Will World of Warcraft Wind Down or Rise up Again?
World of Warcraft, Blizzard’s MMO of genuinely epic proportions, is still the most popular MMO the world has ever seen in terms of the number of subscribers it has attracted. This is after seven years of innumerable challenges from other MMO’s trying to tempt players away from WoW.
However, subscriptions hit their peak last year at a little over 12 million and since then Blizzard has been on the back foot as over 600,000 members have packed up their incredibly oversized bags, distributed their gold and worldly goods to guild mates and said a fond farewell to WoW.
(Some players might have had a more violent exit, yelling incessantly in the city trade channels, stealing what they could from the guild bank and cursing WoW for stealing years of their life essence. Each to their own.)
Some leave for a quick break, others leave for good, others swear that they’ll stay away but are inevitably drawn back to Azeroth along with the next big announcement from Blizzard. The state of flux with WoW subscribers has always been this way, but recently more people have been making their farewells and staying away for good.
All empires eventually crumble, so is this decline in subscribers simply a natural part of the game’s life cycle? Despite WoW’s huge expansions and regular releases of new content, the essential WoW gameplay formula has remained the same for almost seven years. Is that long enough for even the longest-serving fans to find the once-fresh formula a little stale?
Outside factors could be more useful in discovering why WoW’s subscriber base is starting to show signs of wasting away. WoW has had countless imitators that have ultimately fallen by the wayside entirely or linger on in a state of decrepit shuffling, waiting to die off in due course (Age of Conan, Warhammer Online, etc). Very few have given Blizzard cause to even break a sweat.
Unfortunately, now there lie a number of dark clouds on Blizzard’s horizon. Clouds that take the form of decent, well-formed and well-thought out MMOs that aren’t simply cookie-cutter WoW clones destined to fizzle a few months after release. Guild Wars 2 and Star Wars: The Old Republic are perhaps the biggest and the darkest of those clouds.
Gaming is rarely cheap, especially online gaming that doesn’t follow the “free to play” format. You can’t blame the vast majority of gamers for not wanting to commit to more than one MMO with a monthly fee. Casual gamers and even most of the gaming hardcore don’t have the time and money required to make the most of multiple MMOs. Therefore, with some seriously big MMO releases around the corner, ploughing a few more months of playing time into WoW suddenly doesn’t sound so attractive.
However, if WoW has proven anything over the last seven years, it’s that it has staying power. While the release of its game-changing Cataclysm expansion wasn’t as successful in terms of attracting new players as Blizzard hoped, a new strategy could help in this area.
Two months ago, Blizzard announced that WoW would be free to play up until you reach level 20 (the current level cap is 85). There also used to be a 14-day trial period as well, but that time limit has subsequently been dropped. Bypassing a hefty monthly fee until you’ve tried the game enough to get a good feel for it could well help Blizzard build up a new crop of budding WoW enthusiasts.
Similarly, fresh tactics are being combined with fresh markets, as WoW is destined to launch in Brazil before the end of the year, bringing in a slew of new subscribers no doubt.
Blizzard claims that WoW hasn’t peaked and that its best years are still to come. Mind you, what else are they going to say? In reality, you can’t ignore the substantial drop-off in subscribers that has occurred over the course of 2011. Blizzard certainly hasn’t ignored it, but is what they’re currently doing going to be enough to stem the tide?
My two copper coins? WoW remains at the top of its game with over 11 million players worldwide and that’s a community that won’t die off any time soon. While there may be a growing sense of weariness among the game’s long serving fans, there’s enough new content in the Blizzard pipeline to keep players engaged for at least the next few years. Who among the WoW elite doesn’t want to reach level 100?!
Much like the Roman Empire, I don’t see WoW simply crumbling from within, it will also take a massive horde of barbarians from without battering down its gates and stealing its subscribers.
Could SWTOR and Guild Wars 2 be the Goths and Vandals that overrun the Roman Empire of WoW? Personally, I don’t think either game will have the same broad appeal and incredibly diligent polish that has kept WoW at the top for so long. However, they might make some further dents in subscriber figures, carving up a little more of the old emperor’s territory.
I think the reign of WoW has a good few years left in it, but without a seriously compelling expansion from Blizzard to stop the rot in subscribers leaving, I think it is now a matter of time before another MMO steps up to take the crown.
What do you see in WoW‘s future? A glorious resurgence or a doddering old retirement?