2005: A Massively Multiplayer Odyssey

This is the year that MMOGs changed. No one quite knows why (or even how), but it always comes back to World of Warcraft. This little game has confounded an entire industry.

In late January, developer Scott Miller made a post to his blog. Miller decided to give World of Warcraft a try. “You see, I’ve never played an online MMOG and I picked WoW as my first experience, just to see what the attraction is.

“I started playing about a month ago, during the Xmas slow period. And now I have over five full days of play time – we’re talking 120+ hours of game time. I’ve never played a game for this long before, and never thought I would. But something about WoW keeps me coming back.”

After such an admission, the confessor then always takes a step back. “First off, the game doesn’t have a story, and I’ve always been strongly attracted to story-driven games, so this has me puzzled.”

This is followed by a personal explanation: “But, I think the thing that keeps me logged in is that I keep finding new areas. I have an explorer personality, and boy does this game feed that part of me.

“If you had to name the one single aspect of this game that keeps you coming back, what would it be? I’m curious what draws other players, though.” There is no single aspect. There are many elements that have made WoW a phenomenon…

Tracking the Storm
World of Warcraft launched back on November 23, 2004, at a Fry’s Electronics in Fountain Valley. Nearly 7,000 fans showed up to stand in line for purchase the game. And that’s pretty much how it was. All the MMOG kids played WoW, saying it was the coolest game ever.

That wasn’t so remarkable. But something happened. The game began to gain real momentum. As more and more people played it, more and more developers became transfixed by it. They began to watch what the game was doing in China, because they’d never seen anything like it.

On April 10th, 2005, a promotional tour for WoW‘s Chinese Beta Test began with an 11 city opening. Like a swarm of locusts, crowds began to gather. Lines began forming. They would go on to purchase every pre-order disc in mere hours. The press covered stories of their camaraderie, of their waiting and of their epic numbers…

By the time the all-access beta closed on June 6, 2005, 500,000 Chinese had participated.

On July 20, 2005, just 45 days after launch, Blizzard announced 1.5 million paying subscribers in China. By November 8, 2005 the game had reached 4.5 million subscribers world-wide. It continued to gain subscribers, in North America, in Europe, and most of all, in Asia. This game has become a tidal wave that threatens to sweep us all away.

Eye of the Storm
At the Austin Game Conference in October, there was an overwhelming sense of desperation. Trudging through the halls, sitting in the sessions, all developers could do was talk about World of Warcraft.

In an insular world, WoW was a breakout game that left the competition anything but speechless. The fact that Blizzard didn’t attend the conference only fueled the fire.

Several major publishers talked about what their plans for the future. Turbine recognized the need to engage in marketing, and move beyond the old retail model. NCsoft placed an emphasis on retail, calling it paid marketing, and expects to continue to use it. Sony Online Entertainment has plans to go in a completely new direction. They intend to go worldwide and cross-platform. Talking heads speculated as to whether or not this was a good idea. But SOE delivered this plan with such grim determination that they might succeed, not on the merits of their vision, but by virtue of grit alone. As one SOE executive said, “We’re going to try everything we can, and see what works.”

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But still, everyone’s question remained: “Why is World of Warcraft so popular?”

The Better Mousetrap
The secret to Blizzard’s success is this:

A Good Product. World of Warcraft truly is an improvement over previous games in the genre. If you expect to make your game 100% better by introducing one feature, that feature can be copied. But if you improve one hundred features by 1% each, people cannot copy you.

A Valued Brand. Gamers who would never have touched an MMOG before, were willing to trust Blizzard, and to finally see what MMOGs were really like. And once they took the leap, they found a polished experience.

And Some Marketing. This title had some marketing. And to achieve commercial success, your marketing efforts need only be a little better than the competition’s. Barring a few exceptions Blizzard has had no serious competition. If another MMOG company comes along with a focus on strategic marketing, Blizzard will be in trouble.

If you truly want to make a successful MMOG, you must remember that nothing draws a crowd like a crowd.

Upward and Onward
For every sidewalk prophet with a cardboard sign of doom, there is a fresh start, a second chance, a new hope. At the closing session of the Austin Game Conference, beloved developer Gordon Walton spoke about what these really drives these games. “The thing that we’re up to here, is creativity.”

He added, “We’re trying to do something that the customers want. And as a customer, what do you want? You want something delightful. You do want something that will titillate you in a way you’re not titillated by the stuff you’re already consuming.

“And we see so little of that, particularly in MMOGs. Because the stakes are higher. This higher stake thing has driven us to be more and more risk averse. And we’ve got to get past this, or we’re doomed to have this ever shrinking pool of hardcore, crazy customers who get the vision of what online can be.”

It all comes down to that vision of what online can be. Walton’s closing words sum up this years chapter in the history of games. “Why do we build this stuff? We probably had this moment where we got the vision of what this can be. This is change the world kind of stuff that we get to work on.

N. Evan Van Zelfden expects great things for the future of games. Games are the greatest art form to date, he asserts. This is why he plays games, writes about them, and continues to work in the industry of games.

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