Some things take the world by surprise. The popularity of Katamari Damacy came as quite a shock to Namco. Prior to 1997, no one had ever heard of Harry Potter or J.K. Rowling. World of Warcraft (WoW) didn’t just catch the world off-guard, it knocked it flat to the canvas. In early 2004, the game’s well publicized beta had fans slavering at the mouth. When the game launched in November of that year, retail outlets couldn’t stock their shelves quickly enough. Since then, WoW has remained at or near the top of PC game sales in the U.S. and abroad. Today, over six million souls inhabit the fictional realm of Azeroth. Everyone, at least according to Blizzard, is playing World of Warcraft.

Those of us (and I have plenty of company here) who spend time thinking about massive games in a larger context have now had two years to see the effects of WoW on the marketplace as a whole. Some commentators have argued that WoW‘s success is a flash in the pan, while others have said every successful MMOG to come will be a refined version of Blizzard’s title. Either way, Blizzard and World of Warcraft are trendsetting phenomena impacting the entire gaming industry. In terms of subscribers, six million is a really hard number to argue with; if you want to make money in a crowded marketplace, you’re going to have to take some cues from the market leader. This has resulted in several interesting general trends in the MMOG scene.

WoW‘s popularity has attracted a number of people to the online gaming genre. This is a statement based as much on guesswork as on fact, unfortunately. Whenever discussing player populations in MMOGs, you run into a number of hurdles. Some companies are reluctant to share any statistics, while others prefer to crow about the number of characters that have been created across all of their servers. Neither of these stances is helpful for understanding population growth and trends.

Thankfully, by hook or by crook, Bruce Woodcock gets the important numbers and posts them as often as he can to www.mmogchart.com. Many of the graphs he’s made available are informative, but the chart detailing the number of total active subscribers across the entire genre is particularly eye-opening.

Despite reports of churn in the ranks of World of Warcraft players, the total number of subscribers continues to rise. What the dramatic upward swoop says to me is folks are entering the massive genre and not leaving. While some may quit World of Warcraft and no longer play online games, Woodcock’s chart suggests that there are a number of players who enter the massive space and, upon canceling their WoW account, move on to another title in the genre.

As the massive field has grown, worlds like Azeroth have begun to spill out of their own virtuality. World of Warcraft has become more visible to the public, gamer and non-gamer alike. In 2000, this was an industry whose players were generally believed to carry the “pungency of cat urine.” In 2006, one of the genre’s fans has written articles about WoW in the New York Times.

It’s not just smelly teenagers who are playing MMOGs anymore. Nick Yee’s Daedalus Project reports that the average player age is 26, with almost 36% of players married and 22% of them parents.

Of course, given WoW‘s success, a number of stuffy debates have cropped up among commentators. The most popular among gaming academia is an argument over the merit of game worlds vs. those of sandbox-style virtual spaces. This boils down to trying to decide if less serious, gameplay-driven games are “better” than sandbox worlds, where the actual game is secondary to the society that develops. For example, WoW is a game, while Star Wars Galaxies and EVE Online are sandboxes. Of course, even though WoW is considered “just” a game, the sheer number of people participating has spawned a virtual society that is breathtaking to behold. Players communicate with each other via websites, a number of podcasts and through machinima. They talk about strategies for high-end raids, complain about game changes and (most often) talk about their lives. College kids slay dragons alongside stockbrokers, mothers and teenagers. WoW‘s huge population not only means there is never a lack of other people to play with, but the playerbase is a far more accurate representative of real life demographics than any other game.

What’s been interesting to see over the last two years is how other games have adapted to the presence of the proverbial 300-pound gorilla. Some existing titles have openly adopted features offered by World of Warcraft. EverQuest II has introduced several UI improvements that seem very familiar, the most obvious example being the “available quest” notifications above the heads of PCs. With millions of people playing one title, it’s tempting to borrow what works for your own game. It’s probable that some players have migrated to EQ2 from WoW, and anything that can make those players feel at home in their new game is likely to be considered by the developers.

On the other hand, many games still in the works have deliberately taken up a contrarian design. World of Warcraft‘s fantasy elements, solo-friendly gameplay and elaborate endgame raiding are all just one approach to MMOG development. Tabula Rasa, for example, has taken the fantasy element out of the equation, going for a sci-fi military feel. Vanguard is intended to be a hardcore title in that many gameplay elements will require a group in order to complete them. By aiming for niches in the marketplace, games like these hope to attract players already bored of WoW‘s style of play.

I’ve even heard anecdotal evidence that WoW‘s success is shaking the money tree. With so many people interested in online play, it will be easier for future developers to raise venture capital. This comes at a cost, of course, as venture capitalists begin conversations with, “So, how is this going to be like World of Warcraft?” If you’re aiming away from the fantasy genre, that’s got to be frustrating to hear.

In the big picture, I believe Blizzard and WoW‘s impact on the massive genre has been overwhelmingly positive. More people playing can only mean good things for players, for communities and for developers. More players in the genre means a higher demand for games, resulting in a greater diversity of titles and experiences. This critical mass creates real virtual worlds from mere virtual spaces, promoting communication and self-expression via the MMOG medium.

For better or worse, WoW is the face of the massive genre. In a very small part of the galaxy, it’s a gravity well bending light that passes anywhere near it. When discussing PvP, questing, guilds or class balance, commentators now have a lingua franca: the common tongue of World of Warcraft.

Michael “Zonk” Zenke is Editor of Slashdot Games, a subsite of the technology community Slashdot.org. He comments regularly on massive games at the site MMOG Nation. He lives in Madison, WI (the best city in the world) with his wife Katharine.

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