Online Game, Made in U.S., Seizes the Globe
September 5, 2006
By SETH SCHIESEL
SEOUL, South Korea -- At 10:43 p.m. one recent Saturday, in a smoky basement gaming parlor under a bank in this sprawling city’s expensive Daechi neighborhood, Yoon Chang Joon, a 25-year-old orc hunter known online as Prodigy, led his troops into battle. "Move, move!" he barked into a microphone around his neck as a strike team of some 40 people seated at computer terminals tapped at keyboards and stormed the refuge of the evil plague lord Heigan, fingers flying.
As Mr. Yoon’s orders echoed from speakers around the room, Heigan reeled under an onslaught of spells and swords. In six minutes he lay dead. The online gaming guild called the Chosen had taken another step in World of Warcraft, the online fantasy game whose virtual, three-dimensional environment has become a global entertainment phenomenon among the cybersavvy and one of the most successful video games ever made.
Less than two years after its introduction, World of Warcraft, made by Blizzard Entertainment, based in Irvine, Calif., is on pace to generate more than $1 billion in revenue this year with almost seven million paying subscribers, who can log into the game and interact with other players. That makes it one of the most lucrative entertainment media properties of any kind. Almost every other subscription online game, including EverQuest II and Star Wars: Galaxies, measures its customers in hundreds of thousands or even just tens of thousands.
And while games stamped "Made in the U.S.A." have often struggled abroad, especially in Asia, World of Warcraft has become the first truly global video-game hit since Pac-Man in the early 1980’s.
The game has more players in China, where it has engaged in co-promotions with major brands like Coca-Cola, than in the United States. (There are more than three million players in China, and slightly fewer than two million in the United States. And as with most video games, a clear majority of players worldwide are male.)
There is a rabid legion of fans here in South Korea, which has the world’s most fervent gaming culture, and more than a million people play in Europe. Most World of Warcraft players pay around $14 a month for access.
"World of Warcraft is an incredibly polished entertainment experience that appeals to more sorts of different players than any game I’ve seen," said Rich Wickham, who heads Microsoft’s Windows games unit. "It’s fun for both casual players and for the hard-core players for whom the game is more just than a game: it’s a lifestyle. Just as important, Blizzard has made a game that has a broader global appeal than what we’ve seen before."
Perhaps more than pop music or Hollywood blockbusters, even the top video games traditionally have been limited in their appeal to the specific regional culture that produced them. For example the well-known series Grand Theft Auto, with its scenes of glamorized urban American violence, has been tremendously popular in the United States but has largely failed to resonate in Asia and in many parts of Europe. Meanwhile many Japanese games, with their distinctively cutesy anime visual style, often fall flat in North America.
One of the main reasons Western software companies of all kinds have had difficulty in Asia is that piracy is still rampant across the region. Games like World of Warcraft circumvent that problem by giving the software away free and then charging for the game service, either hourly or monthly.
Since the game’s introduction in November 2004 the company has expanded to more than 1,800 employees from around 400. Almost all of the additions have been customer-service representatives to handle World of Warcraft players, helping them with both technical advice and billing concerns.
"Ultimately, what I’d like is for the user to feel like they are having a very polished entertainment experience," said Mike Morhaime, 38, Blizzard’s president (and a gamer since he first encountered Pong in 1976). "We’d like players to associate our name with quality, so if they see a box on the shelf and it says Blizzard Entertainment, they don’t need to know anything more than that."
The basic genre that World of Warcraft belongs to is called the massively-multiplayer online game, or M.M.O. The "massive" refers to the fact that in an M.M.O., thousands of players simultaneously occupy one vast virtual 3-D world. (In a more traditional online game like Quake or Counter-Strike, there are generally fewer than a dozen people in each arena.)
Blizzard runs hundreds of copies of the Worlds of Warcraft universe, known as servers, and there might be a few thousand players on any server at any given time. There are servers customized for six written languages: English, both simplified and traditional Chinese, Korean, German and French. Spanish is in development.
To begin, a player creates an avatar, or character, customizing its physical appearance as well as race and profession, each of which has different skills and abilities. An elf druid might specialize in healing, for example, while an orc rogue could be an expert in stealth and backstabbing. The player is then set loose in a huge colorful fantasy world with cities, plains, oceans, mountains, forests, rivers, jungles, deserts and of course dungeons.
The players can explore on their own or team up with others to conquer more imposing challenges. As a character completes quests and defeats monsters, it gains new abilities and collects more powerful magical equipment that in turn allow it to progress to the next set of challenges. Players can fight other players if they choose, but much of the focus is on teaming up with other users in guilds like the Chosen to battle automated foes.
There were massively-multiplayer games before World of Warcraft, just as there were MP3 players before Apple’s iPod. Like the iPod, World of Warcraft has essentially taken over and redefined an entire product category.
"I think the real key to WOW’s success has been the sheer variety and amount of things to do, and how easy it is to get into them," said Kim Daejoong, 29, a doctor of traditional herbal medicine in Iksan, Korea, who had traveled to Seoul for one of the Chosen’s regular in-person sessions.
"Hard-core gamers will play anything, no matter how difficult it is," Mr. Kim said. "But in order to be a mainstream game for the general public, it has to be easily accessible, and there have to be lots of things for you to do, even alone. What WOW has done better than other games is be able to appeal to both audiences -- hard-core players and more casual players -- all within one game and bring them together. That’s why you’ve seen people all over the world get into the game."
Hours after the Chosen finished their raid in Seoul, a United States guild called Violent stormed Blackwing Lair, home of the black dragon Nefarian and his minions.
One of the players was Jason Pinsky, 33, the chief technology officer for an apparel company in Manhattan. Mr. Pinsky is not unusual among serious players in that he has logged more than 125 days (3,000 hours) on his main character, a hunter.
"I play this game six nights a week from 8 p.m. to midnight," he said in a telephone interview. "When I say that to people, sometimes they look at me a little funny. But then I point out that most people watch TV at least that much, and television is a totally mindless experience.
"Instead of watching ‘The Lord of the Rings’ as a three-hour experience, I am now participating in the epic adventure."
It is rare for guilds in North America and Europe to get together in real life, partly because of geographic distance and partly because of the social stigma often associated with gaming in the West.
In Asia, however, online players like those in the Chosen often want to meet in the flesh to put a real face on the digital characters they have been having fun with. Even in the United States, more and more players are coming to see online games as a way to preserve and build human connections, even if it is mostly through a keyboard or microphone.
"Think about it: I’m a 33-year-old guy with a 9-to-5 job, a wife and a baby on the way," Mr. Pinsky said. "I can’t be going out all the time. So what opportunities do I have to not only meet people and make new friends but actually spend time with them on a nightly basis? In WOW I’ve made, like, 50 new friends, some of whom I’ve hung out with in person, and they are of all ages and from all over the place. You don’t get that sitting on the couch watching TV every night like most people."