The Game Archaeologist: What if World of Warcraft had never happened?

Justin Olivetti
J. Olivetti|06.26.12

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The Game Archaeologist: What if World of Warcraft had never happened?
The Game Archaeologist What if World of Warcraft never happened
As you know well by now, I do love me some "what ifs?" from time to time. In an industry as volatile and unpredictable as this one, it's not hard to imagine a world where, say, Ultima X did launch or where Bill Roper is coming off his fourth straight successful game or where a different studio secured the rights to a popular IP over another one.

Perhaps the king of all MMO "what ifs" deals with the former (yes, former) king of MMOs. What if World of Warcraft never happened? Putting aside our own personal reaction, which may range from heartfelt relief to severe heartburn, we should look at this question without bias or emotion. Today I'm going to step way, way out on a limb and talk about an alternate universe where one of the biggest MMOs of all time simply did not happen.

In that universe, how did the MMO industry unfold from 2004 on, and what would we be looking at playing today? Maybe it's an impossible mind exercise, but I've been mulling it over for a while, so here are six outcomes that I think are quite likely.

The Game Archaeologist What if World of Warcraft never happened
1. SOE would've retained top dog status (for a while, at least).

Blizzard's been at the head of the pack for so long that I think it's difficult for even old-timers to recall days before WoW was a household name. Truth be told, the MMO industry was led by a different studio for nearly five years, and that studio showed no signs of slowing down in its dominance over online gaming.

I'm of course referring to Sony Online Entertainment, whose EverQuest paved the way for WoW and was a smaller but still significant version of WoW's later success. EQ scored the largest numbers of subscribers for any Western MMO up to that point, and it made some inroads into popular culture as the prominent "geek game" of the early 2000s. On top of EQ, SOE had PlanetSide, Star Wars Galaxies, and EQOA in its marquee lineup.

When the studio announced EverQuest II, there was no reason to suspect that it was going to be anything but the monster hit that EverQuest had proven to be, and without World of Warcraft coming along to steal EQII's thunder, EQII's launch could've been much, much larger.

What's more important is that without the studio competing against and then reacting to Blizzard's moves and design, SOE would've been calling the shots about how games continued to be developed. That might have not been a good outcome either if we consider the scattershot approach we've seen from the studio over the past decade, but that's a topic for another column altogether.

2. Previously axed competitors would've made it to release.

We know that World of Warcraft had three very important -- and not necessarily positive -- effects on the industry once its success became obvious. It encouraged the start-ups of dozens of so-called "WoW clones." It caused competing studios to radically change the approach and design for their in-development titles. And it intimidated studios and publishers from seeing some projects through to release.

It's this last effect that I want to look at here. I've already covered many games in this column that were under development but never made it to release, and two of the reasons given was the crowding of the genre and World of Warcraft in specific. WoW was the Walmart that came into the region, scared or pushed small mom-and-pop games out of business, and then glowered at anyone foolish enough to try to create a competitor.

But if WoW had not happened, then who knows how many of those aborted MMOs would've survived to release? I don't feel comfortable singling out any specific titles as possible candidates, but I'm sure we would be looking at a vastly different library of playable games if Blizzard had stuck to single-player goodness with a side dish of LAN.

3. The price of subscriptions would've gone up.

Ever wonder why subscriptions have remained at $15 a month for well over a decade now? Especially considering inflation and rising costs of development?

Thank World of Warcraft.

When WoW became a market leader, it instantly became foolhardy to charge more for a competing product or service. There have been plenty of rumblings of development studios wanting to do just that, but all of them realized that if they charged more than $15, players would flee the higher cost and go right back into WoW's arms. WoW kept the sub rate at $15 per month for so long that it became the set-in-stone standard.

But without a World of Warcraft, it's quite likely that a subscription-dominated industry would've experimented wildly with the prices, pushing them higher and higher to see what the market would bear. Considering that MMOs have their roots in games that charged obscene amounts per hour or per minute, I shudder to think about what could've been in this case.

The Game Archaeologist What if World of Warcraft never happened
4. MMOs might have remained out of the mainstream for longer -- but not forever.

In my opinion, one of the best outcomes that World of Warcraft has had for MMOs is that it's become the killer app that's established this genre as noteworthy to the population at large. Like Doom was with FPS, Super Mario Bros was with platformers, and Duke Nukem Forever was with shameful misogyny, WoW put MMOs on the map and made them impossible to ignore. With that much money streaming into Blizzard's coffers, it was a lot more difficult for the non-believers out there to dismiss the potential and power of this type of game.

So with WoW doing a Marty McFly and vanishing because its parents never kissed at the dance, our glorious entry into the mainstream would've been delayed. Notice that I say "delayed" and not "postponed." I think it was inevitable that MMOs would cross over into the mainstream sooner or later because that's what happens with video games. There were already signs that the industry was going to go through a growth spurt in 2004, and it didn't have to be WoW to have made it happen.

5. MMOs would've developed differently.

World of Warcraft's insane popularity molded the modern MMO almost overnight. Previously, MMOs were all over the place with ideas, concepts, design, looks, and vision. Plenty of these upstart MMOs were largely creating their own wheel with just a dash of ideas from the competition, and because this was the norm, there was far less pressure to fall in line with anyone else. WoW? WoW came along and said, "Now we're making MMOs way more casual-friendly. Now we're making it possible to solo easily to the level cap. Now we're focusing much more on quests, ease of access, and a bazillion pop culture puns sprinkled throughout our original fantasy world. So get in line, everyone; this is how things will be done from now on."

And the other MMOs said, "Sir! Yes sir!"

But without that overnight redefining of what MMOs were, the freer experimentation that marked the early 2000s would've most likely continued. Virtual worlds and sandboxes in the vein of Ultima Online and SWG might've endured instead of being cast aside in the stampede to cash in on Blizzard's formula. Bold new ideas -- some that we might not even have heard of yet in our timeline -- could've been tried, executed, and perhaps embraced by gamers.

I consider 2012 in a post-WoW era, in that the hold that World of Warcraft's had on the industry has loosened and we're finally seeing studios reject the mold and start to experiment again. If WoW had never happened, we might have had eight years of innovative ideas instead of hints and rumors of ones.

The Game Archaeologist What if World of Warcraft never happened
6. A WoW-like MMO would've happened anyway.

There's a saying that nobody can clearly state why WoW exploded on the scene like it did, mostly because there are a hundred or so excellent reasons, and that's hard to put into a short, pithy quote. The way I see it, it was a very accessible, polished game that came along at the right moment in history to spark a wildfire, and chances are we'll never see the like of that again.

In the proposed vacuum of World of Warcraft, the conditions would still have remained for this potential explosion. Gamers wanted their killer app, and if WoW wasn't going to be it, something else would've been. MMOs were already starting to become more casual-friendly and more polished, such as with City of Heroes and Guild Wars. The talent that created WoW would've still been around in the industry and would've still been heavily influenced by EverQuest and the like. If it hadn't been World of Warcraft, it would've been either a completely new title or a spin on an existing MMO -- but it would've shared similar traits.

I'm not an expert in alternate history by any means, but I know that there's the theory that not all hypothetical changes would've resulted in a vastly different world. Instead, you can view time like a mighty river whose course cannot be changed by stirring the water with a stick; the outcome may have looked different but have been the same overall. It's this type of view that I hold with a WoW-less universe.

Enough of my hare-brained speculation -- I'd love to hear yours! If WoW had never happened, what would the MMO industry look like today?

When not clawing his eyes out at the atrocious state of general chat channels, Justin "Syp" Olivetti pulls out his history textbook for a lecture or two on the good ol' days of MMOs in The Game Archaeologist. You can contact him via email at or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.
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