Another Endless November: AOL, WoW, and the Corporatization of a Niche Market

Ray Op'tLand


The entrance of World of Warcraft (WoW) into the massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMO) market has drastically altered conceptions of how popular a virtual world could be. Currently servicing over 12 million monthly subscribers (Woodcock, 2008), it has vastly exceeded expectations, and has brought with it more new users to persistent virtual worlds than any other product before it. However, while there has been much academic work exploring developments within the game itself (Bainbridge, 2007; Duchenault, et al., 2006; Castronova, 2007), the processes by which this explosive growth has occurred have been under-explored. The growth of World of Warcraft relative to the MMO market can only be explained via its extrinsic characteristics of the game and how these characteristics interact with processes of standardization and diversification with relative to the market as a whole.

In this paper, I propose that the process that enabled WoW to rise to its current position as market leader amongst MMOs is remarkably similar to that employed by America Online (AOL) in the early 1990’s, and that the growth of both firms are evidence of the standardizing influence that a globalizing process such as McDonaldization has when it enters a niche market. The parallels that may be drawn between these cases may be instructive in understanding the future growth of MMOs and other virtual environments.

I will examine the history of the two firms to find evidence of commonalities between them. I will also outline the parallel corporatist models of McDonaldization and Disneyization as proposed by Ritzer (2000) and Bryman (2004). The process by which these firms grew to dominate their spheres will be examined in this context. I will conclude with an examination of what this growth may mean for the future of the MMO industry.


MMORPG; AOL; World of Warcraft; WoW; Disneyization; McDonaldization

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