In Games We Trust

Posted: June 13, 2007 by Kendricke in General Game Concepts, The Gaming Industry

World of Warcraft has over 8,000,000 subscribers.

I say that because it’s possible that you may not know this.  You may be one of the few people remaining on the planet that has no idea that Blizzard has more than 8,000,000 people paying for the priviledge to log in and play World of Warcraft.

Seriously, to hear most people tell the tale, would seem to indicate that Blizzard is infalliable due to this inpenetrable juggernaut of monthly income that insulates them from any possible outside influence or undue harm.  Truly, Blizzard executives sit upon golden thrones and mete out virtual justice through their servers, all the while thinking of new things to do with the piles of money which is inevitably piling up around their offices.  Now, I don’t know what truly happens behind Blizzard’s closed doors, but I like to sometimes imagine Rob Pardo sitting down to a light lunch of raw 20 dollar bills, and then noshing a bit on a salad of baby arugula topped with hundred dollar bills.

To hear many reports on the subject, one would think that only Blizzard has the resources to truly end the war on terror.  All they need is a government contract, and then the Vivendi/Blizzard design team gets to work on the most efficient way to inflitrate and destroy terror cells from the inside.  In fact, my sources indicate this is what really happened to the “Ghost” project. 

Seriously, I think I get it.  World of Warcraft has a lot of subscribers.  It’s a good game.  This doesn’t make it the only good game. 

I think we’ve come to this place where we rely on subscriber numbers too much to gauge a game’s health.  Certainly, too many people seem to rely upon the numbers to gauge a game’s worth or design, too.  These type of discussions really seem to bring out the Monday morning quarterbacks though – myself included.  It incites passion and definately seems to generate site traffic as players (again, myself included) crawl out of the woodwork to comment on cited reason #135,234 “Why “World of Warcraft is Dominating the Industry” or “Why Only Blizzard Can Defeat Blizzard” or any number of repeated arguments that have been appearing for the past 2 years on the subject.  Panels at E3 or GDC exist for the purpose, and many a barroom has seen many a conversation on the subject.  It’s fodder for the blog-o-sphere, and almost always results in a massive influx of new comments and debate.

Why?

The “my game can beat up your game” argument gets old, doesn’t it?  Or does it?  Brand loyalty is built into the American psyche.  Think of the number of cars on the road you see with “Friends don’t let friends drive Fords” or “Chevy Sucks!” stickers on them (I don’t buy American).  Think of how many people you know who won’t touch Coke or Pepsi (Coke, here).  Don’t get me started on PC’s and Macs (PC’s) or Windows vs. Linux (Windows).

In this MMO industry, we seem to define ourselves not only in what type of play we prefer (casual, hardcore, tradeskilling, soloing, raiding,etc.), but also by which games we play.  Think of the stereotypes we hold about “B-Net kiddies” or “SOE fanbois” or even the old Vanguard “vanbois”.  Peer pressure is most certainly alive and kicking, and our tribal instincts definately steer us toward everything from a favorite console maker (Playstation here) to a favored coffee shop (Caribou for me). 

Naturally, we apply these same preferences toward MMO’s, and transfer that loyalty toward the studios which make them.  It’s not enough to dislike Everquest – you have to hate SOE.  It’s not enough to dislike World of Warcraft – you have to tell others how immature WoW players are. 

We cover ourselves not only in the comfortable anonymity of the internet during most of these discussions, but we also place our heads on a fluffy pillow of brand loyalty before saying our final prayers to our favored design lead before finally drifting off to a satisfied slumber. 

Metaphors aside, we rely upon stereotypes to comfort ourselves – to remind ourselves that we’ve made the “right” choice in where to send our checks every month.  It’s not enough that we be right, though, because everyone else must be wrong.

In a way, it’s like choosing our own religions.  These aren’t just games to many players, but ways of life.  I’m not going to say that MMO gamers are hiding in their parents’ basements, without girlfriends or jobs (itself, another stereotype, mind you), but I will say that we can get pretty passionate about our choice of games.  Much like religion, we emotionally self-invest pretty heavily into our choice of games.  Like religion, many players are drawn to a game for it’s structure and features, but then find themselves molded after the fact as well, finding that the game shapes their view on what is and is not a “good” game forever more.

We used to see this in the 80’s with pen and paper RPG’s.  Anyone who started with Traveller tended to prefer that system.  If you played GURPS, then Steve Jackson’s was the true path.  If you rolled your first 10 sided dice during a Dungeons and Dragons sesson, chances are Gary Gygax was the only real designer (myself, I’m a FASA geek, through and through). 

Later, we saw this same preference and worldview shaped by NES vs. Sega Master systems…then Super NES vs. Genesis…and later by Playstation vs. xBox or Gamecube.  Today, may players would even claim that they can almost tell what sort of person someone is by whether or not they own a 360 or a Wii. 

And so it is today with Blizzard vs. SOE vs. Turbine vs. EA Mythic. 

Fanbois unite!  The battlelines are drawn.  Prove the worth of your game by quoting subscriber numbers – and by doing so, prove your own worth.  Obviously if you choose to play a popular game, you yourself must be popular, right?  After all, you’re doing what more people are doing, and as we all know, popular opinion is the only correct opinion, right?

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Comments
  1. Broomie says:

    Fanbois aside, I think what Blizz has done for the MMO industry is overall very positive. It certainly has brought the MMO Industry to the masses and demonstrated that online gaming is a viable form of home entertainment for everyone, not just geeks! I think this awareness will indeed help the industry grow and hopefully, provide us true gamers with more choices and better ones.

    I also think WOW (and Later LOTRO) set some new standards in what we gamers will accept from developers at launch and throughout a games progression. Good performance, with as few bugs as possible. Over at “Gamers With Jobs” there was an interesting article about Vanguard: http://www.gamerswithjobs.com/node/30435. In this review the writer stated something I found my self in agreement with. He basically said that VSOH was setting a bad precedent by releasing an obviously unfinished product. No developer should be releasing such buggy, incomplete work. WOW and LOTRO have demonstrated that games can indeed be brought to market in good, playable form and that anything less is unacceptable. This isn’t a minor accomplishment, and I give them props for pulling that off.

    I know I went off on a tangent with the jist of your article and I will say I am in total agreement. XX million subs does not a great game make. I have played WOW to the raid level (Cleared Kara and attuned for SSC) and frankly I’m bored with the rep and progression grinds. Bored to tears. However I think the legacy of WOW is far larger an issue and one that will (and has) affected the MMO industry far mores than the more obscure ( and perhaps better) MMO’s ever could.

  2. kendricke says:

    You’re right that you went off on a tangent. 😉

    The point of this article is not that Blizzard did a good thing by opening the market or that World of Warcraft is a successful, large game that did things right. Those aren’t facts up for dispute.

    However, the ability for players to often self-identify by way of the games they play – to adopt or adapt who they are online by way of the games they prefer – usually finds a way to override very valid points online. In other words, just as we might say you are what you eat, so too do players become what they play.

    There exists a large – too large – segment of the overall MMO playerbase that draws battlelines based around these games, and often around the companies that create these games. Every time you see a post from someone who won’t touch another SOE game or who will play anything that Blizzard makes is very much signing up for a virtual “side”.

    That’s not a decision necessarily borne by fact. That’s simple brand loyalty. In most cases, that’s self-identification through brand loyalty. Either you’re a Ford person or a Chevy person. You’re either a Harley rider or a Honda rider. You’re either a Coke drinker or a Pepsi drinker. You’re either a PC or a Mac. You’re either SOE or Blizzard.

    It’s rivalry, and in many ways, we identify through these rivalries – Americans especially. We identify as much if not more through who we oppose as who we support. It’s not enough to point out how much you enjoy Fords, as to point out how much you can’t stand Chevy’s. It’s not enough to like Coke, as it is to point out you dislike Pepsi. It’s not enough to enjoy World of Warcraft, as to point out how it’s better than other games.

    And when these mighty fall, as they invariably will, we switch sides with a feeling of personal betrayal. I trust I don’t have to post links to dozens of Brad-McQuaid-killed-my-puppy style threads to prove that point.

  3. I think I broke google reader as the last post it shows is the ‘pink’ post….

  4. Pixie Styx says:

    You are basing your assumptions on the vocal minority that is found on, for example the wow boards, or vn boards etc.

    Where as the majprity of a games subscription base never post, or rarely pay attention to the boards or any boards in a matter of fact…

    However I do agree the vocal minority certainly do draw a line in the sand and challenge anyone to say anything bad about there game or chosen company … and very possibly do self identify with there game, but again this is just a small proportion of the subscription base and does not truly reflect the real and possibly very nomadic nature of mmorpg players.

    By nomadic I mean if everyone was loyal to one game or company then any new games would be seriously in trouble in attaining subscribers as the only ones available would be newones to the genre of mmorpgs ….

  5. kendricke says:

    Which “assumptions” are you referring to?

    I ask this because I’ve had conversations with gamers who never post on message board forums – strangers in gaming stores, co-workers, family – and I’ve heard them refer to themselves as “Oh, I’m a WoW type of guy” or “Sorry, I can’t play an SOE game after what they did to Star Wars”.

    I may as well head down to the car show to hear the motorheads tell me “Oh, I’m a Ford type of guy” or “Sorry, I can’t own a Chevy after what they did to the Nova”.

    It’s self-identification. …based on brand loyalty. …and it happens far more often than I think most people realize.

  6. […] fires one off at the ‘my game can beat up your game’ argument. “Seriously, I think I get it. World of Warcraft has a lot of subscribers. It’s a good […]

  7. […] has been some discussion from MMOG Nation and Kendricke regarding subscriber numbers. First we’ll look at Ken, since he put out a very nice article […]

  8. “I think we’ve come to this place where we rely on subscriber numbers too much to gauge a game’s health.”

    I would agree with this statement. Flat subscription numbers don’t actually tell us much about the game, except that it’s very popular, or that not many people play it. What is often overlooked is the developer’s original goals. If World of Warcraft was aiming for ten million subscribers and only hit eight, then it’s not as successful as it was intended to be. If Vanguard aimed for two hundred thousand and they have two hundred and fifty thousand, that makes them more successful from a developer’s point of view. They achieved their goal, so to speak.

    The brand loyalty seems silly to me. I play a game, and if I like it, I continue to play it. I think many good games are left untouched by those who might like it simply for that reason. It’s sad, but it’s our culture, and it’s how we’re brought up.

  9. teamratonga says:

    Yup brand loyalty has and will always be. Over in the U.K we are the same…the biggest example of which…football (soccer) fans. They believe in it so much they adorn every bit of themselves with the branding (t-shirts, hats, car stickers, bed sheets, tattoos), they beat each other up at home derbys…and set fire to things…and….smash things up…they have even killed over it. Don’t think the Blizz vrs SoE arguement will get that far tho…will it? can it? That would be one big LARP session!

    One thing I did want to mention seriously though, that I am not sure if you addressed…I have a TON of people I know through online games, both online and in RL….and most have played both or more of the mmorpgs available from the different houses. Some play with the same amount of time commited to both games, some play whichever they feel like at the time, some do prefer one over the other but would not ‘diss’ it as they find the other a welcome release after a grind….where do these middle people stand?…in the grey area I guess. Just too darn reasonable…the lot of them…they need to pick a side and we can get this war underway!.

    Langdale

  10. Bildo says:

    I could care less, personally, who makes what. I love me my Nintendo, but that doesn’t mean they’re infallible. Give me a game that’s good and I’m your fan… but not a fanatic.

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