Thoughts on what businesses actually need from the Cloud, not what vendors wish they needed.

Chris Bliss

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Why SaaS and Cloud Apps Can Learn from WoW

Considering that WoW was released in 2004, what gives?

Anyone who knows what WoW or MMORPG stand for also knows that PC gaming has something important to say about SaaS. For the acronym-unacquainted among us, “World of Warcraft” (WoW) is a “massively multiplayer role-playing game” (MMORPG) in which millions of online players compete for in-game rewards and experience. The numbers behind WoW are staggering – at the time of writing, over 5.5 million users were online. Add to that some 7 million inactive users, and Blizzard Entertainment, the company behind WoW, has over a dozen million paying subscribers. Wow indeed.

Considering that WoW was released in 2004, what gives? How have they maintained such a robust user base? What brings users back?

There is, of course, more than one answer – sociologists, marketing specialists and psychologists, nevermind addiction counselors, all have interesting things to say. But what interests me – and what should interest businesses, SaaS vendors and IT consultants alike – is the user/vendor relationship built between Blizzard and WoW users. It’s a relationship that represents the very best that SaaS can offer, and it’s something that vendors and consultants in other SaaS sectors must continue to improve upon. Let me explain.

In the old days, software companies built a program and sold it. If it sold well, they’d listen to whatever clients were saying, make improvements, and resell the revised program a few years later. Wash, rinse, repeat. It’s a model that worked well for vendors: it sometimes worked well for users, and sometimes, unbearably, didn’t (*cough* Vista *cough*).

SaaS changes all that. With SaaS – and this is what Blizzard has capitalized on – the feedback “loop” between users and vendors has shortened drastically. What used to be a three year cycle is now a three month cycle, or less. This means that vendors, if pushed to do so, can offer innovation on a ramped up timeline: users can expect more functionality more often. In the case of WoW, Blizzard periodically introduces new gameplay modes, new units, new achievements, new maps, etcetera, and users respond by continually buying the service. It’s a win-win where the vendor receives a steady income and users receive a perpetually relevant product.

Important, however, is that vendors may not continually innovate if they’re not continually pushed to do so. Online gaming communities where players pressure vendors to update their offerings are a big deal, but businesses don’t have the equivalent space or time. Sure, there are vendor forums and Get Satisfaction, but there’s still a massive gulf between user requests and vendor receptivity. Too often, users ask for bogus features – often a case of “looking at your feet and not at the mountain” – and vendors make sales-driven reassurances (“Yup, it can do that”). It’s a sub-optimal situation with two languages and no translation.

Enter the modern IT consultant. Today’s IT people should bridge the gap between users and vendors, translating needs into deliverables. We all know that minor software tweaks can make major differences in terms of end-user efficiency: it’s up to consultants and IT professionals to ensure those tweaks happen on a regular basis. They should ensure users are requesting what they need, not just what they think they need, and they should ensure vendors meet that need with real innovation. Good software begins with users and processes, not vendors. It’s the IT consultant’s job to ensure that dynamic isn’t lost.

That’s all for now – my mage needs leveling up.

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Chris Bliss works at VM Associates, an end-user consultancy for businesses looking to move to the cloud from pre-existing legacy systems.