Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Secret of World of Warcraft's Success

A lot of people have been guessing at why Blizzard's World of Warcraft has achieved such fantastic commercial success compared to other MMORPGs. Many seem to think that the gameplay of WoW had something to do with its success, which leads them to believe that if they can just figure out the key gameplay elements, they can copy those elements into their own MMORPG and achieve similar levels of income.

I disagree. I don't think the gameplay is a sufficient explanation for the crazy success of WoW.

My own theory as to WoW's success has five parts:

1. Lots of content. (There's always something new to do.)

2. Second-mover advantage. (Take the individual bits others have gotten right and integrate them into a single coherent product.)

3. Polish, polish, polish. (Never give the customer a specific excuse to leave.)

4. Built-in audience. (The successful Warcraft RTS guaranteed an initial subscriber base.)

5. And the biggest reason: The Hula Hoop Effect. (Popularity breeds more popularity regardless of anything else.)
With the first four of these things going for it, WoW was in a great position to do well. But it was the friend-tells-a-friend Hula Hoop Effect (which I discussed in "Post-Launch Subscription Curves for Online Games" back on July 14, 2007) that pushed WoW over the top, and that's not something anyone can count on happening for their own product. Which means that WoW's gameplay is absolutely not the only -- or even the main -- reason for its runaway success among conventional MMORPGs.

In other words, if we want to understand business success, we need to look at the business drivers, not just the technical or game design drivers. Those matter, but they don't tell the whole story of a smash hit like WoW.

So copying any of WoW's gameplay elements is nothing more than an exercise in cargo-cult design. It won't work, and developers shouldn't waste time and effort on it. If they really want ten million subscribers, their only hope is to come up with a game that does the basics well and then -- somehow -- gets its own Hula Hoop Effect.

Good luck on that.