21st Century Digital Gnome – the 800 Pound Gorilla

So I spent the previous column telling you all about why I am obsessed with a game I will never play, and why (more importantly) you should be obsessed with it too. So lets change tracks entirely, and talk about a game I do play, and why I don’t have to be obsessed with it to enjoy it.

Blizzard Entertainment, Inc has been described as the 800 pound gorilla. Which supposedly means that they do whatever they want with their games because they can. It would be far more accurate to say that because they are the 800 pound gorilla, they can’t do whatever they want with their games. When you make a game that 11.5 million people have subscribed to, you want to keep as many of those people around as possible. You want to keep them coming back – not just paying the subscription fees, but buying new expansions, paying for little cosmetic extras and maybe even shelling out for big events like Blizzcon.

How are they doing this? By catering to players like me.

I am a very skilled casual World of Warcraft player, a comfortably average Diablo player and as a Starcraft player I am, lets be frank here, complete and utter poo*.

I’m going to buy Starcraft 2 anyway because I enjoy being awful at it, I will definitly get a Special Edition of the next expansion to World of Warcraft because I want whatever vanity pet they give you for spending extra and when Diablo 3 comes out, I expect to get nothing else done for the first week I own it, except maybe laundry and homework. And write a review, I promise!

Blizzard has done a truly amazing job at making their games very accessible to nearly everyone, but their flagship, World of Warcraft, didn’t start out that way.

Quick history lesson, WoW (as basically everyone calls it because we’re all sick of typing World of Warcraft a thousand times a day) was released on November 23, 2004**. In 6 years, it has taken 62% of the MMORPG market. Think about that, of the approximately 18.5 million people playing ANY MMORPG, most of them are playing WoW.

Like most MMO’s, you spend your time doing quests, killing monsters, acquiring gold or stuff, and gaining experience. and like most MMOs, WoW has two “aspects” to the game. The “solo” game, and the “group” game. There’s a saying about some games and WoW in particular that the game actually begins when you hit the level cap, although for many people that’s not actually true.

When WoW was released, it came with three main kinds of group content. Player vs Player, 5-player*** group instances and 40-player group instances. At the time, the level cap was 60, and once you reached level 60, there was not much to do past a few 5-man instances. If you wanted to get better equipment for your character, or see what is called ‘endgame content’ you had to join one of those 40-person groups. Very few players got to see the “raid” instances, as they are called, and as they added more content and the difficulty of that content increased, fewer and fewer people continued on. The necessity of finding 39 other people, the difficulties in coordinating those large groups, the time requirement inherent in progressing in those raids made it very hard for your average player to get the chance to expierence the content that had been created.

Blizzard had not been prepared for the overwhelming number of players they had acquired. In the first year or two, servers were filled to capacity and beyond.

They were also not prepared for the type of players that began playing the game. Previously, MMO’s were typically played by two groups of people; High school and college age students – young people with time to spare, and IT professionals – people with a high comfort level for video games and again, time to spare. As the first group aged out of school and into ”the real world”, they still played their games. But they no longer had the time to devote to trying to kill one monster four or five times a week. They played for an hour here and there, a few times a week. Maybe a block of time on a weekend or holiday.

The last ‘raid’ of what we now call “Vanilla” WoW was a 40-person instance called Naxxramas. It had fifteen “bosses” and approximately less than 2% of the entire population of the game at the time completed it before the expansion The Burning Crusade was released. To give you some perspective on this, the approximate subscriber base at the time was 6 million people. Even speaking generously, if 5% ‘finished’ Naxxramas, that is 30,000 people. Months of work and countless dollars in programming, art, voice work, play testing, extra server space all of it was was spent on only 30,000 people.

Okay, I lied. It’s a long history lesson.

Given the development cycle of most games, all that work was planned before the first box was even shipped. Blizzard had no way to expect that their population would be radically different than the population of every other MMO in the short history of -ever-.

Today, we’re on the second expansion, Wrath of the Lich King with the third – Cataclysm in alpha testing. Our characters now reach level 80 instead of 60. The number of classes and races has increased, the number of places to go, things to kill and stuff to collect has increased. There is still ridiculously difficult content that they spend an awful lot of time testing for a very small percent of the game. As of today, perhaps 50 groups have killed the last major boss of the expansion (Arthas Menethil, The Lich King), on his 25-person hard mode. But you’ll note that I qualified that. There are actually 3 other ways to go with a group and kill Arthas – a 10-person version, and ‘easy’ versions for both 10 and 25 person groups. A lot more people have killed him on those modes.

But even without going to those large groups, Blizzard has gone well out of it’s way to give nearly every player something to do in the game. They have made it far easier for new players to collect the equipment and expierence necessary to join those large groups if they should want. There are an exceptional number of 5-person instances, most of which have a hard mode of their own, and they have made it remarkably easy to find the four other people necessary to group with by giving players an in-game tool to find the other players necessary.

They have embraced the X-Box 360 concept of Achievements – you get an in game announcement whenever you’ve done something particularly note-worthy, and their definition of note-worthy is everything from reaching level 10 on a character to killing that really hard boss on his really hard mode. Sometimes you just get a little announcement. Sometimes you get a title, or cosmetic reward such as a in-game pet or tabard or mount (usually a dragonthey really like giving us dragons). For the most difficult achievements, you get a title and a mount (an especially awesome dragon).

Even for the players who do not ever want to play with anyone else, people who love the solo game, they have made it easy to succumb to what most of us call alt-itis. You are permitted 10 characters per server, and 50 in total, and so even for the people who stop at level 80, they can then turn around and make another character and start over again without losing that first character.

In almost six years, Blizzard has taken what was a typical MMO and made it a household name by making it accessible to an average gamer. It is easy to learn, fun to play at nearly every level, and highly versatile to many play styles. They have also left the subscription price at fifteen dollars a month – less than the cost of a movie ticket in some cities.

They adapted everything except cost, and that’s why I’m still playing. I play maybe a few hours a week. I have a handful of characters, I dabble in almost every aspect of the game, and when I don’t want to play, I don’t have to. I sometimes play alone and sometimes with other people. I have friends who play one character a few hours a month and still haven’t gotten to level 80. I have friends who are -today- killing the hardest boss in the game on the hard mode and write blogs about how to be the best hunter ever and bust out extended math to figure out the very best way to play and play for two or three hours every night. There’s a grandmother in my guild who used to play with her grandson and now plays because she thinks it’s fun. One of our members is a new father who only logs on to go with his friends to do things in a group. My fiancé has all ten character slots filled and five of those have reached the level cap and he has a blog about his incurable alt-itis. Name a type of player, and you will probably find an example of them playing World of Warcraft.

World of Warcraft is the 800 pound gorilla, because the developers at Blizzard have found a way to make very nearly every kind of player happy. The most hardcore raiders, the most casual of casuals and most of the rest of us who are somewhere in the middle. It’s not that they’re sitting where ever they want to. It’s more like they’re sitting on everything all at once.

* I was also crap at Warcraft 3. I am not good at Real-time Strategy games.

** Incidentally, this is my birthday.

*** Okay, also 10-person versions of some 5-person instances but I’m trying to keep this simple and failing.

Posted on June 8, 2010 at 00:57 by Frito · Permalink
In: Games: MMORPGs and Text-Based RPGs · Tagged with: , ,

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