Why is WoW so Popular?

Written by Julian Schoffel on . Posted in Features

Why is World of Warcraft so popular?

With over 10 million subscribers World of Warcraft has made Vivendi an awful lot of money. So how did Blizzard do it?

How did they break out of the MMO niche and conquer the Holy Grail of PC gaming: the mainstream masses? For every aspiring game developer that’s the billion dollar question…

I originally wrote this World of Warcraft opinion piece back in 2008, and I have republished it now (May 2012) in this new version of the site.

Gamasutra recently posted an interesting opinion piece – Why World of Warcraft made it big. While I certainly agree with the bulk of the article, I would also like to make a couple of other points.

Before I begin here are some of the key factors which the folks at Gamasutra believe are responsible for WoW’s success:
  • Fun, accessible gameplay.
  • Blizzard has gone to great lengths to refine and polish every facet of the game.
  • A great storyline anchored in an intuitive, entertaining quest system.
  • Low system requirements, but not at the expense of attractive visuals.

Ok, now here’s my take on the issue…

Always in control

Before I get to WoW I’d like to touch upon an earlier Blizzard game: Diablo. One of the most intriguing facets of the original Diablo was the fact that you could play it cooperatively over Battle.net (a novelty back in 1996). Unfortunately cooperative Diablo soon became synonymous with rampant player killing (‘pking’). At the time I remember being initially amused, then increasingly frustrated as players looked for any opportunity to murder my Diablo character, steal his stuff and loot his ‘ear’ as a memento of the occasion – and there was not a damn thing I could do about it!

Let’s face the facts; the infantile and occasionally downright disturbing behaviour of people online can be a huge turn-off. Give certain individuals the relative anonymity of the Net and a keyboard to hide behind and they see it as an opportunity to act like a total wanker. This certainly applies to MMOs and aside from DiabloUltima Online, EverQuest, Asheron’s Call and Dungeons & Dragons Online all had their share of ‘griefers.’

The bottom line is that the griefing problems of other MMOs and the outcry over Diablo’s rampant pking taught Blizzard a valuable lesson: players like to have an element of control over what their fellow players can and can’t inflict upon them.

In stark contrast to the anarchic qualities of the original Diablo, WoW empowers players with a very high level of user-control over what their characters are exposed to – for example:

  • Different server types: Normal, PvP and RPG WoW game servers cater to different play styles.
  • Ignore List: if someone annoys or offends you WoW’s “Ignore” command allows you to immediately block all communication/interaction with them.
  • Language filters: er…filter out obscene language.
  • Reporting system: as a last resort players can report griefer style behaviours to an in-game GM (Game Master).

While these user-control features aren’t perfect, they go a long way towards making WoW more palatable for the mainstream, and perhaps more importantly – they were fully functional from the day of the game’s release.

Abolish the death penalty

For the hardcore role-playing fraternity, harsh penalties imposed upon game characters in the event of their death add a degree of challenge and dramatic tension to proceedings. For everyone else they are a royal pain in the arse…

In WoW only minor penalties are imposed whenever your character dies. You don’t lose any Experience Points, you don’t lose vast amounts of gold and your character’s corpse cannot be looted. In short – death is only a minor inconvenience. This is undoubtedly another reason for WoW’s popularity.

Fiendishly addictive gameplay

Blizzard’s games have always been accessible and ludicrously addictive – World of Warcraft is no exception.

A seamless interface, versatile Talent system, linear character progression and a host of other variables all contribute to WoW’s playability. Regardless of your character level and whether you enjoy PvE, PvP, solo or group play – WoW always provides a dangling carrot of gargantuan proportions to keep you coming back for more.

Counting electric sheep

Recently I’ve begun to suspect that the repetitious, grinding nature of much of WoW’s gameplay may actually constitute an integral part of the game’s appeal. If you have a lot on your mind, a mentally unchallenging, repetitious activity can actually have quite a powerful distracting and calming effect (especially when accompanied by pretty scenery and soothing music).

Obsessive tweaking

Blizzard’s classic Starcraft RTS game hit the shelves over 10 years ago…and they’re still releasing patches for it! In all my 19 years experience playing and reviewing games I can honestly say that Blizzard is without peer when it comes to tweaking and refining their products over the long term. But it’s more than just the polish Gamasutra mentioned in their article, to my mind Blizzard have another agenda when they regularly implement changes to WoW’s core gameplay mechanics (particularly in the area of class balance)…

Aside from making some character classes angry (i.e. Shaman) and some character classes happy (i.e. Druid, Warlock) these endless (and often unnecessary) tweaks provide a way for Blizzard to keep the game feeling fresh in between content patches.

If I were the cynical type, I might even suggest that most of Blizzard’s class balance tweaks correlate with the number of subscribers playing certain character classes at any given time. In other words they pander to the majority, rather than implementing changes on the basis of need.

After all you can’t keep everyone happy all of the time but (if you’re as canny as Blizzard) you can keep most of the people happy most of the time.

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Julian Schoffel

From 1994 to 2007 Julian was a contributing editor for Australian PC User Magazine. He has also written for numerous publications which include Australian Personal Computer, PC PowerPlay, Hyper, Ralph, Megazone, The Disc, PlayNow, TechLife, The Sydney Morning Herald and IGN.

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