Decoding World of Warcraft’s Success Formula (Part I)

Since its release in November 2004, World of Warcraft (WoW) has enjoyed incredible success, boasting over five million customers* world wide (source: Blizzard’s press release). So what exactly is it doing right that it took the world of MMOG by storm, snatched a huge chunk of the market, and at the same time, expanded the market to the largest it has ever seen? It should be no surprise that, there isn’t one definitive answer to this, but rather, there are many things that Blizzard has done right. I will be writing a series of editorials on this matter. For this entry, I will be focusing on its prime strength: accessibility and usability.

Accessibility
The beginning levels of WoW are tailored made to beginners, with simple quests that guide you through the game. Right after character creation, you are thrust into the enchanting environment right away, with a sweeping camera flying through of the real environment of the game (you can see players running around), briefing you the history of your chosen race, giving you a purpose to be in the world. It’s very much like opening up a talking, interactive story book. Many games fail to give players a purpose to be in the story and the immediate immersive and pull factor suffers.

The beginning quests, while mundane, are simple enough for players to follow. Granted, it’s not an elaborate tutorial like some other games’, where it holds your hands through different concepts and mechanics (sometimes painfully long if the game is complex enough), but it provides you with enough details that you should not have any trouble getting started. In addition, the context sensitive tips system often gives crucial hints as to what the player can do. In the end, players might stumble a little but will still be having fun figuring it out. After all, discovery is part of the fun.

Accessibility is not just in the beginning levels. There are no overly complicated concepts in the game. To some, the game might actually seem rather shallow. But that is also what makes WoW so accessible that it pumped millions of new players into the genre. These MMO newbies are not put off by complicated character building and advancement system, for fear of making the wrong choices. But rather, players can focus on just completing quests and advancing through the various storylines. Further, the more advanced concepts such as Talents and Crafting are hidden from the beginning players until they have at least played for a few hours. Finally, talent and crafting choices can be unlearned at any time, further removing the chance of players being discouraged later by making bad choices.

The leveling pace is brisk, “dings” are often up until at least mid to late game (at which point you have already been hooked). The sense of achievement is continuously reinforced by level advancements, quest rewards, and experience points. Further, money is easy to come by if you picked the gathering professions, since higher level players are eager to purchase raw materials for crafting. This again, makes it easy to feel progress and achievements in the game. This is a driving reason for people to stay around as they don’t feel “stuck”.

Usability
It’s clear that Blizzard has invested significant time into fine tuning their user interface system. It’s whimsical yet clean. All crucial elements are easily accessible with just the out of the box interface. It has further improved since launch, incorporating elements from user contributed addons. Ah, the addons. This is one of WoW’s greatest achievements. The user interface system is extremely open. Players who are familiar with the Lua scripting language and XML can utilize the ever expanding library of exposed functions to create addons for the interface. It is possible to completely alter every single element of the interface.

Not a programmer? No problem, a wise man (I believe Will Wright) once said, it only takes 1% of the players to create enough contents for the rest of the community. There are plenty of user contributed addons that range anywhere from changing your mouseover tooltip to elaborate interface customization suites that provide their own graphical interface to allow you to create your very own interface (with custom art too). It is literally impossible to not like the interface because you will almost always be able to find an addon that does what you are looking for. Even the addon system is accessible to novice programmers. If you are not ready to dive into writing full-blown addons, try your hands in writing simple macros first via the in game interface. There are also thousands of ready made macros posted on forums and websites. Players can simply copy and paste these in game easily.

Under the hood, since the interface needs access to a lot of the communication information between the client and the server, these information are exposed via Lua as well. The end result is the creation of a lot of data mining addons, from exporting your character profile, to centralized automatic census data gathering. World of Warcraft truly deserves the title of most usable game ever created with such open interface scripting system. This elaborate user interface customization system has spawned numerous number of websites dedicated to them, be it listing, distributing, data display or collection. All of these websites further help market and push World of Warcraft to unprecedented level of success.

We have only scratched the surface of WoW’s formula of success. Stay tuned for next installment!

* From Blizzard’s press release: World of Warcraft customers include individuals who have paid a subscription fee or purchased a prepaid card to play World of Warcraft, as well as those who have purchased the installation box bundled with one free month access. Internet Game Room players that have accessed the game over the last seven days are also counted as customers. The above definition excludes all players under free promotional subscriptions, expired or cancelled subscriptions, and expired pre-paid cards. Customers in licensees’ territories are defined along the same rules.

2 thoughts on “Decoding World of Warcraft’s Success Formula (Part I)

  1. Very interesting topic, Ray. Looking forward to seeing the rest of the series.

  2. Great writeup – looking forward to all of the analysis! I would be particularly interested in whatever you decide to cover in terms of player demographics.

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