Wednesday, September 5, 2007

A rising tide sinks all boats?

If you are looking at PC games sales charts, you will find that World of Warcraft and the Burning Crusade expansion figure pretty high in them all the time, even nearly 3 years after release. New players come into WoW all the time, in large numbers. On the other hand the number of total subscribers has pretty much stabilized at 9 million. So if large numbers are coming in, but total numbers are steady, we can be sure that equally large numbers of players are quitting WoW. Which isn't a bad thing for Blizzard. Not only do new customers pay more than old customers, by buying the boxed games. But old customers who quit are a prime target for resubscription when the next expansion comes out. The only question is: Where do the people who leave World of Warcraft go?

Lots of blogs discussed the "rising tide lifts all boats" theory, which goes as follows: World of Warcraft is a popular, entry-level MMORPG. Once people got their feet wet in WoW, and played enough of it, they will move on to other MMORPGs which are more niche. PvP, science-fiction, pirates, shooter, or hardcore MMORPGs, you name it.

But that theory isn't inevitable. What if the rising tide sinks all boats instead of lifting them? It is totally possible that people enter the MMORPG genre with World of Warcraft, get bored after 2+ years, and then leave the MMORPG genre again. Who says that once you played a solo-friendly, fast-leveling WoW, you will want to play a enforced grouping, slow grind hardcore MMORPG? What if players look around and find that the alternatives to WoW aren't any better, and once they are burned out of the gameplay of WoW they don't want any game with a similar gameplay any more?

Some people have misunderstood my disappointment of where WoW is going as "WoW hate". That couldn't be farther from the truth. I believe that World of Warcraft is the best MMORPG on the market. But like any other game, after some time you get bored with it. That this takes thousands of hours is very much to the credit of WoW. That still doesn't make it "endless", and me and other players leaving WoW is a very natural process. But if you are used to the quality of World of Warcraft, you can't just move to any other MMORPG and enjoy it. Some you will dislike because they are so much inferior to what you are used to. Others you will dislike because they are so similar to the game you burned out of.

Everquest wasn't my first MMORPG, but it was the first I played for over 1 year. Then I spent the next three years hopping from one game to the next, until I found in WoW another game that got me hooked as much as EQ had. And my guess is that for many people leaving WoW now, it will be similar. They might try other games, but quickly tire of them. Then try a mix of other MMOs and single-player games, until the "next big thing" comes along. And we don't know how far away this next big thing will be. It could be three years in the desert, or it could be that next year's Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning is already "it". I don't see any other announced MMORPGs getting as much as a million subscribers. I'll know it when I'll play it. Until then, here's hoping (and hopping).

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