The biggest difference between World of Warcraft and other MMOs at the time of its launch was the focus on quests. Not only did quest NPCs have exclamation marks over their heads (a design that's become rather ubiquitous with the "WoW experience" nowadays) but they were littered throughout the entire game world. This was a huge departure from the genre norm, where quests were generally a less frequent affair. With Wrath of the Lich King, the focus on questing has gotten even more intense for Blizzard. The entire Death Knight starting quest line is an effort in storytelling unseen in MMOs to date. Players take quests directly from Arthas, who even speaks telepathically via PMs in-game. The quests are both incredibly interactive and inspired, but we won't ruin them here. Suffice it to say, this is an area that remains the domain of Blizzard expertise -- at least for the time being.
Of course, the devout Blizzard fan will tell you they knew this was coming all along. For a long time now the Blizz mantra of tech and graphic design has been "Big bang, little buck." or in other words: It's all in the hips. You know, the motion of the ocean and not how many sails a ship has to show off, or something like that. Both expansions have kept the system requirements fairly low and what Blizzard has opted to do instead is slowly improve the graphics featured in their freshman MMO effort. It's worked well, because incremental upgrades avoid alienating original players while keeping those with higher-end machines distracted by some new shiny effects.
But at the end of the day, it doesn't come down to just features. What makes World of Warcraft different from a lot of other games is more than a buzzword like polish or innovation. This game is special by the combination of being designed by passionate people with a powerful sense of design and then being released at just the right moment. When all these things don't come together to near perfection when making any game -- let alone an MMO -- players will take notice. For as long as this game took Blizzard to put together, we can expect it to remain for a long, long time. And to that end, its successor will likely take a while to crest the hill of our harddrives as well.
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