In last week’s news about layoffs, before we knew the actual extent of the damages, a small contingent online were opining about how the possibility exists that Blizzard could shutter WoW.
Now, I believe this was overblown, obviously, but at the same time, it roused my creativity into action.
What would be a suitable killing blow for WoW? At what point does Blizzard wind down operations, and how would that even look?
Given that premise, today, I want to take a look at what I think would be the end of WoW and where we would go from the decline to the demise.
Question the First: What Would Be Sufficient To Kill WoW?
I think this is the most important and also hardest to answer question I will tackle here today.
We’ve seen a ton of MMOs go from thriving launch, to uncertain post-launch windows, to revamped content, to free-to-play, to dead. The problem is that nearly all of our case studies did so in the blink of an eye, relatively. A ton of the MMO case studies we could do were launched and dead during the active window of The Burning Crusade alone. While the fates of these games can be instructive, it also doesn’t offer enough of a window for us to evaluate.
There are other MMOs that, while not thriving, in the purest sense, still exist and maintain a suitable number of players and revenue. Everquest, for example, launched in 1999, took around 13 years to convert to offering a free-to-play model in 2012, and has survived since then despite being completely handed off to a new business entity in 2015. The game still sees regular expansion content, updated events, and the things one would associate with a thriving MMO, yet the playerbase is only around 20% of the peak the game enjoyed. Given all of this, it can be instructive in our thought exercise here, but may not paint a complete picture.
So, for us to paint a picture, we’re going to have to take a few educated guesses. Let’s start with this – what hasn’t killed WoW so far?
-“Bad” expansions: I use the quotes because, well, my feelings on quality assessment of an MMO are clear by now. However, expansions the community has deemed poor and stopped subscribing for have yet to kill WoW. Cataclysm caused a nearly 50% cut in subscriber base, going from a dizzying high of 14 million to just under 6 million over 1.75 years! Warlords of Draenor had a day 1 concurrency of nearly 12 million players according to Blizzard, and yet by the end of the expansion, they weren’t even publishing subscriber count anymore (and while I think that the MAU metric is perhaps more indicative of actual engagement, it is also 100% to avoid bad press about the peaks and valleys of a subscriber business). BfA has seen a downturn in MAUs and the quarter immediately after the launch seems to be financially softer than usual, at least trying to infer those details from the full Blizzard rollup data presented in the ATVI financials. Yet, these have not killed the game.
-Low player acquisition: One thing I’ve touched on in comments responding to community posts analyzing other MMOs through the lens of my prior post on “bad” expansions is that MMOs seemingly have a shelf-life during which they will reach peak visibility and drop off, only really catering to existing or returning players. While the data around this idea is mostly anecdotal, I would suggest that WoW has been at playerbase saturation for almost a decade now. Blizzard has made efforts to increase new player acquisition – the Cataclysm zone revamps, the prior expansion max level boost offered starting in WoD, and the zone scaling technology applied across the game in BfA – but these efforts all largely fail to attract a durable new audience, at least in terms of bottom-line impact we can see publicly through MAU count and the like. In fact, a case could be made that each time Blizzard has taken steps to increase new player acquisition, the game has suffered business setbacks, as you’ll notice the 3 expansions I just named are the most critically panned. However, yet again – while these moves don’t seem to help the game appeal to a new audience, they also don’t really endanger the game in the long term.
-Increased levels of microtransaction hawking and real cash goods: While the player response with every store item is usually pretty poor verbally, these things seem to work – Blizzard sells a good number of mounts, pets, and other such microtransaction frills. While players tend to complain, and Blizzard oddly tends to release these more when the game is doing poorly in MAU count (witness the number of store mounts and pets in WoD and even to date in BfA compared to Legion), the game always manages to keep folks around despite this, indicating the objection to this business practice is largely irritation rather than motivation to quit. We are, however, far from the days of the sparklepony and the 25,000 online store queue to buy one.
-Reduced content expansions: There is only one data point for this, WoD, and despite only 2 content patches, two raid tiers, and a patch who’s chief feature was Twitter integration, many people returned for Legion and the MAU activity reflects a higher degree of engagement after, meaning that many people who left during WoD came back for Legion on just the promise of the content on offer.
So then, what could kill the game? Well, I anticipate that WoW’s death will be slow-rolled. It won’t be one factor that immediately torpedoes the game’s life, but a series of slow, bleeding wounds. A combination of factors – maybe awful gameplay balance and design, terrible content, bugs at launch and persisting, server issues, and tone-deaf responses – if you combine all of these factors, you could imagine that each additional issue burdens the game further and further, and would make it harder to stay subscribed and engaged. The thing I would also say about this is that under the current team, I would highly doubt they’d manage to botch an expansion so spectacularly that such a thing would happen. Feel what you may about the current state of the game or the team behind it, but I do feel that the team is run by people who want the best for the game. Their fault is mainly in being unwilling to kill their own darlings, but because the core design of the game largely remains unchanged, it would be difficult to screw up so badly. If we see a new game director whose history is unknown, and new creative leads, especially if they come from outside the team, I would imagine that could lead to the change needed to nudge the game off the cliff.
But, the core takeaway I want to carry forward into the next point is this – when WoW dies, it will be a death by a thousand papercuts. There will not be one calamitous event that will force the game into shutting down, but a series of bad decisions and poorly received content bleeding the game dry.
Question the Second: What Does Wind-Down Look Like for WoW?
The money question here then is – what does a conversion in business model look like for WoW?
There are a lot of monetization avenues available to the average MMO. You can sell mounts, pets, cosmetic looks, actual gear, gameplay convenience, and content that might previously have been a part of an expansion’s content cycle.
For WoW, I anticipate that free-to-play would be the route Blizzard would take, with an increase in cash shop pets, mounts, and other frills. I would expect boosts to continue availability and to even expand, offering different level caps at perhaps a reduced cost (say, 1-60 for $15 or something of the sort). I could see Blizzard offering cosmetics that would enable a player to stop farming as much, say for example, the ability to purchase a transmog cache that matches a Tier armor set but is just stat-less armor. You could fill in old sets this way, and Blizzard could even offer higher-resolution, modern takes on the old tier sets as a hook for those who already diligently farm transmog. You could sell tier sets unlocked from class as well, allowing really cool sets like Druid Tier 17 with the insect wing shoulders to be available to Rogues, Demon Hunters, or Monks. I could see gameplay convenience options being sold too, like Heirlooms, some experience boosting potions or even food that would offer a Well Fed buff of a percentage-based stat increase and XP gain increase. Maybe potions to immediately max-out rest experience, including allowing it to accumulate over cap to give you the full value of your purchase.
Now, I want to be clear here – many of these are things that I would hate – but they would also likely be effective business model changes.
One easy conversion I could see is making expansion purchases or subscriptions an either/or scenario. If you play for free, you have to pay for expansions, but if you subscribe, expansions could be included. The mental focus we put on new content means I believe that expansions should continue, but the current model is double-dipping the playerbase, which Blizzard gets away with for now because the game is still compelling enough to do so.
My suspicion is that a free-to-play model, timed and implemented well, would actually reinvigorate the game for a time. Tons of people who’ve been gone for a long time would reinstall and log in just to see the game again, to relive the old days, and you may be able to even convert some with such a hook. Perhaps not a lot of people, or for a sufficiently long commitment, but a spike would occur.
I would imagine that a free-to-play model with purchasable expansions would also mean Blizzard would be releasing expansions on a more regular cadence to spark players into action. Perhaps still every two years, but much more like clockwork in terms of fiscal quarter targeted, and with statically cadenced content updates to drive continued engagement.
But, ultimately, once the game hits this window, while it is likely to continue on for a good amount of time past the F2P conversion, what happens next?
Question the Third: How Do You Kill That Which Cannot Be Killed? (Is That Even Correct?)
The first question to address with regard to the death of WoW is this – can WoW even die? It has been so easy to picture WoW as an immortal, ever-living product, one that will outlive many of its players. It’s easy to imagine a millennial retirement home with a PC cafe where aged WoW players would talk about their experiences in Molten Core while being able to still solo it at level 300 (which, on current pacing, would only take…36 years! I’d be 69 then…nice.). But, despite this perception, I do think WoW is not immune to the march of death and will, someday, reach a point where the game will simply cease to be.
The benefit Blizzard will have, even in a hypothetical death scenario, is that the playerbase, even through a downturn in business, will still be large enough and engaged enough that you could put together a final expansion and an epic ending quest – one that would likely drive player engagement through the roof one last time.
What would it entail? Well, while it would not be entirely unexpected for me to theorycraft my way around the next 10+ expansions and make up some final ending point, I’m going to skip straight to the ending that I think makes the most sense.
For real this time. He’s conveniently plot-holed up in the galaxy at the Seat of the Pantheon, leaving that red light in the sky, alive and well, although who knows what Illidan is doing to him. The game has established newer, supposedly more powerful villains, but yet, only one really has the weight of the classic lore behind him, and was what many players would deem the ultimate evil in the WoW canon – and that is Sargeras.
You could write it up a million ways – Illidan’s torment on him has been a crucible in which he has been recast, stronger than ever for enduring his fate and ready to enact vengeance on the “heroes” who dealt him his fate. Who would serve along with him? Well, that would be tricky, but I could see them involving the other Titans, corrupted somehow, Illidan perhaps, or some new and mysterious enemy force we’ve never imagined. What I know in my head feels like the “right” ending for WoW prior to a server shutdown would be this – a final raid tier that would feature a fight against Sargeras, and we can’t win. We defend the best we can, a cavalcade of NPC cameos make their way in to the fight to help us, and yet, in the end, it isn’t enough. Some NPC (Khadgar, Jaina, or some other powerful mage) has to teleport us away from the fight because it becomes obvious that we just aren’t going to win.
Then comes the last day, and during the lead-up to server shutdown, something ominous happens. Sargeras becomes a world boss, a massive, hulking figure that is a zone unto himself. We can walk and fly all over him, fighting different body parts. Everyone who logs in on the last day is buffed by the spirit of Azeroth, being automatically leveled to the current cap at the time, as everyone converges on Sargeras, desperately aiming to end his rampage and stop him from destroying Azeroth. The fight is allowed to continue until server shutdown, with the whole of Azeroth turned out to fight him, including all our major lore figures. The server shuts down after Sargeras inflicts his killing blow, destroying Azeroth in a blinding flash of light as the server shutdown timer expires.
Azeroth is dead, we are dead, and the game of World of Warcraft…is dead.
Question the Fourth: What Happens to Warcraft (the franchise) After WoW?
Something that has long been wondered about aloud, wished for, and speculated about, is a return to RTS for Warcraft. Warcraft III Remastered gives us a potential means by which such a thing could happen, but it is also arguable that at this point, no matter its roots, Warcraft is an MMO franchise and most people’s sole interaction with the franchise has been via WoW. A return to RTS with a new entry would be a bit of a bizarre shift, but at the same time – would it? After all, switching from a 3-part RTS epic to an MMORPG was likely even more jarring a shift. Imagine how crazy a new Warcraft RTS could be, shifting from the four races of WCIII to 15+ races, just counting main faction races.
On the other hand, I think one of our best shots at getting a fully-modern Blizzard MMO is if WoW shuts down completely and is replaced with a WoW II, rather than an EQ situation where the two are operated concurrently. Blizzard has said many times that they are, in effect, handcuffed to the original codebase of WoW and limited in change capability by the things they can implement on top of that foundation. This makes WoW fairly difficult to optimize, as the codebase goes back to around 1999 when the project began! The game, while it has been fairly well updated over the year, is dealing with continued performance issues on newer hardware, poor multithreading even after the 8.1 update to the DirectX 12 code path, and weird folklore about the interactions of certain bits of code – like the infamous “main backpack can only be 16 slots because it was hard-coded as such.” The game struggles to optimize with lots of particle effects on-screen, and the netcode with the current implementation of sharding struggles to deliver playable experiences when a large number of players converge on a location.
Sargeras destroying Azeroth could allow a hang time for a WoW II to be released and start from scratch with a modern codebase, better netcode and server infrastructure, and a fresh release to bring in new players (hopefully).
Having said all of that, though – I think whatever form it takes, Warcraft will continue to be a crowning achievement for Blizzard and will likely be a title they continue to invest in, even in this hypothetical, WoW-less future.
In Conclusion: Who Knows When It Will Come, But Play Every Day Like It Is Your Last
Who knows when WoW will end, if it will even end at all?
Certainly not I. I just enjoy writing large walls of text killing the game I’ve played more than any other. But I think that the reality of the world we live in means that sooner or later, someone is going to say that WoW needs to wind down, and there will be a day where that is a correct assessment and the game will begin to race for the finish line. The fact that it has lived to 15 without going F2P or engaging heavily in microtransactions says a lot, but the game has made moves in that direction at a glacial pace.
Someday, we will likely need to face the possibility that WoW, and the cumulative millennia its playerbase has put into the game, is temporary.
What will happen when that becomes reality remains to be seen.