World of Warcraft has been out for quite a while now – almost seven years. The game has been through so many changes and has been a part of gaming culture so long that it’s easy to forget how innovative WoW truly was. I think WoW’s largest contribution to the MMO genre, and the primary key to its success, is the strong single player aspect.
Let’s backtrack for a moment. The earliest example of bona fide MMO success is Everquest. Even today – yes, EQ is still alive and kicking – leveling in Everquest is accomplished by grouping up and grinding mobs. Sure, there are quests, but, for the most part, efficient leveling comes from grinding. There are dungeons, too, but again, if your goal is to reach max level, find a group, stake out a camp, and start pulling.
Square’s Final Fantasy XI followed a similar path. Quests were few, and generally required groups to complete. Leveling consisted of finding a group and then mindlessly grinding mobs.
WoW took a different approach. Even in its earliest incarnations, you could level from one to 60 completely solo. And, more importantly, you could do so by continuously completing quests – quests tailored to a single player’s capabilities. Sure, there were group quests, but they were easily bypassed if you so desired. And there were dungeons, but they were worthwhile mostly for the gear upgrades, not for the experience points. In fact, several players proved that the most efficient way to level, even back in vanilla WoW, was through solo questing.
Frankly, transforming an MMO into a single player experience sounds somewhat counter intuitive and not all that intelligent. But suddenly you no longer had to sit around looking for healers and/or tanks just to play the game. Or if you just had a few minutes, you could hop on, knock off a few quests, and then get on with your life. Logging onto WoW was committing yourself to hours of gameplay as you searched for a group, found a camp, then felt obligated to hang around in some sense of misguided loyalty to the rest of your party. Ironically, I think this somehow led to people staying logged on to WoW for at least as long as they ever would have another MMO.
Single player leveling is now the norm in new MMO’s, as far as I can tell. WoW did it first, and probably still does it best. Despite where you may stand in regards to World of Warcraft currently, the game established the MMO as the most popular genre of game… for a while. That popularity was mostly due to World of Warcraft’s strong solo player experience.