Then you start to think about how much money Blizzard and owner Vivendi are making from this giant of the PC gaming landscape (most players pay monthly, around £9), and the relative successes of other games (even platforms) begin to pale.
In other spheres of business, achieving such head-and-shoulders success would require an extraordinarily pioneering product, or an effective monopoly. WoW is nothing of the sort.
Before its launch in late 2004, dozens of Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games had attempted to find a lucrative, loyal audience – and many had succeeded. Since the late ‘90s, the likes of Everquest and Ultima Online had shown you can attract hundreds of thousands of subscribers, paying not only for your boxed game but also for the ongoing privilege of playing in your game world. The MMO industry was long established when World of Warcraft launched.
So how did it achieve its near-total domination of the MMO scene? By innovation? Hardly. The mechanics of actually playing the game deviated little from the template set down by Ultima Online and refined by Everquest and its clones. Competing on price? Not a bit – it’s comparable to, or more expensive than, every other MMO. Marketing? That certainly helped. The Warcraft name (and Blizzard, for that matter) is held in high esteem by gamers weaned on the PC strategy games.
But the real reason is one all too often given lip-service by publishers yet rarely genuinely prioritised: Quality. The huge game world is densely packed with good design, not just sporadically or in the most populated areas. There’s humour, spectacle, constant reward, structure, choice and balance. The world is seriously, seriously beautiful, not simply a grim arena of strife and grind. There’s always something fun to do or new to see. Gamers responded directly to this quality: few got bored and walked away. Those who stayed told their friends.
And now there’s more than ever: the release of expansion pack The Burning Crusade on 16th January was met with unprecedented queues and crowds at the many midnight launches worldwide. The manager of the Oxford Street HMV told PC Gamer’s reporter that it exceeded even the Wii launch. Not bad for a PC expansion pack.
As the current issue of Edge notes, the PC gaming fraternity is a silent majority; under the radar until an event like the Burning Crusade launch, or when World of Warcraft hits a new population milestone. It’s a demographic seen as conservative, yet we’re willing to try new things and challenge preconceptions.
Blizzard’s VP of business operations Paul Sams told me last year that, prior to WoW’s launch, it was thought that the total number of potential MMO players, worldwide, was one million. It was the only thing they got wrong.