The “world” of the World of Warcraft keeps getting bigger… but at the same time, it keeps feeling smaller. The impending expansion opens a new continent to exploration, and introduces a new character class. Talent trees are being rejiggered, as new talents are added for those next ten levels, and old talents are changed, sometimes radically. Class balance is shifting again, and there will be much fuss made of the relearning process, good for some, bad for others. There will be new baddies, and new dungeons to crawl. There’s more snow.
All in all, The Wrath of the Lich King will bring some pretty cool stuff to the game, including one of the most prominent figures in the Warcraft storyline. (Is Arthas reeeeeeeally evil, or just misunderstood? Is he even still in there, fighting the good fight against the superior mind of that demon ghost thing, or is he completely lost to the dark side? Will his son redeem him in the end? Will Jaina retire from public service and start wearing lame outfits, pining for her lost love? …pardon the mixed storylines and lore goobishness…)
Where are those millions of subscribers? I just finished my third “ten day trial”, this time noodling around with a Troll Rogue. (I figured, as long as I’m going dark side, I may as well fiddle with a “real” bad guy. No, I’m not going to play a Warlock.) I was playing on the Argent Dawn server, mostly because of BRK’s Orcapalooza. I wanted to see what the server was like, and familiarize myself with the lay of the land. Unfortunately, I didn’t make the event, and in retrospect, trial accounts probably weren’t eligible. *shrug* It was still a cool idea on BRK’s part, and why I was on the AD server in the first place.
I made a bald blue baby troll, and christened him Splattamon. I figured it sounded vaguely bad and Trollish, combining “splatter” with “mon” in a vaguely “rasta” flavor… but since my wife questioned it, it just looks dumb. Good thing he’s just a freebie that I’m not planning on revisiting. He still dances with a cool Capoeira flavor, which I had to get screenshots of. (My ulterior motive for playing a troll, really, beside the Valley of Trials.)
And, well… I never saw more than three players at any given time in regular play. Even in the few major cities that I visited, I only saw maybe half a dozen players at a time, and that’s if there was a group gearing up for a raid or something. (Or so I inferred, since they just stood around in a tight little knot, showing off their mounts.) I did see a couple of raiding parties of Alliance nits wandering through killing NPCs and flagged lowbies, but things seemed pretty slow. Now, maybe that’s how things usually are, especially with the unpopular trolls, but even Thunder Bluff (my favorite Horde location), Orgrimmar and the Undercity seemed pretty quiet.
I’m comparing this with my memories of my first ten day trial, some two years or so ago, back when I needed a friend code. A good friend from my workplace at the time gave me a code, figuring that I’d be interested in the game. He read me correctly, as WoW is fantasy chocolate for me, a delightful place I could spend many happy hours in. Partly out of self control (not wanting to get addicted and wind up ignoring my wonderful wife), and partly out of my inherent distaste for the subscription model, I never did wind up subbing, despite being impressed with what I saw. Back then, I played as a Tauren Shaman, and enjoyed it thoroughly, despite being a complete noob. I just loved wandering around as an anthropomorphic cow, being a jack of all trades, thumping wolves and zapping harpies.
And, well, there were players everywhere. I don’t remember the server, though it was certainly PvE, where AD is a RP server. Maybe the RP servers are also naturally low-population. (I didn’t see much role playing, though, so I’m not sure how much stock I put in the “as advertised” part of the server.) As memories are wont to do, perhaps these memories exaggerate, but it sure seemed to me that playing back then (yes, it’s another one of those “back then” comments, live with it), there were more people playing the game in areas that I was playing in. (The sub-20 areas, mind.) I remember waiting for my shot at a Quest boss, since other cows managed to kill him before I did. I think I finally got his head (or something) the third time he respawned. That was kind of surreal, but perhaps a tangent too far for this wall of text.
Short story long, I probably saw more people playing back then in offpeak (midday) hours than I saw last week playing at offpeak hours (late night). There are a lot of things to compare, and some that don’t directly relate, but just as an aggregate of my impressions and observations, it seems that the lowbie zones are low population. When I wandered down to Tarren Mill (that little Undead outpost in Hillsbrad, deep in Alliance mid twenties), I didn’t see another player between the Undercity and the outpost. There were a few players at the Mill, but for the most part, it was just me and the spiders, and no local chatter whatsoever.
Now, to be fair, I kind of like it that way. I like the quiet. Still, I’d have appreciated a little help in the Wailing Caverns, or in that stupid goblin mine in the northeast Barrens. No dice. It did mean that I could take my screenshots with fewer visual static, but still, for an MMO that ostensibly banks on lots of players, it seemed… quiet.
So why do I care? Mostly because I’m studying the thing. WoW is a the current 800 pound gorilla on the MMO market, so I’m trying to dig into it a bit. Little things I see here and there suggest to me that what I’m calling the WoW “old world” (thanks to Wolfshead for that term, I think) is past its population prime. A quick peek at the unofficial server census shows that “universe-wide”, there’s a huge glut of players puttering around at the level 70 cap, and not much action anywhere else. Even the “free trial” population bump I was expecting doesn’t seem to show up. There is a bit of a bump at 19, for some reason, but the rest is pretty level. The midgame is pretty quiet, comparatively.
Now, I’m no guru of the game, I’m just digging a bit. I welcome other observations, even if it’s just to point out that I’m wrong. I’m trying to see what is going on here. From what I’ve seen, I suspect that it’s the hardcore endgame raiders that are keeping the game afloat financially. There just isn’t a sizable middle or lower level population. That concerns me.
If the population is clustered at the top, it causes all sorts of problems. There’s the “class distinction” with vets chastening noobs, and the social stratification that comes with it. There’s the concept of underutilized assets, draining the system. There’s the lack of new lore and content, with the raid-loot treadmill replacing the leveling treadmill, a bit more obvious of a grind (and the concurrent greater potential for people to burn out on the treadmill). There’s the oft-lamented focus on the endgame by the devs, as they cater (sensibly) to their largest population group (even if it’s a bit of the “cart before the horse” syndrome). There are the ghost towns, and the lonely midgame that means a lot of “old world” content designed for groups gets ignored or played later solo by high-level characters.
The “old world” (game content that shipped with the original iteration of the game, levels 1-60) doesn’t get much Blizzard love, despite the fact that people are still being charged for playing through it. In a quick discussion with Phaelia, I posited that opening the “old world” to free play might be just the ticket to revitalize the game, and get new blood for Blizzard. Of course I have an ulterior motive: I refuse to subscribe, and I love tooling around the “old world”. I’d love it if they opened the old world to free play. Beyond my own wish on that, though, I think that it might be smart to do from a business perspective. If not free (server maintenance being the main argument there), a substantial reduction in cost might be wise to get people involved. (And if anyone could absorb the cost of opening the floodgates, it would be Blizzard. Free trials are a time-honored advertising system.)
I firmly believe that in order for an MMO to have long-term viability, it needs new blood to replace the vets who burn out. It’s a bit of a macrocosm of the “gamer life cycle”: teen has more hours than sense, plays obsessively>grows up a bit, gets a job, plays less as a result>grows up a bit more, gets married, has kids, plays even less as a result>gets tired of the game. (These may be concurrent phases, but generally, a single player isn’t going to stick with a game for an extended period of time, as life, ADHD and burnout take their toll.) The trouble with WoW is that the most current spike of “new blood” accounts may be more multiboxing than actual new players. Again, I may just be pulling numbers out of the aether, but it’s something that I’ve been thinking about.
I’m definitely making a lot of assumptions about numbers that Blizzard alone is privy to. Maybe their number monkeys have considered free “old world” play, and dismissed it. Still… it would definitely make a splash in the market. No longer would cash-starved players have to settle for the latest free Korean WoW clone or grindfest, they could turn to the monster itself and see what the difference really is. As much as WoW is maligned (rightfully or wrongfully), it’s still a highly polished game that got where it is for good reason. Games like 4Story, Ryzom, Perfect World or NeoSteam have their niche as free pseudo-WoW games, but if the gorilla itself jumped in the pool, it may be significant.
Potential customers could directly compare the games, and, if they find the WoW taste to their liking, could buy into the expansions and happily increase the revenue stream. Of course, the question is, would such a move mean more profits for Blizzard, as they lose subscribers in the midgame, trading them for more subscribers for the expansions?
This also makes me look again at Guild Wars. Each expansion that Blizzard makes while effectively ignoring the “old world” means their business model looks more like GW’s “expansion” model, just with the subscriptions tacked on. To my jaundiced eye, that makes the pro-subscription argument even less valid, except as something that people do just because they expect to from long habit.
On another hand, if the next Blizzard expansion were to revitalize the “old world” with new content (including world-altering storylines), perhaps it might be enough to drag players back on another merry spin through Azeroth. Whatever the case, it seems to me that the trend of “ten more levels, new talents and territory” just isn’t going to hold up the game in the long run.
I ramble a lot here, but mostly because I have more questions than answers. I’m no expert on MMOs, but I’m trying to learn about them, and poking around a bit is how I do so. Hopefully, I can ask a few questions that haven’t really been addressed, and thereby make a bit of headway. As such, this, perhaps more than other posts so far, is one that I’d like to see comments on.
In summary, then: What would it take to revitalize the world of WoW, from a business perspective, a playerbase perspective, and a world perspective? Is it worth trying to do so? Should MMOs in general plan for sustainable long-term income, or stick to the game industry’s general “hit-driven” nature? Does that short-term focus hurt the state of the design, the genre and the industry? (I think so, but I take the long view in a lot of things, so I’m biased.)
I’m also making assumptions about the subscription model. In my comment to Phaelia, I’m not inclined to pay to play content that is essentially the same as it was two/three years ago. So, what exactly do subscription dollars go to? I’ve heard it argued that they are for maintenance and development. Server and staff (GM) maintenance is a more or less static piece of the subscription pie, and I don’t really mind paying for that. I do think that advertising could cover it, but that’s just a guess. Still, there’s not really “rent” cost for maintaining code. It works, let it run. Make patches, yes, but I’m doubtful that even patches gobble up the rest of that sub price. Blizzard has apparently made out like a bandit on WoW, but maybe that’s media spin.
Still, my (maybe dumb) perception of the cost of subscription is that part of that money is applied to developing more content. When all of that content development is shuffled to the “endgame”, you effectively have the midgame players subsidizing the endgame that they aren’t even playing. meanwhile, the sub money of endgame raiders is going where? Apparently, it’s going to the next expansion. That, in and of itself isn’t a bad thing, but if that’s to be the argument, why charge players to buy the next expansion? If the development cost is factored into the sub price, they already paid for it. It all just seems to me like an interest-free loan floated to Blizzard, so they can build the next big thing, instead of making the game that people are paying to play itself a better thing.
That bothers me precisely because the Guild Wars model works, and because I can buy an offline game for the price of a WoW expansion, and get effectively unlimited hours of play. Something just isn’t adding up there, but maybe I’m missing something.
I’ve mentioned it before, but BBB’s “dragonflight” content ideas are another tangent I’d like to see explored. It’s a good way to reuse the existing world (yay for clever schemes to reuse content and reduce overhead), and revitalize it at the same time. With a wee bit of effort, it could not only make the midgame a better experience, but it could better prepare players for the inevitable endgame.