The release of World of Warcraft: Cataclysm marks six years of Blizzard's MMO dominance and the raising of the bar for MMO standards. But now, as servers buckle and players frantically level up their Worgens and Goblins, some will rightly ask: How long can Blizzard keep this up? Or, to put it another way, what can topple World of Warcraft?
"Nothing will topple World of Warcraft for another 20 years," states Wedbush Morgan analyst Michael Pachter, kicking off Eurogamer's industry-wide debate.
"As long as the Blizzard guys keep working on it, the quality will remain very high, and it will remain the dominant game. Your question is analogous to asking what will topple Google in search or Facebook in social media, and the answer is the same. I don't see any game catching up, the lead is insurmountable."
With 12 million global subscribers, World of Warcraft's lead is vast. But Blizzard didn't get there overnight. WOW launched in the US in late 2004 and in Europe in February 2005, and by June that year the massively-multiplayer online role-playing game had two million subscribers. As the winter months approached and WOW spread to China, those numbers avalanched: by December the count was an eye-popping five million subscribers. (I remember the server queues as if it were yesterday.)
In January 2007, shortly before the release of first expansion The Burning Crusade, World of Warcraft crossed the eight million subscribers mark, with 3.5 million of those in China alone. By November 2007, Blizzard had 9.3 million people subscribing. Weeks before the second expansion The Wrath of the Lich King arrived, in November 2008, WOW found itself with more than 11 million paying customers. Those numbers plateaued until October this year, when Blizzard trampled over the golden 12 million mark.
"Topple?" Jack Emmert, head of Cryptic Studios, asks. "No. Slowly chip away at? Yes."
Cryptic launched City of Heroes months before World of Warcraft and took home a higher score on Eurogamer launch for launch. Partially retired Eurogamer contributor and full-time hero Kieron Gillen saw to it that COH earned 9/10 compared to WOW's 8/10 (still, at least it was as good as Halo). "Within its small region of effort, City of Heroes gets many things right - things which World of Warcraft barely attempts, and their absence nags terribly," wrote Gillen in his World of Warcraft review.
Of course, an enormous volume of changes later, a re-review of World of Warcraft saw it achieve 10/10, the same score attributed to both The Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King. Frankly, it would be more shocking should Cataclysm not repeat that performance.
Cryptic Studios, meanwhile, released two more MMOs: Champions Online and Star Trek Online. Despite being big licences, both underwhelmed. Emmert continues: "No one event significantly affected the previous kings of the hill, like Ultima Online. Really, it comes down to the fact that sometimes people get tired of a game and move onto something else. Of course, there are many other choices out there for MMOs. Every year WOW will decline a little - perhaps more significantly at some points when huge competition comes out."
World of Warcraft has been chipped away at before, notably by Age of Conan and Warhammer Online. Both games were based on big licences and Funcom had made Anarchy Online and Mythic Dark Age of Camelot. What's more, Mythic had EA on its side. Whether either had a genuine shot at dislodging World of Warcraft seems hard to believe today, but at the time there was excitement and rivalry: Funcom compared World of Warcraft to "McDonalds" whereas Age of Conan was "steak", and Mythic likened WOW to Blackpool and Warhammer Online to Vegas.