So, there's a little game you may or may not have heard of?
We're eight years in now. That's nearly ten damn years people. If one were to say "Yeah..WoW has been pretty successful" would be an understatement, to say the least. No other MMO to hit the landscape has ever been this powerful in terms of not only dictating trends in the genre itself but also as a cultural force.
WoW is one of those games that people know without ever having touched it. It has achieved a relevance in the domain of the pop culture conscience that few properties have. It's a recognition of success so large that nowadays the genre is pretty much defined by this one game.
It is a towering presence that has managed to survive for nearly a decade. It has lost subscribers over the years, sure, but it is still hovering over 10 million. Wrap your head around that for a moment. Worldwide there are 10 million people who are, whether they play actively or not, paying for subscriptions to this game. Not only is the revenue stream monumental but, frankly, Blizzard has been given free license to do whatever it chooses with its remaining properties and, perhaps, a new one just down the road. (Project Titan anyone?)
So, yeah, it's kind of a big deal. You get it.
Why, though, has this one title somehow shaped the entire sub-genre of gaming and also become one of the most successful franchises in all of entertainment (Not just video gaming)? It's really quite simple.
It might seem an oversimplification on my part to chalk it all up to that but one of the main reasons WoW has outlasted every competitor that has come up against it is due to the polish that gets applied to content as it trickles down from the stilted peaks of Blizzard's high headquarters.
Let me set the stage for you, eh?
The fall of 2004 was fast approaching and the guild I was running with at the time, a group of fellows known to this day as Hidden Power, had been living in the beta of this little upstart MMO.
It was from a company everyone knew in PC gaming. Blizzard had a great track record thus far. We got Starcraft, it's subsequent expansion (Brood War) and two Diablo games plus expansions. There was also another RTS in their stable known as Warcraft. It had recently entered into the 3d realm with the third iteration and it had sold VERY well. So, naturally, anticipation was quite high regarding this rather substantial experiment on Blizzard's part.
November 23, 2004.
Launch day was, well, not the best. The sheer amount of people hammering login servers and trying to get access to the game was far more than anticipated. Free game time, apologies and lots of customer service posts/calls were made in the wake of what was to be a rather dismal launch. It wasn't that there weren't people who had purchased and wanted to play. Quite the opposite. There were too many it seemed.
Eventually long server queues became the norm for most people on higher population servers and those of us who had been playing the game in its testing phases (Some of us during the Friends and Family and even in Alpha stages) were amped up and itching to go. The slog to the level cap, at the time set at 60, was made by our guild and along the way some of the longest lasting and best relationships I've ever forged with fellow human beings were established.
There were dungeons to be conquered, Alliance scum (We were Horde all the way) to be destroyed at various "hot spots" for world PVP (Player versus Player), and loot to be collected. The early days were akin to the Wild West in some ways. Blizzard, too, was learning just how their own game functioned and how players would react to things right along side its player base. They also learned a lot of lessons in just how crazed online fandom can be when it concerns their class, their character or "their game".
Tightly knit server-based communities formed almost immediately with a lot of competition taking place between various guilds. Who would make it to the finish of Molten Core (The game's first raid instance.)? Grab 40 of your friends and head on down to MC where there's plenty of lava and horrible death waiting for you! Those early days spent working for hours on end during the week and on weekends, most times, to try and be the first on your respective server to finish it.
I say all this because I want to establish that in those early days there was a magic that this game possessed that a LOT of people had never been exposed to before. This was nothing new really, though, for a lot of the same mechanics and same ideas were simply brought forward from the past generation's MMORPGs. If not for Ultima Online there would have been no Everquest and if Everquest had no existed World of Warcraft would never have come to be. Blizzard stood on the shoulders of giants, true, but in doing so they took what worked and ran with it. They also took what didn't work and tried to make it more efficient and make it more fun. They shined up things real nice and continued a steady stream of patch content that ultimately lead to inclusion of Blackwing Lair, Zul Gurub, Ahn'Qiraj (20 and 40) and the first version of Naxxramas.
My perspective of those early days is skewed by the fact that I got to experience this game as one of the hardcores. There was a clear distinction that arose back then that only further solidifed in subsequent expansions. There were the casuals and the hardcores. Vanilla, as it would be referred to in later years, rewarded those who stayed on the bleeding edge of content quite generously. It was possible then to raid heavily, get some ridiculous loot and then make your way into world PVP or battlegrounds (once they were introduced) to cleave your foes in twain. Those who pushed hardest got the most reward.
All of this came with a sheen of polish on it that only possessed more luster as the years wore on. The more time went into development of this game of ours the better the content became. Expansions came and went. The Burning Legion threatened the whole of existence, the Lich King jeoaparodized Azeroth with his deathly Scourge and Deathwing tore the world asunder. Each expansion saw a pivotal step forward in the evolution of the game.
One thing this game is not, despite what many detractors may hang their hats on, is stale. This game has evolved much like a living organism over the years. It has learned to adapt to the changing behaviors and patterns of a playerbase that has nearly grown up while spending time in the sandbox of Azeroth.
Content was not rushed to the populace but instead released when it was "done". Sometimes "soon" meant "a good long while" but Blizzard has always been great about making sure they never released something that felt half baked or incomplete.
Polish. It's so important to the livelihood of the game that I can't even begin to stress it enough. All of these changes that have come to the game including those recently added in the latest expansion, Mists of Pandaria, have done so after the utmost care has been payed to details gigantic and miniscule. They don't push out content that hasn't been playtested thoroughly and finely honed. Sure hot fiixes and patches are always needed to fix balance and issues that will, inevitably, come up with certain content but Blizzard tends to stick by their guns with the attitude of "Slow down.Savor it." One of the major figures in the latest expansion, Chen Stormstout, extolls this virtue more than once through the course of level progression. It fits them to a tee.
If the flow of content slows somewhat well that's just a part of the process. Sure the doldrums between the end of current content to the new expansion can be a bit depressing at times (Lot of guild activity drops off then and people tend to turn towards other games a lot) but, nonetheless, the wheels are always turning. Always more polishing to be done, systems to be tweaked and story to be told.
That polish also applies to the world building that Chris Metzen and the boys over at Blizzard have done. This is an in-game universe that has been expounded upon via tie-in books, comics heck even card games. All the while there has always been a tight narrative focus to always make their way back to the conflict that lies at the heart of this game: War between the Alliance and Horde.
This attention to detail in crafting such an expansive universe has payed off as there are few games out there that have such a rich and diverse tapestry to take in. There is a LOT of history concerning WoW and whenever I'm asked by those new to the game how to approach it I always answer this way, "Read the quest text. Take your time. There is so much to enjoy your first time through Azeroth. It makes the ride that much better."
Mechanics of raids in the early days tended to be fairly simple but as the developers honed their skills we were greeeted with varying complexity, truly strategic affairs and a scaling difficulty that was phenomenal. Burning Crusade's content, in particular, was a fine example of this. Even comparing content between the initial release and the first expansion one could easily see leaps and bounds being made in terms of delivery. It has only gotten better as the story unfolds.
The legacy of World of Warcraft is one that has yet to be truly defined. Sure it is ultra successful in terms of subscriber numbers and revenues generated but will it ultimately go out with a whimper or a bang? Will it suffer the same fate as other long-time competitors? (City of Heroes for example). Time will tell but, to be frank, this game isn't going anywhere for a good LONG while. I can honestly see another five to seven at least.
This staying power and attention to detail is what keeps people returning to Azeroth time and time again. New expansions come, player numbers swell and servers are full again. It's become almost cyclical but, eventually, it will cease. Honestly the only thing that can replace WoW at this point could be whatever Blizzard has up it's sleeve with the mysterious Project Titan. It is an MMO they've been working on for some time now. That's all we know.
The continued evolution of the game partnered with Blizzard's unwavering commitment to continually polish mechanics to a fine luster equates to a game that will, more than likely, long outlive many of its counterparts.