Recently at the Art Institute of Portland, I gave a presentation to my Advanced Scripting class on lessons web app developers can take from World of Warcraft. While playing one night, I stopped and pondered all of the things that just work. I began to consider why WoW was so wildly successful and thought about what I could take from my experience as a player and apply to web development. The presentation is hosted below, which will be most easily understood if coupled with the notes following.
What’s the big deal?
- World of Warcraft (or WoW) reached 11.5 Million active subscriptions before Christmas of 2008.
- The graphics engine was originally built sometime during or before 2001, making it around 8 years old.
- Nielsen reported that during 2008, WoW players played an average of 671 minutes (or 11 hours) per week.
- In the past week, the quest titled Jack Me Some Lumber was completed over 680,000 times.
World of Warcrafting Web Applications
- The basics of a Web Application and WoW are similar:
- Each attempts to create an Internet-based experience where users are given functionality they would not have in an offline or computerless world,
- Each is served from servers that can crash, software that has bugs, and tubes that can get clogged,
- And each has the imperative of creating an experience worth their users time and, potentially, money.
- As WoW is one of my main non-web hobbies, I want to justify why I spend my time (Over 75 days, logged in) and money ($727.48).
- As I started to pay attention, the plethora of applicable lessons became obvious.
Take the time
- Blizzard first announced development of WoW in 2001, and released in November of 2004. Basically, three years.
- Development was well under way by 2001, so it is not unreasonable to assume at least a year of work had gone into it by then. Essentially, 4 years, if not 5.
- Lesson: Spending the time to do it right, even when others beat you to the punch, works quite well. (Save for Windows Vista.)
Use iterative design
- In the nearly 4½ years since WoW’s release, it has released two expansion packs and 18 substanial content patches.
- Each update has brought with it brand new content: locations, dungeons, enemies, gear, pets, and more.
- In the same way, gameplay has evolved immensely. The Talent system, which “can make your character a specialist in one of their available class roles, change their entire playstyle, and offer countless combinations for you to experiment with”, has been modified several times.
- During the beta, the entire system was ditched until a better one could be created.
- And all of this came with no apology. The developers of WoW changed the game in a way they felt was positive and defended it vehemently.
- Lesson: Change your app to make it better, and defend your decisions.
Listen to your users
- Whether you’re just starting development or making your 7th version: involve your users.
- For every content patch in WoW, Public Test Realms are used to test out new game mechanics and features. And people are excited to help. The testers copy their character or use a pre-made one and play, knowing full well their progress will be wiped out by the time the patch goes live. But, it’s new and cool and fun—and they feel privileged to get involved before other people.
- During the development of Wrath of the Lich King, I got a picked randomly for a spot in the Beta. I loved it, I even bragged to my friends.
- I spent an entire evening running around the new continent, Northrend. Barely anyone else was there; it felt like I was the very first person to see it. It was awesome.
- Once I had run around, I tried playing the first Heroic player class: the Death Knight.
- Lo and behold, they had implemented a feedback system. Everything quest you were given in the game could be rated for ease-of-use, obviousness, and even fun. With that data, they modified quest explanations, changed quest rewards, updated the map, and made their application better.
- Lesson: Change your app, but base your decisions on real feedback.
Offer something addictive
- In my freshman and sophomore year of high school, I played Diablo II 6 – 8 hours per day. I had a good handle on my classes, so no one really noticed. And I was “working on my computer”, so my parents were cool with it. What I was discovering is the power of flow and addiction.
- As Diablo II is a Blizzard title, I couldn’t wait to see what they would come up with in the MMO space.
- Strangely, where Diablo II used the chance of finding better and better items to hook me, World of Warcraft used social networking.
- Don’t get me wrong, I loved leveling, doing quests, and getting better and better gear; but World of Warcraft actually slows you down, in those areas. Leveling takes longer than in Diablo II, there is no true power leveling, quests can be very, very long, and new items are more based on hard work than chance.
- What was encouraged, was connections with other people.
- It starts off slowly. Some hard quests suggest grouping with other people. A chat pane is always available, where people discuss everything going on (for good or ill). People can create guilds where groups of people can wear a tabard and have chat channel just for them. Dungeons (or instances) provide great rewards, if you can get 5, 10, 25, or 40 people to complete it together. And you can always talk directly to someone, no matter where in the World (of Warcraft) they are.
- The best part: WoW makes shy geeks, like me, cooperate with other players in ways they wouldn’t do in the real world.
- Lesson: Create something unexpectedly addictive, and introduce it slowly.
Customize, Embrace & Extend
- Customization of the game experience is essential in WoW.
- On curse.com, there are 3,993 addons to install, ecah modifying the user experience in their own way.
- Personally, I use 25 addons. One of which allows me to easily coordinate specific spells with other Paladins. Another makes the chat interface a little more usable with a timestamp, clickable links and color-coding. And another still throws everything that’s happening to me and everything I’m doing to others all around my character—so I try to comprehend it.
- In a recent patch, Blizzard introduced a new Calendar feature. Unfortunately, there were several addons that already served this function. Being rather bold, the WoW Calendar implemented several features the others couldn’t offer, such as always up-to-date holiday schedules, a tie-in to their external wowarmory.com, and a more unified look and feel.
- They saw a feature the community had made, and improved upon it. This ruffled feathers with the developers of the other Calendar addons, but they can continue to develop their addons and make them better—possibly pushing Blizzard to implement more functionality in their own feature.
- Lesson: Give your community tools to customize their experience, but don’t be afraid to work with them to better the core experience.
Make it less expensive
- World of Warcraft started at $50.00 for the original game. Over time, it dropped to $40, then $30. When The Burning Crusade was released, the original game could be found for $20.
- If you pay month-to-month, WoW costs 14.99 per month. If you pay every three months, it’s $13.99/month, and every six months is $12.99/month.
- If you buy WoW with both expansions today, it would cost roughly $80 ($39.99 + $39.99) for the first free month. If you bought the games when they were new, you may have paid as much as $220 ($79.99 + $69.99 + $69.99). Same games, 64% cheaper.
- Usable business models on the web are few and far between, but maybe consistent price drops on web apps over time could be the next big thing?
- Lesson: If you’re charging for your app, make it cheaper over time.
Make it pretty
- WoW is beautiful.
- It’s cartoony, colorful, and adorable.
- It uses a graphics engine that is pushing a decade old, but still pulls off some amazing scenes.
- Whatever you do, make your app a joy to use.
- Pay attention to how many clicks a user must make.
- Use eye candy.
- We all know that craigslist works well, but looks awful. It can still work well and look good.
- Lesson: Even with web limitations, make your app gorgeous.
I’m always interested to hear feedback. Let me know if you agree or disagree with anything I put forward here, or share lessons you’ve found in WoW.
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