For well over a year now, everyone and their mother has been trying to figure out what made World of Warcraft take off like a rocket and dominate the market by such a ridiculous margin. The latest figures I've seen say they're at upwards of 800,000 subscribers now.
Well, against my better judgement, I'll throw in my own 2 cents.
THE BLIZZARD BRAND
WoW had a marketing advantage far beyond that of any other MMO game, with the possible exception being Middle Earth Online. Blizzard has the Midas touch.
They have not one, but three game franchises, spanning decades, with millions of faithful fans. Many of those fans would scoff at the mere idea of an MMO game, but others can't help but feel excited by anything Blizzard comes up with. Each of those fans has a word-of-mouth advertising effect (the strongest advertising that exists) on at least one or two other people (gamers and non-gamers), if not half-a-dozen or more.
Why can WoW bridge the gap between Western and Eastern gamers? One word: Starcraft. From what I understand, that game has its own TV channel(s) in South Korea. That's impressive by itself, but even moreso considering that it was a game designed in the West.
In some Asian countries, gaming is more mainstream than it is here. Game developers are actually recognized over there like celebrities. If I remember right, both Bill Roper and Raph Koster have said they've been stopped on the street in South Korea because gamers recognized their faces. That difference has important implications in MMOG marketing. If gaming is more mainstream, it's almost certainly more common for friends and family of the pre-gaming generations to be persuaded to try the game.
No matter how good a game's marketing, no matter how good the game, there's always a little luck involved. There are a couple of ways in which I think WoW sneaked out the door at just the right time.
For one, it emerged at a time when first generation MMO gamers were floundering. It seems almost universal that a gamer's first MMO is the sweetest MMO experience. Myself, I began with Everquest. That lasted around 9 months, and it seems to have become increasingly difficult with each new MMO I try (I've played or tested almost a dozen) to become absorbed in the game. We are gradually disillusioned, increasingly aware of design issues and the staleness of this genre. WoW was released around the time that many gamers like this (those who began with Everquest, Ultima Online, or Star Wars: Galaxies) felt homeless and desperately desired an MMO that they could invest more than a mere month or two in. While WoW has kept with the same stale formula in many ways, it's refreshing in others.
Perhaps just as importantly, WoW emerged as video games were becoming more mainstream in the West and major media outlets were looking for gaming news to share with the non-gaming public. These days, many major news networks cover the game industry in their technology sections, or even give gaming its own section. That's an invaluable avenue of advertising that previous MMOs did not have nearly as much access to. It used to be that only major articles written about games like Everquest sharply criticized the absorbitant amount of hours kids "wasted" on their computer. Now, the more sales WoW gathers, the more major news networks report on it...which means more WoW sales. Even people of the pre-gaming generations are beginning to wonder, "Nearly a million subscribers?! Maybe there's something to this 'virtual world' nonsense."
A SOLID GAME
Of course, none of this is too suggest that the game's design doesn't deserve much, if not most, of the credit.
WoW may be the only MMO I've ever played that never made my computer's fans squeal, as if to scream "Please! It's too much!" The graphics are easy on computers, yet designed with a consistent and imaginative style. The art uses a broad palette of colors...meaning that it engages the eye more than traditional realism. The cartoonish style prevents gritty and frightening scenes from feeling too gritty or frightening for those who want a more relaxed, musing experience (i.e., a lot of people who rarely, if ever, play video games).
The pace of gameplay is quicker and less disjointed than in most MMOs. I remember thinking how ingenious it was that my orc warrior was encouraged to almost immediately move from one enemy to the next by the rage system. Players aren't nearly so bound to grouping as in most MMos. The feasibility of solo gameplay means the player is rarely stuck standing and waiting on groups to form and true gameplay to begin again. It's smart to offer the player downtime periodically. But if the player doesn't want downtime at the moment, then don't force it on him.
WoW had improved customization options in its skill system. In most MMOs, levelling up mean the player is given particular skills. WoW took the Diablo route of allowing players to improve old skills, rather than pick new skills, if they so choose. And one player of a class might use different skills than another, such as one warlock preferring a ranged minion while another warlock prefers a melee minion.
It's probably been a year since I played the game, but I'm sure there are plenty of other aspects of the game that are worthy of praise.
Yes, it's a good game. But no, it is not the epitome of all an MMO game should be. It annoys me to no end when I constantly see people pointing to WoW's phenomenal sales and concluding that any aspect of the game must be good. Circumstances surrounding WoW gave it a great running start, and further circumstances have facilitated its progress like with few other games of any genre.
But more importantly, the success of a whole product does not translate into success of any feature within that product. The game has sold well as a whole, not piece by piece. And some of its features might be perfect in combination with other WoW features, but terrible when placed in other combinations.
Financial investors understand this concept. At home, they have awesome HD-TVs with annoying control schemes, slick luxury cars with uncomfortable seats and holsters too small or large for their coffee mugs, and microwaves that can do anything but take a rocket-scientist to figure out. If you know how to explain it to them, you can get your investment money without having to clone WoW in every detail.