Blizzard's success isn't magic; just hard work and open minds

Stop acting like World of Warcraft is an outlier; a decade later, we could still learn many lessons from its success

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.

More stories

Will Activision Blizzard change Xbox? | Podcast

Latest episode is available to download now as we discuss the industry's biggest deal to date

By GamesIndustry Staff

Blizzard Entertainment announces new survival game IP

Upcoming title will be the company's first original universe since 2016's Overwatch

By Jeffrey Rousseau

Latest comments (21)

Matt Martin Editor, GamesIndustry.biz9 years ago
Sorry, this is Rob's work, I just slapped it on the CMS and forgot to change names :)
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Dave Herod Senior Programmer, Codemasters9 years ago
they did away with the grind fest
Maybe you're talking about in comparison to other MMOs, but WoW is (or at least was when I used to play it years ago) still very much a grind fest.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Angus Syme Senior Artist, Lionhead Studios9 years ago
Nice article but I think wow had the advantage of being a perfect storm that effectively burnt the ladder behind it.

It was the first MMO to achieve mainstream popularity for what seems to be a number of reasons. It came at an ideal time as people were adopting online play and upgrading to faster broadband which meant they were struggling with connecting times and lag far less. It was a company with a very loyal fanbase which ensured a large amount of attention and support. It also (and this one is entirely Blizzard) was the first to begin to break away from received wisdom; stuff like grinding levels was largely replaced with questing making the experience much more user friendly. Oh and the famous art style ensured that the game would age fantastically well compared to, say, Everquest 2 which gambled the house on normal maps and other bits of new tech that at the time looked fairly harsh and unpleasant.

So you had this polished game appear with a good amount of initial content and a built in audience. Winner.

The other core thing WoW had was related to it's move into quest levelling. By effectively polishing the genre and moving it in a different direction they became the only game in town for most people. For years and years, given the lengthy development of MMOs, other companies efforts felt old fashioned and sub-par or rushed to market as they tried to adapt grind mechanics to match wow's success. By the time new games were coming out that stood on their own two legs Blizzard had managed an almost unassailable lead worth of content (and one of the largest warchests ever created by a game). These new games weren't necessarily bad and very often they had a fun 'feature', but it was usually one WoW could steal if they wanted to.

What this has meant is modern games are instantly judged against a decade worth of content and a kind of nostalgic loyalty that is almost unassailable. Wow was the gateway drug for most MMO players. Sure you'll always read about someone on the forums who hated it and started playing with Ultima but in general most people learned to level, get loot, gear, raid, instance and so on with Blizzard. It was where they joined their first guild, where they met folk and most importantly learned how to play the genre. For the vast majority of people other games look anaemic in comparison.

Which is, btw, a shame. I like WoW. I think it did tremendous things and have nothing but respect for the developers who made it. That said I also feel that it's continued dominance means the genre becomes SO risky with it squatting at the top spot that less and less MMOs will come out and companies will be less and less willing to try new ideas or genres. With the best will in the world imagine first person shooters if everyone still played Counterstrike and nothing but Counterstrike....

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Angus Syme on 28th September 2012 10:35am

2Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Show all comments (21)
Dave Herod Senior Programmer, Codemasters9 years ago
@Andreas - Kind of true, but only because they put a thin veil of "questing" over the same thing. When the quests are "go and collect X number of drops from enemy type Y" with a low drop rate, doing the quest wasn't any different from just grinding on your own anyway. It breaks it up a bit, but it's not like a radical departure.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Jose M. Martin Head of Marketing, Micronet9 years ago
This might sound quite naive but I think part of WoW's success is that it's truly a game made by passionate gamers for gamers, by teams that really enjoy what they do. It is not just a commercial claim. Blizzard has always been a passionate bunch that has managed to keep the passion at its core no matter they've grown into a crowd.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Teut Weidemann Consultant Online Games, Ubisoft Germany9 years ago
One thing he keeps forgetting though is that WoW is not a product, it is a service. There are hundreds of employees at Blizzard keeping a great service, support, events. Blizzard even takes it so far to anounce new games to their community FIRST and ignore the media. So there.

As Raph Koster said in UO: MMO are a servive, not a game.
1Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
David Radd Senior Editor, IndustryGamers9 years ago
WoW made MMOs mainstream and accessible in a way no other game had before. With that as a target, they built up a community of players, some very committed hardcore gamers and others who hadn't really played many other games, and its that community that became as large an appeal as anything, the "stickiness". Many WoW players would try other games, but they would often return to WoW due to the community. This has been their core strength over the years... though that said, I think the game peaked with Cataclysm and I'd be shocked if Mists of Pandaria brought the game back up to 12 million subscribers.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Anthony Chan9 years ago
Great article, especially the conclusion regarding "hardcore players". I strongly agree that Blizzard is using it's data effectively to drive it's design process. "Hardcore Gamers" make themselves sound like the majority in every case they present. However, I would bet that this loud segment of the community is actually a dying breed and moving towards being a minority.

When WoW came out 8 years ago, "vanilla" was more similar to the standard MMO grinds of last decade (eg. DAOC, EQ, L2, etc). What changed? The hardcore gamers (back then around 16-24 years old) who lived breathed RPGs and allowed them to reminisce about pen and die, quite simply grew up. They finished highschool, got significant others, went to college, graduated, got jobs that demand more time, got married, started families and the list goes on. They in essence, became casual players.

Blizzard understood this "anomaly" in the data and started changing the game "difficulty" to match the growing pains of it's original population. While at the same time, Blizzard captured a new set of community who share common ground. The casual non-gamer. These are the people who never understood the concept of a basement-dweller. Blizzard in essence tweaked their own game to fit the needs of the original population which also matches the needs of the general population.

That leads to the question, why then do the WoW clones fail to de-throne the "king"? I say that is more related to comfort. Gamers who grew up as hardcore WoW-players are very much at home when playing their own game, especially as it changes to fit their lifestyle. Blizzard has made a game that creates comfort knowing one would not really need to relearn mechanics, storylines, or even buy a new computer. This allows the gamers to focus on "real-life aggro" while maintaining a passion at a hobby-level pace, while not being a "noob" :)

Great job Blizzard!

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Anthony Chan on 28th September 2012 6:57pm

1Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Vasil Vasilev9 years ago
I can't help but wonder whether Blizzard isn't taking the game too far for even the more casual players. I admit I haven't played WoW since Cataclysm, so I cannot rate the gameplay experience. Also I am sure that the services will be top notch as expected by Blizzard. Seriously though - pandas? I feel let down.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
What's wrong with pandas? They're portrayed at least as seriously as cow-people and much more so than say goblins or gnomes.

I keep seeing this 'pandas? really?' sentiment and wondering if people are playing the same WoW as I am - the game doesn't take itself too seriously, it's packed with pop-culture references and in-jokes, and I think that's part of the appeal.
1Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Robert Mac-Donald Game Designer, Lethe Games9 years ago
I wonder, do other MMOs (specially the ones that "failed") have the 1 day of a week raid system?

To me this seems tobe one of the biggest reasons for wow's success. If people can just log in anytime, play, and leave the game, it never really builds a strong community around it. It makes inviting other people to play with you less likely. Some of the very popular MMO's like ragnarok have scheduled PvP base fights, similar to WoW's weekly raid system as far as I know.

While I'm really enjoying Guild Wars 2, the lack of a system like that really seems to prevent groups of players to form and play together and invite other friends in. I'm going to tell someone "come play guild wars 2, we'll do some dungeons sometimes, or WvW, or even some jumping puzzles sometimes.". It is much different than saying "come play this game with us to be part of a group that raids every week together at the same time".

Of course, this is just my gut feeling. I could be completely wrong. If anyone knows better of other MMO's systems do let me know.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Robert Mac-Donald on 28th September 2012 9:14pm

0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Dave Ingram Industry Writer 9 years ago
Wow (no pun intended). What a great point about the loud and annoyed few vs. the silent many. This must be at least one of the keys to WoW's success over the years. I am a few-hours-per-week MMO player, and I have always felt that the real juicy content of MMOs is forever out of my reach. Turning to usage data as a voice of the Silent Many helps WoW to appeal to casual gamers, and at the same time I'm sure they have teams dedicated to endgame content for hardcore players. Balancing the needs and preferences of both types of player is an art form.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Benjamin Seeberger Writer/Translator 9 years ago
WoW is the Final Fantasy of the MMO generation. It, in some way, has come to define how we see other MMOs, even if those comparisons are not warranted. (Eve, for example, is nothing like WoW, but has it's share of comparisons.)

The fact is that WoW is a solid game. It works on low-spec computers, it provides extraordinary replayability, it has comparatively excellent customer service, it tells you constantly that the developers are listening to player concerns, and it hasn't broken itself into five or six games and therefore strained development staff; it just adds realms and new expansions and continually has built upon the old product in a way which constantly stays somewhat abreast with new developments. It takes the successful from other MMOs and drops what is not; like the author says, it practices the talent of listening (as well as responding).

It would be interesting to see what would happen to Wow if suddenly all the subscribers disappeared in some rapturous moment quite out of their own hands. Would WoW be able to regain its subscriber base? I believe so.
1Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Vasil Vasilev9 years ago
@Jessica Fair enough. We are talking about Blizzard after all, so I'm sure they have their backstories straight. I actually love pandas, but here is what's wrong with them in my opinion and, in the long term, with the last WoW expansion. Blizzard is really beginning to stretch the source material. The world of WoW has a very well defined story behind it and previous expansions have done well to keep with it and develop it. The story of all previous expansions seamlessly fits with the overall WoW mythos with plot lines started with the Warcraft series are picked up and developed. And suddenly out of nowhere you have this new land popping out of nowhere. And the pandas could have been absolutely anything at all, crab-people for example, without this really making any difference whatsoever. So this is my main concern and the reason why I will not be picking up WoW any time soon. Ironically, I guess this makes me part of the "hardcore" niche mentioned above.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Vasil Vasilev on 29th September 2012 8:38pm

0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
JT QA, Rockstar Lincoln9 years ago
@ Vasil; Pandas have been in Warcraft since Warcraft III ten years ago, not as fleshed out granted, but isn't this a developing story, as you mentioned? :)
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Vasil Vasilev9 years ago
@ Jay I'll be sure to look for them next time I replay Warcraft 3. Thanks for pointing out :) Not as epic as Cataclysm, but still a developing story in this case I guess.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
David Radd Senior Editor, IndustryGamers9 years ago
"Jay I'll be sure to look for them next time I replay Warcraft 3." To be specific, there is a Pandaren as a neutral hero (Chen Stormstout) during Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne's final chapter. There are also some very obtuse references to Stormstout in World of Warcraft (some items that were his); maybe that changed in Cataclysm.

Of course, this doesn't change the fact that if you think panda people are silly, you are entitled to your opinion. :)
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Gregore Candalez Journalist and Account Manager, FD Com.9 years ago
Actually, the first Pandaren sketch is dated 1999. Samwise Didier drew his daughter as a pandaren cub as a gift to her and the concept was later introduced into the game. The issue with Mists of Pandaria here, in my opinion, is the lack of information; new players and younger kids' most recent reference is Kung Fu Panda, so they get mad because the movie is for kids and Pandas aren't compatible with WoW's atmosphere.

They are wrong, obviously.

Very nice article, Rob. It summed up pretty much everything I always thought. Whenever people say any work is brilliant but, since its creator is a genius, it shouldn't count among 'regular people' it makes me angry. Blizzard hasn't become the world's leading PC games developer by accident.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Laura Roberts Manager 9 years ago
I haven't played WoW for a few years but after playing several other recent MMOs, I realized that WoW's strength is the diverse play styles available to players. A player can purely quest and level for a long period of time. If they grow bored of that, they can focus on crafting, or create a twink, or get into PvP, or go into raiding, or serious arena PvP, or RP, etc. The game is very strong in questing, dungeons and raiding, and good enough in PvP. The strongest point of WoW to my mind is that the Blizzard team took the time to create a number of different starting areas, which makes for a awful lot of replayability with alts. How many starting areas are there now? 8? The majority of new MMOs take shortcuts with starting areas with one recent MMO only offering one starting area for all players.

Good article.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
JT QA, Rockstar Lincoln9 years ago
@ Laura, I agree, I think the sheer number of starting areas does make for excellent replayability. Certainly for me I have found that. I did find it a little frustrating though in recent expansions, that Blizzard seem to have cut that out. The Worgan starting area only being available to Worgans, the same for Goblins and now the same for Pandas. I do hope this is a trend that is not continued, for replayabilities sake.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Edward Buffery Head of LQA (UK), Testronic9 years ago
Great article, and some great comments here too! Making data driven decisions has certainly been an extremely wise move on Blizzard's part, and I think their experience with previous, non-MMO titles got them on the right track in the first place. Blizzard earned a great reputation after the release of the original Starcraft and Diablo 2 by continually patching, improving, tweaking and re-balancing the game mechanics on a nearly monthly basis for literally years. That continual dedication to improving the game was a significant part of what kept their loyal, primarily multiplayer base playing without getting bored or frustrated. At the same time, constantly raising the bar (albeit in small increments,) helps their hits compete against more recent titles that have been designed with a 'how can we make a game like X only better' mindset. By the time the competition releases a game 3 years later, Blizzard's existing / old titles have already added new 'must-have' features and fixed most of the imbalances.

I played WoW for the first 7 years or so, becoming less hardcore as the years went by. With each passing year I noted with a mix of both frustration and amusement at how the forums became increasingly full of hardcore or wannabe hardcore players moaning (sadly not very constructively most of the time) about how the game was going downhill, how the developers' obviously aren't listening to the players, and how they and their friends are all going to quit soon. At the same time, the game would be continually and consistently improving with new features, re-balanced mechanics, both new content and re-worked original content, and a steadily growing player base. Blizzard were wisely catering to the silent majority of their player base to great effect, and I was very happy to be part of it for as long as I had time to play.

For as long as Blizzard maintain their consistent and dedicated approach to continually improving their games after release without ever sitting on their laurels, I wish nothing but the very best for them!
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply

Sign in to contribute

Need an account? Register now.