World of Warcraft, Blizzard’s smash hit, golden goose, and the acknowledged most popular MMO on Earth (as certified by the Guinness Book of World Records) is past its prime. Subscription figures have fallen from 12 million just after the release of the last expansion to 10.2 million, due partly to the popularity of Star Wars: The Old Republic. WoW isn’t dying — it’s ridiculous to use that term given that the game could lose 90% of its playerbase and remain both profitable and one of the largest MMOs in North America — but it is fading.
At seven and a half years old, it’s no longer a fledgling upstart or a product in its prime — and that presents Blizzard with a bit of a problem. The company has been characteristically tight-lipped about its plans for the future, but there are plenty of clues about what the company plans to do next. From Battle.net revamps to Diablo III‘s focus on cooperative multiplayer, Blizzard is working to improve social integration both within each game and across its various franchises.
Short term, the answer to “what next?” is Pandas.
When Starcraft II launched in 2010, it did so alongside a revamped Battle.net and a new identification system Blizzard calls Real ID. Real ID is a service that ties your actual name and online status in any Blizzard game into the Friends list that pops up in Starcraft, World of Warcraft, or the upcoming Diablo III. Unlike a standard friends list, which only tells you if a person is online and in-game, Real ID-linked friends can communicate across different WoW servers and completely different games.
The company’s decision to give Diablo III away for free to anyone willing to commit to a 12-month subscription for World of Warcraft is also telling. True, it’s definitely a move aimed at propping up WoW’s revenue stream, but it’s also a tacit experiment with the idea of subscribing to Blizzard games in general rather than any specific title. The fact that Diablo III contains a dual auction house system that allows players to sell items for gold or hard currency is a further experiment in content pricing and an examination of what the market will bear (and how players will react).
Blizzard’s titanic, cohesive future
World of Warcraft has been an unbelievable cash cow for Blizzard-Activision, but attempting to clone its success is more likely to produce two stunted bovines rather than a second champion milker. MMO sequels that debut alongside their predecessors run the enormous risk of fragmenting and alienating an existing player base. If the second game duplicates the game mechanics and structure of the first, players complain that they paid $60 for a glorified patch, while a sequel with vastly different rules and structure alienates the players who made the first game popular. No MMO sequel has ever been more than a tepid success; the few that have been released often cannibalize their predecessors’ subscriber base, only for both games to crater as players who were used to a (relatively) balanced and well-functioning engine skip out on the erratic and bug-ridden sequel.
Blizzard is working on another MMO, but the game, codenamed Titan, is reportedly designed to appeal to casual players and to emphasize gaming with people you know rather than with strangers. Blizzard believes it can co-exist side-by-side with WoW by appealing to a somewhat different group of gamers.
What the company wants, long-term, is a unified network of gamers across its franchises and platforms. The company’s experiments with Diablo III suggest a possible future where games are available at a variety of price points, from stand-alone purchases to subscription packs. One of the hallmarks of Blizzard games is their longevity; moving to a hybrid subscription/freemium/cash auction house/God-knows-what-else model establishes revenue streams across multiple product families that aren’t tied to the growth and success of any single product.
Blizzard may be uniquely positioned to pull off what we we’d (very) loosely categorize as a “Facebook for Blizzard Gamers.” One of the marked oddities of online gaming is that there is no central social hub, despite the fact that a lot of us were playing Quake and Unreal Tournament across serial ports, IPX, and Heat.net. Gamers tend to cluster around forums for specific titles and websites devoted to general gaming coverage — and Blizzard owns three of the most popular franchises in video game history.
I’ve kept this write-up focused on trends rather than specific details, partly because it’s speculation on my part, and partly because I think it would be disingenuous to suggest that Blizzard has made any ironclad decisions as far as implementation is concerned. The free Diablo III offer is a great deal for anyone with an active WoW subscription who was going to buy the game anyway, but there’s a lot of valid concerns surrounding Blizzard’s decision to implement a real-money auction house alongside the traditional one. Not even Mike Morhaime knows how the system will fare once the game goes live, or how much money it’ll generate over the long term.
If there’s an irony in the slow decline of World of Warcraft, it’s that the games and game propositions that labored for years in the giant’s shadow are likely too busy dealing with other market changes to notice. The rise of freemium payment models, the advent of Facebook social gaming, and the shift to HTML5 and richer, more capable browsers have all challenged conventional notions of what an MMO should look like, what features are paramount, and how revenue is generated. Blizzard might be able to create a multi-pronged revenue stream for itself by leveraging its current franchises, but most game developers don’t have that luxury. The subscription model that sustained the traditional MMO market is likely to be restricted to the few developers and products with a brand valuable enough to command such prices, and even WoW has done some limited experimenting with the F2P concept.
Change, as they say, is the only constant. If Blizzard handles its franchises, sequels, and expansions as well as its historically done, players will benefit from the price structures and social options that emerge.