The latest World of Warcraft expansion is a huge success, likely because it has a lot in common with the games you play on your smartphone.
Since Blizzard Entertainment released it in 2004, World of Warcraft has been one of the most successful franchises in media, let alone video games. Even in June, when Blizzard estimated WoW had its lowest number of subscribers since 2007—6.8 million—the game still dominated the MMO playing field. In November, that number shot up to 10 million just days after Blizzard released WoW’s newest expansion, Warlord of Draenor.
It’s no coincidence that a prominent feature of Warlords of Draenor strongly resembles some of the most successful—and addictive—casual games, like FarmVille and Clash of Clans. As mobile games increase in popularity, similar features in the WoW expansion provide insight on how the MMO has managed to stay relevant by adapting to the video game world’s changing surroundings.
Indeed, the most impressive achievement of World of Warcraft is its longevity; 10 years is an eternity for any video game franchise. Blizzard Entertainment biggest challenge is keeping its players interested in a game many have been playing for a decade, while attracting new players to replace those who leave. Blizzard succeeds in staying relevant by adapting to the changing expectations of its subscribers, while remaining true to the WoW universe it’s created.
Engaging Players With Tasks And Rewards
Similar to Clash of Clans, Warlord of Draenor players gain control of their own strongholds, called garrisons. Within the garrisons are a number of plots of land which can be developed into different buildings, each of which grants the player a different bonus. Most of the buildings have a feature where the player spends some manner of currency, then when they come back to the building in two hours or so, there’s some building-specific loot waiting for them.
This gameplay will sound familiar to anyone who has obsessively harvested virtual crops in a cartoon field.
Separate from spending virtual currency, each garrison has a command table, where the player sends out followers—which they can recruit and collect—to perform missions that have various rewards. The missions are extremely simple to do and most take between 30 minutes and two hours to complete, with some taking as much as 24 hours.
As game designers know, such tasks are key to creating an addictive game.
“The appointment dynamic is a famous game mechanic in which to succeed a ‘player’ must return at a predefined time to take a predetermined action,” Seth Priebatsch, creator of mobile payment software company LevelUp, wrote in a 2010 article for the Harvard Business Review. “It’s simple and immensely powerful.”
This mechanic is not new to WoW; Blizzard experimented with it by adding a personalized farm in Mists of Pandaria, the previous expansion, in which players could plant crops and return the next day to harvest them. Unlike the farm, however, the garrison is an essential part of both the plot and gameplay of Warlords of Draenor.
“Every time you feel some kind of a progression, that drives you to do more,” Yulia Vakhrusheva, organizer of the Casual Games Association’s Indie Prize Showcase, told ReadWrite. A regular WoW player since 2008, Vakhrusheva said the new garrison system is definitely very similar to mobile games, and that the constant feedback and rewards is what players find so engaging.
“Just like in farming, building and strategy social games, you can give the game a “task” and leave it for hours,” she said. “The player wants to return to the game the next day to get a reward, and this is what mainly attracts gamers—getting rewards they can use, be proud of, or ‘reinvest’ back into the game.”
Adapt Or Die
Blizzard has a history of adapting features to WoW that are common in other successful games. In Mists of Pandaria, the game introduced a pet battling system remarkably similar to Nintendo’s wildly successful Pokemon franchise; companion pets that had previously served purely cosmetic purposes could now be caught, battled, and trained. As microtransactions appeared in more games, Blizzard also introduced an in-game store to World of Warcraft in 2013, where players can purchase special pets or mounts.
Beyond having a popular game mechanic behind it, the rewards granted by the new garrisons in Warlord of Draenor might encourage players to stick around longer than previous expansions.
“You don’t need to put lots of hours to the game to get great gear that will make you raid-ready, you can just get it from the garrison missions,” Vakhrusheva said. “Back in the day, it was super hard to progress unless you put in tons of hours of gameplay. It was much more of a hardcore game. In 2014, it’s much more accessible to the mass market.”
Perhaps the only thing missing from this equation is a cellphone app that lets players interact with their WoW garrisons remotely. So far no official Blizzard app for this exists, although Wowhead.com, an official fansite of the game, has released an app that keeps track of mission timers, so players know exactly when to return.