Is This the End of the World (Of Warcraft)?
Activision’s shares are sliding, membership is on the decline, and Mists of Pandaria has received a few quizzical glances from gamers and critics alike. Are we witnessing the beginning of the end for the big daddy of MMOs?
Let me take you back to August 2005. Our story starts on a busy Tatooine. The game is Star Wars Galaxies. Sony Online Entertainment and its President John Smedley were very happy; the game had exceeded their target of 1,000,000 users, and a bustling universe was filled with bounty hunters, medics, spies, and officers, all indulging in that most fantastically geeky fetish -- the Star Wars MMO. The game was fairly well received from critics and gamers; its lush graphics, enormous world size, and varied character customization led to an all-around good MMO experience. Fast-forward two years. In 2007, coming to the stage a bit late, I bought a copy of the Star Wars Galaxies starter kit. I enjoyed the game, but one thing was missing. Where was everyone? The server I played was mostly empty of people around my level, there was no one I could do any missions with, and purely max-level blue-glowing Jedis, who had no intention of helping a lowly level 10, inhabited the town centers. "What’s the point?" I thought to myself, "When I can have no hope of ever catching up to the game's high-end elite?" So I quit. I went on to play WoW. It was vibrant, and there was always something to do.
As early as 2006, just a year after the good ol' days of Star Wars Galaxies and two expansions later, there was only 10,000 subscribers playing a night; fortunes in the world of MMOs can turn -- and quickly. It will not surprise anyone to know that, as of December this year, Star Wars Galaxies will shut down its servers for the last time. There are still some remnants of the hardcore, but the huddle of blue glowies outside the Tatooine Space Station must feel awful alone in the desert, trudging through sand, searching for life in chat channels like some post-exodus apocalypse. The bigger they are, the harder they fall.
And they don’t come much bigger than the World of Warcraft.
Star Wars Galaxies: Let down by diminishing player numbers
I quit WoW midway through Wrath of the Lich King, the games’ second expansion. It just didn’t excite me; those elusive, shiny purple shoulders no longer felt like an unknown quantity. It felt routine. I’d succeeded in the Arena in The Burning Crusade and Wrath of The Lich King; I’d raided Karazhan, Black Temple, Ice Crown, et al. to my heart's content. Re-rolling a new class and doing dungeons with friends was fun for a while, but nothing new, nothing to keep me captivated. But I was still in the minority; most people still (rightly) contended that WoW was king. Even so, times are changing. Recent reports have suggested that WoW may no longer be the undisputed champion in terms of monthly subscribers -- after all, Finnish-based "Habbo Hotel" is nearing 10 million a month. Despite a recent loss of 800,000 players, the 10.3 million WoW subscribers still make up more than the entire population of Cuba and the economic clout of Samoa. WoW still boasts around half of all MMO users and rakes in $800,000 a year for Activision. Let's not feel too sorry for it just yet. So why are people staying, and why are people leaving?
There are complaints about the changes in both PvP and raiding. Blizzard is in a difficult position in this sense. It must cater to those who have been playing for seven years, and at the same time, attract new members. There are those who hark back to the days of all night Alterac Valleys and the excitement that went with forming actual rivalries with your enemies on your server. You would recognize names and create genuinely interesting battles. Now everyone knows the drill. You’re grouped in with faceless counterparts from other servers, none of whom feel like an ally. But if Blizzard reverted back, it would lose many of the casual gamers who don’t want to spend 3 hours winning one battleground.
The Mists of Pandaria: Fighting pandas not everyone’s favorite WoW expansion idea
The effort that goes into making a new instance or dungeon is quickly nullified by the high-end guilds. The information on how to beat a boss trickles down through the servers, and Blizzard must again react with new content before the players grow tired of the current high-end dungeon. It’s all a bit formulaic. The gear, too, becomes a formula of success, with old gear becoming quickly obsolete. There is no option but to add better items and increase the level cap with every expansion, but it leaves the better players strolling Azeroth like demi-gods, leaving new players to view the venture to what will soon be level 90 as a chore, an unthankful task that, by the time they have finished, will be pointless, as there will be a new expansion, more gear, more dungeons, and more and more levels. “I used to enjoy five-man dungeons,” says Tom, a player who left WoW around the same time I did. “Finding a group used to be fun. You would get to know people -- you had to in order to consistently find groups. If you were a douche, then the server would quickly hear about it. There was planning and crowd control. Now it's just a race, with people from other servers you will never see again, so if someone goes to the toilet now, they get kicked from the group -- everyone is replaceable. The new system was successful in the short term because it meant people could find groups and get gear, but in the long term I think it will be very destructive."
New Cataclysm dungeons have done little that hasn’t already been achieved.
Blizzard has been tweaking and adjusting WoW since its sunrise, and if anyone has the overhaul know-how -- an overhaul that has not been forthcoming -- it's Blizzard. The Mists of Pandaria is the latest brainchild and features the Pandaren, a race that existed before as only a bonus character in Warcraft 3, and despite the fans who (correctly) say, "It’s not just like Kung-Fu Panda because WoW did it first," I’m not sure the general public -- or the casual Warcraft fan -- is going to see much past the fact that the mighty WoW is reduced to fighting pandas. There is also the by-now standard level cap increase, the new playable race (Pandaren), and the new class (Monk), as well as a overhaul of the talent tree system. Of those who still play, not many I have spoken to are thrilled about the Panda expansion. The new raids and dungeons will be exciting, but it also looks increasingly like Blizzard has run out of villains.
This does not mean Warcraft has become a bad game. It still provides one of the most complete MMO experiences out there. But 7 years after release, it is just beginning to feel old. There is nothing Blizzard can do about that, save a full graphics and class overhaul, which would risk decimating player numbers. The World of Warcraft, due to the unique expertise of the people who run it, will likely not be murdered by a sharp fall in membership like Star Wars: Galaxies was. But we are now witnessing its twilight years. I do not believe the Warcraft series will end with this game, but one day, perhaps not in the distant future, the old king will be quietly put to sleep, after a truly magnificent reign.