The Elephant in the Room
I figure this morning I would cut with any sidebar discussions and get straight into the topic that was on everyones lips yesterday… the Blizzard Q2 Earnings call. If you remember during the Q1 2015 earnings call they announced a drop to 7.1 million subscribers after a peak of 10 million during the Warlords of Draenor launch bump. I think we all knew that the numbers would be down, at least incidentally based on our own experiences from the game. I have to say that I thought WoW token would be more of a game changer, and when they announced that World of Warcraft was down to 5.6 million subscribers I figured that the Token numbers would bolster this amount. However based on further information it appears that this number does include token subscribers as well. In truth this number likely does not fully account for the actual loss. Personally I would consider myself no longer playing World of Warcraft, but my account does not actually die until mid September. There are several folks in similar holding patterns in our guild waiting on their time to tick down as well.
As always MMO Champion has a spiffy graph charting the subscription numbers since the release of the game. To put things into proper perspective, the subscription numbers are exactly what the subscription numbers were in December of 2005 roughly a year after the initial launch of the game. This has lead some folks to point out that when you iron out the outliers like the Warlords of Draenor bump you end up with a standard curve that you might expect for a game of this longevity. There was a lot to be gleaned from the earnings call, but one of the major points I got out of it.. is that while they have already announced that the World of Warcraft expansion would be revealed Thursday at Gamescom, they left it off of the list of products planned for the rest of the year. That tells me that at the very best the expansion will be a Q1 2016 release. That means that there will be at a minimum of a six month lag between content patches, and at worst… honestly who knows what the worse case scenario could be. Hopefully this will not be anywhere near as long as the content drought after 5.4, but I am seriously hoping that they reconsider Hellfire being the final patch of the expansion.
Blizzard Does Not Need WoW
I feel like the takeaway from the earnings call is not that World of Warcraft has fallen by 1.5 million subscribers in a quarter. Anyone who was not expecting this was living in a rose colored world. Quite honestly I half expected it to be a bigger drop just based on my own experiences. The real take away for me however is that in spite of losing this many players Activision Blizzard had one of its strongest quarters yet. During the earnings call there were repeated mentions of “diversification of product offerings”, which tells me that Blizzard no longer considers themselves the “World of Warcraft” company. They see the writing on the way, that their juggernaut is winding down, and they have replaced its revenue by more agile games that are significantly easier to support. The hard truth is that Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm are making them lots and lots of money. When Overwatch launches you can damn well bet that it is also going to make them equally large piles of money, further diluting the need for World of Warcraft.
There was a time when Warcraft was the prize bull, but that is simply no longer the case. If you think of it from a pure numbers perspective it makes sense. Hearthstone for example is a digital card game, and the bulk of the assets that are created for it are two dimensional images. Granted they are awesome looking but they do not require the amount of time it takes to create three dimensional textured models and even more so huge three dimensional worlds for players to explore. The type of content that goes into games like Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm is just simply cheaper to produce than the amount of time that goes into building an entire world filled with hundreds of quest givers that have to be debugged and cross checked to make sure they are not breaking something else. To make matters worse… this expensive content is something we are extremely good at either avoiding or burning through as quickly as possible. The hunger for new content is never changing, there is never a point where we the players will ever be satiated. Adding a new playfield to Heroes of the Storm changes that game and its meta for months, and requires only a faction of the work that a single zone would take in a traditional MMO.
The Movie Tie In
The timing of all of this seems to coincide with the release of the Warcraft movie, but I question what exactly that means for the franchise. All of the details behind the movie so far seem to point at this being a “Warcraft” movie and not necessarily a “World of Warcraft” movie, meaning that it takes place in a time before the MMO is set. So does this mean that we will be doing more “timey wimey” stuff with the expansion, and we are somehow trapped in the timeline that we created by following Garrosh to Draenor? Are we going to play a role in trying to stop a new invasion of Azeroth by Guldan and the Burning Legion? The bigger question is… if all of this is going to happen are players going to stomach yet another storyline retcon? These are all questions that I really don’t have an answer for. I feel like if Blizzard has a shot in hell at rekindling the love of this game, they have to take us someplace new and unexplored, but do it in a way that feels epic like never before. I still mark Wrath of the Lich King as the best expansion to date, and it built upon the success of Vanilla and the Burning Crusade polishing both to a mirror sheen.
This is simply something that going back in time cannot provide for me. We’ve done the reboot of the world thing before with Cataclysm, and I found the whole process frustrating and annoying that places I once loved… simply no longer existed. I feel the only real option is for us to take the fight to the Legion, and have an expansion where we are the ones laying siege for once. What I want to see is an expansion where the Alliance and Horde finally put aside their difference, and with it the artificial barriers between players fall down. I want to see an expansion that places us squarely in the path of epic battles as we lay siege to the worlds that the Legion has conquered before, slowly working our way back to their base of operation and banishing their evil from the universe. That is the adventure that will bring players back, and anything less than that I think will ultimately feel hollow. We have run out of villains that we care about… and the whole “Dances with Orcs” feel of both Pandaria and Warlords of Draenor has been infuriating for anyone who really doesn’t care a damn about Orcs. Blizzard needs to prove to us that it can still create an opposition that is worth of the lineage of Arthas and Illidan, and I feel the only way they can do that is by having us take on the Burning Legion on their own territory.