Blizzard Entertainment will likely announce a new World of Warcraft expansion this week at its BlizzCon fan event, which kicks off on Friday. But the expanding rings of WoW’s influence stretch far beyond Anaheim, Calif., into shooters and sports games beloved by those who would sneer at playing an RPG.
The biggest subscription-based massively multiplayer online role playing game in the world marks its 13th anniversary this month. Each year players and pundits predict its death, and each year it keeps on slaying those dragons. Despite a decline in overall subscriber numbers -– until Activision Blizzard stopped reporting them two years ago -– player engagement is up year over year, and the game still brings home a substantial chunk of Blizzard Entertainment’s bacon.
(World of Warcraft has been in Activision Blizzard’s top four franchises for revenue for the past three years, for example, a record shared only with Call of Duty.)
But WoW’s impact isn’t just felt on MMOs or Blizzard’s bottom line. Key concepts popularized by the game have become part of everything from first-person shooters to auto racers, Destiny 2 to Star Wars Battlefront 2.
“While you can’t point to the canonical MMORPG in as many places, everything is an MMO now,” says World of Warcraft game director Ion “Watcher” Hazzikostas.
You found a quest giver with an exclamation point or a central gathering point where players’ avatars interact in your shooter? Thank WoW. You enjoy adding permanent gadgets and abilities to your Jedi (or your Ferrari, or your quarterback) so they grow in power and mercilessly defeat other players online? The gorilla in the MMO marketplace and others like it cast their shadows.
“MMOs are hugely influential in the way we see the potential of games to help us feel like we could be important to another person or belong to a group of people,” said M.E. Chung, Social Lead at Bungie, the developers of Destiny 2. If you’ve ever gathered at the Tower, you know what she means.
To understand the seismic impact the fantasy MMO had on its parent company, put yourself in Blizzard Entertainment president Mike Morhaime’s shoes on opening night. The company had a little midnight signing event at Fry’s Electronics in Fountain Valley.
“Driving there, I thought ‘God, I hope people even know about this.’ You never really know,” Morhaime said. Then he ran into traffic as he came down the freeway off-ramp. “I thought, ‘Oh no, there’s another event going on. What could that possibly be? It’s the middle of the night.’”
But it was all for World of Warcraft. The developers’ hand cramps from signing the boxes that night weren’t the only painful experiences. The company had carefully crafted redundant systems to make sure that everyone logging on had smooth gameplay -– but planned for a tiny fraction of the gamers who showed up.
Five servers went down altogether, not to be revived for days. (Ironically, Hazzikostas, then a player, was trapped on one of those servers.) Queues to log in stretched to the thousands of players. Looting a creature you killed could take minutes. The entire game hardware architecture was re-engineered in the first week to handle the demand, while the game was still live, and all that redundancy was frantically turned into capacity for a roaring tsunami of players.
“We were completely hair-on-fire trying to scale up everything you could possibly imagine in our business,” Morhaime said. That included more customer support and a retail sales force rapidly reduced to begging for more copies to sell, as Morhaime froze the flow of boxes until problems could be solved.
His original estimate of how many copies they might sell was a million, double the largest MMO ever released: EverQuest. WoW’s release date was pure hubris, timed for just over two weeks after EverQuest 2’s was due to land. It not only was the launch of a new game with a retail price tag, but it essentially asked players to sink $15 a month, forever, into playing a game most hadn’t seen.
In his wildest dreams, Morhaime said he could only picture selling four million copies globally. WoW went on to triple that number in active subscribers, let alone initial purchases.
The result: Blizzard didn’t release another game for six years after WoW’s launch in 2004. Developers from Diablo II and StarCraft II teams were reassigned to WoW. This led to hefty crossovers.
“WoW was a big giant focus of the company and a lot of our developers,” Morhaime said. “There are a lot of elements and experiences they took from contributing to that game that they took back to their games.”
“Overwatch would not be the game that it is today without the Warcraft influence,” said lead designer Jeff Kaplan. He came to Overwatch from Warcraft after Blizzard’s next big MMO project, Titan, died on the vine (suggesting that even Blizzard can’t figure out how to replicate WoW’s success). Overwatch’s art director, Bill Petras, also came from WoW, which explains the similarities in its intricate, color-saturated, cartoony art style.
Many of the conventions developed by WoW spread rapidly. In some cases, the game didn’t invent the ideas, but it was the one to sell them to the masses. How player’s group bars look on screen, how many slots there are on the action bars that hold spells and abilities, and how people find groups for outdoor questing, all started with mods made by players themselves, for example.
Other WoW innovations identified by the execs:
See quests at a distance. Behold, the iconic quest giver exclamation point.
Max level. It’s a thing. For the first time, typical players could reach the end game – solo, if they wanted -- and enjoy raids. “In a lot of previous MMOs, getting to maximum level was not feasible by human beings,” Kaplan said.
Go ahead and slay that boss. It’s waiting for you. Thanks to instances, Los Angeles players no longer had to set alarms at ungodly hours to beat New Yorkers to kills.
Learn what to do while doing it. There isn’t a separate tutorial; instead, Warcraft invites you to learn as you go, moving from neutral, slow enemies to aggressive mobs that teach combat.
Broad demographic appeal. Kids, seniors, women and men play WoW. More women play World of Warcraft than any other Blizzard game, including the mobile-friendly digital card game Hearthstone. “We want everybody,” Hazzikostas said.
Scaling of content. New content ramps up with your character’s power. A recent sophisticated twist made it so that lower-level players can game alongside max-level players, each seeing their own version of the enemies they fight.
Social interaction and communities, in and out of game. Warcraft’s chat and grouping features and interface are familiar to nearly any gamer in any genre.
WoW continues to drive ideas and development at Blizzard. Kaplan said his team has been pondering the strength of the MMO’s guild system, and how they might craft something similar for Overwatch. Meanwhile, the WoW team is “as big as it’s ever been,” Hazzikostas said.
“World of Warcraft has been transformative for us in many ways,” Morhaime said. “We had to rapidly scale our teams and processes leading up to and following the launch, further expand our global footprint and business relationships, and evolve our tech and development pipelines. This was challenging, but it led us to where we are now.”
The BlizzCon show floor map tells the story: World of Warcraft dominates the demo-space footprint, with hundreds of machines ready to show attendees new content –- perhaps even a taste of that new expansion.
Subscription-based MMOs may seem a dead market, but don’t tell World of Warcraft that. It’s still busy changing the face of everything else gamers play.