Monday, April 14, 2008

Where is WoW's Ruins of Kunark?

Long before Blizzard announced Wrath of the Lich King, I wrote a parody about their next expansion, which I called the Freezing Jihad. As the name should have suggested (not everyone got it), I just took the features of the Burning Crusade and extrapolated them, adding 10 new levels, two new races, new and even more expensive mounts and so on. When the WotLK announcement came, the joke backfired, with people praising my powers of prediction. Now Wrath of the Lich King apparently went into alpha, and it's feature list still looks as if somebody took the Freezing Jihad and removed half of the features I announced there. WotLK will have a new icy continent and ten new levels and one new class, but it won't have new races, new mounts, or new tradeskills. Now I am sure it will sell millions of copies and lead to a huge number of resubscriptions. And it will, as always, be extremely well executed and polished. But I think the list of features is extremely thin, and if Blizzard needs another 20+ months after WotLK for the next expansion, they'll see a lot of players leaving World of Warcraft. And what about the third expansion? Another 10 levels, another hero class, another new continent for levels 70 to 80 only? I simply don't think you can expand a game in this way forever.

One of the most successful expansions in MMORPG history happened pretty much exactly 8 years ago, in April 2000: Everquest launched the Ruins of Kunark. Yes, that expansion increased the level cap by 10, but it also introduced new content all the way from level 1 to the new level cap, not just from the old cap to the new cap. And that was extremely well received, because not everyone was at the level cap, and expansion also addressed the needs of newer players and alts.

As I explained in a post about the dimensions of a MMORPG, the length of a game is not the only important dimension. A MMORPG also needs a lot of depth of gameplay, and breadth of replayability. Yes, my pink orcs and leper gnomes of the Freezing Jihad were silly, but still better than the real version; not having any new races and new low level content will really hurt Wrath of the Lich King in the long run. True World of Warcraft started out with lots of breadth and many different starting zones. But the older the game gets, the more people there are who have already seen everything. Finding a new starting area and new class to play becomes very difficult for many of us. And for new players having new low-level content is also an advantage, because it increases their chance of actually meeting other players.

So where is WoW's Ruins of Kunark? Will we just get 10 new levels every two years, and that is it? As successful as WoW is, and as hard it will be to create a competitor, sooner or later World of Warcraft will decline just by the weight of its age and lack exciting new stuff to do for veteran players. New games will take a couple of hundred thousand players here, and couple of hundred thousand players there, until one day WoW is much smaller than today. And the only way to combat this decline is to produce better expansions, and faster.

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