Thursday, June 28, 2007

Putting things into perspective

I have set up Blogger so I receive a mail for every comment I get. Most comments are on the front page posts, but sometimes I get some comment spam on older posts. This is how I stumbled upon something I wrote half a year ago, World of Warcraft is not the end of history. Before TBC even came out I thought that WoW subscriptions would decline after the inevitable expansion peak. I was right, but talking about decreasing WoW subscription number gets you labelled a "WoW hater" nowadays. Some people are clearly in a state of panic, some are still in the denial phase. But nobody took the time to really put those numbers into perspective. Let's take the time to do that.

First things first: WoW isn't dying. As Raph Koster explains, MMORPGs shrink much slower than they grow. After 27 months of continuous growth it will take World of Warcraft many, many years to "die". I wouldn't be surprised if it would still be around in 10 years. Hey, Everquest is still there, and Ultima Online is preparing for it's 10th anniversary. World of Warcraft will not only be around for a long time, it will still be the biggest MMORPG for the foreseeable future. There are no "WoW killers" on the horizon. It might still be years before we see the next 8-million subscribers MMORPG. World of Warcraft will be safe on its throne, and profitable to Blizzard.

So the decline doesn't matter? Far from that. We will never know the exact numbers, but the WarcraftRealms graph suggests a 10% decline from the peak in February. That still leaves more players than WoW had in December last year. But if you happen to work in a company, imagine you having to tell your bosses that you just lost 10% of your customers, starting the first decline after 27 months of growth. Big as WoW is, losing 10% means losing more people than Everquest ever had, and it also means losing over 100 million dollars. Do you think that the business managers will just shrug that off as inevitable loss? Or will they ask the developers some hard questions on why the population peaked only one month after TBC came out, and then declined so drastically? If The Burning Crusade had been "better", regardless of what you think "better" would entail, it should have held the attention of the customers for a longer time. The business manager doesn't need to understand anything about game design, he'll just need to look at the subscription numbers to know that there is something wrong with TBC, that it wasn't the success that Blizzard had hoped it would be. That *will* have consequences for the design of the next expansion. It isn't sure that the next time they'll get it right, but at least Blizzard will do their own analysis of what went wrong and try to correct it. Telling your boss that you think the current version is better game design, and to hell with the 100 million dollars is an impossible sell.

It is possible that World of Warcraft will be able to stop the decline of subscription numbers and stay above 8 million subscribers for longer. But the one place where you won't notice it is the MMORPG blogosphere. World of Warcraft will play an important role as point of comparison in most MMORPG blogs. Most discussions will assume that everybody reading it will have played WoW. It is really hard, and actually a bit silly, to try to review a new game without comparing it to the industry leader. But unless you visit dedicated WoW blogs, World of Warcraft will slowly fade into the news background. The buzz will be around the new games. The 137th patch of WoW changing some power of some class by 1.75% will not cause all that much excitement any more. World of Warcraft will be for Blizzard what Mickey Mouse is for Disney: A cash cow, producing hundreds of millions of dollars every year, without being in the headlines much any more. All forms of journalism, including the amateur blog kind, tend to overhype anything that is new, and underestimate the influence of the old. You *can* overlook the 800-pound gorilla, if he has been sitting in your living room long enough.

That has nothing to do with "WoW hating" or "WoW bashing". Bloggers are often the first ones to try new games, the avant-garde. Many people, including me and other bloggers, played World of Warcraft for over 2 years, which shows what a great game it is. But expecting everybody to play that game forever just isn't realistic. People move on, and so do their blogs. Sometimes people prefer a new game over an old one, even if the new game isn't strictly better than the old one. What blogger plays what game is not necessarily a good measure of the quality of the games. The longer you play a game, the more the game's small faults start to annoy you. A new game is fresh and exciting, and many of its defects are overlooked. Bloggers just being normal people like everybody else, that leads to more reports on the faults of old games and how wonderful the new games are than would be justified in a fair one-on-one comparison.

In summary, World of Warcraft is alive and well. It has some visible problems with the last expansion not having the same user retention as the original game, but nothing life-threatening. Nevertheless the news are moving on, to the next generation of games, and WoW reporting will become less, even if the new games aren't better than World of Warcraft.

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