[WoW 8th Anniversary Special] World of Warcraft – Crafting a Phenomenon: Part I

It’s no secret that World of Warcraft has been a monstrous success over the years, but when it comes to the reasons as to “why,” it can be difficult to nail down just one particular thing. During the course of eight years, the game has changed dramatically, and with each change it has offered something new and exciting for players – both new and old – to experience. Each patch was an attempt to improve upon the status quo and Blizzard has never sat ideally by when it came to improving its game. It was never “good enough.” Nevertheless, with each subsequent addition, the World of Warcraft was built upon a foundation that has held true for the greater part of two decades.

Uncovering the Core of World of Warcraft – Perfecting One Thing

WoW QuestingAs expansive as the original World of Warcraft was, and how massive it currently is, virtually every addition to the game has been centered around enhancing, or using, a single concept: Choice-Based Combat. Questing, raids, player versus player, leveling, etc. all revolve around utilizing the core WoW combat system. It’s a system designed around the ideology of contextual timing, and while that statement might sound complex, the concept is not.

Take a look at the various spells and abilities in WoW. Most players take it for granted now, and probably do this deduction almost without thought, but take notice of the descriptions of each spell. WoW’s combat system is designed for different abilities to be used at optimal times. Every significant element of WoW, past and present, revolves around utilizing this concept; be it extra action buttons during a boss encounter or driving a tank in Strand of the Ancients.

“Nonsense,” you might say. “There are many other spells that I use in the same situation. Not just one.” This may be true, but such is because Blizzard spent the greater part of a decade prior to launch crafting an incredibly deep combat system that gave players options and room for error. The key is that said error is rarely life and death, so it’s not always seen as such. It’s not a “pass/fail” design. It’s a “good/better” design. As a basic example, if you’re playing a mage and fighting a raid boss, you can use Frostbolt to do damage, but if your job is strictly to do high damage, Fireball may be the optimal choice. Conversely, just look at crowd control. In a large group battle, slowing down multiple melee-based enemies with frost spells, to support your team, is likely more optimal than simply doing damage.

These situations mark a flip side to the combat design coin. Players are given choices as to how to perform combat, which is indicative of the three class specializations that all character classes have. With these choices, players are able to opt for a play style befitting of them – beyond class selection – allowing for the combat to never truly become stagnant or boring. Moreover, unlike other MMOGs of the time, auto-attacking was kept to a minimum and spell-cast times were fairly short, so players were always doing something.

World of Warcraft Pre AlphaWorld of Warcraft had a laser focus and this is where many a game tends to fall short. There are so many titles on the market where developers are throwing in any number of game features to try and make their release successful. Unfortunately, and more often than not, it ends up watering down the central element that makes the game unique. Point in case, Assassin’s Creed has gone down the route of letting players manage their own proverbial towns and businesses, collect umpteen weapons, and has become so concerned with historical figure cameos that it has let the thing that made Assassin’s Creed, Assassin’s Creed suffer! The assassinating! Despite its problems with prep-work, the first Assassin’s Creed was all about running on rooftops, planning a route to the target, stabbing them, and running for dear life. That alone was fun, making everything else gravy on top. The point is that if the time isn’t taken to make a solid core play mechanic, and the additions don’t really improve that mechanic, then those additions aren’t worth the time.

Now compare this to World of Warcraft. Are there any significant game play elements that do not use Blizzard’s choice-based combat in some way? The answer is no. At most you could argue the social chat mechanics or trade systems, but are those not utilized to communicate or acquire items, thus making combat more effective? As big as WoW is, every major game aspect is built upon a solid foundation. If the foundation is weak, the rest of the game will be weak no matter how many extras are thrown in. And if you’re still not a believer, simply watch this video on some of the pre-alpha combat systems of WoW, and be grateful Blizzard took the time to revamp them.

Breaking the MMOG Mold

Quest GiverWith the play foundation of World of Warcraft set, the other catalyst for its success was the way that it challenged the manner in which the then “modern” MMOG played. Prior to WoW, there were games like EverQuest, Ultima Online, and Final Fantasy XI, but in this age of MMOs, the style of play – beyond the noted auto-attack and long spell-casting combat mechanics – was more like a “world” than a “game.” Basically, players created a character and were told “here’s a world, have fun in it.”

In these games, users could become merchants or warriors. They could crawl dungeons or battle daemons. For a time, that was enjoyable, but after a while it was little more than a grind to level up with no purpose beyond that. When Blizzard created World of Warcraft, they decided to move the MMOG genre away from this “world” idea and into a more traditional game, and players of those past listed MMOs will understand the difference.

In games like Final Fantasy XI, players created a character and were plopped down in the middle of a city with little more direction than “go talk to this guy,” who subsequently gave out a newbie package of items and sent you on your way. Players were left to explore a massive world, which was exciting when MMOs were new, but this lack of direction stunted the potential growth of the user base as most non-gamers did not have the patience to figure out what was needed, nor did they care to find their own objectives. This is where WoW came into play.

How does WoW start? It doesn’t start in the middle of a crowded city full of high level players. No. It starts players in a quaint beginning area, after a brief introduction that surveys the surrounding area, and an NPC with a massive, yellow exclamation point atop its head that screams “click me.” There is no confusion. There are no questions needing to be asked. There’s a guy and he said to kill X, Y, Z and that there’s a reward for it. Ten seconds into loading the game and players have direction. It doesn’t seem like much now, but this direction was a godsend to MMO gamers of the era.

Combat was engaging with a constant need to cast spells with simple clicks, or button presses, on brightly colored icons, and upon turning in the quest, there was a reward and a clearly defined next quest. All of a sudden, an MMO was telling players what to do and rewarding them for it. Players would continue to play for these rewards – be they equipment, levels, or new spells – and as they grew, the above noted combat system expanded too, changing the way they played as creatures became larger and more dynamic.

Perfect Timing with a Dash of Hype

Warcraft I: Orcs & HumansIn hindsight, nothing that WoW did, at its core, when it first launched was all that extravagant. It just came at a time when MMOs were growing mundane and dry. However, it didn’t overcomplicate things. It simply took a central idea (choice-based combat), did it better than anyone else, and combined that with an objective-based setup to move players fluidly through an extravagantly large scale world.

In fact, that world is a key player in WoW’s initial success. The history and lore behind Azeroth is quite possibly the largest repository of storytelling in gaming. Beginning with Warcraft: Orcs & Humans, the strategy game series already had an expansive following as it went through several sequels and expansions that culminated with the fall of Prince Arthas Menethil, from the Light, and the defeat of the Burning Legion at Mount Hyjal. Between the epic story and incredible game play of these prior titles, Warcraft already had a devout following before World of Warcraft was even conceived.

Announced in the late 1990s, Blizzard had several years to build up hype for the game as it continually reworked visuals and game play mechanics. Fans of the franchise watched with baited breath as they were able to see the fantastical lands and monsters they had fallen in love with take shape in a universe they would be a part of first-hand (and not just stare at from the sky). This prior following is what gave the MMO its initial boost – which crashed launch servers several times over – but such was only the seed that was sewn. World of Warcraft had far more to offer to pull yet-to-be fans and non-MMO gamers into the fold by following a powerful design credo: “Style is King!”

Read Part II. Read Part III.


Posted on November 21, 2012, in Core Games, Crafting, Design, MMO, World of Warcraft and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.