Blah, blah, blah, World of Warhammercraft. Blah, blah, WoW killer. Sorry, it ain't gonna happen - at least, it ain't going to happen fast. It will take more than a good game to displace WoW from the top of the MMoRPG food chain, and any developer trying to do so faces a horrible uphill struggle to do so.
Here's the problem they face: WoW is no longer just a game. WoW has become a social operating system.
WoW as a Social OS
Now, you're probably saying "sounds good, Leafy, but what the hell does that mean?" Well, it means that WoW has become as much a place to hang out together as it has a game per se. Take the guild I left nearly a month ago, and nay be rejoining soon. The guild is, in essence, a bunch of real life friends who are prevented from meeting up too often in the flesh by little things like time, distance and families. Most of us are in our 30s, with all the responsibilities that entails. We don't get to go down the pub very often, but we can jump in game, or on Vent, and enjoy a wee chat, or a bit of fun in an instance. It becomes a new form of social life, one that complements our existing one, and that reinforces social bonds.
I've played around 40 minutes or WoW in the last month - by far the least amount of playtime I've racked up since I joined the EU beta well over three years ago. There are multiple reasons behind this, but, however lovely the current guild Leafy's in are, they're not people I've known for half my life. I've lost that feeling of bantering with mates, even if I don't find anything useful to do in game.And without that feeling, I've little interest in the game.
Now, I'm sure there are plenty of serious gamers out there, who switch guilds and servers to achieve what they want in the game and whose guildies became friends after they became guildmates. But I'd also lay odds that a good solid core of WoW is made up of people like us - people who are essentially friends playing together, from the couple who sit down in WoW rather than vegging out in front of the telly, to the continentally-displaced friends who find Azeroth the easiest way to meet up online.
In other words: the gameplay is secondary to WoW as a social environment. As long as the gameplay promotes socialisation, you're good.
To get guilds like that to move, you need to create something so
very attractive - and which offers the same social benefits as WoW -
that the vast majority of the guild are committed to moving. Then those
who are less keen will either quit altogether, or come along as Azeroth
begins to feel terribly empty. If Blizzard continues to put out enough
content to keep everyone occupied and enjoying the game, than even a
significantly superior game won't be enough to overcome the social
Think of WoW as a local pub, if you like. You can drop in there whenever you want, and pretty much guarantee finding someone you know to chat to. Now, a newer, more shiny bar may open down the road, but the sofa you and your mates normally sit on isn't there, and the first couple of times you swing by, there's no-one you know about. Not much incentive to switch, even if they are serving better beer, is there? It will take either a focused decision to switch, or a gentle migration over time, for the new pub to displace the old one. And the only thing that's likely to drive either is dissatisfaction with the current game. Or pub.
The Mac Factor
And don't under-estimate the drag factor of the Mac users. WoW is the only MMoRPG that has been available on both Mac and Windows from the start and, unlike previous efforts, allows both PC and Mac owners to play on the same server. Now, Macs may be under 10% of the computers sold, but when you factor out business sales, they're a much larger proportion. So, if, say 20% of your guild is on Macs, you have an additional drag factor to stop wholesale switching.
A World of World of Warcraft
There's more to it than just the micro social aspect, though. There's clearly a macro social factor, too. The game has such a large international player base that elements of the game have become a strong shared cultural vocabulary. The key iconography of the game is recognisable all over the world, even if some of the names aren't.
Warhammer, or Star Trek, for all their well-known IPs, come pre-bundled with loads of baggage. For those who aren't part of the existing fanbase, they're "spotty teenage boy" and "no life geeks" stereotypes, which will be hard to shake. For those who are fans, dealing with players not taking beloved settings seriously will be an problem (I like to call this the DarthPwnsU issue...).
Warcraft is an IP that was designed for a game, and which has only
spread slightly outside that. Few people will be coming to the IP
through the spin-offs rather than the games. It has a strong element of
humour and silliness from the start, that makes the intrustion of lame
player humour all the less jarring.
In other words, people don't come for the IP - but they stay for it. One of the reasons for the rapid growth of the WoW blogosphere has been that shared, worldwide community who can interact around shared concepts. And that very blogosphere becomes another reason to stay - it extends out the in-game social experience to a broader social experience. You can now interact with other players on forums, blogs, podcasts, conferences and more...
This is How a Game Dies
WoW's growth was sudden and unexpected. People who were watching the early days of the game will remember the struggles Blizz had to get enough servers up, and then the dreadful login queues we used to encounter. They were so bad on the EU instance of Argent Dawn that my guild transferred wholesale to Steamwheedle Cartel when the option of a free transfer came up.
The WoW-killer will not be as sudden a success. It will be a slow build to a tipping point where enough people have moved to provide as rich a social environment as WoW. The game will be one that has as much mainstream appeal as WoW, and one that emphasises a fun environment over gritty game-play detail.
And, right now, there's a better than average chance that the WoW-killer will come from Blizz itself.
Simply put - this game is now Blizzard's to lose, because it'll take a lot more than a pretty good game to get people to switch social operating systems.