This week (this past Monday, as a matter of fact), marks WoW’s 5th anniversary since launch, and far more than 5 years since Blizzard has launched anything non-Warcraft-related. There’s been a bit of nostalgia around the campfire — of WoW back in its honeymoon days, when the game had both a rough edge and a saucy mouth to it. Like it or hate it, it reshaped the MMO landscape and set a new bar for user-friendliness and polish. I look at the WoW of today and, in many ways, it’s almost unrecognizable from what launched in 2004. Mounts at level 20 for a pittance? Leveling so fast that you could sneeze and be 60? Bah. In my day, we walked from Darkshire to Booty Bay, and that built character! Also, repair bills.
As it heads into 2010, World of Wacraft is, in my eyes, facing a severe crossroads of sorts. This could very well be the year where WoW was broken once and for all — not killed, mind you, but shown up by new titles and abandoned by its faithful playerbase faster than they can reel new folks in. It could also be the year where Blizzard pulls off the old magic trick once more and does what fans are buying into with this expansion — a floor-to-ceiling overhaul of the game that will draw in the crowds and refashion the title so that it does truly feel “new” once more.
So which is it? The path to extinction, or the path to rebirth?
The Path to Extinction
If the only thing that you paid attention to in 2009 concerning WoW was the BlizzCon weekend, you probably came away with the impression that Blizzard cannot and will not fail — and that Cataclysm is the life preserver that will be a total “game changer” to reignite the fan base and grow the franchise even more. People got really carried away around the end of summer, but that hype died down fast, and what you might have missed was a less-than-stellar year for WoW.
Consider: 2009 was a harsh year for WoW in China, as they had tremendous difficulties (and still do) in simply keeping the game running, between operator and government issues. They lost enormous loads of money because of it, and worse from a PR perspective, could not include China’s millions of players in WoW’s oft-touted subscriber numbers (which hovers between 11 and 12 million, of which China could account for as much as half). This isn’t even to mention that because of this and government restrictions, Wrath of the Lich King has yet to launch there (rumors say sometime soon).
While Lich King was a generally well-received expansion, complaints have grown — then multiplied exponentially — that it was far too easy for upper level content, including a lack of challenging raid content. Via Spinks comes this insightful article by a raid leader who pinpoints exactly how Blizzard is crippling the raiding game, and how that spells doom for WoW’s future. His mention of Activision’s meddling isn’t uncommon these days, nor is the general uneasiness that has surfaced concerning Blizzard’s “anything to make a buck” philosophy (see: pet store) that some perceive as cheapening the game — perhaps irreperably.
Of course, you have the staples that people whip out to predict WoW’s downfall: that the game’s looks and engine and gameplay is long in the tooth at this point, and that there’s newer and fresher MMO blood that’s continuously being released. Although they’re never as huge of a factor as some may make them out to be, it’s hard to dismiss either claim going into 2010. Especially with a little game like Star Wars: The Old Republic poised to make its mark on the gaming world.
And even Rob Pardo seems to see the writing on the wall, as Blizzard looks to move past WoW as its flagship to another MMO — and they’re not afraid of “cannibalizing” WoW’s playerbase in the process:
For the next MMO? Obviously, we want to compete with ourselves, and create something bigger than WoW. If there is some cannibalization of the WoW playerbase, that’s okay. We know that someone is going to beat WoW one day. Someone is going to make a bigger MMO, it’s going to be faster and better, and the WoW audience – some of them, anyway – is going to go to that game. If someone’s going to beat WoW, it might as well be us.
If Blizzard themselves are positioning to move another star player to the forefront and let WoW gracefully decline in the background, how does that bode for general morale among subscribers?
The Path to Rebirth
Of course, it might not be all doom ‘n gloom — many folks see the future in WoW so bright that they gotta wear shades. Also, Goggles of Fanboy Resistance.
Much hinges on Cataclysm, not just what it does, but when it comes out. If Blizzard can get this puppy out the door earlier than the oft-predicted November/December 2010 date, the better. Particularly if it can beat The Old Republic to the shelves.
Cataclysm’s announcement was somewhat startling, in that it representing a least a slight risk for Blizzard, who almost never deviates from their predictable path. To reshape the world (somewhat) and only add five levels on top, plus an alternative advancement-style system, was daring enough that many old fans found their ears perking up at the thought of a “whole new WoW”.
Assuming that we don’t see a mass exodus between now and Cataclysm, and assuming that the expansion hits all the right notes to not only draw in new players, but loads of returning ones, then sure — 2010 might be the year that WoW got its big second wind.
And of course, let’s not forget the other big arrow in Blizzard’s quiver, the upcoming Warcraft movie. It most likely won’t see a 2010 release, but if production ramps up, that’s big ongoing publicity for the franchise and the game.
Jeff Kaplan is excited about WoW’s future:
“So it’s the combination of the creative ideas, the expertise of the development team, and the advancement in technology that mean WoW will be an even greater game five years from now. It’s really really exciting from a pure fanboy standpoint of the things that are coming down the pipe. I can’t wait.”
Now, there is a third path, a middling path, where the game might not slide downhill too fast, and might receive a modest bump from Cataclysm, but nothing too spectacular. Holding its own, as it were. That’s not as much fun to talk about, but hey — even if it lost half its current subscribers, WoW would far and away still be one of the biggest MMOs on the planet. Not a lot of games can say that.