An understated side of World of Warcraft

If you are at least a bit interested in online games, you must have heard about World of Warcraft. It is a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) created by Blizzard Entertainment, more well-known for its Starcraft and Diablo franchise of games. It commenced service in Fall 2004 and since then accumulated more than 11 million worldwide subscribers, becoming the largest MMORPG in the world. The active subscription comparison chart on MMOGChart.com shows that, in terms of the number of customers, World of Warcraft simply squashes the competition (note the light green line drawing a very steep curve upwards).

As impressive the market share of World of Warcraft is in the MMORPG universe, what is little noticed is that it provides quite an open architecture for users with adequate skills to customize the user interface in the game. Employing the Lua programming language (see more about Lua on Wikipedia and Wowwiki), Blizzard harbors an environment in which many components of the user interface are editable–from changing the basic display of characters and surroundings to adding functions in order to make game experience more convenient. There are abundant collections of World of Warcraft “add-ons” that help players navigate easier, find certain merchandise on auction houses quicker, fight more competently in combat, tackle boss encounters more efficiently, and so on. Some add-ons even act as intermediate platforms to support other add-ons. Curse.com, which owns one of the largest World of Warcraft add-on databases, hosts almost 5,000 add-ons; that is an impressively large number, given the considerable level of computer skills to produce one of them (there are many MMORPGs that struggle with active subscribers less than 10,000 out there, mind you).

Blizzard recently went on to announce the user interface add-on development policy for World of Warcraft, unfolding its official stance on customizing their flagship product. The policy may spur discontent among add-on developers, since it strictly forbid them from asking add-on users for monetary returns, let alone charging for profit (well, thanks to this policy, you can play Bejeweled on World of Warcraft, for free! Update: Peggle is playable as an add-on, too). Yet it can be seen, however, that Blizzard nurtures and pays attention to a lively community which develop and use little software programs that are available thanks to its adjustable design.

Blizzard seems determined not to monetize the add-on ecosystem, à la Apple’s App Store, maybe because it cannot weather a third party generating derivative revenues from its products (Blizzard’s lawsuit against WoW Glider last year, for instance, was not only for blocking cheaters but also for cutting off people from making money off World of Warcraft), or because it does not want to expend additional resources on overseeing nor be responsible for paid add-ons (the same way console manufacturers monitor their third-party games or Apple supervises iPhone apps on App Store), or even both. With its MMORPG sky high, however, the add-on ecosystem Blizzard generated would thrive, regardless of how other MMORPGs boast of being “WoW killers.”

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