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.
It’s that kind of tragedy that causes hardcore players to spin in their revolving office chairs. Sure, they’ve made use of the help as well, but at least they know how to put their knowledge into practice, and honestly, once that information is out in the wild, there’s no putting it back in the cage. Sooner or later, almost everybody is going to suffer the temptation of going to Tankspot or WoWpedia for help simply because those sorts of websites exist.
You also can’t count on casuals to stick with the game forever. You might, as evidenced, ensure several “boom” years, but a decade down the road, these aren’t the people who are still going to be playing your game. These aren’t the kind of people who are still playing Ultima Online to this day. Shoulda-woulda-couldas aside, it seems that the arc a company like Blizzard should have followed would have catered towards the casual crowd for a period of two-to-three years and then, building a healthy subscribe base as they did, and then zeroed in on satisfying the more dedicated players.
Instead, they more or less did the opposite. Despite the integration of “instant gratification” rewards and the way quests were handled, WoW started off as an MMO nearly as obtuse as any that had come before it. There was a lot of stuff that players had to figure out on their own and vanilla content proved to be highly difficult. However, there was just enough accessibility compared to other genre entries to pull in a large crowd right from the get-go. But as time went on, it seemed like Blizzard was scrambling around trying to figure out how to keep these casuals playing. Ironically (and thankfully, in my opinion) they’ve done everything but the most obvious — which is to put in a cash shop with loads of meaningless tchotchkes to buy and decorate your character with. Instead, they chose to eliminate any mystery or intrigue that the world of Azeroth had to offer.
Let me tell you, it was remarkably strange when I started to play RIFT. Not that RIFT doesn’t follow the now-standard MMORPG formula quite closely, but it was downright weird only having one “flight point” in any of the game’s massive zones and absolutely no flying mounts to speak of. I’ve been forced, many times, to backtrack across the landscape, dodging enemies on all sides, just so I could teleport back to the main city and turn in a couple of quests or do some crafting. It seems archaic, but therein I found the missing half of the equation — risk.
World of Warcraft has almost completely divested itself of the “risk” side of the “risk-and-reward” equation. Rewards are handed out like candy with no danger or interest involved in obtaining them. And despite their copious protestations, few human beings are actually comfortable with this setup in the long term. They either start getting suspicious of the rewards and wonder whether or not they actually deserve them, or they just get bored in the process.
Short-term gains do not typically result in long-term appeal. And so, people lose their desire to play until new content appears, but as evidenced by the news of the conference call, this formula is subject to diminishing returns over time. If players lose interest faster, then the gap between “new content” essentially becomes wider, even with the increased development time completely out of the picture (and things have been taking longer, ever since Wrath days).
As far as the here and now is concerned, I imagine Blizzard thought they’d have more time to pump out 4.2 (which should’ve been 4.1) because Cataclysm introduced so much new content, but we’ve already established why that didn’t exactly pan out.
On top of all of this, they’re simply fighting an old engine at this point. The game still looks pretty good, but it doesn’t perform well behind the scenes. It isn’t really set up to tell the story Blizzard wants to tell and you can see that in many of the cutscenes, or the way certain quest mechanics are handled. It’s kind of like they’re playing MacGuyver with the resources at hand, where they can sort of cobble things together to get the job done (say, creating a new boss mechanic), but what they come up with isn’t always the ideal solution.
And it’s clear they aren’t about to move onto World of Warcraft 2, not with Titan coming out and Cataclysm just out the door, an expansion in which they have already changed so much of the world.
So where does Blizzard go from here? WoW remains a juggernaut in the world of video games, even at the expense of 600,000 subscriptions. Lots of people have wondered how its popularity will “die,” and like most empires, the only real possibility seems to be “from within.” Time is wearing on Warcraft. It’s getting old and showing grey temples. The decisions being made in its continued development seem more akin to triage than any attempt at reversing the aging process. The banality of the gameplay, combined with the disinterest of its subscribers will likely result in a continued decline, finally allowing other MMOs to sweep in and pick up the slack. There is no one “WoW Killer,” but together, high-quality up-and-comers like RIFT, Tera, Guild Wars 2, and perhaps The Old Republic will have a real chance at putting down the beast.
Of course, a lot of this is a combination of my own speculation and experienced judgment. Blizzard will try and save its sinking ship, and the beginning of their plan to do so can be found in the very same conference call which broke this harrowing news. Apparently, they plan on shifting to more paid expansion packs. As a headline, to consumers, that sounds like an absolutely terrible move. But you have to realize that these calls are generally geared towards investors, and therefore anything that sounds like “making more money” is probably going to go over quite well.
I don’t know how they’re going to get it done, though, since compelling new content is already taking relative ages to produce. Blizzard has always been a “it’s done when it’s done” sort of company, but is this scare finally forcing them into a policy of crapping out product at the expense of quality? Maybe they’ll just attempt to squeeze even more of the life force out of the development team, making them work harder, longer hours to get new expansions out the door.
It may mean we get expansions sooner than in the past, perhaps at the rate of “one per year” that they intended to stick to way back when (but evidently never have). That could be a good thing, if we end up getting the same amount of content as we are used to at a faster pace. And it could be a very bad thing if stuff intended for “free” content patches ends up being repackaged into said “paid” expansions. It’s the sort of “taint” Blizzard’s business partner, Activision, is often accused of and I can already smell it from here.