Being a blogger it is probably not a surprise if I think that bloggers are ahead of the curve compared to the general populace in knowing (or even setting) the trends in MMORPGs. Subscription numbers show you who is the market leader today, but you need to listen to the buzz on blogs and game sites to know what will happen tomorrow. And if I read it right, we are heading into a phase where the relative importance of World of Warcraft in the MMORPG market will decline.
That is not to say that I predict some sort of gloom and doom for WoW. It will remain the top dog in market share in the west for years to come. It has long since reached a critical mass, which allows it to attract new players even if veterans burn out. And whatever else you can say about World of Warcraft, it still is probably the best possible choice for somebody wanting to start his first MMORPG ever.
But the excitement surrounding World of Warcraft as a product on the internet is definitely in decline. The fizz is gone. When I wrote a parody called The Freezing Jihad about WoW expansions, the sad end result was that the expansion Blizzard actually announced a few month later wasn't all that different in feature list from the parody. If I would write another parody predicting another 10 levels and a new hero class for the third expansion in 2010, nobody would even laugh any more. Nobody expects Blizzard to be able to launch another expansion earlier than 2010, and nobody thinks they'll come up with something more original than adding 10 more levels on the top and a couple of features they "borrowed" from other games. Already Wrath of the Lich King has surprisingly little excitement surrounding it. People will buy it, in millions, but because it feels like a mandatory upgrade, not because they expect to be blown away by it.
Meanwhile the competition isn't sleeping. In spite of lacks in the quality of execution, Age of Conan sold well. Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning will sell even better, because their quality of execution is better, even if they probably overhyped their game for too long, and will suffer some backlash in consequence. Some other games failed to take off, but enough survived to make the MMORPG market feel increasingly crowded. If I wanted, I could probably play MMORPGs for free for the whole 2009 by just taking advantage of various "free trial" and "come back to us" offers, WoW included. And more interesting new games are announced for next year, and not all of them will fail.
Unless Blizzard completely changes their ways, by the time their third WoW expansion comes out in 2010, it won't be a must-buy any more. It will excite less buzz than the release of Diablo 3, and much less excitement than a possible announcement of Blizzard's second MMORPG. WoW will remain profitable, and with a solid market share, but it'll be discussed more as a gold standard to measure other games against than as the place where things are happening. By 2010 anyone still playing WoW will appear as quaint as somebody playing the original Everquest now. The virtual monopoly WoW had on the MMORPG market will be gone, and it'll move on into a phase where it'll be thought of as just a legendary part of history. Which, after all, is not a bad place to be.