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

In the first installment of the Decoding World of Warcraft’s Success Formula, I identified two major in-game strengths of WoW. For the second installment of the series, I will be talking about three inter-related out-of-game areas that contributed to its incredible success: brand, marketing and community.

Since its initial release in 1994, the Warcraft universe has grown exponentially through six offline strategy games and expansions, three tabletop games, eight novels and of course, World of Warcraft. The amount of lore developed for the brand is incredible. This is not something any game can have, not even incredibly well-written ones. The advantage here is not just the sheer amount of lore available, but in addition, how long the lore has been around. In order for a universe to captivate audience, it must have existed for a while. It’s like a tea bag, regardless of how good the tea leaves are in the tea bag, it still takes time to take effect and make a nice cup of tea. In addition, it also helps that the tea leaves of WoW are of first grade, even with some contradictions (and what historical records don’t), it has all the classic elements one would expect from a high fantasy universe, with enough diversity to satisfy most customers.

Any new MMO, or any game, that comes out today, even with the same number of expansions and books, will not achieve the same effect. Fans of the universe soaked up as much lore as possible before WoW came out, creating an immense amount of buzz and hype even before the game’s release with viral promotion (more on that in Marketing). When the game was finally released, the world was ready for the fans to explore, with familiar landscapes, characters and events. This contributed even higher immediate immersion factor, in addition to the reasons stated in the accessibility portion of part I.

With the exception of well-established intellectual property such as The Lord of the Rings Online or Warhammer Online, this is a unique advantage that Blizzard has and not many others have.

Aside from the Warcraft brand itself, Blizzard is also a notable brand. Over the years, through the release of many quality games, it has built up its name to be a very competent developer of fun. Any releases of Blizzard are watched closely by the gaming community and press, generating instant hype whenever an update or an announcement is made.

Viral marketing was a huge integral part of WoW’s successful launch. What is viral marketing? It is essentially word of mouth advertising. It’s no secret in the industry that launch number is a clear indication of how well a MMO will do in the long term. From all the subscriber number studies, the subscriber number usually plateaus in 30 to 90 days after launch and either maintains the number or decreases gradually. Expansion packs usually rejuvenate subscriber number but it goes through the same 30 to 90-day plateau and decline cycle. With the brand behind the game, the preorder and launch number were phenomenal, selling 240,000 copies in the first 24 hours, which sealed the success of viral marketing for WoW.

What’s more? During this initial 90-day window, various other viral factors contributed to the explosion:

  • A less than smooth open beta period due to extreme high numbers of players
  • A close to disastrous launch due to again, incredible success
  • Not enough boxes made due to unforeseen success, creating hype and more press
  • Vivendi Universal and/or Blizzard pulling boxes off the shelf due to extreme high numbers and wanted to control the growth of subscriber numbers until they can stabilize the game, creating further craze over the box shortage
  • Boxes of WoW started to show up on eBay, selling for more than what the box was retailed for, more people sweeping up boxes in stores, causing further shortage
  • In box guest keys

All of the above generated a great deal of press and community buzz, created the ultimate self-propelling marketing vehicle. These individual events might have happened to other MMOs, but not all of them at once, and none of them have the pre-existing fan base as WoW. These factors, only combined together, created this avalanche of public buzz, propelling the name WoW to household level to even non-gamers.

In addition to viral marketing, VU/Blizzard have also done a fantastic job with traditional marketing, regular boasts of subscriber numbers with press releases, promotions, advertisements, tie-ins with other products, merchandizes, etc. With high number of subscribers, the company can afford more advertising and marketing, creating yet another snowball effect.

Needless to say, with the combined might of pre-existing fans and new comers of the game, WoW has created one of the largest virtual communities on earth. Plenty of players work tirelessly to participate and improve the community out of sheer passion for the game and universe. Like I mentioned in the previous entry, all it takes is a very small percentage of players in a community to produce enough effort to power the community. Numerous websites have sprung up to support the game one way or another.

Moreover, Blizzard has a fantastic web and community team. The community website has latest up-to-date contents, with good and in-depth enough information for the casual players to get started. Before the release of each patch, a long series of updates and teasers are released, feeding the hype machine. In addition, there are useful tools such as the talent planner, realm status page or PvP ranking charts. These features all help the website become an important web destination for the players. Overall, World of Warcraft’s web presence has a very polished feel to it, featuring small details such as the crying orc when you try to cancel your subscription, same cannot be said for many other MMOs’ websites.

Many other features also encourage community participation, such as regular creative contests, fan arts and fictions. It’s clear that Blizzard has the right amount of focus placed on its web and community team. Brilliant contests such as the pumpkin crafting contest further help WoW become a household name. Imagine visiting a friend and seeing a WoW pumpkin during Halloween, what would the topic of conversation be?

In the end, the brand, the marketing and the community, all worked together, feeding each other and created a monstrous level of awareness of the game. Nonetheless, I think it all started with the brand (Warcraft and Blizzard). The other two simply capitalized on it.

I hope you enjoyed this installment of the series. In the next installment, I will play designer and dive deeper into the game design a little bit, trying to understand the reason behind the “stickiness” of the subscribers.

One thought on “Decoding World of Warcraft’s Success Formula (Part II)

  1. Yeah…see, you really hit the nail on the head. It’s those exact same things that I always look for (and I dont know I do) in other MMO’s. It’s nice to have it written down though to read and make those connections from your own thoughts or ideas. *^,^*

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