I’ve suggested it in a few comments recently on other blogs, and I’ve argued it for a while in one form or another, but I wanted to put a fine point on it for posterity. Let’s not call this a prediction, since I don’t think Blizzard will do this (it’s potentially a lot of work and has a few wrinkles to iron out), but I’d recommend it.
The Cataclysm expansion is a perfect time for Blizzard to jump into the wider MMO market by diversifying their business model. The recent trend of formerly subscription-only MMOs converting to item shop microtransaction business models isn’t a surprise, nor is it a move of desperation. It’s realization that the MMO market is diversifying and maturing, and that the old ways of doing business aren’t going to work forever.
World of Warcraft is a bastion of subscription gaming, a behemoth that operates by its own rules, seemingly independant of the overall market. Be that as it may, ignoring customers served by the so-called “free to play” or F2P games is effectively conceding strategic ground in the larger market. It’s often suggested that converting WoW to one of these F2P critters may well not be more profitable for Blizzard, so it’s not likely. I’m not convinced of that, but even conceding that as a given, as someone recently noted (Bhagpuss, I think, but please forgive me for remembering incorrectly if not), companies don’t always make moves for immediate profit. Sometimes it’s about claiming market share or positioning themselves for future projects. *
* This is one counterpoint to my recommendation, actually. Blizzard might be angling for the wider market with their next big MMO project. Since that’s likely not imminent, though, I’m setting that aside, because the market is changing now, and Blizzard is oddly reticent to keep pace.
With that in mind, the release of Cataclysm provides a perfect excuse both in lore and in business to make a significant change to the WoW business plan. What better time to break up the world than when a dragon is doing it for you?
Specifically, I would recommend that they take the Old World of Warcraft (the content from level 1 to 60, sometimes called “vanilla” WoW) and break it off into its own product, literally breaking the game into pieces. They should then sell this like Guild Wars, as a single purchase that can then be played in perpetuity. They should then keep the “live” Cataclysm-era world going for subscribers. Players can upgrade from the Old World to the Live World, but not migrate backwards (maybe with some restrictions to keep gold sellers down, like no money migration).
This could neatly corner the F2P market by outflanking the other big movers in the field, including EQ2X, LOTRO, DDO and even GW and GW2, while still providing the subscriber experience that current users are accustomed to.
There are problems, to be sure. There’s the possible need for two dev teams and consequent potential for divergent evolution. There’s the need for new servers and the potential to confuse customers (who apparently don’t know how to spend their own money, the filthy proletariats). There’s the likelihood of subbers just playing around in the Single Purchase Old World and losing some part of the WoW money pump. There’s the banshee chorus of haters and fanboys who would proclaim the doom of Blizzard for deigning to let those people play the game. There’s the work necessary to make things actually work. There’s the question of what to let current players do. (I’d suggest that anyone wanting to go to the Old World can do so, but it would be a complete reboot; everyone starts from scratch. Current subbers who want to sidegrade can start new characters on the Old World servers like anyone else, without needing to purchase the game again. They would have to pay a sub to play in the CAT era on CAT servers, but could play in the Old World without a hiccup, just starting over on the new servers.) There is risk involved, as even WoW may not be able to function in its own shadow. (But that’s a concern for their new MMO, too.)
Still, the timing is right for such a move, a grab at owning the best of both worlds. In retrospect, perhaps, this will be obviously wrong, depending on whatever they do with their next MMO, but for now, looking at the market and the state of WoW, I’d say it’s an obvious move, and a smart one. (This is, of course, totally ignoring the larger question of whether or not more WoW domination of the market is good for the players. I think that could be argued either way, though, so maybe I’ll save that for an exercise later.) There’s even room for more mutations, like true “classic” servers and private, gated communities for discerning customers, but one step at a time…
Of course details would need to be ironed out, and suits would need to be convinced. Kotick would need to be bribed or something. I’m convinced it’s not an intractible problem, though, and this may be the best time for such an earth-shattering, industry-shaking… cataclysmic business move.
…though I must admit, if it didn’t prove to sell well, just like if Blizzard’s new MMO doesn’t do well, leaving WoW as the clear aberration that I think it is, well… I’d laugh.