The Cyberbrains

Research and contemplation in new media

Caught in the Blizzard

war-dota.jpgI have a love-hate relationship with Blizzard, the video game company that created Starcraft, Diablo, and a little game called World of Warcraft, which boasts more than 7 million online devotees who pay $14.95 a month to play. Before World of Warcraft, I think Blizzard epitomized how a video game company should interact with its customers. It created games that you didn’t need high-end hardware to run. It allowed you to play online for free. It even shipped Warcraft III with a “world editor” that allowed you to create custom maps and campaigns for your friends.

This blog entry is late, in fact, because I invited 10 close friends over to my house to celebrate Memorial Day today by virtually maiming each other, inside a custom map called Defense of the Ancients. This user-created experience boasts hundreds of thousands of players worldwide. The site managed by the map’s developers has more than 428,000 registered members, and that’s just one of several fansites. The mod has also been incorporated into several gaming leagues and is featured each year at Blizzard’s annual convention. If you want to see the impact DOTA has had on plays, search for it on Google or in YouTube. My favorite is this video by the Swedish singer BassHunter. I wish my LAN parties looked like his.

It is easy for media professionals to dismiss this as just as game, but that is a grave mistake. Instead, researchers and professionals should examine how and why users have created such a vibrant community around a commercial product. Imagine the possibilities if other businesses adopted this model. What kind of loyal fan-base could MSNBC foster if it allowed users to rejigger the site’s code to their hearts’ content? How many more people would become CNN iReporters if they could tell stories their way without Erica Hill narrating over them?

However, I have to wonder if, like so many other companies, Blizzard is starting to backslide a bit. I yearn to play World of Warcraft, the juggernaut of online games with more than 7 million members, but I won’t pay the $14.95 a month to do it. Now, I realize it offers a bit more intense gaming experience than playing a round of DOTA on Blizzard’s Battlenet does, one I’d even to be willing to pay for. My big beef with World of Warcraft is that for $14.95 a month you don’t seem to get anything more than the privilege to play. When Blizzard released an expansion The Burning Crusade, users had to fork over another $40 bucks.

It’s not my place to tell Blizzard how it should run its business. The company’s doing pretty well without my advice, and it is still nurturing the open relationship it has with fans in other ways. But if I’m going to show media companies how Blizzard has succeeded by relinquishing some control to users, I don’t want them to get distracted by the massive dollars signs attached. Maybe that’s starting to happen already.

May 28, 2007 - Posted by | Hans Meyer

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