Blizzard's team doesn't care for the term "killer app", used to describe a program or product — in this case, a certain MMO — that single-handedly shaped the market around its platform. In fact, when we asked about World of Warcraft's unshakable hold on the massively multiplayer biz, game director Jeffrey Kaplan was humble.
"I don't believe that WoW is untouchable", he said. "I completely believe that a game could come out and be more successful than WoW. I'm hoping that we're working on it right now".
Designing and developing any MMO, Kaplan said, simply distills down to a series of choices. "I think a lot of other companies have had great opportunities to do what WoW has done... usually for whatever reason, they miss the mark".
"I actually feel really bad, a lot of times, when new MMOs come out and don't do really well, because I'm not thinking of it from a business perspective. I know what it's like to be a developer on a team that you believe in on a game that you just love, and for some reason, you don't get enough time, or someone makes a bad decision... everybody's making a lot of small choices, and when those go wrong, your game ends up not successful".
Diablo III lead designer Jay Wilson believes that one can really focus on one MMO at a time, because of the time demand. He said he played Age of Conan for a couple of months, played Lord of the Rings Online a lot, and still goes back to City of Heroes every now and then. He thinks the key to MMO success is "not making choices based upon being different, but making choices based upon what's good for your game".
"If there was an MMO out there that had a tone different from WoW but was executed as well, I actually think there could be a huge audience for that. When I get disappointed, it's because I don't see that level of execution".
Another key factor for global success, said Blizzard's associate PR manager Bob Colayco, is that it takes a lot of time to develop the infrastructure to support a global audience. Players in any country around the world can receive service and support on WoW in their native language and the localizations are meticulous, he said, which contributes to the retention of a broad userbase.
But will Blizzard's next project be the game that finally tops WoW's global success?
"I believe it can be", Kaplan said. "The same challenge is on us. Are we going to make the right decisions? I don't believe that just because we made WoW, we're guaranteed on the next MMO that we make to have the same success". He also said that at launch, WoW was not what it is today — it's taken the game a five to six-year development cycle, plus two years on Burning Crusade and a year and a half on Lich King. Similarly, StarCraft 2 is renowned, he said, for its "perfect game balance" — but it didn't launch that way, the team recalled.
"I really believe you're only as good as your last game. I really think you gave to prove it every time", said Kaplan.
And is the bar especially high for Blizzard? "Yeah, for sure".
Said Wilson, "The only thing we get for free is faith that we'll follow up on any problems. Anything else, we have to earn".