Today Syncaine makes fun of Tobold for saying that WoW is #1 with a bullet because it’s the best game on the market.
I don’t think that Tobold was trying to say that because WoW has 36 times as many subscribers as WAR it is necessarily 36 times better. That would be an untenable (indeed, asinine) position to take, but I think Tobold has earned the presumption that he’s not some ignorant nimrod saying stupid stuff without having thought it out at all. I think that for a majority of users WoW is incrementally better than WAR, and the margin in this case makes a huge difference. More importantly, WoW’s potential audience is by definition much larger than WAR’s because it’ll run on more computers than WAR will, and this has, I think, had a big impact of WoW’s success. In other words, WAR could be better than WoW in every respect (it isn’t,) but because the simple fact is that most people don’t have recently-bought, gaming-oriented rigs with reasonably up-to-date graphics cards. More people play WoW because more people can play WoW.
But trying to tie number of subscribers to the sole subjective parameter of ‘quality’ is a pretty superficial way to try to analyse the market, and even plugging ease of access into the equation really doesn’t create anything like a fully elaborated picture of why WoW is successful and other titles are less so. In point of fact there are probably dozens of people on the professional end of the hobby trying to figure out exactly what elements make WoW numero uno, so their own games can copy those elements. These people presumably have access to more and better data and more and better analyzing tools than Syncaine, Tobold or I. They are probably more knowledgeable, and maybe even smarter than any of us random commentators shooting our mouths off. That none of them have yet succeeded implies that the success equation is very complicated and the solution elusive.
I happen to think that Tobold is pretty much right on all of his individual points. WoW has expanded the market tremendously, and it seems very probable to me that if there had been no WoW, WAR would have had no hope of selling as many units as it did in the first couple of months. At the same time, it’s fair for Syncaine to point out the flawed implication that WoW is therefore ‘better’ in an absolute sense than WAR, because we all know that it’s more complicated than that. It’s not so fair to push that to the point of putting words in Tobold’s mouth, but hey, we’re bloggers and we say stuff, and sometimes we stretch somebody else’s point to make our own.
Maybe WoW creates a kind of perfect storm among the nebulously understood variables of MMO success. It’s so widely known as to have become a part of mainstream pop culture, it’s easy to buy and start playing, it’s able to be run on even feeble computers, it’s forgiving enough that even weak players can get by in it, and it’s polished enough and its world is detailed enough that it feels like a living, breathing place you’re visiting.
Now, there’s caveats here. The first is that I’m not saying “nobody can ever challenge WoW.” That will happen sooner or later. Whether because some revolutionary product hits the market and sweeps it away or because of the atrophy brought by Blizzard’s own complacence, WoW has a long but finite lifetime ahead of it, and not all of that time will be spent atop the heap.
The second thing is that while you may feel that Darkfall or LotRO or EQ2 or whatever are better games, it doesn’t matter because more people think WoW is better, even if only because all their friends are still playing it. That the masses choose a less elite game than you does not make them wrong, and that you chose something else does not make you right or even particularly discriminating. Some people want to go against the grain, or root for an underdog. Maybe it makes them feel more elite, and if that’s their thing… hey, whatever’s fun.