ByRachelle Riddle, writer at
Writer by day, gamer by night. Everything's a story.
Rachelle Riddle

is Rachelle Riddle's weekly Explainer column about what's going on beneath the surface of the world of gaming.

Every so often we hear about the latest "WoW killer," a new set to knock out of its top spot. But it never happens, the popularity WoW has held for over a decade, and it's hard to deny the influence the game continues to have.

first came out in 2004 and has remained the most popular and played MMO in the 13 years since, with millions of concurrent subscribers and over 100 million total accounts. The game is currently in its sixth expansion with no signs of stopping. WoW's success has been monumental and stems from the right combination of factors when it first came out.

The Timing Was Right

Leveling in 'World of Warcraft'. [Credit: Blizzard]
Leveling in 'World of Warcraft'. [Credit: Blizzard]

WoW came along in the early days of MMOs — when it launched in late 2004, there were only a couple other games in the genre to compete with. Ultima Online really started the surge in 1997 and other games built on that. EverQuest was the next big thing in 1999, but its downfall came when Sony decided to launch a sequel, EverQuest II, as a separate game, which split the playerbase. Eve Online came along in 2003 but was just as grindy and unforgiving as previous MMOs. Whereas the first MMOs focused on the hardcore gamers, WoW veered more casual.

It Was Accessible

Players in the capitol city. [Credit: Blizzard]
Players in the capitol city. [Credit: Blizzard]

This was probably the key to WoW's meteoric rise. Most MMORPGs at that time were grindfests and meant for seasoned players. They were hard, lengthy endeavors in which those who put the most time into won. When WoW came along, it upended the typical MMO experience and made it accessible for more casual players.

The combat was simple and allowed for less downtime than other MMOs. Players were able to generate health and power so they could enter combat again faster. Death was also far less punishing. In other MMOs, character death was a hazard. You could lose experience, items in your bags, and even your gear. In WoW, dying was merely an inconvenience. All players had to do was find their body as a ghost and everything would be right where they left it. They may resurrect at lower health, but experience and items remained intact.

The less punishing aspects attracted players and kept them playing longer. WoW added a ton of quests so players would have a way to progress their character rather than grinding the same activity over and over. The story helped keep players' attention and the lore of the game has always been a driving point in its popularity.

It Had Franchise Recognition

The resolution of the Lich King from 'Warcraft III'. [Credit: Blizzard]
The resolution of the Lich King from 'Warcraft III'. [Credit: Blizzard]

was already well-known by the time WoW came out. World of Warcraft was based on their wildly successful Warcraft real-time strategy games, which began in 1994 with the first game Orcs and Humans. The story, through subsequent expansions, kept the series going and the third installment, Warcraft III, sold 4.5 million copies alone. It was only natural that they would make yet another game, but the 'Warcraft IV' that was to be developed into an MMO instead — what we know now as World of Warcraft.

World of Warcraft was set four years after the events of Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne and allowed players to explore their favorite world and heroes as fully playable characters. Everything fans loved about the Warcraft universe was now in an MMO and ready to be built upon.

It Has Stood The Test Of Time And Remained Populated

Current events in 'World of Warcraft'. [Credit: Blizzard]
Current events in 'World of Warcraft'. [Credit: Blizzard]

A lot of WoW's success was luck, along with timing and the recognition of an established franchise. At its height in 2010, WoW had 12 million active players during its third expansion, Wrath of the Lich King. Subscriber counts have naturally fluctuated over the years and have fallen in the four expansions since, but they still remain leagues ahead of the competition.

The game hit an all-time low during the lackluster fifth expansion at 5 million subscribers. The latest expansion, Legion, has a been a success and by current estimations the game is home to around 7-9 million active players. Most of the early MMOs barely make it past a couple hundred thousand, but WoW has remained steadfastly populated. For a game that is nearly 13 years old, with most of its early players having grown up, it's an amazing feat.

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