A great topic to bring up to anyone you know who plays World of Warcraft, or is an avid fan of any online role-playing game is “What would it take to bring down the most successful MMO, and arguably the most successful game of any genre of all time?” New games may look nicer, be cheaper, or have more content; but Blizzard really hit the nail on the head by making and sustaining a game that people just want to keep playing. Nothing lasts forever though. Everquest held the spotlight for most of its time before WoW was released. Baseball was once more popular than football. Sorry to be cliche, but history repeats itself. Eventually Rome will fall.
To give a little perspective, the MMO genre is just shy of 15 years old. Ultima Online was the first game to get thousands of players together in a persistent world at once and was released in 1997. It peaked at about 250,000 subscribers six years later. Everquest was released about a year and a half after and peaked at about 450,000. In 2004, right as those two games hit their stride, World of Warcraft was released and in just over three years had 10 million subscribers globally. 10 million? Are you freaking kidding me?
No, John I’m not. The game had so many of the necessary elements to springboard far ahead of the others. For one, the game was released at the perfect time. It’s forefathers were reaching their peak of popularity, and the game had sufficient hype — in part because it was being developed by a known and trusted developer: Blizzard Entertainment. Most notably, the game was able to reach out and grab hold of almost everyone who played it. The game avoids downtime, so you have something to do whenever you’d like. The “rested bonus” allowed players to feel like they weren’t left behind if they had to log out for longer periods between play sessions. I can’t quite do the experience justice since my two-week trial didn’t suck me in (I loved Ultima and, at that point, Halo too much), but apparently for 10 million people, it’s downright addictive.
WoW does so many things right: it’s combat, varied areas to explore, different character types to play, expansions, and so on and so on make it the game that ambitious game developers have wanted to compete with not only by being different, but by being better. A few MMOs surfaced after WoW, some of them getting a lot of hype. Age of Conan was thought to be a real contender. It could have been, having sold a million copies fairly quickly. The game was incomplete upon release though, it was buggy, and players didn’t feel the need to keep playing after reaching the max level. Aion also had a good amount of hype, and put up subscription numbers over one million. Again though, it wasn’t received as well for any number of reasons from being gimmicky to being a grind fest.
Killing WoW is really going to come down to one of two candidates. It’s likely that Blizzard will do it themselves either with a sequel that can boast a new world, new graphics, new game mechanics, and same level of rage-inducing addiction or with some mind-boggling bad decision in an update/add-on. The other likelihood is that WoW will succumb as many have before it to the slayer of kings and peasants alike — time.
At a certain point, players will just start leaving the game, and not come back. Even if another game never comes along to stand on the peak that WoW has, 10 million players will eventually be whittled down to fewer and fewer subscribers. It’s very likely no one will hit that 10 million mark for a long time, but just as WoW took advantage of the fact that MMOs were becoming more popular, another game will take advantage of the declining interest in WoW.
I believe that time is coming very soon.
Here are a few reasons why: first, a big indicator of the success of new MMOs has been how quickly they switch from a paid subscription to free to play. For most games, the switch means more players trying their game, and increased profits with in-game purchases. This strategy is typically used by a fairly young game that didn’t get as many subscriptions as it needed to make a profit. Despite a ridiculous amount of profit, World of Warcaft is now free to play up to level 20. To me, this means that the rate of new subscriptions is declining, so much so that the two-week free trial isn’t going to cut it anymore. WoW has already had more than 10 million people try their game. In seven years of existence it’s likely that they have either already earned your subscription, or have already convinced you that free or not, the game isn’t for you.
What about the long-time subscribers? Free to level 20 does nothing to keep them around, and it won’t bring back players who played for so long, but have given up. So will WoW switch to completely F2P? Not for a very long while. But let’s imagine they did. It won’t bring in significant numbers that Free to 20 couldn’t, and honestly I don’t think the subscription fee is what has caused most long-time players to stop. Going F2P is incentive for players to try something that wasn’t appealing enough to pay a subscription from the start. WoW has either not appealed to you at this point, has lost its appeal, or has retained it and the subscription doesn’t matter.
Another sign that WoW is on a downward path – a free copy of Diablo 3 with an Annual Pass to WoW. Why would Blizzard decide to do this? I need to give some credit where credit is due. Blizzard is actually a pretty cool company, and this certainly is a big thank you to their dedicated subscribers. In addition to that, its an aggressive push to get people back in, or else prevent some from leaving. Blizzard is counting on the fact that they’ll still sell millions of copies to people with no interest in that annual pass, but it might convince someone to stick around right as they were considering leaving the game. I certainly don’t think it’s devious on their part to offer incentives to stay. However, this move is designed to convince people to stay without upgrading or expanding on content. I think that seems more about making money than it is about keeping your product fresh and exciting. I just don’t think that’s a move in the right direction.
One other reason I see WoW declining soon: real competition. At least the most promising and polished MMOs to come out in the last seven years. My leading candidate is Guild Wars 2.
I won’t guarantee you that this game will replace WoW. I don’t think it will hit 10 million subscribers, but I think it has potential to flourish, and give Blizzard some serious reasons to think about the future of their own game. There are several good reasons to look out for this game, and primarily it’s because of the parallels to WoW’s success.
First, I believe the timing is just right. WoW is a hugely successful game, but there is more and more discussion about whether it’s past its prime, and the older it gets, the more likely players who have become fans of MMOs are to look elsewhere for a new story and new way to play.
Second, its development team is dedicated to releasing the game “when it’s ready.” Waiting to release a game until the development team feels its product is sufficiently polished, rather than when the producer says it’s time for revenue, is without a doubt the right way to approach the release date. ArenaNet was founded by former Blizzard employees, some of whom became higher-ups in the NCSoft division ArenaNet reports to, so this approach shouldn’t surprise anyone.
If you haven’t seen any videos of the Press Beta Event that was recently conducted, you may not have seen yet just how beautiful this game already looks. The game looks like the characters are walking around in a painting, and the animations are colorful and incredibly smooth for an unfinished product. WoW looked great for 2004, but in 2012 it’s starting to look outdated. Gameplay can be amazing forever, but especially to younger or newer players, the looks can really draw a person in from the start.
Speaking of gameplay, Guild Wars 2 looks like it could be just enough like WoW, while at the same time offering a new take on combat, questing, and storytelling. It’s important that a game be comparable to WoW if you want to grab up some of that fanbase. It needs to be recognizable, but at the same time needs to feel different. We’ll know on release day whether GW2 has accomplished this feat, but after viewing videos of both games the movement is similar, but the combat is completely different.
For starters, Guild Wars 2 makes you slim down your available active powers to 10 for any battle you go into. Some of those skills you can rotate during the fight, but this mechanic (also in the original Guild Wars) rewards planning ahead, and makes you prepare for multiple situations with limited resources. This can seem restrictive at first glance, but by not allowing a player to have every solution they might ever need available in each individual fight you allow for creativity and open up a new kind of strategy. This is a different way of thinking, planning, and improvising. It doesn’t have to be better by some objective measure, it just has to be fun, and I haven’t heard anyone who’s played the game say it wasn’t just that.
Something ArenaNet has really focused on is making the open world a truly cooperative place to be. In this game you won’t need to worry about another player getting your loot, your experience, or your gold. If you help take down an enemy you get to loot it, regardless of whether or not any of the people around you already have. The same is true with resource mining, and dungeon chests. This system is designed to make you want other players around to help you, rather than dreading the loss of reward due to split shares. In an open world with thousands of people playing together isn’t this how things should be? Sure this may take away the thrill of getting rare drops, but after time the rare drops are everywhere anyways. Why bother letting the gear be the ultimate prize when the gameplay itself should feel rewarding?
A giant step away from what has been the staple fantasy MMO formula is Guild Wars 2’s rejection of “the holy trinity.” The holy trinity refers to the combination of healing, tanking, and DPS (Damage Per Second). They haven’t completely abandoned these elements though. There are obviously still skills that heal, skills that cause damage, and various methods to draw monster’s attention and damage towards you. Guild Wars 2 attempts to evolve these concepts though, and remove the class tie to these roles. Every profession can do its fair share of healing, damage and crowd control. The big draw for this is to allow you and your friends to play together regardless of who’s playing what profession. If you all want to be warriors you can certainly make that work. It’ll probably be important for one of you to try to be more supportive with your skill layout, rather than everyone going for all out damage, but everyone will be able to do that.
These are just a few elements Guild Wars 2 brings to the table in the bid for being the next great MMO. Is it enough to single-handedly slay the monster that is WoW? Certainly not. I said before that game developers don’t just want to be different, they want to be better. To be quite honest, better isn’t something you can accomplish as a mortal being. But what a game can do is take their own approach and do it spectacularly. I don’t think WoW can be “killed” by another game, but it can die. Time will wear out what it offers, and being different will be interesting enough to pull people away. Eventually someone is going to capitalize on this fact. Whoever does it will need a great development team, ongoing support for their product, and an eager fan base. Guild Wars 2 absolutely has these qualities.