Designed by: Rob Pardo, Jeff Kaplan, Tom Chilton
Inspired by: Earlier MMORPGs, Diablo
Series: One game with two expansions
Legacy: Oh, the games that have tried to copy World of Warcraft and have failed.
And so we have finally arrived at this: the 10-million-plus subscriber mumak in the room, the game that made mainstream in a way not seen since the days of D&D, the game a legion of other MMORPGs so desperately wants to be. What is the attraction here? Why is it that this game broken through the pop cultural barrier and gotten a South Park machinima episode?
It is not an easy question to answer, actually. If it were, Age of Conan would be doing better in its fight for survival. But there are some things that Blizzard is doing well that are easy enough to point out.
First, the game is unusually accessible to uninitiated players. In the tradeoff between ease-of-play and depth, it seems that Blizzard made a conscious decision to go with the former. The previous occupant of the throne of MMORPG King, EverQuest, took slow character growth to an extreme unmatched even by classic D&D. A player could spend weeks between levels later in his adventuring career, and getting killed even once was a huge setback in progress towards the next.
Most other MMORPGs games didn't slow character growth to that extent, but neither made it as quick as World of Warcraft, in which an avid player can gain a level in a single evening. If the game's systems weren't simple enough for an average player to understand then the game couldn't be as popular as it is now.
Second, the game allows for a lot of flexibility in character design. This fits in with the accessibility in that, once a character reaches maximum level, he can start over with a different character and have nearly an entirely different experience.
Part of this, perhaps, comes from the company's experience in developing the Diablo games, which bear a certain superficial similarity with World of Warcraft's equipment game. (Perhaps it should be said that the stock MMORPG equipment game is heavily influenced by Diablo.)
World of Warcraft
But do these things really explain World of Warcraft's popularity? By now, WoW's continued ascendancy seems largely assured just by virtue of its huge subscriber base; social pressures make MMORPGs more addictive when there are more people playing them.
WoW grew rapidly from the start due to Blizzard's massive reputation from its Warcraft, StarCraft and Diablo games, and made no obvious mistakes to drive people off. Just over a year later, the game already had five million subscribers, has over 10 million today, and in the absence of Star Wars Galaxy-style player disgruntlement catastrophes, looks to remain on top for the near future.
And yet, for its accessibility, there is a surprising amount of depth here for player-vs-player combat areas. Normal areas don't typically require players to obsessively tweak their armor or skills, but intraplayer combat areas tend to force players to optimize their characters to the height of their ability.
This is one of the hidden reasons some players hate PvP: it basically requires players to pay a lot more attention to their builds, since the standard a player must meet to succeed isn't an arbitrary monster yardstick set by a developer but the most effective builds that other players can devise.
As the user base discovers better and better builds, the players who really care about PvP optimize their characters according to that knowledge, forcing participants of that subgame towards being less casual, more serious players.