Real World of Warcraft: Is Offline Part of the Plan?

Dense games are fun games. Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) game developers give solo players things to do, but for a game to really succeed players need people to play with. If player density isn’t high enough, you have to condense things, as once-great FPS/MMO Planetside did earlier this year.

Blizzard’s World of Warcraft is a juggernaut with 10 million players scattered across hundreds of servers — 226 copies of Azeroth in the U.S. alone — and a relatively low churn rate. Those players make for a good game few others can match: Hang out in the online city of Shattrath, or at the mouth of an instance, and you’ll soon find others with whom to raid. [digg=]

Could Blizzard be looking to move all that action into the real world?

Real-world games have been tried before. Population density has always been one of their biggest challenges. The gaming might be good in Shattrath, but go to Times Square and you’re alone. Can Warcraft’s loyal followers help it make the first big real-world MMO?

Blizzard is in the rare company of firms like Apple and Google that make their own gravy — in other words, they’re able to generate a ton of buzz without traditional marketing. So when the firm started recruiting for an “unannounced online multiplayer game,” the speculation was immediate.

The World of Warcraft universe had its Big Bang 14 years ago with the release of a desktop RTS game called Warcraft; the Starcraft and Diablo franchises soon followed, each with its own universe, backstory, and global success. Given how well the the Warcraft franchise fared online, much of the speculation looked at MMOs set in these other universes.

Of course, Blizzard’s not talking. The company is notoriously tight-lipped about its plans, and steadfastly refuses to publish any game before it’s ready — a practice which has served it well and has even resulted in the cancellation of highly anticipated titles when they weren’t quite right.

Gaming analyst firm DFC thinks 2008 is a banner year for MMOs, and expects much less growth in coming years — a sure sign of market saturation. With new MMO titles like Conan crowding store shelves, maybe it’s time for Blizzard to change the game by moving it offline.

The pieces are definitely in place:

  • The density problem is solved: With Warcraft’s huge installed base, there’s probably a Rogue Night Elf within a hundred meters of you right now.
  • People are always connected: Blizzard has thrived overseas. Starcraft is so popular in Korea, it’s the subject of TV shows, contests — even standup routines. In many of these countries, cell phone use far outranks what we’re used to in North America. Worldwide, the majority of Internet-enabled devices are cell phones, not PCs. Game developers can rely on a mobile, connected player base.
  • We have our controllers: These mobile devices can access the Internet, have rich audiovisual displays, and know where they are. That’s key for everything from quests to face-to-face real-world combat. Heck, with clever use of accelerometers and screen gestures, your iPhone could double as a sword as easily as any Wiimote.
  • There’s stuff to do: Wonder about geographic quests? Geocaching, which involves finding caches at specific locations, is a popular sport among GPS enthusiasts, with 613,734 caches active worldwide at the time of writing.
  • We’re used to constant interactions: Facebook, instant messaging, and Twitter have taught an entire generation (or two) to deal with constant interruptions from a global social network. And casual gaming, which has been a part of the workday since Minesweeper, is now big business.

A real-world MMO has one more advantage: Revenues. The opportunities for sponsorship, or for driving players to real-world locations to make real-world purchases, make Blizzard’s current revenues look tiny by comparison.

All we need is the players. And Blizzard’s the most likely company to let the Orcs loose in Times Square.