WoW: Extinction or Rebirth?

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.

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18 thoughts on “WoW: Extinction or Rebirth?

  1. I’m not sure Blizzard wants to beat TOR to the shelves. Look at what happened with WAR – they come out a month or two later, take advantage of the playerbase’s intolerance and dissatisfaction, and reel a bunch of them back in. Right now, one of the major things that I think WoW has that many games (maybe ALL games) lack is the ability to draw players back to it. How many players went back to WAR after they left? How many go back to WoW after they leave?

    If I were Blizzard, I’d get Cataclysm ready to ship and then hold it to launch 6-8 weeks after TOR, potentially even earlier if TOR has a shaky launch.

  2. In terms of the new Blizzard MMO and phasing out of WoW. If you can guess where the plot is going you can gauge when they’ll be in a position to end it.
    They’ll go out with a bang, a proper End-of-the-world scenario, and they’ve been building up to it.
    We’ve had the stirrings of the Old Gods (C’thun and Yogg Saron), We’ve had the warning sent out to the Titans (via Algalon the Observer), we’ve got the final Titan City of Uldum to look forward to in Cataclysm. It’s all shaping up for Expansion 5 being the Return of the Titans (All money goes to me if they actually call it that) with a galactic sized rumble between the remaining Old Gods and the Pantheon of Titans, with us stuck in the middle of it all (or on the side of the pantheon, but from what we’ve gathered, the Pantheon will most likely want to just scour the whole planet and start again)
    It would be fun to see Blizzard end on the proper Good-vs-evil battle, where at the end, whoever wins, we all die.

  3. We all know Cataclysm is supposed to dramatically and irreversibly change the World of Warcraft as we know it, while adding just 5 levels to the Cap. So, this is just a random thought based on absolutely nothing concrete at all, but…what if…Cataclysm reverts every single character back to level 1?

    What better way to ensure everyone rolling a brand new Worgen or Goblin has people to group with and what better way to make sure people actually play all those new Dungeons you spent tens of thousands of man hours creating…than to make every single character a level 1 and have them start over again?

    Just a thought.

  4. I think it will be the middling path. It will bring back a lot of players who want to rekindle the nostalgia from the game’s inception, but many will leave again after that. Then there are people like me who have invested far too much in the game to really effectively leave, and it will be a rebirth in that the game seems to be moving back to what I actually enjoy rather than the game I’ve come to simply tolerate since WLK’s release.

    I don’t really see it as a path to extinction anymore than any of the still-being-released expansions for the first EverQuest spell extinction for it. There will always be dedicated players as long as the servers are live.

  5. “…by a raid leader who pinpoints exactly how Blizzard is crippling the raiding game, and how that spells doom for WoW’s future.”

    Lol. Do you mean the raiding community who only saw Sunwell? Because that repeseneted a very small percentage of WoW’s playerbase. That is, if they leave, they won’t be missed. Or the very large raiding community of today? And of coarse they’re are more complainers…because they are significantly more players raiding top end content, thus more complaints.

    As for the game getting easier…that’s debatable to where the player is at in the game. If the player raided Sunwell then yes most of the game is gotten easier. But for those many who the game has become more accessible they are raiding for the first time the game for them has gotten more difficult. Other than the introductory Naxx, most of the raid content is still difficult, even made more interesting with “hard modes.” Though I will admit oddly paced…since ToC is progression above Ulduar, yet Ulduar is the more difficult of the two.

  6. @Capnjohn

    I think rolling everyone back to Level 1 would piss a lot of people off. Many hours went into leveling toons to be “cataclysmically” dropped back to 1 … I wouldn’t play again.

    Many diehards would surely roll more ALTs to experience the game all over again. I could see them expanding the number of toons players can have.

    Are they revamping the graphics? Or will they still be lame? Revamping the look and feel would go a long way to replayability.

  7. In regards to China, it isn’t nearly as horrible as it sounds. Sure, the company has missed out on revenue, but even with doubling the fanbase Blizzard makes <10% of it WoW money from the East.

    Assuming the Govt can figure stuff out soon – they are currently in a bitter power struggle as to who can rule on WoW – I don't see them losing many of those subscribers.

    @Krosuss
    Revamping the graphics is an impossibility. A new engine would have to be created etc. Blizz has stated that engine tweaks (shadows for Wrath, new water effects in Cataclysm) will continue to increment the game's capabilities though.

  8. I think the middle ground – slow decline.

    I think recreating the 2005 feel will prove to not be possible. Exp is too easy to get now to create that feeling that Scarlet Monastery is a major and important milestone – you’ll level past it without noticing.

    People liked the 2005 game because they enjoyed the journey enormously, now the journey has been designed out of the game and can’t be put back in without changes that players would see as massively punitive.

  9. I’m with you on this one. Either Blizzard will have learned from Wotlk and deliver a Blizzard product with Cataclysm or we’ll be the victims of more weird experiments. time will tell.

  10. Funny what people think, Blizzard makes way more than 10% money in Asia, annual reports are free to look at for everyone.

    50% players… Before The9 was stripped off the game they released official numbers speaking of~9 million players in asia (and no thats not number one there) that is a bit more than 50%.

    Revamping a graphic engine is not impossible. I´m a software developer and it takes a lot of time and money but it is possible, but Blizzard won´t do it, they don´t invest a lot of money into their game compared to the income WoW provides.

    A standard for polished? The game was horrible when it launched, and after 5 years most games are polished.

    It´s not debatable that the game is getting easier, WoW was never hard to play and it wasn´t hard to raid, you could do that just fine with a life if you knew what you did. It´s not a suprise that all the so called “hardcore raiders” are usualy consisting of people who played mmo´s before. And those games were much more difficult. Naturaly that they beat the game in record time, WoW is nothing new in terms of game mechanics. If you are new to that and WoW is your first mmo, then yes it might look difficult, but after a short time you should get a hang of it. If you like challange WoW is not the game to play. Try something like FF.

    As the game is now with lich king it´s pathetically easy in my opinion. If people enjoy that, fine, i won´t criticize taste.

    I don´t think WoW is done. I´m pretty sure the game will still have many many years to go. I don´t think it will grow much more though. They usualy only release sub nummbers when there is a all time high, like before of after a launch of an expansion here or in asia. Or a major content patch. When the problems in china are solved and lich king launches it won´t be too long until the release numbers again giving out a false impression.

    Would be funny indeed to see sub numbers during these periods. Anyway the game will live so or so, i mean people these days are still playing UO and that game is old now :)

  11. Rebirth, absolutely. Blizzard are doing not no other MMORPG developer has every done and effectively remake a huge majority of their original content. Plus they are adding in new races. And more high levels. It’s going to pull back gamers like nothing else and I predict it will outsell both of their previous expansions.

  12. I think it’ll be a rebirth of sorts. Let’s face it, WoW has a way of wiggling it’s way into people’s skins, it’s familiar and becomes “home” for a lot of us. Even if you quit because of burnout, you eventually come back (if only for a short time) to see what has changed. Cataclysm will bring back a lot of players to see the new old world, and to try the Worgen/Goblins (which really are two of the most requested races over the years and are a total win). This revamp will revitalize the main cities, make the old world relevant again, and will encourage people to roll alts.

    As for raiding… true “hardcore” raiders make up a small percentage of the total WoW fanbase, so I don’t think that changes to raiding spell the end of the game. WoW caters to so many playstyles and interests that you can’t hinge the future of the game on that one aspect.

    That said, I think their subscription numbers will get a good bump, remain steady for a while, and then start a very slow decline… it’s the natural ebb and flow of subscriptions that happens with every expansion.

    Even with cannibalization from the new Blizzard MMO and any other games that come out, WoW will likely still be going 5-10 years from now, and maybe even longer. The idea that it might be going extinct any time soon is laughable. :)

  13. I don’t think that there’s anything they could do to draw me back in. Adding chopper motorcycles… the Mr T ads that are back on TV… they’ve jumped the shark as far as I’m concerned.

  14. Christ, what else would Kaplan say?

    “We’ve moved all our A-Teams to our next best things. WoW is on cruise control right now, gliding over a layer of dollar bills. We hope the B-Teams don’t fuck it up too much, but it’s not that we really care about it anymore when in 2-3 years we know you’ll be bending over backwards to give us your money for whatever we put out then. As long as it lasts long enough to keep giving us a good source of income, if WoW has to die then oh well. If we gave a fuck the A-Teams would still be working on it”

    Home or not, it’s going to be massively self-cannibalized as soon as the next best thing from Blizzard comes out.

    Slow decline until the sharp self-cannibalization drop comes.

  15. I’m voting “not rebirth”. Given history with other games, I think that Cataclysm will bring some interest, but not for long. My plans are to re-subscribe for a month, fly around post-cataclysm Azeroth to see the changes, and not bother to buy the expansion. (If I have to buy the expansion to fly around Azeroth, I won’t even re-subscribe.) I won’t say I speak for the majority here, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a fair number of people have similar plans.

    I think there’s enough discontent and enough major competition coming out that WoW won’t see the glory days again. It’s had a great run, though. Still something to aspire to for most of the other AAA games.

  16. Psychochild does hit on an interesting point. When BC was released if you didn’t buy the expansion you did not have access to the Outland area, nor could you visit the Dranei or Blood Elf areas.

    Considering Cataclysm is supposed to destroy then recreate Azeroth, how can Blizzard deny the low level Cataclysm content to subscribers who don’t buy the XPac?

    Answer? They cannot, not unless they actually prevent anyone from logging in who has not bought Cataclysm. And maybe they’ll do that. You won’t need the BC and Wrath XPacs, but maybe you will need the Cataclysm XPac to to access the low-level post-Cataclysm content.

  17. I’m voting on the third path. Cataclysm will be neat, but as soon as the revamped areas are seen people flock to other games. The playerbase of WoW is so huge that they will have a loyal paying customers for a looong run. Even after their new game come out, I’m pretty sure there will still be hundreds of thousands of gamers in WoW.

    Ultima is still here. So unless blizz pulls the plug for some odd reason, I’m pretty sure WoW will be for at least next five years…

  18. Maybe they made a copy of all of Azeroth, did all the Cataclysm changes on the copy and put in some sort of event/portal/whathaveyou to send x-pac buyers permanently into the copy.

    It’s the poor man’s phasing :)

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