrated through a well-tuned engine.
Games can be visually compelling without bringing the average gamer's system to an agonized crawl. The recent Command and Conquer 3 demo, assuming it is representative of the final product, is a good example of how maximizing an existing engine with reasonable requirements is, perhaps, better than creating an entirely new engine that exceeds the hardware of an average gamer, as we've seen with Supreme Commander.
Customizable Interface – Gone should be the days of Everquest's painfully constrained UI, and long live World of Warcraft which not only allowed players to customize their experience but developed a UI that encouraged it. I recall how hesitant MMO developers were to even allow alt-tabbing out of the game for fear of modifying their pure vision of how players should experience their game. It was really quite silly.
But, WoW should be an example not just to MMO developers, but other genres, again most notably RTS games. In an age when strategy games regularly populate half a player's screen with bulky and often unneeded interface, allowing players to customize and even improve on the design should be required.
Finish The Damn Game – I'm on record as saying if you can't finish your game, MMO or otherwise, with the funds you have then you either need to find another investor or scrap the project. Granted, bugs are a natural fact of the gaming and PC industry, and I'm not speaking to the unpredictable and minor, but to game makers and publishers that make the decision to generate the revenue needed to complete a game by releasing early.
And, if you as the consumer become aware that a game has been released in an incomplete state, don't buy it!
Blizzard has a track record of releasing quality products that take advantage of extra months of development not only to squash every last bug, but to polish their games to as near perfection as possible. True that Blizzard now has the revenue in place to be this meticulous, but the reason they have that revenue and credibility is because this attention to detail has always been a hallmark of the company.
Conclusion - World of Warcraft has become not just a megalithic PC game, but a cultural phenomenon, and it's hard to think of a developer more deserving of such an accolade. Blizzard has countless Game of the Year and retail awards under its belt as a result of their jealous pursuit of crafting outstanding games. The company and their games have much to teach other developers pursuing similar goals, and the ones that listen, the ones that are disciples to Blizzard's genius enjoy the benefits.