How World of Warcraft came to rule the world

Much is being written this week to celebrate the tenth anniversary of World of Warcraft, but few insights are as illuminating as this post by Raph Koster.

Koster knows as much about multiplayer online games as any person alive. He was the lead designer of Ultima Online and creative director of Star Wars Galaxies. He was also chief creative officer on Everquest 2 and is the author of the much-admired book A Theory of Fun for Game Design.

Koster is no WoW sycophant, finding plenty in the game that merits criticism. But he recognizes why Blizzard’s game succeeded when so many other fell away. As he points out, WoW doesn’t so much dominate MMOs as entirely define what the genre stands for.

He believes that WoW came into being at a time when MMOs had been the focus for intense innovation, creating more and more complex and believable words in which players could create their own alternative entities. But WoW stripped away lots of that progress, such as complex crafting, intricate character creation and house building, in order to concentrate on the most important thing of all: stories.

In this respect, WoW’s inspiration wasn’t merely other MMOs, but big budget shooting games and action-adventures.

“In the name of shorter sessions, greater accessibility, and easier entry, WoW cut away any ‘world-like’ features in favor of Game, Game, Game,” wrote Koster. “In their place was one overriding feature, a true innovation that WoW lifted not from the rich and varied history of MMOs, but from the rising design tide in AAA games that was even then up-ending the first-person shooter: the quest-led game.”

In WoW, despite the word ‘World’ in the title, we saw linearity displace the free-roaming assumptions of the earlier games. Whereas games like Everquest 2 and Galaxies had invested heavily in waypoint systems that had proven to be powerful social and accessibility tools, WoW left this feature out because the game simply never had you travel a long way. The next goal was generally always within line of sight. Helpful symbols floating above characters’ heads.

And the quests, while still built on top of familiar fetch or kill-monsters tropes, were also everywhere. A heretofore unthinkable density, much of it deeply humorous and rich with references to Warcraft lore for those who were willing to dig in. For the casual player, the experience of WoW was literally a series of quest completions designed to lead you along a pathway that had been carefully planned to constrain you, keep you always seeking the next glowy mark over an NPCs head.

He adds that “players who had cut their teeth on single-player games had finally found a virtual world that was accessible to them, where they could ‘play alone together’.”

As well as synthesizing everything it saw as best in gaming, Blizzard was smart in its approach to development and consumer outreach. While others rushed their MMOs, the company took its time coming to market. It eschewed high-end graphics in favor of a broad installed base and it used a brand that had been associated with fun, narrative games for a long time.

Koster’s blog post, titled “Ten Years of World of Warcraft” is definitely worth a read for anyone who loves WoW or who takes an interest in the evolution of MMOs. As he points out, “to be an MMO has come to mean to be like World of Warcraft. The quest-driven advancement path.” World of Warcraft‘s success has closed off an alternative path of innovation. “World of Warcraft effectively made MMOs perfect, and in the process, it killed them.”