2009 is not 2004, yet after reading this post over at TAGN, it sure seems that way. Let’s define the environment WoW launched in first, because John’s recount seems to have forgotten a few minor details.
1) EQ2 launched just before WoW, pulling players out of their established EQ1 communities. While EQ2 now is a very stable game, it was near unplayable in 2004, conveniently displacing the biggest PvE crowd of MMO gamers. WoW, the better EQ1 clone, launches shortly after and avoids the mistakes made by EQ2, mainly the unreasonably high system requirements. Blizzard did not take the MMO crown from SOE, they handed it over on a silver platter.
2) DAoC saw it’s Trials of Atlantis expansion release in late 2003, an expansion Mythic themselves admitted was a giant mistake. ToA basically screwed the game for its core audience, changing the focus from an RvR game to PvE raiding. While still popular in 2004, players were dying for an excuse to leave it thanks to ToA. The pre-launch hype of WoW featuring PvP, with the whole Horde vs Alliance setup (it’s the core of the game, right Blizzard), was a nice draw for DAoC players.
3) UO/AC/EQ1: The big three of the first generation, by 2004 they all looked horribly outdated. UO was pseudo 3D, EQ1 looked like a bunch of blocks fighting it out, and AC was the ‘me too’ game of the bunch. WoW looked like the Mona Lisa compared to any of those games. Not to mention that all three were already deep into cash-cow mode in 2004. The leap in computing power, and the general acceptance of graphics cards by the masses between 1997 and 2004 is not an easily ignored factor.
4) It’s nice to think WoW had this perfect launch, and by 2004 standards it sure seemed like it. If fact, it was so perfect, Blizzard handed out weeks worth of free account time to players due to servers being down for 8+ hours at a time, and server queues of an hour+. If you happen to pick one of the ‘troubled’ servers in the early days, it was not uncommon 3-5 MONTHS after release for that server to still be down for extended maintenance. Had SOE launched EQ2 anywhere near playable, all those WoW players watching their server status in red might have had a place to go, but in 2004 WoW was it. Taken out of that perfect environment, what would happen to a new MMO today if their servers were down during prime time for weeks or months after release?
5) WoW was viewed as a sequel of sorts to Warcraft 3, the most popular RTS game at the time, meaning it not only entered the market when MMO fans were looking towards the next-gen games, but also brought a swarm of internet-ready gamers looking to continue playing a Warcraft game. It also launched during the economic boom of late 2004, long after the fallout of the dot-com era was over.
In short, late 2004 was a ‘perfect storm’ of sorts to launch an MMO. The current king shot himself in the foot, removing himself right before your arrival. The previous king told his core audience to screw, and gaming itself was moving out of its nerd niche and into the mainstream thanks to Sony and the Playstation brand. Oh yea, and WoW was a great game.
But let’s keep that greatness in perspective. WoW is not 10x better than LotRO/EQ2/WAR/EVE, and because of that amazing greatness it has reach its 4-5 million US/EU players. It’s a polished EQ1 clone, and it’s a pop sensation, propelled by its own popularity. It’s the equivalent of Britney Spears in music, Titanic in movies, or The Sims or Myst in gaming. You reach a certain popularity point, and people buy it because everyone else is doing it. The masses are lemmings, this is not news.
And those same lemmings now are indeed the MMO tourist population, jumping into WAR and thinking the sewers in Aldorf are going to be The Deadmines, or that RvR will be sitting and waiting for them whenever they log on, be it during prime time or 5am on a Monday. That the same pattern they followed in WoW will apply to any and all future MMOs. Then they will turn around and demand innovation, but only if that innovation is as polished as the copied, refined, and safe features they are use to.
To bring things back to John’s post, he wrote: “You can cry “jaded gamer!” all you like, but for what other audience was WAR shooting?” 300k IS the jaded gamer audience, 4-5 million is the non-MMO-playing casual market, and a portion of that 4-5 million will take one month trips into each new shiny that launches, only to return home regardless of their recent vacation spot. It also helps when you release a paint-by-numbers expansion for a content-starved game, packing 2 years of development time into an upfront, quick, and ultimately shallow experience, another market condition that simply did not exist in 2004.
That line John talks about at the end of his post is not the line between success and niche, it’s the line between casual gaming and the MMO market. As THQ recently learned, chasing that casual market is not as easy as it seems, and while you might get lucky and strike it rich, more often than not the lemmings won’t even notice you.