There's no getting around it: Blizzard's immensely popular World of Warcraft is the undisputed king of MMORPGs. For almost a decade, Blizzard's title has sat upon a gilded throne, gazing scornfully down at those who would try to steal its crown. And make no mistake - there have been challengers. There have been so many, it's sometimes hard to keep count.
They all have one thing in common - they inevitably fail. It seems every year, we're seeing the birth of a new title heralded as a "Wow killer." It's gotten to the point where this phrase is little more than a buzzword; meaningless label applied to any game that looks promising. Even though Blizzardis starting to feel a bit of pressure from the free to play market, World of Warcraft has nevertheless hung onto its crown, leaving a trail of battered, bruised pretenders in its wake.
Just what is it that makes the game so popular? Why has it retained its fame and player-base for so long? And why, even as it hemorrhages subscribers, is it still one of the most played games in the world?
Accessibility and Mass Appeal
Traditionally, most MMOs aren't exactly easy to get into. For many, that was part of the genre's charm. You felt well and truly accomplished when you figured out what it was you were doing; you felt a real sense of achievement when you overcame a game's myriad challenges, most of which were peppered all the way from early-game to endgame. World of Warcraft originally lifted something of that difficulty curve, way back in its early days...and has since completely re-worked it to its liking. This isn't necessarily a bad thing.
While lowering the difficulty curve has certainly alienated a whole camp of WoW's more hardcore players, it's also brought in millions of people who might otherwise avoid it. In short, World of Warcraft may well be the most accessible MMORPG on the face of the planet. Further, many of those players quickly become dedicated subscribers, all of whom have the potential to become skilled players.
I'll be the first to admit that World of Warcraft isn't a game for everyone. I deactivated my account some time ago, out of boredom (though lately, I've been rather interested in starting it up again). While it lasts, though? It's fun. Really, really fun. Every class has its own distinct flavor and flair, and there's something for pretty much every playstyle you could possibly think of.
Plus, it feels good to play. Call it a Skinner box if you like, but World of Warcraft actually give you a small sense of accomplishment every time you level up, every time you finish a quest, every time you acquire a new skill. The whole experience is, as a whole, an enjoyable one; World of Warcraft put a new spin on a genre that desperately needed a refresher.
And now at least half the MMORPGs releasing these days try to ape it. That's telling in and of itself.
Never underestimate the power of a good ad campaign. Blizzard certainly hasn't, and look where it's gotten them. Of course, a lot of its success owes just as much to the studio's pedigree as it does its marketing tactics.
See, if any developer can be referred to as a legend, it's Blizzard. Even before World of Warcraft went live, it was responsible for some of the best, most popular games ever made. Blizzard's portfolio was extremely strong at launch, and many ended up playing WoW solely because the developer hadn't done them wrong yet.
Beyond that, Blizz has done a masterful job getting the word out about the game. Their marketing campaigns for Wow have all met with smashing success, and contributed a great deal to the title's rapid proliferation. This extends to the in-game experience, as well: Blizzard understands its fans, and does a very good job in getting them stoked for new updates.
Simply put, World of Warcraft is the Facebook of MMORPGs, in that many are still playing it because all their friends have (and besides that, they've already put a lot of work into it). Indeed, one of its chief strengths is that it's been around for so long that it's become a fixture for more than a few gamers. Many of these people keep playing it because they're already playing it, and taking up a different MMO would simply be too much effort.