Why the Lowest Common Denominator Works: No WoW-Killer In Sight

This is something I’ve been pondering for months: why WoW is going to be so hard to knock off its pedestal as the premier MMORPG. There are a number of factors involved, but there’s one I haven’t seen anyone else mention, so here we go:

0. Blizzard Are Just Good

Diablo was still in the top 20 selling PC games of 2008, a decade after release.

1. Status Quo

WoW isn’t just the market leader at the moment, it’s the shark in the wading pool; in April 2008 it had 62.2% of the market. 11.5 million subscribers is a huge number for any new game to beat.

2. Experience

Existing games have found their user base by now, and subscriber numbers aren’t likely to grow radically unless something really surprising happens. The next game to ‘win’ the market is likely to be a new game, and WoW has a four-year head start. Blizzard has a very experienced team; they’ve been at this for four years now.

Similarly experienced publishers don’t have any competing products:

  • NCSoft (Lineage, CoX, Guild Wars) flopped with Tabula Rasa;
  • Sony Online Entertainment (EQ, EQ2, SWG) have displayed a long history of misreading what customers want, culminating in the way they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory with Star Wars Galaxies and Vanguard;
  • Turbine (AC, AC2, DDO, LotRO) have a mixed recent history; D&D Online failed dismally (and really, how do you mess up that license?!), while LotRO was somewhat successful – but far from innovative;
  • Funcom (Anarchy Online, AoC) have yet to release an MMO that hasn’t been dogged by near-fatal flaws;
  • Mythic (DAoC, WAR) arguably flopped with WAR; it sold 1.2 million copies, but retained only 25% of those players less than three months after release;

(Of course, that’s far from an exhaustive list.)

And, in an almost unbeatable position, WoW itself offers four years’ worth of content – eighty levels of quests, zones and dungeons, plus major chunks of raiding content at 60, 70 and 80. That’s far more than any new game can reasonably expect to offer, but it certainly affects the perceptions of the player base – lack of content has been a common complaint regarding recent releases.

3. The Mac Factor

Unlike most other MMORPGs, WoW runs natively on Macs, which is a significant advantage. Analysts say Apple has anywhere from a 10% share to 21% share of the consumer market, which is a big captive audience with little competition.

4. Community

Leafshine discussed this back in September, and BBB posted about it recently: the massive communities surrounding WoW give it a huge competitive advantage. (No need for me to restate their points; they’re both great posts.)

5. Low Barrier to Entry = Critical Mass
This is the factor that hasn’t really been talked about yet, although it’s related to the previous two points.

WoW is easy to run. It doesn’t have the latest, greatest graphics – especially not in the beginner zones, for new players. It doesn’t require the latest, greatest computer to run it. Anyone who’s interested can pick it up and try it out, and provided your computer was bought, oh, probably some time in the last half-dozen years, you can play WoW — which stands in stark contrast to recent releases like WAR or AoC.

On a PC, WoW requires a minimum of a 1.3 GHz CPU, half a gig of RAM, and a tiny 32MB video card. There aren’t many awesome games you can play when you’ve got a computer that’s five years behind the tech curve — but WoW is one of them.

This means that WoW has been, and is, very accessible to non-gamers. It’s perfectly playable for people with home computers they just used for email and browsing the web; it’s usable for people with laptops they bought for school. This has made it very easy for gamer types to bring their spouses, siblings and friends into the WoW-playing fold – “look, you don’t need a computer as good as mine, just install this trial copy on your laptop and let’s have fun running around Dun Morogh killing troggs!”

I doubt I’m telling you anything you don’t know. I bet that just about anyone reading this can name several people they know who’d never have considered themselves a gamer or bothered with anything beyond Bejewelled or Solitaire until someone got them hooked on WoW.

Not only does this create gamers by expanding the potential market for the game, but it creates critical mass within the game. If you’re looking for an MMO you can easily play with your spouse – who’s never been into computer games, but is willing to humor you – then WoW is the obvious choice. If you’re going to play a game with your preteen son or daughter, WoW will probably run on their computer where Warhammer wouldn’t. (There’s some interesting data on couples and family who play together at the Daedalus Project.)

And this effect, I feel, snowballs. The more people you know playing WoW, the more likely you are to pick it up yourself, and then you become part of the critical mass convincing the next person to pick it up.

This effect would be true of any MMO, of course – but only WoW is accessible enough, hardware-wise, to truly capitalize on it.

15 thoughts on “Why the Lowest Common Denominator Works: No WoW-Killer In Sight”

  1. I think the “Mac Factor” is a huge one, at least it is for me :) I would love to try AoC or WAR but the lack of a native Mac client make these a non-starter. EVE Online has a Macintosh client, and I tried it, but didn’t like it and removed it from my machine. But at least I gave it a look, right?

  2. That’s a really fantastic set of observations.

    I’d like to add one more thing that Blizzard always bring to the table – attention to detail.

    Playing WoW you can tell that Blizzard obsess over the smallest thing and that they’re perfectionists.

    I betif you got one of the game designers in a bar and asked them what they think of WoW, they’d probably be proud of what they’ve done but probably be wracked with guilt about the rough corners that the game does have, how it could be so much better if they had more time and resources etc. etc. – you can tell that they’re obsessive perfectionists.

    And from that, the thousands of small touches add up to make a great game playing experience. And if people don’t believe me, try playing some other games where the annoyances add up until you get frustrated with the whole thing!

  3. All your points are very true. The Apple angle is one most game makers are, for some strange reason, overlooking. It’s been shown a vast majority of users of Apple understand why more game makers don’t get it. You have a good 10% plus of the general computer user base ripe for picking.

    The social aspect though is what makes WoW the current king I think. That really ties into what you said about low barrier of entry I think. You can have near anyone get into the game with friends, co-workers, family, and then just play. Not only that you don’t have to play directly with them to actually be social with them. It’s possible for Bob to be running his wife through Dead Mines while talking to Fred from work, or his old buddy Bill.

  4. The specs you mentioned are great for Elywnn Forest but won’t work at all for Dalaran. But by the time you hit Dalaran, you are fairly well hoooked anyway.

    I’m holding out hope for Star Wars: The Old Republic. Bioware did a fantastic job with the IP in the single player games Knights of the Old Republic and The Sith Lords. I’m hoping they can make a successful jump into the MMO market.

  5. Sure the posted specs may be low, but I be no one with a 1.3ghz computer and 32mb graphics card can do anything in the major cities / 25 man runs / or Wintergrasp.

    I suppose when you’re leveling from 1-60 it might be ok.

  6. That’s the point – I’m not talking about people who are going to be raiding, or doing Wintergrasp, or whatever – I’m talking about the casuals who don’t race to the level cap, who have fun just questing and playing by themselves or with a friend, maybe doing an instance run here or there. Those kinds of players might be all but invisible to most of us who focus on end-game, but there are a _lot_ of them out there.

  7. I love the accessible nature of the game. As a 29 year old male, I could log into XBox live or WAR and socialize with other age 18-34 year old males. In WoW, I can socialize with a far more diverse base of people.

    Want FPS paced twitch play? Try arenas.

    Want to do something cute? Go quest for the Big Tongues or the Puppymen. Get your Love Fool Achievement.

    Wanna raid? Down Sarth with 3 Drakes up!

    Wanna grind and chat? Get your explorer achievement.

    Out of work Wall Street Executive? Wreck the server economy too!

    A great feature in terms of accessibility has been old world dungeons. With a smattering of level 80 raiders, you can summon up a bunch of level 60+ casuals and get them totally hooked on killing huge monsters!

  8. 6. And the reason WoW is #1 now and still after all this time is marketing. They built on a substantial player base, most of whom had never played a MMORPG, and marketted the pants off the game.

    #5 Is pretty important too. Graphics are pretty average, but everyone can play it.

    The content part of #2 is important. There is a lot to do in WoW.

    WoW goes to show that having the most awesome graphics, or even the best gameplay, isn’t as important as good marketing to a wide player base and then giving them plenty to do.

  9. A lot of people seem wedded to the idea that Blizzard fans love Blizzard games just because they’re Blizzard, and not because Blizzard makes fun, engaging games. There’s a reason that not only is Diablo 2 still popular after all these years, but Starcraft is also. Warcraft III may not be blowing the doors off either, but it still has a decent following.

    But yeah, WoW’s success just isn’t a surprise and its continued success is no more a surprise. The best candidate for WoW killer would be Blizzard’s not fully announced “next-gen MMO”, and that’s not likely to do the job.

    There’s also the implicit (and frequently explicit) assumption that any new game has to kill WoW. WAR had to be a wowkiller. LOTRO had to be a wowkiller. I wouldn’t be surprised if some Guild Wars fans think that Guild Wars 2 will be a wowkiller. There’s so much emphasis on not just being successful, but being successful enough to tear WoW down from its pedestal that it’s simply not possible for any game to ever live up to that hype.

  10. I don’t consider myself a computer gamer (which is odd given I raid 2-3 nights a week), I’m a roleplayer and a board gamer, but never been a big fan of computer games. Okay, me and my partner played a lot of Diablo II, and now we play WoW. But those are really the only games (okay, and Civilisation) that I’ve clocked more than about 20 hours game time.

    I actually found the Daedalus website quite an interesting read. I guess I fit into the category of I play because my partner does, if he stopped, or I stopped, we would both stop. I love raiding, but I really do play for the social content.

    But I recall when WoW was first released. Several of my friends got right into it, and their partners starting bitching about being warcrack widows and the amount of time they spent playing. Not wanting to be a warcrack widow myself, when my partner expressed interest, I said to him, oh, I checked out the specs, it wouldn’t run on your computer. Now I didn’t expect him to believe me and not do his own research. But it was another 6 to 9 months before he went out and checked himself and brought a copy.

    I was playing myself 2 months later, he paid for the copy, paid for the upgrade to my computer, and pays the monthly fee to keep usplaying.

    That said – I paid for both our copies of the most recent expansion :)

  11. I think one point that you didn’t emphasize but was definitely touched upon is the Casual gamer experience. Prior to the WoW release we had a bunch of MMOs like EQ and AC that used the same Hardcore Raiding approach, which always required a relatively large investment to get to the point where you could raid or group with your high level friends. This high barrier to entry into the end game or promise of the participating in the end game is a double edged sword when it comes to retaining players. It forces long time players to burnout or become frustrated if their progression is not keeping up with content. Newer players get frustrated because the carrot at the end of the stick (end game content) is so far out that people get bored or frustrated.

    WoW on the other had a number of innovations that really made playing as a casual player more enjoyable like Rest XP and the lack of hell levels. And for me as a former player of EQ when I started it was a more relaxed experience.

    Of course ontop of all of this Blizzard has always done a good job on content. Sure there are tons of the standard “Kill this get that” quests, but their instances and injection of lore have always been top notch. I still enjoy running Dead Mines because of some of the bosses in there :)

  12. I have often said that WoW is the Tony Hawk or Goldeneye of the MMO world. In the console gaming world, there are those who would put 100+ hours into an RPG and there are those who just got together with friends to play FPS. WoW lets you into the world of MMO’s without the major grind like Everquest or Lineage.

    My husband and I were console gamers for years, we always had the new gen systems and TONS of games. My Husband had often told me that I might like EQ because of how social a person I tend to be online, but I was sort of afraid to play because I wouldn’t know what I was doing, nor would I know anyone who could help me learn. Plus I was concerned that my machine wouldn’t run it. Like you mentioned in your post, we initially got into WoW because all of our RL friends were playing it. A friend came over and helped us set it up, showed us the action-bar feature and pretty much we were hooked ever since.

    Someone above mentioned the diversity of people he can interact with. I know so many Moms and Housewives (me being part of the latter group) who play this game. It gives them something to do aside from the stereotypical Peggy Bundy style soaps/chocolates scenario. Its really a game for anyone and everyone. For all the gripes about “casuals” those are the people who keep this game so popular imo and for that I’m glad.

  13. Also as buggy as Blizzard’s WoW releases are they are still a lot LESS buggy then most other MMOs are when they first come out. So people who _do_ try something else frequently come back because something bothers them (server downtime, lag, lost in-game mail, impossible to use auction houses).

    Once a lot of people try a very buggy game, they don’t really go back in a few months to see if it is “all fixed”.

    (I find it interesting that this like all but one or two of the reasons you list are things where a competitor _could_ do as well as or better then Blizzard, but few if any seem to)

  14. I agree with your points, especially about Mac. Blizzard’s economy of scale/scope gives them a huge advantage. But my opinion is their current direction puts them at risk. By pursuing the WAR and FPS/console gamers – the most visible and vocal customers – they risk millions of people who don’t want a game to just be about quick reflexes. All the movement, complicated rotations, vehicles seem to be to appeal to a small segment but alienate a much larger group. As a guildie said when someone said their new mutalate was more complex than the old combat “for complex, I have my job. I play a game to have fun.” This person has a loremaster, 3000+ quests, Armani War Bear, and is in no sense of the word casual.

    Partly I think Blizzard has lost touch with its customers, partly they rely too much on the beta testers and blogosphere, and partly the developers are perhaps a bit more interested in cool and different than in what the customers want.

    As a multi-product public company, the snowball effect works at least as fast the other way. If they forecast 12 million users and it drops to 10 million, then an executive during a budget meeting could say “hmm, the party is over, let’s no longer think of WoW as a Star brand to invest in, let’s think of it as a Cash Cow and reallocate development resources to Guitar Hero and SC2.” You put a lot less development resources into a cash cow – they are designed to be milked not grown. While Blizzard still will take your money for Diablo, how many developers do you think work on it?

    There are a lot of people who prefer making WoW more like CS/Halo. I am not one of them. It seems like so much of WotLK is about making the game less appealing to a very large number of current and potential users.

    If I were trying to find a way to grow from 11 million to 20 million I would think it would be easier to attract some of the non-traditional demographics (couples, parents, etc. see above ) rather than fight to attract a few more of the 12-20 year old male market. If I wanted more customers, I would not invest as much in Malygos, Heigen dances and affliction warlock rotations.

    But WoW has such a huge advantage, it will be around for a long time. My opinion is when WoW is toppled, it will not be from a frontal assault of “our new game is the WoW killer” but rather what Christensen refers to as a disruptive technology. A company that takes some new innovation and really listens to their customers would be my bet.

    OTOH, today the biggest competitor to WotLK is … Guitar Hero. Every developer that the company pays to work on WotLK is one more headcount that is not working on GH. And vice versa.

  15. Thanks for pointing out that having a Mac client is one of WoW’s advantages. I also think any MMO that doesn’t have a Mac client is missing the boat. It may not make or break the game, but it is definitely an advantage, if for no other reason than the fact that Mac users are vocal and will advocate for the game.

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