No, this isn't an article about what you might do if you suddenly logged in one morning and all your WoW gold achievements, and those epic mounts, were gone, or worse, if there wasn't a launcher to log in to. Rather, this is a speculative article about how the industry and MMO genre might be different had Blizzard chosen not to develop World of Warcraft.
At just over half a decade old, there are few records Blizzard's behemoth hasn't cracked. It brings in over a billion dollars a year in revenue, and is actively played by over ten million loyal and and active fans, who cough up $15 a month to wander the world of Azeroth. But what if it never was? What if, instead of pursuing the creation of World of Wacraft, Blizzard had decided against entering the MMO space?
What it would have meant for Blizzard:
Diablo III, and StarCraft II would be out by now.
You can bet that one, or both of these would have been the next game on Blizzard's slate after Warcraft III. The ongoing revenues enjoyed from the wild success of World of Warcraft and its various expansions has meant that Blizzard really hasn't had to worry too much about where the cash for the next meal is coming from. The lack of a cash cow like WoW could, or rather would have meant that Blizzard would have to follow a more traditional development model.
Hard to believe, but it's been ten years since Diablo II, and a whopping twelve years since StarCraft, despite the fact that both franchises have a rabid and vocal fanbase, and StarCraft in particular is still played on the tournament circuit. You can bet that without World of Warcraft, we would have seen at least one sequel to one or both games.
Would the Activision merger have happened?
This is a tough one. The reason Blizzard was such an attractive partner for Activision was the strength of the World of Warcraft brand, and the vice like grip Blizzard had on the lucrative market. While Blizzard would still likely have been a strong developer, it's unlikely that it would be in the kind of position it finds itself thanks to the success of the game.
That said, Blizzard, like Valve, are a canny group of individuals, and you can only imagine they would have found a way to make the most of the lack of WoW, perhaps we would have seen the birth of a fourth pillar to be added to the Warcraft, StarCraft, Diablo triumvirate? And no, a new Lost Viking's game doesn't count.
What it would have meant for their competition, and the genre:
In 1995, when World of Warcraft burst on the scene to change the face of the MMO-scape, and redefine what was expected of a game in the genre, a certain Sony Online Entertainment was on the verge of rolling out the sequel to a game that was, at the time, the absolute zenith of achievement in the MMO genre.
EverQuest II, the sequel to the popular EverQuest, promised eye poppingly futuristic visuals, voice acting, and more questing raiding and eqII plat than you could shake a big stick at. A year prior, SOE had also launched the highly anticipated Star Wars: Galaxies, it was believed by many that this one two punch would easily be more than enough to tie up the MMO genre for years to come. Oh, but for the advent of World of Warcraft.
One of the major incidences that's often cited in “ruining” SOE's then-improving Star Wars: Galaxies, was the sweeping changes made to the game, geared towards making it more user friendly... like World of Warcraft. Consider for a moment, that had WoW not been around to put such high pressure on SWG, it's likely the game would have continued to improve and evolve at a natural pace, without SOE being panicked into a knee jerk reaction that essentially alienated the player base and drove fans away.
Consider also, that without one game dominating the genre in the manner that WoW has, the genre might also have enjoyed increased diversity, rather than a massive 70% of the pie being owned by Blizzard, and the rest fighting over scraps, games like Age of Conan and Warhammer Online might have had a more even share.
On the flip side, we're seeing the benefits of increased competition, as publishers like Turbine look to other ways of keeping, and expanding their market share, in the case of Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeons and Dragons Online, by exploring the Free-to-Play model, a model that the likes of SOE are also exploring with Free Realms and the upcoming Star Wars: The Clone Wars Adventures.
What it would have meant for all of us:
We've already established that we'd probably have more healthy subscriber numbers in our various MMO's, but it's also likely that one MMO would have jumped to the fore to, if not fill World of Warcraft's place, then at least provide some sort of stand in, and like WoW has done over the past few years, provide a template, or strong examples that other developers would have followed as the blueprint for success. Would it have been Galaxies? EQII? Planetside? WAR? AOC? Who can tell, but it would likely have defined what we know of as the archetypal MMO.
It can't be argued that Blizzard's development philosophy with WoW, deliberately making it easier to get into and more accessible, has rubbed off on the MMO's that have been developed subsequently, it's hard to imagine how different things might have been otherwise.
So, what would it have meant for us, the gamer? Well, can you really imagine a world without Brew-fest? Yeah. Think about that for a moment.