A thought popped into my head when thinking about some recent comments and posts I’ve read, and the end result was a crazy rabbit hole I wanted to drag you all down with me.
We all sort of assume, at this point, that Blizzcon 2019 is going to be a new expansion announcement for World of Warcraft, the eighth-ever expansion, and with it we expect to hopefully see a lot of positive changes, or at the very least, the silhouette of positive changes.
However, a theory popped into my head, one that sort of filled me with a mix of dread but also a weird sort of optimism.
What if…Blizzard didn’t announce a new WoW expansion at Blizzcon? What if they instead announced…a new WoW?
Firstly, I have to start with a disclaimer – I 150% do not believe they will do this, and I think that doing so risks far worse outcomes than even the early 8.0 design trajectory of the game.
However, from a lore standpoint, there is a means by which I could see such a thing coming into focus, and from a business outcomes perspective, I could see some angles by which a metrics-driven (to phrase that politely!) company might very well opt to grab the number 2 and tack it onto the title of the MMO that many of us play.
Part the First: Lore and Storytelling
Lore is a flexible, changeable thing, but the in-universe of WoW tends to chain itself largely to the established lore, changing pieces over time with what are, in most cases, relatively minor retcons. The lore of WoW is basically used as a catapult into gameplay, and while sometimes the lore can be great and pull us in, sometimes, it is blatantly transparent that the lore is informed by the gameplay and not the other way around – the separate islands theme of Battle for Azeroth being perhaps the best example of this.
However, I think that if I were a betting man, and we lived in a world where WoW 2 was an inevitability, I would place my bet on the main hook being an alternate universe. Why? Well, my take is this – the Warlords of Draenor storyline, as iffy as it was, did set up a compelling idea that could ignite a new game altogether. With AU Draenor, we see that things can change, both large and small, and in the case of AU Draenor, things change drastically – the shattering never happens, the Orcs remain largely pure blooded and uncorrupted by Fel, and the Draenei become genocidal light maniacs. That all makes for drastic changes to what was originally simply a convenient plot device in service to events on Azeroth.
The question that is left in my head even nearly 5 years after WoD’s release (whoa, 5 years?) is this – what would an AU Azeroth look like?
The fascinating core of the idea to me is that an AU Azeroth would mean you could really throw the chains off. AU Draenor was crafted to have these little places and things that cause recognition, for you to see these landmarks from The Burning Crusade in their untainted AU forms and go “whoa!” The team, for all the flaws of WoD’s design, definitely did that – Shattrath City, Nagrand, a clean Shadowmoon Valley – all of these things were pretty cool.
Now, let’s just even try to wrap our heads around what an AU Azeroth opens up. Imagine the potential of being able to roam the Azerothian supercontinent prior to the Sundering, or to see the world toiling under the Black Empire. Would an AU Azeroth post-Sundering look the same? The thing about this is that even if we think of it through the lens of current lore and the various historical states of Azeroth Prime, there exists a ton of potential for the game to be completely different. If we expand beyond that possibility space, even more potential exists – maybe the supercontinent never existed in AU Azeroth. Maybe the Sundering creates 4 large and distinct landmasses, with a Northrend and Pandaria proxy that have much more size and scale to them. Maybe there is no Maelstrom, no Old Gods, no Legion in AU Azeroth. Imagine a game where you can explore every nook and cranny of a fantasy metropolis in Suramar – 10-20 times the scale of what we got in Legion, an absolutely sprawling fantasy city.
Of course, maybe none of those things are there – maybe we get a land ravaged by conflict between Titans and Old Gods. Maybe those are our factions! The racial landscape of an AU Azeroth would be fascinating – do we evolve past Trolls and Night Elves? If Draenor never links to AU Azeroth, we would never have Orcs or Draenei – do they maybe eventually link up? Do we link to modern AU Draenor and get genocidal light servant Orcs and Draenei? Are there other races we could see? Maybe we play as titan constructs and Old God lieutenants?
The thing I really, actually like about this concept is this – a WoW 2 using this setting has a vague basis in the current lore of WoW, but also has almost no actual dependency on it and is free to be its own thing. We no longer have to be bound by a thing that happened in a real time strategy game in the late nineties. New characters and new stories, tailor-made for an MMO, can be built and established – and while the team can use any amount of foundational lore from the main WoW universe as a jumping-off point, the amount of possibilities is endless. Not to suggest that WoW as it currently stands has no such potential, we’ve already seen them breathe new life into established parts of the lore, like the expanded lore of the Zandalari and Kul Tirans, the refreshed lore around Void and Light and the role of the Old Gods, along with fun teasers to setup more lore like the potential for Elune to be a Naaru.
But, there is a problem of sorts – an MMO sequel must surely be dead in the water, right?
Part the Second: The Business Side
One of the bits of common-logic in MMO fandom is that a sequel is death for an MMO, and serves to fracture the playerbase. The reference points for this conclusion are few, centering largely around Everquest and Asheron’s Call.
Asheron’s Call 2, it is worth noting up front, had a very difficult launch due to the game being hot-potatoed around multiple publishers, leading to it failing to stay in one place long enough to gain traction and support. Its original publisher, Microsoft Game Studios, only kept the game in their stable for around a year before it was shot over to Turbine, who themselves only managed it for two years before shutting the game down prior to a relaunch under Warner Brothers Interactive Entertainment in 2012, where it stayed until it truly died in 2017.
Everquest II has a much different story, and while it is the poster boy of the fractured playerbase concept, the numbers don’t necessarily bear that out. Near EQ2’s launch, the two titles bearing the name Everquest were both doing relatively well, and with 15 years of hindsight, I think it is safe to say that what “doomed” EQ2 and the concept of the MMO sequel is not so much that EQ2 fractured the EQ playerbase, but rather, that WoW instead took its lunch and gave the game a swirlie. Even that did not stop the game from hitting a reported 325,000 subscriber peak at some point in 2005 – pretty close to the peak reached by its ancestor. The market conditions that doomed Asheron’s Call 2 and made EQ II look like it didn’t do so well can both be summed up as WoW disrupting the scene in a huge way (with perhaps some earlier releases in the case of AC2).
This leads me to the more speculative part of this post. We all have seen the tumultuous year Blizzard has had due to the increased exertion of pressure from Activision. They have a new president, two long-time founders and employees have left, the company has shuttered one of their bigger eSports operations in Heroes of the Storm and has lost employees and interest all over their remaining eSports infrastructure, and none of their franchises are particularly smelling of roses at the moment, with player unrest apparent nearly across the board, and a 2019 release calendar whose biggest items are both Warcraft and both re-releases in Warcraft III Reforged and WoW Classic. The lack of “new” properties from Blizzard has been noted on investor calls and in investor analysis as a weakness for the company.
Now, as gamers, we consider WoW expansions to be new titles, in that they change the game substantially and especially in this current era of expansion-locked systems, no two expansions are directly comparable. However, to an investor, expansions are limited-return items – while a new game is a new chance to reel in an audience, an expansion is for the die-hards. At this point, let’s face the facts – there are more people who have played WoW and quit than those that remain playing, and by the few metrics we can see publicly, there might be as many as 10x the number of quitters compared to those of us still playing. An expansion release, while a “big” deal, is also basically offering a guaranteed spike of day 1 sales and pre-orders followed by nearly nothing more. Sales of expansions don’t have a long tail on them from a business perspective – nearly everyone that wants to play buys it in the first month or two and after that, the sales are negligible. Sure, subscription fees and WoW token sales keep the coffers full, as do cash shop items and promotions designed to front-load revenue to pad out financials – winter sales on “discontinued” digital items and six-month subscription bonuses. These items, however, find an increasingly smaller audience to sell to, and that is why we see the use of bundling tactics and limited-time offers to spike results. If only 1.8 million people worldwide are going to play WoW until expansion launch day and the max audience for launch day ends up being around 12 million, then this is the best recourse from a business angle.
Launching a sequel to an MMO that is in current operation hasn’t really been done since EQ II, and the number of external variables around that launch would tell me that it isn’t a sure bet that launching a sequel to an MMO automatically results in failure. There is another angle I started to hint at above though – the appeal of newness.
I know a fair number of gamer friends to whom the idea of playing WoW as new players in 2019 is awful. They don’t want to start with a boost and just do the current content, but at the same time, going through the level-scaled husk of the content to grind all the way up is unappealing as well. Blizzard has made a great effort to dress this part of the game up to try and reduce new player friction, but the problem is that it is just simply too much even with those reductions in place, and the game does a poor job of communicating with new players. My girlfriend, for example, played quite regularly during Cataclysm, and tried to get into it when we first started dating, during WoD. I bought her the game and we boosted a rogue for her, and she leveled from 90 to 91 and gave up. “There are too many abilities now!” she would say, but if you count them next to Cataclysm, it’s actually less – they just don’t do a particularly good job explaining them. Sure, the boost experience in WoD was awful for that and maybe the new class trial system would have helped, but I goofed around with it for a while and my impression of it wasn’t much better.
Now, if you take the franchise and make a new game – all of a sudden, this large potential playerbase opens up. Being there for the new thing is cool and fun, and everyone from Method’s top raiders to brand new WoW players are on the same footing – they have none and the game is new and fresh. Talking about a brand new title brings more eyeballs – more blog hits, more preview views, more tweets, and more excitement. Look at a preview or review of any MMO expansion – even Shadowbringers, as well-received as it has been, is still largely getting an audience of FFXIV players, whether past or present. WoW coverage is the same – it used to be an absolute juggernaut in pop culture, but largely has fallen out of favor.
A new game is a new chance to make a new impression, and the reality is that Blizzard is building towards a world where they don’t care what you subscribe for, so long as you subscribe.
That brings me to my next point – I fully expect that in the hypothetical world my WoW 2 exists in, Blizzard still has a simple, unified subscription model for the game. Subscribing to World of Warcraft gives you the base game, Classic, and 2.
Now the real point I want to get at with this – my biggest thought on the idea of a WoW 2 is that it would give Blizzard the ability to fully change the gameplay model of WoW. They have a 15-year old petri dish at this point, an amalgam of things that work and don’t work, and they’ve demonstrated a lack of either ability or will to fundamentally change the foundation on which the game is built. I don’t say that to be derogatory to Blizzard either – the game is, I imagine, a spaghetti monster of code at this point and we see (more often than we should, perhaps) how changes to new bits of code can cascade into weird bugs and issues with old content (my experience with flight paths in AU Draenor after 8.0 has often shown this).
A fresh start from scratch means the team working on this hypothetical game can implement whatever they want without having to track how changes affect elements of a game whose roots are 20 years old at this point. Would WoW 2 be more action-oriented or slower and more tactical? Maybe the team wants to make it playable with a gamepad like FFXIV? Perhaps a WoW 2 would abolish the holy trinity gameplay model in favor of something else? You could capture more of the RTS roots of the franchise – perhaps the world is far more dynamic and changeable without having to use phasing technology that is over 10 years old. The game world could be made to be even more seamless and interesting with newer technology – finding ways to eliminate all but the first loading screen would be amazing. Imagine being able to zone into a dungeon by walking through the door and having no load screen or other UI element that tells you this happened – you just end up in the dungeon. Although, here’s a real brain-tickler – would a WoW 2 even have dungeons? You might think so, but maybe not!
The thing that appeals about this fantasy to me is the idea that all of these things can be new again. A game designed and developed to be immune to large-scale datamining, making new content fresh and intriguing. A new community discovering things about this new(ish) world all the time and rushing excitedly to Discords and fan sites to talk about it.
The flip side to this is that I have a lack of trust in 2019 Blizzard to really pull off such a thing. Modern Blizzard’s newest launch was Overwatch, a project that did very well for itself but hasn’t really maintained the magic it once had and has kind of blurred into the background for a lot of people I know, myself included. Modern Blizzard has bungled a lot of their projects and pissed off a lot of fans, if not through Activison-inspired business practices than by gradual shifts in gameplay that deemphasize some of the fun. While I don’t want to jinx my imaginary and totally not real WoW 2, I could imagine seeing a game that is free to play, with all of the microtransaction baggage that would carry. Or imagine no retail purchase, plus a subscription, but the game is constantly trying to tempt you with transmog armor sets like upscaled versions of classic WoW sets that you would buy for real money.
But somewhere, in some alternate universe, there is a WoW 2, and mark my words, I kind of want to see that game – just to know the shape of it.