The Daily Grind: What if World of Warcraft never launched?


It is 2003, and after several years of development and hype, Blizzard Entertainment sizes up its World of Warcraft project. The studio decides that this MMO is getting too pricey to make and is concerned about quality levels, and so shelves it alongside of Warcraft Adventures and Starcraft Ghost.

World of Warcraft… never happens. At least, it never launches. The year 2004 comes and goes without the debut of a massively multiplayer Azeroth.

With that setup, what would change? How would the MMO industry have developed without WoW? Would another game have become a smash hit? Would other studios have actually released their MMOs without the competition of WoW? What would you have done as a gamer to fill your time? Would you have even been an MMO player?

What if World of Warcraft never launched?

Every morning, the Massively Overpowered writers team up with mascot Mo to ask MMORPG players pointed questions about the massively multiplayer online roleplaying genre. Grab a mug of your preferred beverage and take a stab at answering the question posed in today’s Daily Grind!

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Nick Buziak

WoW brought me to MMOs. ESO kept me there.

Maggie May

Considering that we’re a mmo bunch, I think no one is taking into account the millions of non mmo players that wow attracted into the genre. Yes, we all would likely still be playing mmo’s but what about joe blow who realized he could chill on wow with his buds on a saturday night after school? He’d likely .. be .. playing a new type of multiplayer like a battle royale style game or lol etc. ….. um, yea I guess he or she already is. Nevermind! 😀

One of the most interesting trends over the years has been the merging of single player games and multiplayer, console and pc. WOW brought into the genre a lot of people who might never jumped in and while its true that the gaming community has diversified, with straight mmorpg’s being a smaller market, multiplayer is in everything now. WOW was a big part of the gaming community’s acceptance of and embracing multiplayer aspects that have become commonplace. I am of the mind, that these things happen for a reason and if it hadn’t been wow, it would have been another game because the pent up demand was there.


I bet if it didn’t launch EverQuest 2 would’ve been the go-to game, as well as older and hardcore games like Ultima Online, RuneScape and Asheron’s Call 2 would’ve been more popular.

Chinese developers would’ve copied something else, but considering that WoW literally EXPLODED after launch and that’s why the WoW-clone craze started, I think none of the mentioned above games would’ve exploded had WoW never happened and the Chinese and other Asian developers would’ve just kept doing their own thing, like Lineage 2, Metin2, Silkroad Online, etc.

It would’ve actually been interesting. Considering that Vanilla WoW was my first MMO and it’s my golden standard for how an MMO should be, it would’ve been curious what other MMO would’ve piqued my attention.

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Random MMO fan

If it wouldn’t launch – I would be playing a different game in 2004 and years after that.


I’m not going to put out my detailed year by year breakdown of 20 years of alternative history like I did last time so here’s my cliffsnotes version. Top dogs would be Warhammer and Lord of the Rings Online, next gen MMOs like FF14, GW2, and ESO would be performing about the same but the WoW customers would be evenly spread across WH and LORTO.

Jim Bergevin Jr

Except none of those games probably would have existed. It’s because of WoW that the genre became mainstream and made it a good business decision to make an MMO as a major development studio. Without that, it would either still be a niche market or not even exist at all as a genre.

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Dean Greenhoe

Just like the invention of the wheel, it is all part of natural evolution. I believe the changes that WOW brought would come naturally no mater if by one company or multiple.

More importantly, If the changes came out more slowly and via a group of competitors versus a single entity the industry would be in far better shape today. Far to much money was wasted on corporate jets and yachts instead of a larger competitive industry and inovation.


WoWs only “crime” was having too much success too early in the development of a new genre. MMOs were only just starting to find their way, nobody really understood what was possible or how to achieve it. By being such a huge success, WoW ended up channeling most investment capital into similarly designed games. This stifled investment into other design philosophies (sandbox, large scale pvp etc) so they never got to develop to their full potential.

So, if WoW never existed…..

SWG wouldn’t have had the NGE. Instead, SOE would have continued to refine their sandbox approach to the game, making it more accessible and proving to be a bigger success than it was. Lets not kid ourselves though, the game had a lot of problems, it was experimental. It would never have reached WoWs numbers.

FFXI would have stayed healthier for longer as it wouldn’t lose people to WoW. It would probably have also made more efforts to be more accessible (as that is a key strategy for any business…..) and so had greater success than it did (im not implying that it wasnt successful, only that it would have done even better).

The “sandbox” design philosophy would continue to receive good investment, rather than being abandoned. SWG and FFXI would both have proved that there was a good market and room to take different approaches, so the world would get used to these massive online virtual worlds. AAA investment would insure some great games built on strong IPs. I suspect that Elder Scrolls Online would have happened earlier and been primarily a sandbox.

The “themepark” design philosophy would still have succeeded. There were already themeparks released before WoW, there were more in development too. The themepark is the natural transition of single player mechanics into the online world. Its familiarity to players would have ensured its success. LotRO would probably have been the first big themepark success (the license holders essentially forced them into a themepark design, so no chance it would have been a sandbox) but it’s mature approach to game design would mean it wouldn’t have been as big as WoW.

The end result would be a genre with more diversity than we have now. We would have both AAA themeparks AND AAA sandboxes. I think the sandbox model to succeed would be very similar to SWG – primarily PvE, great character diversity and some consenual PvP. Community would be the focus, so there would be tons of inter-character cooperation, from crafting to combat to building to politics. Gankboxes would still be gankboxes and not have any good success, but it’s possible that design philosophy would have developed more into a persistent Battlefield type of game (I guess planetside, but better).

Business model wise, I think we’d still be seeing a lot of subscription-based games. If sandboxes were allowed to gain equal success next to themeparks, I think those communities would still benefit from subs. You want high quality, committed players forming your community and the churn from F2P makes that impossible, so subs would be better. F2P would still exist, as would microtransactions, because they’re an effective way to extract money short term and so work well with more short term games (i.e. themeparks).


I agree with everything you said except I’d add that Warhammer would have taken the market by storm along with LOTRO.


Warhammer is a tricky one.

EA were the primary investors in real life, and EA are the ones who ruined the game. So, if WoW never launched and EA still got involved with Warhammer, the game would still have been shit. That would be unavoidable: EA are simply not capable of producing a “good” game, they’re all distinctly average in their core mechanics and terrible outside of core mechanics. They know nothing of creating online communities and don’t seem to want to learn.


There is a chance that DAoC would have done better if WoW didn’t launch. I didn’t play it so im not sure how it was affected at the time, but I’m assuming it lost at least some of it’s players.

So, if DAoC did better, and then the sandbox design gained better prominence, there is a chance that Mythic Entertainment wouldn’t have had to sell out to EA and thus could have made Warhammer their own way. In that scenario, I think that Warhammer would have been significantly better, but I still don’t think it would have been a smash hit. It would have still been PvP focused and thus have a natural limit on it’s success as an MMORPG.


I forgot about SWG and yeah, it would’ve actually been better if WoW never happened.

Fenrir Wolf

I think that everything would’ve been exactly the same, the only thing to have changed would be the name of the house developing it.

All of the groundwork had been laid in Final Fantasy XI and Everquest; World of Warcraft was a more polished, manipulative, and exploitative version of those games. It’d be folly to think that someone wouldn’t have figured that out sooner or later, and most likely sooner.

Now, if the what if was that both of WoW’s two primary precursor titles had also not existed? That’s trickier! I suppose then you’d have to dig back a little further to discover whether there were an precursors to those, and so it goes.

I think it’s just following market trends and player tastes, really. If players wanted more story and a smoother, more linear experience than what sandbox titles could provide whilst still having the spirit of an online multiplayer game? Well, that’s what’d happen.

Matt Comstock

In that case, LOTRO would have been my first MMO. I wonder if it may not have gone free to play without the WoW competition. Although, I think lootboxes were inevitable for the MMO genre, as I see that being a practice borrowed from mobile gaming. The Halo MMO, while obviously shelved before release, may not have ever been contemplated. SWTOR may not have happened, or would have been vastly different, probably a single player game. Practically anything marketed as a WoW killer, or developed as direct competition may not exist.

Might have seen more action based MMO’s rather than the tab targeting system?

That’s about it for my speculation, as to speculate more I’d need to know more about the development motivations behind a lot of games– I’m not even sure if there would have been a LOTRO without a WoW. To me, WoW seemed to be the golden nugget that started a gold rush of companies developing MMO’s.

What’s your take MOP? You guys have way more insight than me.

EDIT: I also wonder if this would have impacted all the chat platforms, like Ventrillo, Discord, GameSpeak, etc… which seemed to be used largely for MMO communications.

Matthew Yetter

People love to say that we wouldn’t have seen so many WoW clones over the following years but I don’t really think that is accurate. Another studio would have introduced a theme park title, providing similar accessibility to what WoW offered.

EverQuest 2 actually launched almost concurrently with WoW, with a VERY similar recipe. The main reason that it never took off the way that WoW did (even though it was arguably a superior game) was because its graphics were too demanding for the average player’s machine at that time. WoW simply looked and performed better, provided you didn’t mind the more cartoon-ish style. Had WoW never come on the scene, EQ2 would likely have been a much bigger hit than it wound up being.

LotRO was even in development before WoW ever launched. While it may have borrowed some design elements from WoW, it’s hard to say how many of its systems were affected in this way. So even if EQ2 didn’t quite manage to become a smash success, some other title would have come along. Whatever title became the dominant force of the day, everything after that would have been accused of being its clone.

The ensuing landscape would look a little bit different than it does today, but I don’t think radically so.


EQ2 only did this because they had enough insider rumors to guess what Blizz was doing.