Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Sustainability of WoW

When asked what the best MMORPG is, I answer "World of Warcraft" without hesitation. It has a huge amount of content, of excellent quality, is the most newbie-friendly, and is just plain fun to play for thousands of hours. Unfortunately at some point these thousands of hours end, and with WoW in its fourth year there are now more and more people simply burned out from playing it. Which leads to a lot of discussion of the possibility of the downfall of WoW, with one recent comment here calling WoW "as unassailable as the French in the Maginot line". Is the success of WoW sustainable?

It is very hard to predict the future. One technique to do so is to look at what happened in the past, find a trend, and extrapolate that into the future. If we do that with the trend of WoW expansions, we get something like this: In 2024 the 10th expansion for World of Warcraft is released, close to the 20th anniversary of WoW's release. The expansion raises the level cap from 150 to 160, adds a new continent for those new levels, including new level 160 raid dungeons. The 10th expansion adds the 9th and last hero class, so now every class has a hero class equivalent. The new hero class starts at level 135. The expansion adds a few new monster models, and introduces one more crafting profession (knitting?).

Of course extrapolations tends to be wildly wrong. But the silly extrapolation to the 10th expansion shows clearly what is wrong with the 2nd expansion: It is too little, too late. This kind of "more of the same" expansion would be a lot more palatable if Blizzard had stuck to the original plan of one expansion per year. If it takes them two years for every expansion, players expect more than just one new class. There is already visibly less hype and excitement around Wrath of the Lich King than we had for The Burning Crusade. If the extrapolation came true, how many people would buy that 10th expansion in 2024? Not many.

So why go down this path if it is so clearly not sustainable? Nobody says that making good expansions is easy, but one expansion per year certainly isn't impossible, especially given the huge pile of money Blizzard is sitting on, and could profitably reinvest into the game. Some people assume hubris, and think that Blizzard is simply incompetent. I can't believe that, there is nothing in the history of Blizzard to suggest they don't know their business. So the only explanation I can think of is that World of Warcraft isn't *supposed* to be sustainable. It is very well possible that WoW serves two purposes for Blizzard: to enhance their reputation, and to serve as cash cow, both in preparation of the next game. Blizzard could very well be saving their money and their new ideas for their next MMORPG, while just investing the minimum in money and manpower into World of Warcraft, to milk it for maximum return on investment.

What if Blizzard doesn't think of World of Warcraft as being unassailable? If you assume that there will be a next big thing drawing millions of players away from WoW, trying to create that next big thing yourself instead of waiting for somebody else to do it makes a lot more sense. Technically Ultima Online and Everquest are still alive, but barely so. Nobody has ever succeeded in keeping up subscription numbers for 10 years for any MMORPG. We can all think of popular features we would like to see in the next WoW expansions, but has anyone here an idea that would guarantee that WoW still is the market leader on its 10th anniversary in 2014? I don't think so. But if Blizzard brings out a new MMORPG around 2010, it would probably sell very well, because of Blizzard's great reputation from WoW, and because of all the money Blizzard would have been able to put into the development of the new game. They could very well still be top dog in 2014, just not with WoW. Most other computer games only get one or two expansions, and then the game company behind it brings out a sequel. Who says that business model wouldn't work for MMORPGs?

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