I’m convinced there’s a single reason why World of Warcraft is so compelling, and it has nothing to do with the look of the game or the content. You could run the game in text mode and it’d still be compelling. Strip away the artwork and significant amount of unique content, and it’s all about repetition and being rewarded for repetition.
Most people on this planet are compelled to progress down some kind of track. At the most basic level, people want to get better at whatever it is that puts food on the table. But all forms of career advancement, pursuit of knowledge, becoming a better athlete, parent, spouse, humanitarian, politician, or artist all require some form of repetition, repetition that is routinely rewarded along the way.
World of Warcraft mimics this sort of real world constant in accelerated form nearly perfectly. Advancing as a player requires that you perform repetitive tasks (usually killing bad guys) that usually always have some kind of immediate reward in the form of cash or special items. As you continue to progress you gain larger rewards, both in the immediate sense and over time. New areas are open to you, more powerful items are given, and greater challenges are presented. In the process, you go from being a lowly sort of peasant wearing rags to a seriously powerful entity, commanding respect or fear wherever you go.
It’s no surprise that Blizzard has a huge subscriber base – estimates between 5 and 15 million are often quoted. They’ve figured out how to take advantage of one of the most basic human desires and turned it into a venture that captures nearly a quarter billion dollars in revenue every month.