Blizzard and Vivendi could have gone fully digital for WoW as early as the 2007 launch of The Burning Crusade, but chose not to. Why? Because midnight launches are awesome, that's why.
The industry is growing increasingly fond of digital distribution, but there's one major sticking point: How can publishers be certain that their entire potential audience has the internet connection to get a full game online? Many gamers still use specialty retailers like GameStop and Wal-Mart to buy their software - going full-on digital means that you cut a huge part of the market out of the picture.
On the other hand, anyone who plays World of Warcraft by definition has the internet connection available, and Blizzard already delivers fairly large packets of data to subscribers on a regular basis for patches. At the LA Games Conference, former Vivendi Universal Games boss - you know, the company that actually calls the shots at Activision and Blizzard - Pascal Brochier said that Blizzard could have gone digital-only for 2007's WoW: The Burning Crusade, but chose not to.
We were patching all the time," Brochier told Joystiq. "It was always in the discussions internally; 'Should we go direct digital or should we go both with retail?'"
However, the company made the call to go with a retail launch for several reasons, not the least of which was the fact that big midnight openings result in extensive coverage and attention. This extra exposure can bring people back into the fold, or even attract newcomers. "When you're at the store with all of the events, you actually have people who've dropped [their subscriptions] come back ... The midnight events and all of the functions help people come back who've stopped playing, but also guys who've wanted to try it will be attracted to the event and become new-found players."
Besides, as anyone who goes to the midnight openings knows, even if it is a bit of a pain to haul yourself out to the nearest store and stand in the cold weather for what feels like hours, it's also a lot of fun to chat with fellow fans.
Vivendi and Blizzard did enable digital distribution shortly after TBC was live, but the retail component is still an important part of WoW's business model and experience, said Brochier. "[R]etail is a very important critical part. There's also a significant percentage of players who just play through pre-paid cards, and that's retail, that's a retail model. So you've got to find the balance."
Seeing as how Wrath of the Lich King and Burning Crusade are the two fastest-selling PC titles of all time (and Cataclysm is almost assuredly going to make it a hat trick), that probably won't be changing anytime soon.