10 Ways World of Warcraft Changed MMOs Forever
Regardless of whether or not you like World of Warcraft, you have to admit that it was extremely influential. There's a reason it experienced such a surge of popularity; this list is aimed at explaining why.
I'm not claiming that Blizzard was the first to do anything on this list; I'm saying that their execution basically made the entire videogame industry sit up and pay attention. It also helped shape players' expectations for all games that followed.
For the average person in 2004, MMOs could seem fiddly and annoying. They appealed mostly to devoted (or "hardcore") gamers. If you could go back in time and play Everquest or Asheron's Call 2, you'd be astounded at how hard it was to simply use the interface, find quests and get into groups. Unless you were willing to alt-tab between the game and a detailed FAQ, you could count on spending the first dozen hours of the game just learning where to quest. MMOs felt slow and painful to most people, and they accordingly were less popular.
9: Quests for All
As mentioned above, it could be extremely difficult to find quests in some pre-WoW MMOs. I personally remember playing Asheron's Call 2 and repeating the same quest half a dozen times because it was the only one I could find. World of Warcraft popularized the "overhead exclamation mark" questing system. Players could find quests the moment they entered a new area, and quests could only be completed once.
8: Skill Trees
As far as I can tell, Blizzard didn't invent the notion of skill trees. In Diablo 2 each class had three to choose from, each specializing a character for a particular role. In WoW, they took this idea much farther. These days, most games include a skill progression of some kind. Even games like Call of Duty 4 have something like this in the form of customizable perks. Rift took the idea of skill trees and added a few interesting ideas, but it was obvious they were building on WoW's foundation.
7: Solo Play
Until you hit the max level, World of Warcraft feels almost like a single player game. In fact, if you choose to ignore all chat channels and dungeons, it actually is one. When Blizzard was designing the game, one of the prevailing ideas was that it should be playable solo. Nobody likes being forced into unwanted social interaction. Sometimes you just wanna kill some goblins by yourself. WoW embraced its inner hermit and players loved it.
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6: Content Updates
Again, Blizzard wasn't doing anything new here, but frequent content patches brought an obscene amount of content into the game thanks to a large budget. Today the game is almost unrecognizable from its 1.0 release. Take a look at the modern update page to understand just how much stuff Blizzard is constantly making for this game.
Although not technically invented by Blizzard, instanced content was uncommon before becoming popularized in WoW. Only two games, Anarchy Online and an expansion for Everquest called Lost Dungeons of Norrath had this kind of technology. Classically, if players wanted to team up and kill a dragon, they'd have to compete with everyone else who wanted to do the same thing. Giving every group their own private copy of the world was a tremendous boon, giving many thousands of players a chance of earning powerful items from bosses like Onyxia or Deathwing.
4: Consensual PVP
Unlike Ultima Online, Blizzard didn't want to see players terrorizing other players. The player-versus-player combat in WoW would always be consensual (unless you decided to play on a PVP server). It was a nice middle ground between Everquest's total lack of PVP and Ultima Online's "anything goes" murderfest.
This is much less intimidating to casual players, who might not understand how or why they're being murdered. Most modern MMOs have adopted this stance for PVP, allowing players to choose whether or not they play in a competitive environment.
3: Stylized Graphics
Blizzard really can't take credit for inventing stylized graphics, but it was a breath of fresh air compared to other fantasy MMOs at the time. Warcraft 2 had cartoony graphics akin to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Warcraft 3 refined the look. World of Warcraft brought the tiny characters from the RTS to life in a big way.
Eight years later, the game has aged significantly better than other games released in 2004. These days, stylistic games are so commonplace that people complain that about them looking "too much like WoW."
2: UI Mods
I'm sure that there were interface mods for all of the MMOs prior to WoW, but the sheer volume of quality modifications for the game's UI was staggering. The WoW interface community is strong to this day, and many of the mods have been rolled into the base UI.
Players now expect a moddable interface in their MMOs, and cry foul when it's not allowed.
1: Millions of Players
Before World of Warcraft, MMOs were considered a niche market. Before 2004, the most successful MMO of all time had been Everquest with just over 400,000 subscribers. WoW broke every record by achieving eleven million subscribers at its peak. This garnered the attention of not only the video game industry, but of popular media in general. MMOs have become a big part of video game and internet culture, and the world has changed because of that.
It's safe to say that many people had never played an MMO before World of Warcraft. Today, many dozens of games simply wouldn't have been made if not for WoW's influence (for better or for worse).