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Six years on, why is World of Warcraft so enduring?

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Buzz's Words

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To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of the women

Looking back over the fifteen-year history of online role-playing games, one
thing's obvious: World of Warcraft changed everything. Releasing in 2004 to massive acclaim, it doubled the size of the massively-multiplayer market in just a year, forced many of its competitors to release their games for free to compete, and even made television history along the way.

It's hard to believe developer Blizzard's massive MMO has been with us for
more than six years -- and while it was a big hit at its 2004 launch,
its real success has been in the gradual (and continuing) growth of its
subscriber base over the intervening years. Next month, it launches its
third expansion -- Cataclysm -- which will dramatically reshape the game's world and is predicted by just about everyone to be the year's best-selling computer game.

A week might be a long time in politics, and the high-tech world of video
games moves nearly as fast. Major consoles can typically expect about a
five-year run before being superseded. Six years qualifies as several
lifetimes, at least. World of Warcraft has weathered huge, seismic
shifts in the market forces that drive the games industry; it has
survived everything from the coming of the casual-friendly Wii and
Nintendo DS to the more recent explosion of the online shooter genre
among young males. And yet Warcraft continues to grow, topping the 12
million subscriber mark in early October.

Blizzard's ranks have expanded along with the game: as of last September, it employed nearly 5,000 people around the world. Even the recent economic downturn couldn't stymie its rise; it cannily merged with mega-publishers Activision and Vivendi in a
series of intricate deals that preserved its management independence.
Not only are all three Blizzard co-founders still with the firm, they
all carry top-level development credits on World of Warcraft.

With that experience come the smart decisions that keep fans paying the
game's $15 monthly subscription. Most six-year-old games look hopelessly
dated, and although Warcraft's starting to look a little shabby 'round
the edges, its cartoony ethos leans more on talented artists than flashy
special effects, keeping it from aging as badly as its peers. And since
it was built to run on a mid-range PC six years ago, it's a breeze for
just about any reasonably modern computer to play.

Like a TV show laying down plot threads for a planned spin-off, Blizzard is
already working to invest its players in Cataclysm's forthcoming launch.
Strolling around its cities, you'll see doomsayers prophesying the
apocalypse it'll introduce. New quest lines (for all players,
experienced and casual) are already acquainting players with its
storyline concepts. Whether you buy the expansion or not -- it's not
compulsory, though most players will likely pick it up -- the world's
still going to be shattered, and you're going to be a part of it.

Building compelling storylines like these isn't easy for an online role-playing
game. Players are used to being the heroes -- but how do you build a
story with 12 million individual stars? Fortunately, Warcraft's rich
history (it was a successful series of strategy games long before online
RPGs were invented) means there's a wealth of background characters and
themes for the game's writers to draw on -- and plenty of
super-committed fans who'll call them on even the slightest of slip-ups.

Warcraft's real success, though, hasn't been in engaging these hardcore gamers.
Instead, it provides an experience that just about anyone can sit down
and learn in a few half-hour sessions, regardless of previous
experience. The Blizzard brand -- in the same way as Apple's, say, or
that of Bejeweled creator Popcap -- means user-interfaces that are easy
to learn and satisfying to use, and you can see that same philosophy
echoed across nearly two decades of Blizzard hits. Little in World of
Warcraft was innovative upon its release; much of its concepts were
familiar to players of early MMOs like Everquest and Ultima Online. But
Warcraft simply did them better.

So how long can it stay on top? Nothing lasts forever, and although the
game's total subscription figures indeed continue to creep ever higher,
its growth is widely thought to be a result of increased uptake in newer
Asian markets -- a phenomenon which may mask declines in more lucrative
Western territories. Warcraft's days are inevitably numbered, and the
famously-secretive (and largely leak-proof) Blizzard is well known to be
working on its next online world.

It won't be another Warcraft game, though. In fact, it's set to be the
company's first original project in over a decade. Described by Blizzard
reps as "next-gen" and "casual-friendly," rumor has it being anything
from a massive sci-fi shooter to a social game inspired by the likes of
Farmville.

Don't expect to hear more about it for at least a year. Blizzard's attention
to detail -- and its deep pockets, courtesy of six years of vast
Warcraft profits -- means the company isn't in any rush. Whatever the
game ends up being, it'll be out when it's done, and Warcraft players
don't seem to be in any hurry to move on.

What keeps you playing World of Warcraft? Let us know in the comments.

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