My last post on Wowhead.com, a World of Warcraft fansite going for $1 million got a lot of attention. Personally, I had come across Wowhead a few times, but had come away impressed.
I thought it would be interesting to chronicle which succeeded and why. I’m going to only be covering Allakhazam (the original), Thottbot (the upstart), and Wowhead (the golden boy). Other interesting sites are around (especially the site that proceeded Allakhazam)
Originally there was Gameznet (with its site eq’lizer). It was the pre-emptive EverQuest site. Allakhazam came after eq’lizer, and both were kept upto date manually. Users would send updates (screenshots) to the admins of the sites. They would extract the information and then publish it online. It was a tedious process, but both sites did a great job. Arguably eq’lizer was the biggest one (first-mover advantage).
Then came along Flashlink. It was a site way ahead of its time – subscription for access to content. While still a foreign concept to many today, back then it was unheard of. Flashlink went out, purchased Gameznet, and tried to impose a subscription model. This was right after the dot-com implosion, when CPM rates plunged to < $0.001. Subscription was the way to survive.
Allakhazam was forced to do the same. But while Flashlink imposed subscription on the entire site, Allakhazam only did it to parts of the website. So while Flashlink/Gameznet sunk like a stone, Allakhazam was able to weather the implosion of the dot-com boom. People left Gameznet and went to Allakhazam in droves - partial content was better than none. Allakhazam it/himself came across as a person - it wasn't a corporation you were paying, it was a hard working gamer. A fair enough angle.
Using EverQuest as his base, Allakhazam was also wise to realize that no MMO lasts forever. So whenever a major MMO came out, he was ready. Dark Age of Camelot? Check. Star Wars Galaxies? Check. Final Fantasy XI? Check. For every single one, he was the #1 database website. Sure there were others, and they might have had better coverage in certain sections, but his sites were far more complete than the rest.
Content was winning. Yet at the same time – all this content was manually submitted by end-users, and then manually inserted into the system by Allakhazam and his staff. Efficient? Not even close.
Then came World of Warcraft. Talk about being blind-sided.
Blizzard decided to open up the game to really embrace programmers (I argue this is one of the reasons for WoW’s success). Using LUA (a programming language), a programmer could write scripts that interacted in the game.
Thott was one of the early beta testers of World of Warcraft. As leader of Afterlife, one of the most popular EverQuest guilds, Blizzard had directly invited him/his guild into the game. Consider him a sort of celebrity in the game.
But Thott was also a damn good programmer. Seeing what LUA could do, he wrote a script which saved information on everything the user saw – items, quests, creatures, NPCs, etc. He then wrote a program that would connect with the Thottbot.com site, and upload this data.
The entire process had not only been simplified, but the middle man was cut out. Allakhazam depended on users to send data, the admins to verify, and then the data to go live. Thottbot’s system required no manual submission by the end-user, no verification by admins, and the data went instantly live.
Furthermore, the entire interface was not only simplified, but also made more intelligent. Instead of having a heavy website with lots of graphics and community elements, Thottbot.com was all about the data. The frontpage was simple a search form (just like Google), and the pages were as simple as you could get. Streamlined, and bloat removed.
One other big boost – Thottbot was packaged with Cosmos, which was the most popular add-on pack when the game was released (I don’t know about its popularity now). While Allakhazam had its existing userbase, Thottbot was able to hitch a ride on Cosmos and get a lot of traction quickly.
Thottbot quickly overtook Allakhazam, even while Allakhazam covered a half-dozen games and Thottbot only World of Warcraft.
Eliminating ‘waste’ won. No longer did the user have to manually submit, nor the admin verify. The steps from ‘submission’ to ‘live’ was streamlined. And so was the site – bloat was eliminated, and focus (on the data) was awarded.
But Thottbot had its own faults. It completely removed any sort of administrative oversight, allowing stupidity to run rampant. Its backend was messing, requiring over one hundred servers to function. And while its design was functional and simple, it was ugly.
And so came in Wowhead. Reading over comments on why people like Wowhead, the same bullet points stuck:
1. Wowhead actually moderated comments. While Thottbot was littered with useless comments (this is all supposition, I’ve never played WoW in retail), Wowhead actively removed useless comments. Good idea – let all comments go live instantly, but remove the crappy ones.
2. Wowhead was aesthetically pleasing. It kept the focus on search just like Thottbot, but it was good to look at.
3. Wowhead was fast. The backend was intelligently designed. It didn’t need the huge server resources that Thottbot did. Google was built for speed, and Wowhead did that for World of Warcraft.
Evolution (via meta-moderation and design) won. While the user was still empowered, the admins still took an active interest, and moderated what they thought was crap. They took the best of Thottbot, found its biggest weaknesses, corrected them, and released.
And now they are $1,000,000 richer. Kudos to them – they built something wonderful.