In January of 2011, I made the bold and outrageous claim that Blizzard’s Cataclysm was the worst MMO expansion in history. From the vantage point of a player experiencing the pre-level cap game, I was unimpressed at what Blizzard had done to WoW; I felt they had watered down and trivialized their own MMO which was from the outset already too easy and simplistic. I viewed Cataclysm as the inevitable culmination of years of expedient game design that pandered to the lowest common denominator of players. For my efforts, I was demonized by some and applauded by others.
Last week during a shareholders conference call, Mike Morhaime revealed that WoW has lost 600,000 subscribers since Cataclysm’s release. At roughly $15 per subscriber that’s a loss of $9 million dollars per month in revenues. Given this bleak news, I feel somewhat vindicated. I was one of the few if only MMO commentators to have the courage to take on the 800 pound WoW gorilla loved by 12 million fans and tell it like it is.
The conventional wisdom that explains how Blizzard faltered can be found on a detailed blog post on Gamasutra by Greg McClanahan. Many of his explanations are entirely plausible. I do agree that much of the problem is self-inflicted as Blizzard keeps tinkering with risk vs. reward formulas players have become frustrated and don’t know what to expect or how to play.
What really struck me is that he discusses WoW in the typical analytical and clinical way most players now talk about WoW these days: content and gear. It such a shame that MMOs have become so singularly focused on stats, loot and progression that nothing else really matters. What a sad and banal thing that MMOs have become.
Churn Baby Churn
Even more conventional wisdom comes from Blizzard as they admit that they need to increase the speed of content to prevent “churn”. Churn in a MMO context describes the rate at which new players are entering versus existing players that are leaving. Blizzard seems to be saying that existing players are getting too good at WoW and consuming content far quicker than developers can create it. McClanahan goes on to rightly contest this explanation as he makes the case that Cataclysm dungeons and raids are far more difficult than the previous ones contained in Wrath of the Lich King expansion.
I disagree with Blizzard’s analysis. I believe that much of the churn problem is that at its core, WoW is shallow and lacks real depth. The result is that players don’t feel connected to anything or anyone in WoW — so they stop playing. One could even make the case that WoW itself is an accurate reflection of the shallowness and incompetence of the people who have been at its helm.
Abraham Lincoln was right:
You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.
What is happening is that a significant number of players are finally realizing the emptiness of WoW and MMOs in general and they can’t be fooled any longer.
The Wolf at Blizzard’s Door
Blizzard has been quite lucky for many years. It’s truly amazing that WoW has lasted this long without a major player revolt. In the business world the proverbial wolf is always at your door — nothing is certain and nothing is forever.
For years I have advocated a design philosophy that gets back to the basics — instead of the achievement orgy that MMOs like WoW have become. Even while vigorously pointing out the shortcomings of WoW, I have promoted long neglected foundational elements like exploration, socialization, community, role-playing and player freedom. The insular development team at Blizzard has chosen not to listen to me or anyone else with a differing opinion and now like the foolish little pigs that built their homes with straw and sticks the inevitable wolf has come to blow their houses down.
What WoW Could Have Been…
Maybe if Blizzard cared about creating a good community of players they wouldn’t be hemorrhaging an unprecedented 600k subscribers a few months after the release of Cataclysm. Perhaps if they gave players a reason to socialize and put a value on social skills there would be deeper and more intimate player relationships that would keep them subscribing. If only Blizzard had created resources and activities available to players that would attract more diverse player archetypes to WoW this exodus of players might not have happened.
Outside of killing monsters and taking their stuff, what else is there to do in WoW that is meaningful and of any consequence?
Mechanics like player housing, player events, and dynamic events would surely make Azeroth would a better and more interesting place that engenders a sense of pride and loyalty among its players. But Blizzard was too busy patting themselves on the back and counting their millions to care about implementing any of these features.
There are many reasons that WoW is finally showing concrete signs of decline. A fair analysis of this situation would be that the aging WoW is starting to suffer the death of a thousand cuts. In other words, there is no single reason that WoW is failing, rather it’s a multitude of reasons that I and others have been pointing out for years now. The problem is unhappy people rarely stick around to make things better.
The most important thing a game designer can do is to give the MMO player a real reason to care about their virtual world.
Players need to feel like they belong in your world. For far too long all that mattered in Azeroth was loot to the exclusion of most everything else. This obsession with achievement that has been promoted at every turn by Blizzard is at the root of why people are leaving WoW. I doubt anything can be done to fix WoW as this stage.
Even though they may not understand why, more and more people are bored with WoW and everything that it stands for. Empty marketing slogans that “it’s more than a game…it’s a world” will not save them. They can attempt to release expansions faster but it won’t solve the inherent problem that is at the root of WoW: players have no sense of ownership and connection to their virtual world. Like the next piece of gear that will be soon be upgraded, WoW is a transient and empty experience that is fleeting at best and never truly satisfies.
When they write the epitaph of WoW many will rightly say that Blizzard got the MMO infrastructure right with high production values, impeccable attention to detail and polish, beautiful stylized artwork and fluid animations. Even though WoW was very successful it is just a shame that they played it so safe and didn’t do more to push the envelope. Instead they shrunk the envelope and turned a complex wine into sugary grape juice.
In the end, it seems Blizzard forgot what MMOs were supposed to be about and could be about; then they squandered the brilliant legacy that they were given. Somewhere along the line Blizzard became arrogant and victims of their own success as they figured they’d always own the goose that laid the golden eggs.
The good news is that players have finally voted with their dollars! It is no longer business as usual. There is nothing like declining revenues to light a creative fire under an organization. Expect some personnel changes at Blizzard and some big announcements of the future of WoW at BlizzCon 2011. We live in interesting times.