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The Missing Ingredient May 30, 2007

Posted by Wilhelm Arcturus in EverQuest, EverQuest II, Misc MMOs, World of Warcraft.
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There is a constant low hum going on in the gaming media and the MMO blog community about World of Warcraft and how a given past/present/future competitor stacks up.

The most common list of comparisons are the bullet points from Rob Pardo’s keynote at AGC last year.  Passion. Polish. Scope. Accessibility.

All of those are key items, and I have no doubt that they have played into the success of the game.

But do you know the real, number one reason that World of Warcraft is the top dog in the MMO market?

It is because Blizzard is a successful software game company with a track record of very good, hugely successful games under their belt.

Before WoW was holding that #1 sales spot most weeks of the year, Warcraft III and its expansion were up there.  And before that, Diablo II and its expansion.  And before that there was StarCraft, StarCraft Brood War, and Diablo.

The combined sales of these games, the games that have set the community expectation for Blizzard products, are huge.  Blizzard is a winning team.  The record says that buying a game from Bilzzard is a safe bet for a fun product.  A lot of people will buy whatever they ship just because it has their name on the box.

Compare this to SOE and EverQuest II.  The captive audience for EQ2, the people who will buy an SOE game merely because of their reputation is relatively minuscule compared to Blizzard’s core of players.  The total number of accounts created for EverQuest was quoted by Brad McQuaid as being around 2 million.  That would have to be the primary pool from which to draw for a sequel.  Star Wars Galaxies was also a potential source, though to a much lesser degree I would imagine, both because of the genre change and because of the level of dissatisfaction in the user base.

Given this comparison, it isn’t much of a leap to think that EQ2 really never had a chance of matching WoW in subscribers no matter how polished the game was.  The user base that was willing… that is willing… to invest in an SOE game is just not big enough.

So the next time somebody poses the question about whether a given game is a potential “WoW Beater,” look at the track record of the company in question.  Do they consistently make high quality, best selling games? 

I don’t think anybody has a track record quite like Blizzard’s, but does anybody come close?  Who else has a large and dedicated following?

Comments»

1. Peregrine - May 30, 2007

Very good point, this is something that I always mention when talking about WoW’s popularity – in fact, you can go a bit farther, since Blizzard’s potential player base of War/Starcraft and Diablo fans are not only large in number, but also largely people who weren’t playing MMOs before WoW came out. Games like EQ2 and future games to come out will have to cannibalize the existing MMO player base, though games like LOTRO and Warhammer will have an additional way to draw people into the genre through their existing themes.

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2. brackishwater - May 30, 2007

I know this company does not have as much of a following as Blizzard but I believe BioWare has a chance to make a footprint in the world of MMO’s. They have some great games under their belt and I for one thoroughly enjoyed KOTOR. They know how to add replay and variety to the single player experience, lets hope they can with a MMO as well.

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3. Tipa - May 30, 2007

Bioware is an obvious one, what with Knights of the Old Republic, Baldur’s Gate, and other really fun games. What are some others? Bethesda (makers of Morrowind and Oblivion)? EA is a VERY famous name, and with WAR coming out next year, maybe they would have the combination of brand recognition, money, reputation, money, marketing prowess, money, ability to get boxes on shelves and money to make a real play. Unfortunately, WAR will seem overly similar to WoW to many people.

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4. cdsorden - May 30, 2007

I’m not sure I would buy a Bethesda MMO for the brand name (as I would have with Blizzard). I’ve enjoyed every game that Blizzard’s put out over the last 10-15 years. Bethesda tends to be more hit or miss.

Don’t get me wrong. They have the Fallout license and make The Elder Scrolls. I heart them. However, I just don’t see them having the same kind of weight to throw around for an MMO that Bioware does.

Also, I’d almost prefer these companies *not* to make MMOs. If the best single-player RPG companies switch their focus to MMOs, where does that leave us RPG fans? :(

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5. elfguy - May 30, 2007

WoW is successful because of the Blizzard fan base and because it came out very polished. They had millions of players already playing Blizzard games, and they got them in and kept them (for a while anyways) because the game was very easy and polished. There is no big mystery and it’s not SOE’s fault for not having the initial fan-base to get players from.

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6. David - May 30, 2007

The company I thought of was id software, not that they make MMOs, or even RPGs for that matter, but I would argue they have the brand loyalty that makes people immediately buy the latest id game, just because it’s an id game.

I don’t think anyone comes close to Blizzard though, they really know what they’re doing.

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7. Oakstout - May 30, 2007

Honestly, one of the things that turned me off of SoE games a while back was they always had their hand out. I think one of the reasons WoW is doing so well, is they don’t try to stick their hand in your pocket every 3 or 4 months. EQ2 and WoW have been out about the same amount of time, but look at all the content you had to pay for with EQ2 compared to the content you had to pay for in WoW. I think the consumer gets tired of always having to shell out money for more content, when they already have to pay a monthy fee. Lotro already has a content patch in the works and it will be free. This is the model that tends to work well for WoW and I think having a stable of successful games is great, but the consumer doesn’t want to have to keep paying for a broken product or more content to make the experienc great.

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8. yunk - May 30, 2007

Well elfguy it is a big mystery to many managers and leaders of companies. Hell just look at interviews with CCP and Brad about Eve and Vanguard – these guys don’t even believe in project managment. There is a huge problem I’ve seen in artistic-focused companies – too often they see professionalism and process management as dirty or for other businesses, not theirs. Sorry even if you’re producing a play, it’s a business. The art can be art, but the production management, handling venues and customers and vendors, that’s all business. And if you fail at it, your art fails. But even some rather famous producers in Chicago still don’t get it, and so they are always hit or miss even after decades of experience.

It is SoEs fault in a way, they had years to build up a fan base and create a brand, but failed. Blizzard did the same thing in non-online games, their reputation had nothing to do with WoW. Nor was it just about one lucky break (though that happens a lot), it’s about executing, delivering, knowing your customers. SoE could have done it too.

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9. Alex - May 30, 2007

Wilhelm, I really don’t know… I think if you put side by side the Marketing department from Blizzard and the marketing dept. from SoE, you’d see a substantial difference in marketing techniques. SoE’s marketing techniques was just not up to par compared to Blizzard’s. I have to place some weight behind that for making Blizzard a succesful company.

Take into consideration the reputation that SoE had a couple of years ago, and it was a setup for success for Blizzard. I do think, however, that SoE is doing a great job of bandaging up their reputation.

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10. Melmoth - May 30, 2007

If we’re allowed to go outside of the RPG aspect of MMOs slightly (because several folks have mentioned Bioware already), I could see Valve, Epic Games or Bungie doing something which would get the hype machine into some sort of hideously dangerous nitrous-fuelled rampage. But I get the feeling that people are more fans of their flagship products of Half-Life, Unreal and Halo than the companies themselves, so if they went with a different IP I’m not sure whether it would have the grass roots effect that you’re describing with Blizzard.

Would Blizzard have had the same success if it had gone for new IP instead of Warcraft?

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11. brackishwater - May 30, 2007

Ill drop another one in the bucket, Sega Games. They have a bunch of IP’s that were great to play on a myriad of systems including their own.

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12. Wilhelm2451 - May 30, 2007

I think that just goes along with what I said Alex. SOE did not have the following to generate a success on the scale of WoW. SOE, and nobody else is responsible for their games, their marketing, and their relationship with the community.

And marketing isn’t magic. Despite what people on forums may say, I do not think there is anything within the realms of the budgets at SOE that they could have done to make EQ2 more successful.

SOE’s base of users, who are primarily from EverQuest, is not big enough. Blizzard, on the other hand, was selling popular games and building its reputation and user base when EverQuest was an idea.

I do wonder what SOE might have done to enhance its fan base for a sequel, but marketing would not be enough. Maybe a good, single player RPG set in Norrath?

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13. Bildo - May 30, 2007

Heh… Pokemon MMO. There’s your WoW killer across the globe. :)

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14. David - May 30, 2007

I wonder… had Blizzard launched EQ2 as it was, and SOE launched WoW as it was, would EQ2 have 8 million subscribers?

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15. kendricke - May 30, 2007

Honestly though, I’d have to disagree to a large extent. You can’t compare the current World of Warcraft numbers to any numbers Blizzard put out in years past. I know 50 year olds playing World of Warcraft nightly who never heard of Diablo or Starcraft.

Most of Blizzard’s fanbase existed within Korea, which due to the interesting and unique laws and culture revolving around that country’s online games, lead to such a phenomena there that we couldn’t begin to appreciate it here. Did you know there were multiple cable channels (still are) in South Korea dedicated to nothing more than Starcraft. Let me repeat that: cable channels (plural)…Starcraft.

Name the last time you flipped on your TiVo or DirectTV here in the U.S. and could find a single channel dedicated to even a single brand of online gaming – much less a single title.

Where did Blizzard choose to announce Starcraft II, by the way? Was it New York or L.A.? Did they do it at a big show like the CES or E3? No, they announced it in Seoul. Tell me they don’t know which side their bread is buttered on? I’ll give you a hint – it’s not the side on this side of the Pacific.

Take a breakdown of World of Warcraft’s announced subscriber base, by the way. Of those 8 million accounts, how many exist in North America? How many exist in Asia? Of those, how many are based in South Korea?

I think you’d be surprised. The reason World of Warcraft took off could be debated for years (and actually has, when you think about it), but in my opinion, any Ameri-centric based discussions on Blizzard’s “fan base” is simply not touching on the real “sekret sause”.

The initial explosion of subscribers didn’t happen in North America. It occured right in the middle of Blizzard’s real core fanbase…and again, that base wasn’t centered in North America. Fact is, we’re small potatoes on this side of the pond by comparison. The real money wasn’t found in dollars…but initially in won.

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16. Wilhelm2451 - May 30, 2007

Kendricke, your disagreement ends up sounding a lot like agreement to me. User base is user base regardless where they live, and that user base was built by a series of very popular and successful games from Blizzard. SOE, to use the standard comparison, has had no equivalent success on which to build.

Even your anecdotal 50 year old playing WoW no doubt had it brought to his attention due to the popularity of the game, whether that be word-of-mouth or a big end cap display at Best Buy. Success in the past drives Blizzard’s current success. Stores like Best Buy put up end caps and big displays for proven winners only. (There is a place where EA has a shot.)

And even if we look at North America where WoW has 2 Million subscribers, we still see success beyond any other. (And I would be willing to guess the net revenue for Blizzard from the 3.5 million US and Euro subscribers is comparable to their Asian take.)

Is any MMO in the “$15 a month” bracket anywhere close to that 2 million number in North America? That sounds a lot like four times EverQuest’s world wide peak.

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17. Kilanna - May 30, 2007

I can understand that from a commercial perspective why folks would want to cash in on some of the success of WoW. While I understand why it is happening, I have read so much discussion about making a WoW beater lately that it drives me nuts :)

I presume many folks though are like myself in that they will not change MMO’s unless it is something pretty darn special. Why would someone leave EQ II for WoW or visa versa if they had been playing it for one or two years unless there is something special to change for?

I would argue that if there was a bunch of ingredients that combined to make WoW as successful as it is, it would have been bottled and reproduced. Lets face it, Blizzard have a licence to print money with WoW. I accept that Blizzards’ track record and loyal followers may have contributed to the success of WoW, but I suggest it is impossible to characterise the complete combination of ingredients that has lead to the incredible success of WoW.

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18. Wilhelm2451 - May 30, 2007

I agree Kilanna, and one of the underlying points of my post was that some of the ingredients that made for WoWs success are unique to the situation at Blizzard and there is no copying them. Blizzard’s unique track record of success is just one of those, but one that is interesting to explore and compare against other companies.

I do tire of hearing the Rob Pardo catechism from AGC repeated as the sole ingredients to MMO domination. It was a good speech and worthy of note, but represent what ought to be the base line for having hope of any success, not the recipe for being #1.

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19. CuppyTalk » Speaking on Ingredients - May 31, 2007

[...] read a good post by Wilhelm at The Ancient Gaming Noob the other day, and I’m finally getting around to [...]

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20. Kilanna - May 31, 2007

Oops sorry Wil – I re read my post and I sounded grumpy.

There are a plethora of fantasy MMO’s out there and coming up. WoW is without question the alpha dog and no-one is even close to being able to challenge his supremacy at the moment.

It would be interesting to see some of the principles you have outlined applied to a different setting in an MMO – A Science Fiction or Horror setting for example, rather than just making another Fantasy MMO to try and beat on WoW.

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21. ogrebears - June 1, 2007

i think that true but a few other thing helped as well. The fact that they picked warcaft i think help a lot.. If they had made a brand new IP for the game, i don’t think it could of done as well as it has.

Also before the game was launched Blizzard had an open beta. That was HUGE. A lot of the people in my dorms back then had never played an MMO. A lot of them knew of warcaft (some had not played it before). But the fact that they knew about the game and there was a Free open beta.

Had Blizzard made this MMO with a new ip and no open beta.. i hostly doubt it would of got 1/2 the subscribers it has today.

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22. The Common Sense Gamer » Blog Archive » Warriors to the forum - June 1, 2007

[...] Cuppy countered an article by Wilhelm, which is really summarized by this: But do you know the real, number one reason that World of [...]

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23. Wilhelm2451 - June 1, 2007

It is clear that Blizzard knew a thing or two about laying the groundwork for success.

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24. Hardware Worthy « pΘtshΘt - June 1, 2007

[...] 2 06 2007 Wilhelm2451 seems to have touched a nerve with his The Missing Ingredient and follow up post Follow up Thought. I thought I’d add my own 2cp here rather than type them [...]

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