16 September, 2007
There's a lot of talk about learning the lessons from other games. In particular, people want to learn what made WoW so successful. Of course, this is the game industry so this usually means, "I want to make a copy/clone of the game and wear nice moneyhats like they did."
The Austin conference had quite a bit of information to point out how cool WoW still is. Mike Morhaime, president of Blizzard, had a keynote. And, the usually respectable Gordon Walton gave a talk about lessons learned from WoW.
Of course, if it were as simple as learning a few lessons, we'd be knee-deep in WoW clones today. Well, successful ones at least. So, why haven't people taken obvious advice and made their own WoW clones?
Mostly because people are learning the wrong lessons.
Take a look at the article on Gordon's talk linked above, and you'll see what I mean if you look at his first lesson where he claims that Blizzard learned from the past. In fact, this is not the case. According to people discussing Morhaime's keynote, Blizzard had no idea what the typical growth rate of online RPGs was. (Note that I didn't attend the keynote myself, I wanted to hear Lee Sheldon talk instead; if I'm wrong about the keynote, I blame the people I was talking with.) Blizzard expected that their single-player game would sell better, because who would pay a subscription fee? They expected the game would grow slowly over time, unlike pretty much every other major online RPG that had been released in the previous 8 years or so.
The real lesson here is that a company that is superb at making single-player games has a chance to make a superb MMORPG. Blizzard's processes for producing single-player games undoubtedly reduced the problems they could have had while making WoW.
This isn't to say that Gordon is entirely wrong; his second lesson is an element that can help a game become a large success: low system requirements to play the game. People have started to notice this as an important part of having a good game. It's funny because the tendency in the game industry is to push the envelope, and programmers and artists generally don't like to live anywhere but the edge; Morhaime said in his keynote that some of WoW's artists were worried about working on the game because it wasn't cutting edge, and they feared they wouldn't be able to get jobs on new projects afterwards! But, note that this is just one aspect, taking a terrible game and having low system specs doesn't guarantee success.
Being too specific
Moorgard recently posted a bit about learning from Wow as well. He argues that even though Blizzard keeps revealing the secret sauce, other people aren't following as well because it's not just the recipe, it's the chef that makes the secret sauce so good. The points out that theory is different than practice, so while everyone has easy access to theory, the practice is the difficult part.
He is partially right, but not quite there. Consider, for example, that a billionaire could post a treatise about how to invest 50 million dollars and make 40% annual returns. He or she could go into as much detail as possible. But, I suspect I would get few people following that advice. Why? Because there are few people with $50M lying around to invest. Those that do have that much money probably have their own ideas on how to invest it.
So, really, most of the "advice" the developers of WoW give is pretty useless, not just because theory and practice are different, but because two different examples of practice can be radically different. WoW didn't spring from a vacuum, and you have to look at the factors surrounding the game to really get the whole picture.
To continue the metaphor, it's not just the recipe or the chef, but also the fully-stocked and outfitted dollar kitchen, the large marketing budget, the long history of the establishment, the location of the restaurant, etc. There are so many different factors as to why one thing is more popular/successful/etc. than another that you really can't simply boil it down to a single element, or even a list of single elements, that others can follow to duplicate success. Trying to do so is actually more of a distraction that an assistance.
The real lessons
Okay, so I'm slamming other people for pointing out the lessons learned. Time for me to put my own neck on the chopping block and let others take swings: what do I think are the lessons learned from WoW? Note that these only apply if you want to create the largest game; if you're interested in niche markets, well, you poor, deluded fool.
Go big: outspend your rivals. According to various figures people have come up with, Blizzard spent about twice as much money on WoW as any other online RPG had previously. This had an obvious effect on the quality of the game. So, if someone wants to do to WoW what WoW did to EQ, then you need to plan on having a budget of nine figures or so. (And, no, that doesn't include cents.)
Have a known name. The Warcraft name had about a decade of weight behind it, starting with the original Warcraft game released in 1994. The series became a certifiable hit when Warcraft II was released about a year later. With a long history behind an original IP like this, the series had a lot of time to build an avid base of fans. This is ignoring the reputation that Blizzard has built as a company over these years, too. So, if you want to duplicate WoW's success from scratch, release a great single-player game now and you can release your WoW-killer in 2017.
Have an existing, committed fanbase. Diablo 2 pre-sold over 1 million copies of the game. That's awesome sales for a console game, and mind-blowing for a PC game. If you have people willing to buy a game in those numbers, before release, on the strength of the previews of a game and the good name of the developer, your fans will almost certainly give you the benefit of the doubt for a new game. So, again, make sure your game company has a long history behind it if you want to duplicate WoW's success.
Enjoy total freedom. People always say that the best policy is to "release a game when it's ready." Of course, that's another one of those lessons that is easy to say but hard to follow. Reality (or someone who wants a return on investment) usually dictates that a game be released at a specific time. Blizzard has a pretty sweetheart deal with their corporate overlords, where they have the freedom to follow the "release it when it's ready" mantra that few other game companies have. So, you better have more business acumen than 99.9% of the game developers out there; unfortunately, this isn't that hard, really.
Know how to lie with statistics. I'm being a bit impolitic here, but it's obvious that Blizzard knows how to play the numbers game. Looking over Blizzard's press releases, you can see how the generally announce numbers when they would be at their peak. They have also been sharing less information about their numbers in more recent reports. While they originally specified the breakdown of users from different markets, the recent press release bragging about 9 million subscribers does not include this information. The reason for this, I suspect, is because growth is stagnant in some of the older markets. But, if they add another million users in a still-growing market (like China), they can appear to be continuously growing and popular even if growth is negative in other markets. So, make sure that you have the appearance of continuous growth, because nothing helps popularity like appearing to be popular.
The lesson here is: while duplicating the success of WoW, or even beating it at its own game, is possible, it's not that likely.
What do you think? Is success as easy as following a bunch of steps like this?