Sometimes it helps to take the honey with the vinegar, but not even the announcement for an impending third-quarter Diablo III beta test could soothe the sting of losing around 600,000 World of Warcraft subs over the past couple of months. It is now around 11.4 million, down from over 12 million. Blizzard CEO Mike Morhaime had to break the news during the company’s quarterly conference call earlier today.
Like anything else, popularity ebbs and flows and the spikes and valleys on the sales charts can usually be linked to periods of new content or players losing interest in the old. The real problem is that the peaks aren’t lasting as long as they used to. Losing 600k is one thing, but the fact that it has happened faster after Cataclysm than it has following any previous expansion is the real kick-in-the-pants.
Undoubtedly, everyone will have their own take on the news and opinions as to why precisely people are leaving the game in such sizable chunks, but what it comes down to at the end of the day — the one idea that seems to remain constant — is fatigue. I don’t believe that people are tired of MMORPGs or even the story of Azeroth itself, but rather the way that Blizzard conducts itself and the ever (d?)evolving philosophy that shapes the game’s continued development.
World of Warcraft would not have reached such insane numbers of subscriptions if it weren’t for the casual players and as the Farmville-addled masses flooded the channels with their girth, Blizzard was forced to compensate. Always pushing towards equalization and homogenization; making things simpler and easier to understand; removing those elements from the formula that, while perplexing, also made WoW interesting. And we, the fans and media, are complicit.
Why? Well, we encouraged it. For better or worse, this is kind of what we wanted, but we didn’t know any better. Changes to the game over the past few years have been a double-edged sword, and Cataclysm has proven to be the sharpest, shiniest double-edged sword yet. Allow me to elaborate with a broad example: we’re tired of leveling through the same old vanilla content, so we get a vastly modified 1-60 game. Zones are more engaging visually, travel is streamlined, quests are given a spitshine to ensure that not all of them are simple “kill x/gather y” affairs (though many still are). And yet, for a better and more polished game, we also get a less “fun” experience. It’s okay one time through, but it becomes so damn easy and there is no sense of exploration left.
How else have we done it? We’ve killed any difficulty with boss encounters and completing quests beyond pure execution. We’ve created mods and posted comprehensive strategies on very high-profile websites, which has in turn prompted Blizzard to incorporate elements of such helpful third-party resources into the game itself. And yet that does not absolve the company’s reliance on casual players of blame, because an absolutely amazing number of players, even with all this help, still do not understand how to play. Continue Reading