Recently, during a Activision-Blizzard earnings call, Mike Morhaime revealed a loss of 600,000 World of Warcraft subscribers, putting the current count at 11.4 million players.
Now, that may seem like a drop in the bucket to some, considering how many millions are still playing, but one must consider the MMO market in general. 600,000 subscriptions is more than many other active MMOs, whether they are pay or free-to-play. Some of these games have 1/6th of that, and are still going. WoW remains a powerhouse in the market, but it has indeed taken a hit.
It also must be said, this is the first time a subscription drop has ever been reported by Blizzard. To my knowledge. The announcements I recall all mentioned a climb in their number of active subscriptions, never a decline.
“As our players have become more experienced playing World of Warcraft over many years, they have become much better and much faster at consuming content,” Morhaime said.
That’s true, Mike, but it isn’t the only reason why you’re losing subscribers.
WoW is getting long in the tooth. Six years later, and the game doesn’t look much different than it did in 2004. That has an effect on players, even if they do not realize it. It adds to the humdrum feeling they get when they log in, as they’re not seeing anything particularly fresh. Graphics tweaks to this point have been minor. Gameplay changes, also minor. Many systems or design decisions persist from Classic. Not all of this can easily be changed, or necessarily should be changed, but it definitely has an impact on player interest.
There’s nothing you can do, within reason, to combat this. An entire graphics engine rewrite is a major undertaking. Retooling the tank/healer/DPS system and class design is equally gigantic, and you risk alienating players who enjoy the game as it is now. When it comes down to it, if a customer is tired of a core aspect of the game, there’s not much you can do to retain them.
What Cataclysm did change was changed too much. You changed how healers heal, and you changed the difficulty in Heroics and Raids. These were not necessarily bad changes, depending how you look at them, but they did lead to many players (my own anecdotal evidence) becoming increasingly frustrated with the game and canceling their account. You have to keep in mind that Wrath already made sweeping changes to how people played World of Warcraft, but only in terms of accessibility — 10-man raids became viable, Heroics were easier to run, and rewards were more accessible. Players who were ‘burned out’ on the TBC-style of WoWing found themselves refreshed when they began Wrath of the Lich King (I know I was), and players who had not yet picked up WoW found in-roads to the game where there were none before.
Now, these players became intimately familiar with how WoW worked. Wrath laid certain ground rules. Cataclysm comes and abolishes some of these. Some of the accessibility was removed in favor of adding challenge, and it had a jarring effect on many players. Jarring enough to have them reconsider playing and paying.
Cataclysm had less starter content. Mike is right. WoW players are known for devouring content. Really, any MMO lives and breathes based on the content it is offering players — if they cannot keep players interested, they cannot keep them subscribed. So, for whatever reason, Cataclysm launches with only 5 new levels to gain and a handful of new zones to explore, a lot less than TBC or Wrath.
The “Old Azeroth” revamp was additional content, yes, but to a max-level player it provides little benefit. Unless they ‘re-roll’ and level an alternate character — which I recommend doing, as the revamped Azeroth is highly enjoyable — they’ll avoid this content entirely.
Recycling. Cataclysm hit the ground running with recycled content. Look at Heroic Shadowfang Keep or Deadmines and you’ll see dungeons with art and layouts fresh out of 2004. Look at Blackwing Descent and you’ll see the same. Ragnaros is back — yeah, the guy we took out in Molten Core in ’05. So is Nefarian! Onyxia too — even though we raided her in Classic, and raided her again in Wrath. Cho’gall? Didn’t he die in the WoW Comic? Apparently not, because he’s back.
4.1 hits, and what do they add? Revamped Zul’Gurub and Zul’Aman. More recycling. Now, ZG’s retread is a little more tolerable, as the bosses are either new or have new mechanics, and there are sections of the dungeon with mini-game events (like the Boulder Ramp). Zul’Aman, however, is virtually unchanged from when it was introduced in TBC. These two dungeons are a prime example of quantity over quality, and this is not what players want to tide us over to 4.2. Many of my friends have tore through ZG and ZA in a few days, picked up the loot they wanted, and they’re done with those dungeons.
Incentivization isn’t always a good idea. 4.1 brought the Call to Arms system, which awards certain roles (tanking or healing 99% of the time) an extra goodie bag if they use the Dungeon Finder. This was in response to less tanks and healers queuing for dungeons, leaving DPS players with 45+ minute queues. Really, if you have to dangle something shiny in front of a player to have them, oh, play your game, then there’s a problem.
The worst part is, CtA is only having a marginal effect. Initially, queue times improved, but they have risen again as players realize the goodie bag isn’t worth it, or that even the chance at a rare mount or pet isn’t enough of an incentive to continue playing — i.e. they’re dead bored.
4.2 better get here soon. The next patch looks to be more on par with the offerings of the past. It is fresh content, not recycled, and there appears to be something for everyone. It isn’t filler. If you haven’t seen the previews, I highly suggest you visit Wowhead.com and look at their Firelands coverage. It definitely has me interested, and I figure I’ll be playing quite a bit of it when it launches… but for how long remains to be seen.
By all means, this isn’t a what’s-what list of the mistakes WoW has made. There are many, depending on your point of view — someone could argue the Heroic difficulty change was the best thing for the game, while others will say they simply canceled their account because they’re tired of Warlock nerfs.
What this is, is merely what came to mind when I thought of canceling my account a few weeks back, and again popped up when I heard about the earnings call. My concern is that Blizzard will simply start throwing content at us, good or bad or in-between, thinking that will keep people playing — it won’t. The reality is, WoW’s subscription numbers are going to crest, they may have crested already, and Blizzard should not trade quality for quantity in hopes of keeping that subscriber count high. People will always have a reason to quit playing.
If WoW drops to 2 million subscriptions and the content is solid (use 4.2 as an example), is that such a bad thing?
But 4 million subscriptions with content like 4.1’s filler? You’d be sacrificing the integrity of the game to make a bigger buck. No thanks. Blizzard has always been better than that, but lately I’m beginning to wonder…