Your typical video game has a pretty basic lifespan. Like all forms of entertainment, it begins as an idea, which then a certain amount of time is spent making that idea a reality. Eventually that reality is (hopefully) fulfilled and a finished product is put out onto the market. It either does well or bombs, and for a few weeks the game is subject to discussions, reviews, analyses, etc. Once that’s all done, whoever created the game usually moves on to a new project, leaving their past work for the history books. Lately a lot of developers spend extra time on one title producing DLC or fixing any bugs, but the outcome is inevitably the same. There’s always another new project to work on that will potentially replace in quality what you just spent so much time doing before.
Massively multiplayer online role-playing games are a completely different beast. Since an MMORPG absolutely requires a steady Internet connection to play, the entire environment becomes a constantly evolving source of fun. It can’t just be left out into the wild with developers sitting back admiring their work. An MMORPG must be maintained and regulated, which originally is what made monthly subscriptions a requirement (though lately many MMORPG’s are providing free-to-play models with promises of extra perks if you pay). This is obviously a lot of effort, but done right, an MMORPG could become a money making factory for whoever produced it. The best example of success is unquestionably Blizzard’s massive World of Warcraft. Even though it’s over ten years old and lost some subscribers lately, it’s still an unstoppable force, and the recently announced sixth expansion Legion is proof that there’s still more work to be done.
WoW has been around long enough that those who were born when it first came out, way back in 2004, are very likely playing it right now near their teens. To them, the name Warcraft is only connected to a sprawling open world RPG that can occupy your life by days at a time. They never saw what it was like to get a new version of the original RTS games to see what new forces they could control for domination. In fact, they probably would have a very difficult time playing those. WoW is so different from its predecessors that it’s pretty amazing Blizzard was willing to take their most popular brand in this entirely new direction. MMORPG’s weren’t exactly prevalent back in 2004 and there wasn’t a guarantee that the typical person could maintain something with such scale. Without proper execution, WoW could have been a major dark spot on a company that already re-defined what makes a great RTS game. To put it simply: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Yet the work that went into WoW has paid off to an astronomical extent for Blizzard. It’s subscribers number in the double-digit millions and it generates billions in revenue. WoW is now the gold standard for what an MMORPG should be. The gameplay is addicting, naturally, as you make your created character stronger in a world filled with quests and enemies. The environments are insanely diverse and this completely fake setting feels so real when you get sucked in. It’s also a great way to connect with like minded people too. Meet a new friend in school that also plays WoW? Boom, you have the perfect bridge to form a bond. It’s really effortless. With the prevalence of guilds as well, there’s more than enough social interaction without anyone actually interacting. True, that’s never the same as legitimate human contact, but for some people out there it’s the absolute best they can do.
It also helps that WoW is packed to the brim with material. Well before this game became a reality, Blizzard had already created the expansive world of Azeroth and the many locations beyond with their previous Warcraft titles. Obviously it took a lot of effort translating that material to a brand new environment, but clearly a lot of headway was made by already having it available. WoW is also filled with plenty of Blizzard’s classic wit and humor, such as the ability to make your character dance like a total fool. Nothing says you’re the hero of your realm like a few pelvic thrusts!
WoW’s reach extends far and wide too. In terms of mainstream culture, this game has popped up in so many different forms. The best example is easily South Park’s “Make Love, Not Warcraft”, which went on to win an Emmy for Outstanding Animated Program. It also contained an unfortunate truth about WoW, which leads into how the series has impacted people personally. We all know that it’s a game, but some hardcore fans decide to make it their full way of life. People have been known to quit their jobs so they can play WoW full time. They don’t even make money doing it either! To them, living as their level whatever Paladin is better than living as a normal person. Yes, that seems atrocious, but it’s what people choose to do. Stan, Kyle, Cartman, and Kenny playing as obese acne riddled children may be hilarious, but it’s all too true.
I have the good fortune to never become one of those. Despite how popular WoW is, I’ve never progressed past level 16 with the only two characters I ever created. It’s not that I found the game boring or uninteresting. Quite the opposite actually! What didn’t help was that my home computer was hardly capable of playing the game properly and the subscription wasn’t under my name. It was under my brother’s who was all about WoW on his personal computer. He would spend hours on a single raid and completely skip dinner so he could keep playing. It was nuts. Sure, I could have put effort into overcoming my very easy to beat hurdles, but I never saw the point. Why upgrade my PC when I already had the most current gaming consoles? Why even bother paying a subscription fee if I can’t even get the game at its best level. Subscription fees especially turn me off. I’ve never paid a monthly charge to play a game and I’m not sure I ever will. I’m perfectly content using the free-to-play models.
It’s hard to imagine a time when WoW will stop being a profitable venture for Blizzard. There’s clearly many more years left in this game’s tank. Just last year an update rolled around that improved the dated graphics to make WoW catch up with the advancing console generation. Now it feels like a brand new game, despite it actually being one of the oldest still on the market. If Legion and all it’s fresh content does well enough, as it most likely will, more expansions are guaranteed, and WoW will continue to reign supreme in online gaming.
Luke Kalamar is Pop-Break.com’s television editor. Every Saturday afternoon you can read his retro video game column, Remembering the Classics. He covers Game of Thrones, Saturday Night Live and The Walking Dead (amongst others) every week. As for as his career and literary standing goes — take the best parts of Spider-man, Captain America and Luke Skywalker and you will fully understand his origin story.