Wednesday, 9 May 2012

The "Wow-Killer"

When will the reign end?
In 2004, Blizzard launched the most successful MMO to date: World of Warcraft. Eight years on from that date and the game is still number one. WoW has become a benchmark for nearly every MMO developer. Every time a new MMO is about to launch, fans eagerly nickname the game the "Wow-Killer". It's safe to say that during the eight year period since its release no individual game has come close to achieving its fan-based nickname as World of Warcraft still reigns supreme with over ten million subscribers. WoW has managed to sit comfortably atop the throne thanks to its thriving community, regular content updates and a mellow-learning curve. Every time a new title is on the horizon, we ask ourselves the same question: "Is this the game that will topple WoW from its title". The answer is plainly "no".

However, evidence suggests that the behemoth has surpassed its peak; its number of subscribers is in reality dwindling, albeit slowly. At one point Blizzard had a firm grip on twelve million subscribers, roughly in October 2010. It now has ten million.

Think about that number in terms of a game's population. It's larger than the populations of many of the world's countries, including Sweden, Austria, Belgium, Israel, Switzerland, and dozens of others I could pull off the World Health Organisation statistics. Ten million people are playing this one MMORPG, and many of them now have WoW as a blueprint of what an MMORPG should be firmly imprinted onto their brains. Many of those ten million call WoW their first MMO. Hell, many of them probably call WoW their first video game. I can't think of a single product that's been more influential in terms of introducing gaming to non-gamers. I suspect that many of those non-gamers are still non-gamers despite the fact that they play WoW with regularity. Wow is the comparison. It's the benchmark. That's the problem. And frankly speaking every game that is branded as a WoW-esque game is bound to a hellish fate. What is needed is needed in this genre is innovation.

Every game that is released with WoW as its game design is going to fail. WoW was the greatest accident for the MMO business. Blizzard never intended it to become so big, this kind of success just can't be planned nor replicated. Perhaps the gaming industry won't even see a game like this ever again. 

Judging by the Mists of Pandaria beta, the new content is luke-warm at best so don't expect the numbers to rise any time soon, or even at all. The promotional content just doesn't seem polished enough; Blizzard is just trying to retrieve that final bucket of milk from its genetically engineered, though now battered and bruised, cow. Or should I refer to it as a Tauren. Shoddy humour aside, even Blizzard acknowledges it. Blizzard already has under wraps a new MMO in store for us code-named "Titan". But what if, just if, Blizzard decides to turn WoW into a F2P game. That could just be the safety net for Blizzard. Just imagine how the number of subscribers would balloon, just like an aneurysm, which is similar to my bursting excitement at this prospect. It's perhaps the only tactic that Blizzard can employ to surpass their apex of twelve million. Once all the expansions are released somewhere around 2015, this could be the game model for WoW. Blizzard would continue to make a hefty profit with in-game micro-transactions such as limited items with such a sheer population. 

Guild Wars 2, is this "the one"?
On the other hand, the concepts of WoW are slowly becoming outdated. New games are slowly coming out with interesting mechanics that diversify the MMO experience even more. Wow's generic kill quests are simply not fun. Rid the wastelands of every demon, did I mention that's roughly 8,398,380 of them. Yay! It's just too repetitive and monotonous. In terms of dynamic world events, Rift destroys WoW. In terms of an epic story arcs, SWTOR beats WoW. In terms of graphics, WoW is just not as pretty as the newer titles such as Tera and the upcoming Guild Wars 2. Competition is good, I mean it's going to force Blizzard to tweak it's robotic cow until it does reach its best. But how long can you keep on upgrading old machinery? There's only so much the world's first microchip could do.

It's inevitable that WoW will eventually fall; no king reigns forever. But due to its sheer popularity, no single title is going to knock it off its spot. MMO's don't shut down in the blink of an eye, just look at Everquest. A certain subset of gamers will always play it. However with titles such as Guild Wars 2 on the horizon we can expect it to act as a catalyst towards reaching this stage. We shouldn't question ourselves about the specific Wow-Killer; it's going to take many blows to down this beast, along with time to further deepen the wounds. I honestly believe we are reaching the tipping point where we'll see a new champion emerge very soon. Now what remains to be seen is whether another gaming company takes the title, or whether Blizzard's own Titan will be successor.

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