The Wow Factor

Well, it’s been two years (more or less) of World of Warcraft. Happy Birthday.

To this day, perhaps what I find most amazing about WoW is not found in the game itself, but in its surroundings. To this date, I haven’t seen anyone that could sit down, think about and say “Okay, this one thing is what made WoW successful”. Not one.

Sure there’s been talk. Tons of it. Many issues brought up, many opinions crossed and much ink put to paper, virtual or not. But the result is the same. Beyond our individual appreciations of the object itself, we gamers still haven’t managed as a group to reach some sort of nebulous consensus and point to one thing unequivocally. We seem to be at a loss when it comes to WoW; two years in, and we still don’t know what makes it tick.

So I ask , why not? What is it about this game that seems to be so elusive? What is it about this object that, without changing itself, has managed to make itself approachable only through its facets, never to be studied acutely or even with a narrow focus? Why is it that all of a sudden, two years ago we had this game which was not based on any IP that was instantly recognizable to non-gamers, yet it exploded with such force that very shortly we had everything from grandmas to housewives playing it? And what a force it was…

In merely two years (heck, even in only one year if you want) we are already talking about this major paradigm, liked or not, this major inflexion point in gaming which marks the before and after WoW. It has become, willingly or not, the standard to which all other genre games, present and future, are inevitably measured against. Why? Was this simply lightning in a bottle, like Deus Ex was a while back, but multiplied by a hundred or more? Or was there design behind this thing? WoW is equally praised and maligned, and that to me speaks volumes. I have learned through the years to adapt myself to things like these. I know what to expect when games receive unilateral and relentless praise or condemnation — I know what’s up in those cases, I file and I move on. But when I come across the exceedingly rare game that elicits ambiguous and countered responses, and this comes not from mediocrity but from the honest-to-goodness elusiveness of thing, well I can’t help but to stand up and take notice. And ask myself just what is it about it?

Can I even answer it? Can we even point to one thing and say this is why WoW has succeeded, and this is what everyone else is trying to elucidate and grasp for their own games? What is this thing? If I had to point at one thing, and one thing only, as the shining reason for WoW’s success, what would it be?


I would have to say its accessibility. That’s the hook. That’s the entry wound. Mind you, this is not bulletpoint accessibility — it’s accessibility across the board. Not only does WoW have pretty lax system requirements (even for its launch date), which enabled Aunt Jemima to run it pretty decently even in her old Compaq, but it’s also an accessible game by design. One of the most important things that WoW is responsible for is, in one fell swoop, doing away with the needless complications of prior games. Doing away with all the micromanagery and the classical obfuscation present in the genre since at least EQ, if not earlier. Make no mistake, the data wasn’t thrown away, the stats and numbers were not locked with padlock, but the whole thing, the hard edges of an MMO were conveniently and very astutely put on a second plane. Hidden behind a veneer of glitz or in some cases not even shown prima facie at all.

I mentioned the classical obfuscation being gone, and I think it’s very true. Death penalties suddenly became very relaxed, and a minor inconvenience at best. You would really hardly ever spend more than two or three minutes on a corpse run thanks to conveniently placed graveyards. There is no loss of xp, and your equipment takes a quite soft durability hit. And if that wasn’t relaxed and groovy enough, you could always rez at the healer if you were pressed for time. Want more obfuscation gone? It’s quite possible to reach level 60 by not grouping at all. Of course there’s a downside to that — you won’t be instancing much at all, but the choice is there. Few solo quests take more than an hour to complete. For those that could only devote their time to WoW in chunks of one or two hours per day at the most, that was a godsend. They could control the dosage of their own advancement and progression, like a time released medicine, and in their own terms.

There are other examples, but I could be here all day and, to be perfectly honest, they’re minor points. However, they are minor points that add up. And the result is one big ball of friendly, accessible happy face gaming.

This of course has a flipside; that WoW is considered by many to be MMO-lite, and with good reason. The hardcore thrive in conquering obfuscation, whatever form it takes, so naturally when there’s little of it to conquer by design, the result feels hollow for them. Obfuscation is what separates the faithful from those who just are not. This is not a localized MMO occurance, you can observe it everywhere when hardcore gamers malign titles like The Sims and similar, or even when time-honored franchises start to descend into the pits of streamlining and friendliness (Ex., Civilization, Sim City, etc.). So, the natural question is… is a MMO-lite really a bad thing?

I’m not arguing for all MMOs to be Toontown. That’s not a solution, that’s just dumbing down things for its own sake (as nice as Toontown might be). However, I think it’s perfectly possible to have a MMO-lite, that is one which has done away with old conventions of no use today or rough edges of design carried over by tradition, yet still end up with a smart and engaging game.

One of the most common ‘crimes’ of developing (and I think of the gaming public in general as well) is to confuse complication with complexity. Complexity, as related to gaming, is good. Complexity is very good. It is one of the best enablers of depth of gameplay. It creates options, it creates conceptual relations between game components and ideas, it adds to the general believability and ‘honesty’ of the game, if there’s such a thing. Complexity is detail, it’s an expanding notion, it’s inclusive. Good, effective, well-designed complexity adds value and size to a game. It makes it more rewarding, it keeps players engaged.

Complication, however, is not good. Complication is the spawn of the union between obfuscation and limitation. Complication constricts, it’s a roadblock for players on their road to fun and compensation. Complication is something players have to put up with, instead of eagerly anticipating its conquest. Complication is bad, you don’t want to have much of it at all, and if you absolutely have to have it, you need to make sure it’s as localized as possible. You need your players to say “This part is complicated, and sucks, but thankfully the rest is great”… never the other way around.

To the point, good games are complex — bad games are complicated. And WoW is game that, while not very complex at all (its mechanics are simple and it makes no attempt to hide this fact most of the time), it has managed to reach a design that offers very little complication to the players. Is this it? Is this nugget of theory the fabled lightning in a bottle that WoW managed to catch? Is this where it’s at?

There are other factors, of course. WoW’s art direction, while not stunning, is consistent, and that’s just as important. The game enters the eye very, very pleasantly and that’s a huge entry point for most non-gamers. There are many games that are better games than WoW, and some are just as accessible even, but they’re not attractive visually so they never catch on. Another entry point is that WoW managed to offer, at first at least, enough content to keep players diversely occupied. The common viewpoint I’ve noticed from players is that the game is a joy to ride from 1-59, with a big ball of crap (re: 40-man raids) at the end. And that’s good. Players start playing from the beginning, not the end, and I’d much rather have an engaging early game than an engaging end game. Ideally you want both, but you do what you can most of the time, not what you want.

So, is that it? Is that the trick? Build your MMOs lite, and they will come? Well, no. Hold on. It depends on how lite your lite is, and how far into lite are you willing to go. If you build your next WoW killer streamlined to hell and back, with a wide and coarse brush of design that wipes away complexity and complication alike, you’ll only end up with a dumb game, and those are never attractive. You shouldn’t streamline for its own sake. The key, I think, is to have enough presence of mind and chutzpah to sit down, think for a while, realize all the baggage of obfuscation this genre carries proudly, and doing away with that, as much as you can see fit. That, however, requires thinking that breaks the mold. It requires originality to envision it, talent to execute it and balls to publish it.

Do we have all that? If we do, the next WoW killer should be coming down the pipes pretty soon. If we don’t… then all we’ll see will be carbon copies of it. All pale imitations of WoW, alike enough to be initally endearing, different enough to keep some of their own identity, but eventually hollow, since that identity is not defined by itself, but by the game it tried to kill.

Originality. Talent. Balls. This is gaming. This has always been the creamy nougat center of gaming. Sometimes just what you need is right there, by your feet, at the roots.


2 Responses to “The Wow Factor”

  1. 1 daveydweeb November 10, 2006 at 1:50 am

    I came here because I saw the Ars thread. I understand the thrill of seeing incoming hits, so I thought I’d share the love. šŸ˜‰

  2. 2 Julian November 10, 2006 at 8:43 am

    You’re customer #1!
    *throws confetti and balloons* – Thanks for stopping by. Unfortunately, there are no prizes.

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