Part Four: The Online Sensation
At the end of the late nineties, a brand new genre had emerged. The novelty of playing video games over the internet was no longer a novelty. But what if you could play these games in a persistent game world with thousands of other people? None of this “Nine vs. Nine” crap, but thousands of men, women, and children forming their own allegiances. “Hey, uh, you know those Lord of the Rings books? We just turned them into a video game. Also, all of the characters in the game are being controlled by real people. Come play!” The new sensation was the Massively-Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game.
The genre didn’t appear out of nowhere. It was an extension of the Multi-User Dungeons that had been in existence since the early eighties. While 1995’s Meridian 59 was actually the father of the MMORPG, the development talent behind the legendary Ultima role-playing franchise would create a market for the games. In 1997, Ultima Online went live. Soon to follow were 1999’s Everquest (whose use of tiered zones and set skill trees would become the blueprint for most games in the genre) and Asheron’s Call (which established a devoted audience through the use of monthly updates that would tell the storyline of the game world). In this model for game design, developers could not create an online portal and expect the players to pay for their own servers or host the games. Developers would pay for the server costs and pass that cost on to the consumer. Players would purchase the game and then support it with a subscription fee, usually in the range of ten-to-fifteen dollars per month.
Even in a niche market featuring three games that would become notorious for their ruthless game mechanics, the games were very profitable because their distribution model used a closed system. The developer and publisher were given full power to dictate and inflate the price of entry. If you weren’t interested in paying for the game each month, too bad. Those developers were sure that you could find a whole bunch of other games featuring thousands of people, all engaging in a simultaneous and unprecedented multiplayer experience that would blow your fucking mind. Oh wait, there wasn’t. There was only one Everquest, and if you wanted to play it, you had to pay what the creators said it was worth.
Blizzard Entertainment decided that they wanted to get in this market. In 2001, Blizzard announced World of Warcraft, an MMORPG spin-off of the Warcraft real-time strategy franchise. At the time, it seemed like madness. The company already put the axe to one spin-off of the Warcraft series, a point-and-click adventure game that would be cancelled in 1998. And in 2001, everybody is waiting on Warcraft III. Why risk ruining a good thing? World of Warcraft had a lot of good things going for it, including an established backstory and the weighty reputation of the developer. But it would be the company’s design philosophy that would become the greatest boon.
Since the company hit it big back in the mid-nineties, Blizzard’s modus operandi was taking existing genres with existing templates, finding out what makes those genres work, and polishing the absolute hell out of them. For this round, the company would look at the disorganization present in the genre (where Asheron’s Call and Ultima Online allowed player participation to drive some of the narrative) and continued where Everquest left off. World of Warcraft would structure the genre even more rigidly than its predecessors. Between some excellent art design and the “start anew” nature of the quests that could be found in each region of the game world, World of Warcraft felt like a side-scrolling platformer from the early-nineties. You had your snow level, you had your lava level, you had your forest levels. The only difference is that you were given the option of choosing which order to play the levels in and Blizzard forgot to add some stage numbers. Perhaps most importantly, World of Warcraft removed a barrier of entry for the genre, an overhaul that would be derided as “easy mode” by its critics. Players were not punished for failure. They were only rewarded for success. Penalties to death with permanent punishments (loss of experience or items) were abolished. The game also discouraged player-versus-player combat by offering no incentive for engaging members of an enemy faction. Blizzard would eventually phase out the Wild West nature of player-versus-player combat in favor of versus multiplayer modes. As a final touch, Blizzard would greatly reduce the amount of time and effort required to reach the maximum level cap, assuring that players with questionable commitment could access all of the content in the game and assuring that Blizzard could properly structure quests and content for a more narrow range of player-character strength.
By the time Blizzard finished making death a mere annoyance and creating a system where all consumers could access all of the content in time for a new expansion pack, the company redefined the power structure for the genre. World of Warcraft was released on November 23, 2004. In the twenty-four hours after its release, it would become the fastest-selling computer video game of all-time, selling–get this–240,000 copies.* Doesn’t seem like a whole lot, does it? Well, social gaming and word of mouth are best friends forever. Twenty-four months later, a quarter-of-a-million subscribers would become a consumer base of seven-million strong, eventually peaking at twelve million subscribers.* Blizzard tripled the previous record for subscription-based MMORPGs that was held by South Korean stalwart Lineage.* And while that game’s insane numbers were dismissed by Western audiences as an “Asians are crazy for video games” thing, World of Warcraft began its shelf life as a Western phenomenon. And news is only news when it happens in America!
At first, this MMORPG thing sounded like a niche genre for nerds. By the time Blizzard was done with it, it was a hugely-popular genre for nerds who didn’t want to be called nerds. It was a social gaming revolution. With the help of Nintendo’s Wii, World of Warcraft would would fashion an ironic consumer society. They had created a culture of moms who take a break from building farms on Facebook so they could call your “video game hobby” a waste of time. Blizzard’s reward for exposing the hypocrisy of your mom? With the subscription revenue generated from World of Warcraft, they would become the first software-only video game developer whose existence does not hinge on the immediate future. The existence of the company was no longer determined on a game-to-game basis. They had created what no other developer in the history of this industry has ever been able to boast: A blank check for video game development. Forget video game rockstars. They were gods.
No single-player. Cannot have. Is not yours. (Credit: GameSpot*)
From a business strategy standpoint, World of Warcraft was a chess piece that could jump other pieces, plant land mines, and summon reinforcements from edgier, more dangerous board games. It was nothing like the industry had ever seen. In tandem with the success of Xbox Live, World of Warcraft was creating a new playing field for distribution. Computer-and-console multiplayer spent its early years giving the consumer choice for how and where the player can play his games. You could play locally, you could play over a phone line, you could play over the developer’s online service. But now, the two hottest properties in video games were making millions (and eventually billions) by corralling their audiences into networks where companies could control the terms of engagement. The industry was taking notice.
You probably think this is the moment that we segue into the creation of the Battle.net 2.0 service, that Blizzard immediately realized how much money there was to be made in this closed distribution model. It will stun you to know that Blizzard didn’t even realize it yet. Even the most jaded gamer would be hard-pressed to argue that people should have the option of playing their MMORPG offline, lest having the entire business model collapse. All Blizzard knew is that they had designed World of Warcraft to work behind a closed system because that was the accepted business model for making money with MMORPGs. And it just happened that World of Warcraft became the most successful of those games.
These macros tend to be the most effective in games structured around Player vs. Environment combat because amateur programmers don’t have the resources and skill to program a bot that can competently fight and deal with other human players. World of Warcraft was built around Player vs. Environment interaction. (This would be the same reason that the Chinese could turn World of Warcraft into a “gold farming” empire. There was no ability for players to “correct their playstyle”.) World of Warcraft was ripe for the prevalence of automated programs. And yet, World of Warcraft did not feature an End User License Agreement that prohibited their use. It would only become a matter of time before players would begin creating software for use with World of Warcraft. The legitimacy of these programs would have to come into question.
In March of 2005, an Arizona resident by the name of Michael Donnelly developed a bot for personal use with World of Warcraft. This simple macro bot would be named “Glider”. It was nothing special. Like most of the previous macros, it played the game for you. Presumably and unsurprisingly, there was a demand for this kind of program. Donnelly got this crazy idea in his head: “Most people release cheat programs to the public for free of charge. What if I sell this damn thing and make some money?” That’s what he would do. Having been properly trained by World of Warcraft to spend long periods of time staring at a computer screen, he read the World of Warcraft End User License Agreement and correctly concluded that it did not prohibit the use of bots. The Glider software web site went live during the summer of 2005 and the advertised price was twenty-five dollars. Most people would look at this price point and go purchase Deus Ex because Deus Ex is the fucking shit and you are a clown if you do not play Deus Ex.* But instead, the free market would prevail. Thousands upon thousands of people would purchase the Glider software and Donnelly would be a very rich man.
Then, things began to get a little bit messy. Later in the year, Blizzard had finally caught on to their mistake. They had been a little bit too lenient. Not anymore. A couple of months after the commercial release of the Glider software, the company adapted their Warden anti-cheat device for use with World of Warcraft. During the same period of time, they amended the End User License Agreement and it was a much stricter document than before. Amongst the changes, it would prohibit the use of bots. If Donnelly had quit right here, he walks off into the sunset with a pretty hefty chunk of change. Instead, the dumbass decided to keep selling the software.
In an attempt to circumvent the legal questions now surrounding the software, he would loudly and broadly proclaim on the Glider website that his software was in clear violation of the World of Warcraft End User License Agreement. In other words, “I know this shit is illegal, but hey, I’m just selling the drugs. This stuff is against United States federal law. I told you that when I was making the sale. Don’t hold me responsible. You knew what you were getting into.” To circumvent Warden, he provided an “upgrade” designed to make its way around Warden’s anti-cheat features. They would do this rather admirably, and presumably based on that reputation, the software continued to sell very well. Michael Donnelly would eventually make 3.5 million dollars off of 120,000 licenses sold for his Glider software.* Between Blizzard’s new rules and an Arizona man’s millionaire exploits, something would have to be settled. The only question seemed to be: “How hard will Blizzard come down on this dude?”
In September of 2006, Blizzard Entertainment publicly put a foot forward and announced to the world that they were sick of Michael Donnelly’s shit. Well, in the form of a sternly-worded cease-and-desist letter. That’s how legal teams lay down the law. When Donnelly asked the company why they were going all nerdrage on his software, Blizzard did not respond. The next month, Blizzard sent a piece of their legal warfare unit to Donnelly’s home and threatened immediate legal action. Their demands? Stop selling the Glider software and hand over all of the proceeds earned from its distribution. Donnelly gave it a thought. Then, he turned those proceeds into his own legal counsel. The man was now a millionaire and he would be damned if he was giving that up.
MDY Industries, LLC v. Blizzard Entertainment, Inc. was on. And by “on”, I mean “Donnelly never stood a fucking chance.” The same year that Garena would be released to the public, the same year that professional StarCraft would reach the zenith of its popularity, Blizzard Entertainment began their plans to “buy out” Michael Donnelly. By doing so, they would set precedent for the entire computer software industry; they would establish how all future software could be programmed and how the rules of that software could be enforced.
Continue to Part Five: An Open and Closed Case