Someone the other day wrote a question on Hacker News asking why World of Warcraft is so successful. The question, as posed, is”
“Why is world of warcraft so successful? What about it made it that it became the largest and most profitable MMO game of all time? Is it the first MMO that tried to appeal to non-hardcore gamers? Or a lot more than that?”
I think there are really two questions there. The first is “Why are massively multiplayer online (MMO) games successful?” The second is “Why is World of Warcraft (WoW) the most successful MMORPG?” (the RPG being “role playing game”, for non-techies in the audience) .
I think people in the comments gave a lot of good answers to the second question, better than I could since I don’t play it or any other MMO games (unless you count poker). But my answer to the first got downmodded quite a bit. Nonetheless, I’m pretty certain that the answer to it is that MMO games are a solid form of escapism.
When you play WoW, you aren’t thinking about your bills, or how much of a dick your boss was to you at work yesterday. You’re just thinking about how you’re going to slay the Evil Orc with the Dagger of Despair in the Crystal Cave.
Damn near everyone in our modern world engages in some form of escapism. For some people it’s sports (or fantasy sports). For some people it’s gambling. For tens or maybe even hundreds of millions it’s television. And like any other form of escapism, there’s a healthy amount, and a lot of people who cross that line (largely out of depression, I’d guess) to where it becomes an obsession.
So I think if you want to replicate the success of something like WoW, step one is to create something so engaging that people forget about the other things in their life while they’re using your product. If someone is playing your game and thinking about how he has to take out the garbage, you’ve failed. If someone is taking out the garbage and thinking about how he is going to play your game as soon as he’s done, you’ve succeeded.
WoW also has a strong social aspect, and it’s largely (but not exclusively) engaged in by people who generally aren’t the most social guys around in the real world. I remember listening to Opie and Anthony a long time ago, and one of them played. He got kicked out of a guild, only to find out later that the leader was some dorky 14 year old from New Jersey.
In WoW, nobody knows you’re a nerdy teenager. You’re just a level 82 paladin. So it’s yet another level of escapism. You’re not only escaping from your environment and responsibilities, but also from your own genetics and a world that often judges you based upon them. It’s a more meritocratic universe than the one we actually inhabit, so it appeals largely to people whose strengths are mental rather than physical.
So there’s that element as well. Of course, all of that wouldn’t matter if the product wasn’t just plain fun. But I think for something to be as successful as WoW is, it takes a lot more than being fun. You have to appeal to unsatisfied primary urges, like the desire to forget your troubles and be judged not on how you look, but by how you perform.
I’ve never played the game, though I’ve watched others play, for two main reasons. One is that I don’t think I’d enjoy it. I’m not into the Dungeons and Dragons theme (which is odd, since many of my closest friends are) and I like games that are more about solo competition. I’m more of a Guitar Hero, Mario Kart Wii kinda guy. I like to be able to compete against others and myself, by going for a higher score or a shorter time.
And the other reason is that I would be screwed if I did enjoy it. I tend to be overly competitive, and often obsessive, so when I take on a new game, I usually go all-out. I simply don’t have the time for that these days. I have a wife and a startup, and if any time is left over I spend it playing games I know I won’t think about when I’m done.
As someone in the gaming industry, it’s impossible not to admire what they’ve done. Of course, it’s been about 10 times more successful than they had even dreamed it would, and it’s good to see Blizzard (who has been making great games since I was in high school) hit a grand slam after years of home runs. Most of all, I think it’s an interesting case study, because the game has supplanted 100% of a lot of people’s free time activities, and if you’re in the industry, it’s worth delving into why.