As you've probably seen already, today is the fifth anniversary of the release of World of Warcraft. Beyond being the most popular subscription MMOG in the world, WoW is a cultural phenomenon on a level that few games ever reach. It set a new bar for MMOGs, has dominated the PC landscape since its launch and has popularized the genre beyond all imagining. There's absolutely no question that WoW is one of the most important games of the decade ... but what if it had never come out? What if Blizzard had never decided to make a MMOG in the first place? What sort of world would we be living in then?
Aside from the obvious answer of "a cold, joyless one," it's hard to properly wrap one's mind around the idea, even if it isn't quite on the level of "What if the Nazis won the war?" Still, while WoW was a game-changer, a gaming world without Warcraft wouldn't be as different as a world that had never seen games like Doom, Street Fighter II, or Grand Theft Auto III - games that singlehandedly defined new genres. MMORPGs certainly existed before WoW - it just refined the genre and presented it in an appetizing new package.
On the positive side of things, we'd probably be playing StarCraft II and/or Diablo III by now, though Blizzard would probably not have made them in its awesome Irvine campus with ten-foot-tall bronze orc statue, since there would be no infinite money supply with which to purchase and maintain it (and the company would be a quarter of its current size). To be fair, though, while the addition of some extra artists and designers might have sped up development of those games, it would do nothing for Blizzard's notoriously perfectionist philosophy, but I'm getting a bit off-topic here.
But what would we be missing? On the cultural side, there would be no Leeroy Jenkins, which is either a plus or a minus, depending on how you look at it. There would be little awareness of MMOGs as far as mainstream non-gamers were concerned, because there would never have been the "Make Love, Not Warcraft" episode of South Park. There would be no "Alliance Blue" or "Horde Red" flavors of Mountain Dew, and we would have never discovered Mr. T's aptitude for computer programming. The genre would still largely be considered the haven of sunlight-starved nerds holed up in their bedrooms for twelve hours a day urinating in bottles. Instead, it is now the haven of hardcore nerds plus professors, lawyers, businessmen and at least one politician in Guam.
There would be many fewer people willing to play MMOGs - WoW may currently have twelve million subscribers, but according to Blizzard VP of Game Design Rob Pardo, the total number is anywhere from two to three times that. So that's a whopping 24-to-36-million people who were introduced to the genre by Warcraft, and who may have stuck around or gone on to other games.
While it's possible that one of the other (relative) kingpins would have broken one million subscribers by now, in 2008 we saw two games - Age of Conan and Warhammer Online - break a million right out of the gate, which is something that would have never happened without WoW expanding subscription expectations: The original EverQuest was considered a huge game with just 500,000 subscribers.
Without Warcraft to show how popular a MMOG could be, would Star Wars: The Old Republic ever have gotten the green light - or, if approved, would it have anywhere near the massive resources backing it? The success of games like MapleStory and RuneScape would likely still have resulted in a bustling free-to-play MMOG market, but without WoW, it wouldn't be anywhere near as oversaturated as it is today. Hell, you could probably axe half the subscription-based games that are currently being developed if this had been a world without the success of WoW dangling a tantalizing solid-gold carrot (or should I say carat?) in front of their faces.