Fast-approaching its tenth birthday, World of Warcraft is probably going to be one of the most commercially successful and profitable games of 2012. Even with subscriber numbers having fallen from their peak of almost 12 million, the game still has almost 10 million people paying to play each month - and the queues for the launch of expansion pack Mists of Pandaria give a clear indication of what an important shot in the arm the expansion will be for the game.
Yet, after so many years of watching World of Warcraft power from success to success, the industry at large still can't agree on what this game is, or on what its success actually means. It did not herald the triumph of the subscription, as some predicted when WoW's numbers first soared. Attempts to copy or clone it have ended in, at best, reputation-sapping climbdowns and transitions to free-to-play business models; at worst, complete commercial disasters. There's now a tendency to dismiss WoW as an aberration, a glitch in the statistics - a unique product with a unique audience, the secrets of its appeal and success intriguing but irrelevant to the wider industry.
"To deny the 99% of Blizzard's efforts which are down to bloody hard work and an extraordinary process of learning and refinement seems deeply misguided"
How many statements in the past few years have started with the words, "If we ignore World of Warcraft..." or "Aside from World of Warcraft...", or ended with the slightly uncomfortable qualifier, "...but of course, World of Warcraft doesn't count!"? Certainly, the commercial success of the game is an outlier, but it's strange that in a business filled with bright, thoughtful people who love to dissect and understand the workings of games - both creative and commercial - WoW is often presented as a kind of a black box, immune to understanding and impervious to imitation.
If I had to pin down a reason for this odd blind spot, I'd say it was because WoW's very success runs contrary to the conventional wisdom of a great many people in the games business. If you apply the established models of thinking to WoW as a product, and the way Blizzard has managed it over the past decade, it simply shouldn't have the commercial success it's demonstrated. In other words, WoW presents people with two choices - you can either treat it as a bizarre outlier that's simply so far beyond the experience of conventional game development and publishing as to be meaningless; or you can rethink your own worldview and accept that you've been mistaken about some pretty big things.
Like many fields - most fields, in fact - we're not good at slaughtering our sacred cows. WoW's success defies conventional wisdom, which means, in the most honest and direct terms, that the conventional wisdom is wrong and must be re-evaluated - but it's far easier to shrug, brand the game an outlier, pay lip-service to Blizzard's "unique" talent and be done with it. In a sense, I think that does a great disservice to Blizzard; it pretends that their success is down to some kind of magic dust sprinkled all over Azeroth, attributing the success of the game entirely to the spark of genius in its creators' minds. Nobody is denying that spark of genius; but the 1% Inspiration, 99% Perspiration rule still applies, and to deny the 99% of Blizzard's efforts which are down to bloody hard work and an extraordinary process of learning and refinement seems deeply misguided.
Let's frame this in more concrete terms. What is it that WoW is doing that's so far outside the beliefs of so many people in the games business? Perhaps the most obvious and relevant example of that is that, eight years after launch, the changes being made to World of Warcraft are still incredibly fundamental (a complete repudiation of the idea that if it ain't broke, you don't fix it) and moreover, continue to be aimed at making the game more accessible and more appealing to casual audiences.
"Blizzard uses player data to suggest and implement entirely new approaches, allowing it to keep the game experience fresh and challenging"
The first of those things is a really interesting and rare interpretation of the concepts of data-driven design. Blizzard probably has more data about what players actually do in their game than any other developer on earth (with the possible, but arguable, exception of Zynga). As developers have come to grips with the idea of using that data to drive design, the general idea I've heard expressed is one of continual and gradual refinement - the concept being that there's one "best" way of doing things, and you're using the data fed back from your players to gradually hone and refine the game so that it gets closer and closer to that ideal system.
Blizzard uses data in a much more aggressive way. Mists of Pandaria rips apart underlying systems which have been in place for years; the previous expansion, Cataclysm, also made enormous changes. After eight years, you might expect that a process of data-based refinement would have narrowed down to tiny tweaks - as indeed has been the case in the majority of other online games that have run for more than a few years. Instead, Blizzard uses that data to suggest and implement entirely new approaches, allowing it to keep the game experience fresh and challenging - preventing single, over-optimised approaches to play from emerging and players from getting bored. Moreover, the company understands that the arguably risky nature of extensively changing game systems is actually mitigated by its ability to capture and understand data, because any major errors can be spotted and dealt with quickly.
So there's the first big difference in Blizzard's thinking; it sees its successful game as a moving target, and uses data to allow it to make bigger gambles and more drastic changes, in stark contrast to developers who view maintaining a game as a process of refinement and feature accretion. The company has worked out that the process of learning a game is a major part of the fun of the game for many people, so it has focused efforts on becoming incredibly good at giving them a whole new game to learn every 15 months or so, rather than using data to try and achieve some artificial "perfection" in its existing game systems.
The second difference, though, is even more dramatic. Convention MMO wisdom says this; your player base starts out with the pre-ordering (semi-)hardcore, grows a bit as casual players join the mix in order to play with their friends, and then declines, rapidly or slowly depending on your success, until what you've got left are the hardest of the hardcore, the endgame raiding headbangers who will grind mercilessly at your game for eternity. Recently, we've started to add an extra stage into the mix - the F2P stage, where you entice a new wave of casual players to come in and stay for a while, although the general expectation is still that you'll eventually end up catering solely to the truly dedicated.
Given that conventional wisdom, you can understand why some hardcore players are aghast at Blizzard's insistence on continuing to cater explicitly to the casual, social player. Cataclysm's refresh of the game's original levelling zones was a good example of this, clearly focusing the team's efforts on improving the game for people who just enjoy questing and exploring at the "expense" of catering to the end-game hardcore player. Mists of Pandaria is the most blatant example yet, though; it's heavily exploration focused, clearly aimed at attracting younger players (there's an assumption in many parts of the media that the panda theme is a pitch at the Chinese market, but it seems far more likely to be aimed at pulling in tweens and young women) and filled with systems that are designed to provide an easier experience and sociable alternatives to end-game raiding, such as the new Pet Battle system.
This is an eight year old game. Why isn't it catering to the people who want to put together 40-man raids that take six hours to play, toilet breaks strictly forbidden? Why, in fact, does Blizzard seem to be, calmly and politely, perfectly willing for those hardcore players to take their leave?
The answer again goes back to data, and it goes back to Blizzard's willingness to use its data to deliver answers to tough questions - even if they're answers that fly totally in the face of conventional industry wisdom. Hardcore players are loud, noisy and extremely forward in pressing their case to developers, and their views have become influential as a consequence. Yet the quiet gamer who meanders through an MMO at his or her own pace is still paying $10 a month to do so, and that money is just as good as anyone else's. What Blizzard appears to have done is to have used its data to give those gamers a voice - and it's realised and understood that in many ways, they're more valuable than the vocal hardcore.
Why? Because, deeply counter-intuitively, the vocal hardcore aren't actually the "whales" of the MMO market. They subscribe to a new game, race through the content at record speed (often being abrasive or unpleasant to other players en route, although that's by no means the case for all of them), reach the endgame, hammer at if for a short amount of time - and then move on to the next big MMO, where the cycle repeats itself. They may return to WoW (and other MMOs) for each major content patch, but ultimately, they are mercenaries - they have no interest or involvement with the world and lore of the game, and their engagement with its community is often solely through their guild, which will probably move en masse to the next big thing as soon as it arrives.
"Every customer is valuable, and often those voices which say nothing at all are the most important ones to listen to"
Meanwhile, there's a solid community of people playing WoW who may never have participated in a 25-man raid or in Arena PvP; who have never worn a piece of Tier armour before it was long out of date; but who are still playing the game years after subscribing, paying a subscription, enjoying WoW for a few hours a week or perhaps just a few hours a month. There are tons of them, and Blizzard can see exactly how many; it knows that these people, the quiet, contented majority, are the audience of "whales" which it must satisfy. So WoW gets more casual; the hardcore players complain ever more loudly that they're not being catered to; and the huge numbers of casual players who love the game in quite different ways find themselves renewing their subscriptions for another year.
This flies in the face of a great many things that this corner of the games industry believes, or at least professes to believe. It changes, or ought to change, perceptions of what endgame content is meant to achieve. It pushes creators to understand that every customer is valuable, and that often those voices which say nothing at all are the most important ones to listen to. It poses questions about who the audience for MMO games actually is, and who it could be, given half a chance. Most of all, it suggests that what Blizzard has done isn't magical or unique - it's brilliant and inspired, no doubt, but the real "magic" to World of Warcraft lies in years of painstaking work, a willingness to listen to what the data is saying, and the courage to bear the slings and arrows of the annoyed few in order to keep delivering a game that enthralls the silent many.
In other words, we have to stop treating World of Warcraft as the exception, or the outlier. Let's accept it for what it is, and try to learn from that - not to clone it blindly, as some developers did with little success, but to understand it, to apply its lessons and to improve on what our whole industry is doing as a consequence. Blizzard isn't just a development legend because it makes amazing games; it's a development legend because it has learned who its customers are and how to make them very happy indeed. That's not an outlier; it's something everyone in this industry should be doing, every day.