Why people still play World of Warcraft

Calling World of Warcraft a juggernaut would be a gross understatement. Now in its fifth year, its success has exceeded everyone's wildest expectations, including Blizzard's. As of December 2008, WOW boasts approximately 11.5 million subscribers and dominates one of the most lucrative genres in video games. These days, its strangehold is so complete that the first question asked of most new massively multiplayer games is not whether they can supplant Warcraft, but whether they can thrive in its shadow.

Millions of people like WOW.com senior editor Mike Schramm have been playing World of Warcraft since it launched. As he explains it, the secret behind its continuing success is fairly simple. "People are still playing it because it's still fun," he says, "and with that genius art style, the game can remain timeless."

It's for this reason, among others, that he says, "People will be playing World of Warcraft until Blizzard turns the servers off, which likely won't be for at least another five years."

The Legacy

The World of Warcraft was not born in a vacuum. Long before it became a popular MMORPG, Warcraft dominated the realm of real-time strategy. It was on the wild success of titles like Warcraft II: The Tides of Darkness that Blizzard built its reputation, which helped attract people like lead systems designer Greg Street to the series. He and lead content designer Cory Stockton were both self-described fans of the series before World of Warcraft even hit the market.

"I was really excited about the game, and it was something that I wanted to work on. And when the opportunity came up to come here, I jumped on it," Stockton says.

Part of the series' enduring popularity can be attributed to the rich universe that Blizzard set in place from the very beginning. Warcraft II wasn't much more than a new take on Warhammer, but its manual was brimming with background information and artwork. By the time Warcraft III rolled around, Blizzard had managed to move beyond the series' roots and create a world dense with well-realized fantasy lore. Combined with the franchise's rock-solid strategy fundamentals, Warcraft was able to build enough of a fanbase to inspire great expectations for World of Warcraft as it readied for its 2004 launch. Blizzard wisely capitalized on its existing fiction to meet those expectations, continuing the story that Warcraft III had left hanging while inserting numerous callbacks to previous entries.

According to Stockton, the team still takes inspiration from the older Warcraft titles even now. "I think the storylines come through," he says. "You look at something like Stratholme in the RTS, and Stratholme in the MMO, and I think most people can see that translation really easily without having to jump too far."

With the built-in fanbase from previous entries, Blizzard had a headstart rarely afforded other MMOs. They would waste no time on making good on that advantage.


Fixing All The Problems

Blizzard is not known for being innovative so much as iterative, identifying promising concepts and refining them until they become the undisputed market leader. They did precisely that with Warcraft and later with StarCraft, honing the strategy elements in both titles to such a degree that they're still being played competitively more than a decade later. Likewise, when Blizzard began working on World of Warcraft, they were determined to take command of a genre that was still very much in its formative stages.

It was the studio's first foray into MMORPGs, but Stockton says that "a ton" of people in Blizzard were playing MMOs like EverQuest, including lead designer Jeff Kaplan. As Stockton describes it, the challenge as Blizzard saw it was whether they could "fix all the problems that we saw in our eyes in existing games" at that point.

When World of Warcraft launched in 2004, it featured a number of key innovations over its competition. It was praised for its relatively seamless world, its intuitive interface, and its quest lines. The quests in particular were far more directed than the missions found in previous MMORPGs. Tim Wong, a longtime MMO player who started playing World of Warcraft during the beta, says that the innovations were what grabbed his attention in the early-going.

"It's probably the first MMO I've ever played where there was a big difference between 'Class 1' and 'Class 2,'" he says, referring to the game's myriad classes, their accompanying talents, and their combat roles.

"In early MMOs, everyone whacked things with sticks. If you were a mage, the only difference was that you couldn't whack things with your stick quite as hard, and that you could cast a spell occasionally. That was how the first MMOs were -- you had a stick and you were told to kill a rabbit, which had gold for some reason."

Schramm, meanwhile, believes that early MMOs were relatively hardcore affairs until Blizzard came along. "You had to contend with an Internet connection, lots of troublesome RPG mechanics like losing experience on death and waiting to heal up after a fight, and less than spectacular graphics. But people dealt with all of that because the enticement of going online and chatting with and playing alongside real people was so great. Blizzard took the problems out of it -- they streamlined the interface, removed most of the penalties, and added in lots and lots of rewards "

Much as it was praised though, World of Warcraft was not immune to technical difficulties. The franchise's pedigree caused sales to explode, which forced Blizzard to turn its backup servers into actual servers. Stockton called it a "pretty high-class problem to have," but Warcraft ended up being so afflicted by server problems and long queues that Penny Arcade famously withdrew its Game of the Year award until Blizzard got its act together. Nevertheless, fans stuck with World of Warcraft over the likes of Star Wars Galaxies, enabling Blizzard to maintain its all-important momentum going into the next year.

The Casual MMO

One of Blizzard's guiding principles has always been that their games be accessible as possible, and that philosophy has become more apparent in World of Warcraft with each passing year. It extends to something as basic as the system requirements, which were low enough that the game even worked on 2004's low-end systems.

From there, Blizzard's philosophies have continually evolved, with the goal being to make each game intuitive yet also deep. That evolution can be most clearly seen in their approach to raids. When World of Warcraft launched, dungeons like Molten Core were mostly positioned as endgame content, limiting access to a handful of guilds that could muster enough high-level players to take them on. As time has passed, though, Blizzard has steadily made the requirements to enter a dungeon more flexible, with the goal being for every max-level player to get into raiding.

Their most recent expansion is almost entirely built around the idea of mass raid accessibility. Whereas raids once required a concrete number of players to access, Wrath of the Lich King makes it possible to tackle dungeons with either 25 players or 10 players. Blizzard has also steadily put a greater emphasis on dungeons that only require five players to tackle while reducing the emphasis on certain classes and abilities being needed to achieve success. They've even gone back to the original game and brought back Onyxia's Lair, retooling it from a 40-player raid to a 10- or 25-player raid.

According to Stockton, all these changes were the result of Blizzard growing tired of putting three to six months of work into creating massive dungeons, only to have one percent of the population play through them. "Something about that just doesn't seem right," he admits, "that we're making all this amazing content and people aren't able to experience it because it's inaccessible, or people don't have 25 players, or it's just too hard. So, for us, if we're going to put in all that time and effort to make the dungeon really, really cool, we want people to play it," he says.

Outside of the raids, the World of Warcraft remains as massive as ever. Fans of competitive player-vs-player combat have maps like Wintergrasp, which pits the Alliance and Horde against one another for lucrative rewards, while more casual players can spend their time collecting the game's wide array of vanity pets. Players who aren't necessarily gamers pick up World of Warcraft not just because their friends are playing, but because its easy to find a niche and stick with it.

One side effect of Warcraft's ease of use is that hardcore MMO fans have assailed it for being too easy. Blizzard shrugs off those complaints though, pointing to features like the heroic (hard) mode as elements that are designed to appeal to elite players. What's more important, Street says, is that Warcraft be simple to access but still have a lot of depth, "If you have something that's simple but has no depth, then I think that's what makes something feels like a simple game that doesn't hold people's attention."

"If you have something that's very complex, you kind of get your depth for free, but then it's not approachable at all. Take a famous example like Chess. It doesn't really have a very complicated set of rules, but has obviously engaged people for thousands of years."

Where Everyone Knows Your Name

Due to its pedigree, accessibility and overall quality, no MMORPG has been as successful at establishing and maintaining momentum as World of Warcraft. Such inertia has enabled it to build and maintain a community that's still growing after five years. Players may drop out to pursue other interests or dabble in other MMOs, but the powerful draw of friends, guilds and new content is almost always enough to bring them back again.

It's for that reason that Blizzard has shifted to simply trying to keep World of Warcraft alive as long as possible. According to Street, that means constantly thinking ahead to the future: "Now we try to be very conscious of like, okay, this feels okay at level 80, but what's it going to feel like at level 90 or level 100? Do we really want to have talent trees that go scrolling for three or four pages? Do we want to have 25 different trade skills, or 30 different classes? It adds content, but it also adds complexity, and it gets a little overwhelming after a while. We design with expandability in mind now."

In the meantime, World of Warcraft is like a gas giant that has grown so large that it has ignited and become a star. The huge subscriber base has made it possible for Blizzard to continue developing new content far longer than they ever thought possible, which helps keep people playing. Its sheer size has also sucked much of the oxygen out of the MMO space. After five years, no competitor can truly match Warcraft's community, and its breadth of content is second to none.

As long as Blizzard keeps going, players like Wong will stick around. Having played World of Warcraft for so long, it's more or less become like a home. He's visited friends that he's met playing Warcraft, slept on their couches, and gone drinking with them. At the moment, he's even trying to get one of them a job. For him, it's as simple as going where he feels most comfortable.

He puts it in practical terms, "Why play another MMO when I can kick back, have a beer and play with people I know? It's like Cheers. Everyone knows your name, even if it's not your real name."