One aspect mentioned got me waxing nostalgic: the relationship of (hardware) accessibility to a game’s success. In thinking about the games that I’ve played the hell out of, and the myriad system upgrades I’ve embarked upon, I never really upgraded for upgrade’s sake. Each upgrade was generally driven by a strong desire to improve an already compelling game experience or a bona fide promise of one. In short, I would pull the trigger on an upgrade if a game was Hardware Worthy. They must be on to something if a $20 game (oh, the memories) can make you want to throw down hundreds or thousands of dollars for new hardware.
This got me thinking about just what an impact Blizzard has had (on my wallet) in the 13 years since the release of Warcraft: Orcs and Humans in 1994. In retrospect, a big portion of that impact was on hardware manufacturers and resellers.
Yes, 1994. The year before the first “useable” version of Windows, Windows 95, became available. If you had Windows in 1994, it was likely the venerable Windows 3.1 and you spent most of your time playing Solitaire or getting all Ren-faire by typing documents in Chancery cursive font.
Unless you were an academic, you probably didn’t use but might have heard of LANs, the internet and email. When Warcraft was first released, the Mosaic browser was less than a year old. My how things have changed.
At the time, we simply played the hell out of that game. What a hardware bonanza it and other games that had promised compelling game play drove (and continues to drive today). A brief summary of the hardware tax Blizzard and others (e.g., Ensemble’s Age of Empires/Kings, id Software’s Quake and GT Interactive’s Unreal Tournament) have imposed on me personally over the years:
- A second phone line to facillitate multiplayer play;
- Modem (yes, a modem) upgrades;
- Purchase of a new PII machine with Windows 95;
- Creation of our first trans-household coaxial ethernet network;
- Myriad graphics card upgrades too numerous to mention;
- Numerous processor upgrades (PIII to Athlon XP through X2 64);
- Numerous monitor upgrades (13″, 15″ CRTs to 17″, 19″ LCDs);
- Dial up internet access;
- Broadband internet;
- Voice-over IP hardware (Headsets, mics);
- Comfy chairs;
- Comfy keyboards;
- Comfy mice;
- OS upgrades (DOS to Win 95/Me to XP, but not Vista yet)
- And do it all times 2 for my wife who is also a gamer.
I suspect my list doesn’t look so dissimilar from most of yours as well (adjusted for age). Yes, that’s a lot of hardware (sorry, HotPockets don’t count as hardware once they leave the freezer) but it even in retrospect it was money well spent. Each upgrade made a game experience that was already good, better. Seldom would “pretty good” with the hope of “good” justify such a leap of faith and commitment of hard earned scratch.
When WoW came out in December 2004, I think I was running an Athlon XP 1700 box that I had built with 512MB of RAM and a 64MB MX440 graphics card. WoW ran pretty darn good on it and that was probably a forward leaning system at the time. System requirements for WoW are now:
- 800 MHz or higher CPU.
- 256 MB or more of RAM.
- 32 MB 3D graphics card with hardware Transform and Lighting, such as GeForce 2 or better.
- 4 GB or more of available hard drive space.
- DirectX® 9.0c or above.
- A 56k or higher modem with an Internet connection.
We had another machine in the house which was much closer to this which really didn’t cut it. It was a consumer box that had a 1GHz processor and 256MB of RAM, but an on board video chip which shared memory with the system. Thus the first WoW-induced system upgrade was born. It was ok, but just not enough. But the game was very good despite the obvious hardware limitations. Quite simply it was Hardware Worthy.
Maybe the most important point is that WoW was not truly accessible in December 2004, but it was nearly accessible to most computers out there. We didn’t need a better machine for Outlook or Excel or Word or our browser of choice, but we did to realize the obvious potential of the game. A potential that though not realized under more pedestrian systems, was still clearly visible and within reach.
Games that truly crush system requirements when released can’t make this sale (at least for me). Near accessibility can. That’s what WoW did and what EQ2 and Vanguard did not at release. When FarCry came out to rave reviews earlier in the year, I downloaded the demo and gave it a go. It was ok, but not great on my system. To make the leap to great would have been going from a 64MB Geforce 4 video card to a 256MB card. That’s 2 steps up the ladder and out of the “prosumer” $150-250 bracket and into the “enthusiast” $400+ bracket. That was a leap I was not willing to take for a game with unproven potential.
The calculus on the WoW front was different. I could see what a great game it was (even on the crappy machine) and I could convince myself to make a modest upgrade in RAM and/or video card to get to the Great Plateau of Transparent Accessibility wherein you cease consciousness of your hardware and simply play the game. The well-earned trust of Blizzard’s promise of great gameplay was enough to go on for that short step.
I’m sure that myself and thousands of others made that same leap of faith from near accessibility to true accessibility. More fundamentally, by building a game that was only one short step ahead, it meant that if and when the fat part of the bell curve discovered the game (say, 6 months to a year after release), mainstream hardware would be at or near the true level of accessibility.
Hard to beat that strategy to ensure the opportunity build a player base. But opportunity if unanswered doesn’t equal success. That’s where, IMHO, Wil’s original post fits in. Blizzard’s hardware strategy helped give them the opportunity to win the player base, but they still had to do it the hard way– by delivering a highly polished compelling game. People may have bought the box because it was Blizzard, but they pay the subscription because of the game.