World Of Warcraft: Five Years at the Top

Absulon strikes a celebratory pose. Even the un-dead like to party.

It was not quite five years ago today that I took my first faltering steps into a brave new world. A World, would you believe, of Warcraft. Half a decade ago, a wrinkly ginger Paladin called Belen was dropped into the middle of a cartoon wood in a blue romper suit with nothing but a wooden mallet and a magic spell or two to make his fortune. Half a decade. Blimey. The fact that Belen still occasionally returns to Azeroth to club some orcs speaks volumes for the quality of Blizzard’s creation. The fact that he still staggers hopelessly around the middle levels, watching sadly as his old contemporaries soar around on their own private superdragons says rather more about me.

Five years. It hardly seems possible. The days when MMOs were the specialist pursuit of the rather bizarre may seem prehistoric in some ways, but WoW itself still feels surprisingly fresh. It has a crisp gorgeousness which stops its archaic graphics engine from looking ridiculous and the compulsively simple mechanics which make it so easy to spend entire days scrapping with mobs, or plunging through dungeon after dungeon.

But five years is a long time to stay top dog, and the MMO market is getting increasingly competitive. When World of Warcraft launched, there were perhaps four or five MMOs in the marketplace, a marketplace which was widely thought to be tapped out at around 500,000 Everquest subscribers. These days there are dozens of the blighters, and games like Warhammer Online or Age of Conan were able to attract player bases of over 1,000,000 on launch day. MMOs arrive on an almost bi-monthly basis, each promising piles of exciting new features and glistening contemporary graphical sound and fury, but none of them, not even Korean juggernauts like Aion, are able to siphon away even a dribble of WoW’s terrifyingly huge ocean of subscribers.

Why? What makes Blizzard so successful, and keeps their hordes of hungry competitors scrabbling for the scraps from their table? EDR wants to know. So, using Cartesian Pure Reason*, EDR is going to find out.

Isn’t this exciting?

Actually, it’s all pretty simple. You probably know this yourself if you’ve ever wandered around Goldshire of a late night, killing wolves and stumbling upon Night Elves pretending to have sex in the back room of the pub. Thing is, if it’s so poundingly obvious (and surely it is) why haven’t Mythic / Cryptic / Funcom etc. picked up on it for themselves? Why haven’t they learned?

Let’s spell it out then, in case one of the senior figures at Mythic etc. is having a self-flagellating “WoW birthday” google. The reason World of Warcraft is top dog, the reason it towers unassailably over the heads of every other MMO in the west is this; it is, by a country mile of rough terrain, the better game. In fact, saying that flatters its competitors – it is the only MMO that realises that, to be successful, you must be a good game. WoW is a very good game in a genre populated by, at best, drably workmanlike games. WAR is nearly a good game. The others? Let’s not be a gentleman about this – they’re all rubbish. To a man; useless, dreadful games.

Blizzard get criticised occasionally by the Internet Whingers for not having innovated with WoW. “It changed nothing!”, cry the Internet Whingers. “It just took all the good ideas from Everquest and Dark Age of Camelot etc! WoW is gay!!1” They’re wrong, natch. WoW took the good ideas from other games and realised them fully, improved upon them. It married this to an ageless graphics engine and masterful world building. Wherever you wander in Azeroth delightful little secrets lurk to surprise you, nuggets of content unrelated to the main body of the game that exist only to be stumbled upon. Blizzrad built a world that was packed with stuff to do and then they took the meat and potatoes of the game, the baddie thrashing, and made it enjoyable.

This is absolutely crucial. A child could tell you that (and will – kids love violence). Belting people in the face must be fun. It must feel heavy, dangerous. Show me the blow connecting, don’t just float a little wussy number and hope to sate my bloodlust with stats. I want to see a reaction, but more than that – I want to hear a reaction. Combat ain’t worth a damn without a good meaty “THWACK!” sound when you biff someone in the face with your huge brutal sword. This is extremely important. If I don’t make a thuddingly violent bashing, slicing, howling end-of-life sound when death-ing somebody, then I immediately cease to be interested. It makes combat feel less impressive than prodding a scarecrow with a stick, developers. This is no good at all when I spend all my time having fights. Make it fun. Make it sound good. Get this right before letting the words “…and our endgame player versus player will revolutionise the genre!” even unpack their bags and take their shoes off.

But do they learn? No chance. Even today, if you pick up an MMO, most of the time the physical act of playing the game is cumbersome and ungainly. It is very rarely fun. If a single player game was released that played like Age of Conan or Champions Online it would receive a critical panning and most likely sink without a trace, un-mourned and forgotten. Make it an MMO, however, and suddenly these faults are excused. MMOs are expected to be a bit rubbish. We forgive them their cluelessness because they are MMOs.

The initial review of World of Warcraft in PC Gamer UK nailed it. Ross Atherton wrote that (if you’ll permit me some paraphrasing**) there are times when you forget that WoW is an MMO, when you think you are playing a single player game. This will never, ever happen in any other MMO that has ever been made. Not a chance. It was the only MMO that was also a well designed game from the ground up. Perhaps that was forgivable at the time, for a genre in its infancy. The fact that it is still the case today is rather more worrying.

So why have no other studios learned the lessons of WoW? Good question, Me. The answer, I suggest, is that they believe they have. Most of the other studios making MMOs are exclusively MMO developers. That’s all they make. Cryptic, Mythic, SOE – these studios focus so much on giving MMO players what they believe MMO players want that they forget to appeal to non-MMOers, and neglect the absolute basics of game design. Counter intuitive chat interfaces. Shoddy animations. Inelegant crafting interfaces. Crashingly boring fighting. Blizzard have made beautifully crafted single player games for years. They know their business.

EDR-fave BioWare is in with a chance. Star Wars: The Old Republic is the first MMO that looks promising in this regard. It looks fun. It looks like an interesting world to explore. The combat looks beefy. The sound effects are brilliant. The most important factor however is BioWare’s expertise with game design. They have made piles of cracking single player RPGs (and even a shooter, millions of years ago). They know how to make a good game. Will SW:TOR be the first genuine post-WoW MMO? And how long before EDR collapses under the weight of all these bloody acronyms?

None of this should denigrate WoW’s achievements. It is a wonderful game. Oli Welsh’s breathless assertion in yesterday’s Times that WoW is “one of the best games ever made” goes a little far perhaps, but World of Warcraft is a genuine joy. If you haven’t tried it yet, make a statement to the various clueless MMO devs out there – have a go. Download the free trial. Show those idiots that until they get better at making good games, WoW is just going to grow more and more powerful.

I returned to WoW myself recently, after dalliances with Champions Online and Warhammer Online. Coming back, soaking in the atmosphere and fighting off the Headless Horseman with buckets of water, was a delight. So if you’re an EU player wandering around on Terrokar and an awfully impressive Death Knight named Absulon goes galloping by, say hallo and give me a wave. Or if you’re on Earthen Ring, send a few coins to poor old Belen. The clueless carrot top needs all the help he can get.


* Because no-one else knows either, so we’re just going to use our superbrains.

** And if you won’t, tough.

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4 Comments on “World Of Warcraft: Five Years at the Top”

  1. Joe Says:

    I very much enjoy that you aren’t bogged down by old-fashioned impartiality. Take that, BBC!
    I think your views might change a little if you ever reach the endgame, it stagnates rapidly. But I confess I do miss the old days running around in hideous costumes being scared of murlocs.

    • Paul S Says:

      This does seem to be the case. However, it doesn’t alter the fact that for most of the game, it knocks the stuffing out of all of it’s competitors. By the time you hit the end game, there’s a vested interest in staying around anyway – people make friends while levelling, so they hang around.

      • Gillbo Says:

        Despite having only ever spent a few weeks in WoW, these are my sentiments exactly. It’s a cracking world that doesn’t get too bogged down in history or silly names and yet delivers a comprehensive ‘single player’ experience. Even better is the fact that ActoBlizzard or Blacktivision of whoever, now understands that smacking rats for XP no longer cuts it – others are yet to learn this, and until they do, it’ll put new players off. The future looks promising too, especially in the light of Cataclysm.

  2. […] dwarfs that of lesser men) celebrating the 15th anniversary of Warcraft and the 5th of WoW (which we may already have mentioned).  Warcraft is one of a few games that really deserves celebrating.* Do so in magnificent style by […]

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