Maker Faire 2011 Roundup: World of Warcraft

Written by  //  August 5, 2011  //  Events  //  No comments

Online games have existed almost since the concept of “online” began. The first networked game, developed in 1978, was named “MUD,” an acronym for Multi-User Dungeon. MUD was a text-based multiplayer game inspired by Dungeon, a port of Zork. MUD became a genre name, and that genre survives today, highly refined but essentially unchanged.

The first commercial multiplayer online game was developed in 1985, and the first graphical multiplayer online game, in 1991. The genre achieved some measure of mass-market popularity with Ultima Online in 1997 and then further popularity with EverQuest in 1999.

The genre exploded into variety in the early 21st century. Anarchy Online took the genre into the future, set more than 25,000 years after the present day. Earth and Beyond, shortly followed by Eve Online, took the genre to space. Shadowbane and Dark Age of Camelot focused on player-versus-player combat, Final Fantasy XI brought the genre to the game console, City of Heroes allowed the player to be a superhero, and the fantasy-based Ragnarok Online, Lineage, and Lineage II dominated the Asian market.

World of Warcraft was released in late 2004. Within half a year it was jockeying for the title of world’s most popular massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), and within another half-year it had claimed the title by a factor of two.

World of Warcraft’s success is due, at least in part, to its user-friendliness. For example, dying in Everquest was a catastrophe. Your character lost hard-won experience, potentially wasting hours of your work. Worse, your character’s magical armor and weaponry fell where the player died, and you would have to run back, nearly naked, to find it and retrieve it. In contrast, dying in World of Warcraft was a mild inconvenience. You still had to run back to your corpse, but you did so as a ghost, intangible and invulnerable. Your hard-won equipment was in no danger. If you were too lazy to return to your corpse, you could even resurrect in town, for a small monetary cost and “resurrection sickness”, which left you weak and effectively unable to fight, but wore off after fifteen minutes with no side effects.

Everquest dropped the player into a hostile world and expected most of their gameplay to involve repetitive killing of monsters. World of Warcraft dropped the player into what was, at the time, a lush vibrant living world, and gave them hundreds of quests to guide their exploration.

World of Warcraft’s popularity exploded. At its peak, it had over ten million paying users. But this fame came with unfortunate aspects. Human addiction is still not understood or well-controlled, and this new genre, inventive, immersive, and time-consuming, pulled in customers incredibly strongly. EverQuest had spawned a group known as “EverQuest Widows”, people who had lost loved ones to the game, and was occasionally referred to as “EverCrack”. With World of Warcraft, the effect was stronger.

Normally, when talking about an issue like this, we would talk about its resolution. How did society deal with online game addiction? Unfortunately, so far, the answer is “badly”. For the first time since its release, World of Warcraft is under heavy fire from other games – Guild Wars 2, Farmville, Rift, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and many, many more – but just as the problems of the EverQuest Widows moved into Warcraft, the problems of the Warcraft widows have transferred into the newer games.

Online games are exciting and immersive. There are thousands upon thousands of people who have found friends, or even love, within virtual worlds. They’re designed to be beautiful places, larger than life and always exciting, and they accomplish this very well. People whose lives are stressful, painful, or merely uninteresting could easily find a more exciting life entirely within the game. The online industry is aware of these problems but, even today, there is little agreement as to how this can be dealt with – or even if it can be dealt with.

World of Warcraft may well be the world’s most popular and profitable game, and its impact on the industry cannot be overstated . . . for both good and bad.

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