Blogger died on thursday and was not up on friday before I had to leave. As such I am behind on posting. Generally the blame for me missing posts can be attributed to laziness, foolishness or addiction but this time I can legitimately blame technical difficulties. I have discovered that doing so doesn't actually help anything.
In other news WOW is down 600,000 subscribers from late last year prior to the launch of Cataclysm. This is roughly a 5% loss and represents somewhere between 70 million and 100 million dollars of revenue yearly. Ouch. Activision also lost a billion dollars of value on the stock market over the last while so it is clear that things are not all peachy in the World of World of Warcraft. Of course WOW is still more than 10 times as large as its nearest competitor and would be considered the greatest MMO success of all time even if every single subscriber cancelled today so nobody should be feeling *too* sorry for them. I was doing some thinking about what exactly is causing this loss of momentum and what Blizzard could do to reverse it and I came to the conclusion that there are many small things that would help a little but nothing that would help enough.
WOW is old. It is good enough and big enough that it will continue to be a profitable game to run for a decade at the very least, maybe much more. Even if Blizzard lost 80% of the current playerbase they would still have the biggest MMO by far and definitely would have the cash to maintain the servers and keep things going. There are plenty of MMOs that were labeled as utter rubbish right after launch that lost a ton of money that are still running so WOW won't actually go away for a really long time but I think it is likely on course for an unstoppable slide. Most people who quit WOW and post about it end up whining about how the game is too hard, or too easy, or Blizzard doesn't care anymore, or other such nonsense. Newsflash: The game isn't that much harder or easier than it was whenever it was that the person in question enjoyed it. Blizzard isn't substantially different and the other people playing it aren't much different either. By any reasonable measure Blizzard has made innumerable improvements to WOW and continue to do so; the normal raft of complaints are certainly unfounded.
I am confident the reason for the decline is simply that the game is old. Many people have simply played all the classes, collected up all the gear and made all the talent choices and they are ready for something new and different. Blizzard simply cannot remake the game sufficiently to get these players interested again because they need to maintain continuity for those who are currently playing. If they completely removed the current talent and spell system and added in a new one it might get a lot of people playing again but it would cause even more to quit because the game they liked was changing too fast and too much. If the Rogue class was removed and instead there were the options of Ninja, Troubadour and Scout then many people would be upset at the loss and would quit over it; most likely more than would be lured back. Any great new change that really reinvents the game is going to bring some people back and send some away so it is not clear that it would actually change the trend but it is certain it would cost a lot of money to accomplish. Right now the greatest problem Blizzard faces in reinventing WOW is the success of WOW! They have so much invested in maintaining their current players they simply cannot afford to innovate their way into creating more demand.
Of course the answer to this is clear: Blizzard needs to maintain WOW and continue polishing, iterating and adding to it to maintain their income from their current fan base while developing something entirely new and massively better. They are already doing this, creating a next generation MMO codenamed Titan. It won't be out soon of course but I bet the project just got a ton of new funding, people and a more aggressive timeline since the numbers came in over the past few months. WOW will be a cash cow for years to come but it is past middle age and starting on a slow, irreversible decline. Something entirely new that makes use of all the lessons that WOW taught us all about MMO design will soon come to take its place at the top of the heap; the smart money is on Titan being that new thing but someone else might well surprise us.