5/10/11 update: It has been confirmed that WoW is losing subscribers, which is, to the best of my knowledge, the first time this has happened. The reasons are still debatable, but at least part of the speculation in this article has been validated. Blizzard's official explanation is that players are churning through content more quickly, which seems questionable considering the fact that players completed the easier Wrath of the Lich King content much faster than the more difficult 12 raid bosses in 3 separate raid instances currently in Cataclysm just 4 months into the expansion. Additionally, players spent an entire year grinding through Black Temple and Icecrown Citadel without the game losing a substantial quantity of subscribers. Regardless of whether my theories in this article hold any merit, I don't believe it's a large stretch to hypothesize that sheer end-game content quantity is not the underlying reason behind the current decline in subscriber numbers.
Let me start by saying that World of Warcraft is a fantastic game that gets better and better with every patch and every expansion. With over 200 days /played since the first day of the game's launch and nearly 10,000 achievement points earned, I've seen all its ups and downs, and myriad Chicken Littles proclaiming the game's doom with every minor hiccup or small class balancing issue.
But now, something is amiss. Despite an entire expansion geared largely toward low-level player retention, numbers seem to be dropping -- both anecdotally and from third party census websites. The accuracy of both are highly unreliable, but then so is the complete speculation in this article regarding the underlying reasons, so let's begin!
What Keeps Players Addicted to WoW
For any true WoW addict, the leveling time is trivial. The vast majority of time is spent at the level cap, pushing raid content and improving a character's gear. This is where the cycle of addiction truly shines. You collect gear to do harder raids, and you do harder raids to collect more gear.
Top-tier gear has historically been very difficult to acquire, and it carries a certain psychological weight to it. You instantly feel more powerful when a new piece of gear is equipped, and it carries an illogical sense of permanence with it -- not because it will never be replaced, but because the player does not know when it will be replaced, which is an important distinction. It could be a couple of months, or it might not be till the next expansion (I finished Burning Crusade with a crappy blue tanking necklace still equipped because NOTHING ELSE EVER DROPPED, DAMMIT).
Burning Crusade and Increased Gear Accessibility
Back in vanilla WoW, getting a single epic piece of gear was a big deal for most people. Raiding had a large barrier to entry, and crafted/tradable epics were in small supply and often prohibitively expensive.
In Burning Crusade, Blizzard realized that acquiring epic gear made players happy, and perhaps it might be best if more players experienced this happiness. Heroic 5-mans started dropping epic gear, but they started out very difficult and drops were sparse. A 10-player raid, Karazhan, was introduced -- it too awarded epic gear, but the jump in difficulty from 5-man dungeons was fairly high.
Heroic 5-man bosses started dropping badges of justice -- these could be exchanged for epic gear of the player's choosing, but selection was limited, and badges were fairly difficult to come by for casual players early in the expansion.
By the end of Burning Crusade, badges were easily farmable and better gear could be purchased, but the selection was still fairly limited. Karazhan could be farmed by pick-up groups, but higher-tier raids still required guilds or well-coordinated groups.
Casual players got a trickle of gear upgrades throughout the expansion as new badge-vendor items were added and Karazhan became more accessible, but it was still entirely possible for a single piece of gear to last a long time.
Wrath of the Lich King: Open the Flood Gates!
Epic gear flowed far more freely in Wrath of the Lich King. The entry-level raid, Naxxramas, was undertuned to a fault, and any casual player with a slight interest in raiding was quickly covered in epic loot. The new badge system had been overhauled -- there were now multiple emblem tiers rather than a single type of badge. Midway through the expansion, old, trivial 5-mans began dropping higher tiers of emblems, offering players quick access to powerful gear grossly disproportionate to the effort required.
Throughout vanilla and Burning Crusade, I knew exactly where every piece of gear on my character had come from, and I could probably recall each piece's name, its drop location, and its general stats from memory. By the end of Wrath of the Lich King, I was checking my character pane with each new gear drop just to make sure that I didn't already have it equipped before I rolled.
Why this Loot Pinata System Was Still Okay
As mentioned previously, gear only makes up half of the WoW addiction equation. The other half is end-game raiding. And this is where Wrath of the Lich King truly shined (flame away in the comments if you disagree!). Naxxramas, while grossly undertuned, was still a great raid instance that most players didn't get to experience before it was remade for Wrath of the Lich King. Ulduar was easily the best raid instance that Blizzard had ever created -- the storyline, art direction, boss mechanics, music, voice acting, and boss personalities set a new standard of quality.
Trial of the Crusader was the expansion's small blunder both in release timing and in scope, but Icecrown Citadel was another fantastic raid instance that remained highly accessible to all raiders, whether hardcore or casual. Being able to experience every raid in 10-player groups made the entire expansion accessible to almost everyone, and optional hard modes kept hardcore players busy.
The playerbase developed a mild obsession with "gearscore" -- a number indicating a player's gear level -- but only because it was almost universally understood that a lack of high-level gear simply meant a lack of minimal effort on the player's part. Anyone could spend a few weeks casually running 5-man dungeons and old raids to reach a level of gear sufficient for any current raid in the game.
Enter Cataclysm: The Adults Are Back in the Candy Store
The psychological weight of gear was hanging by a thread by the end of Wrath of the Lich King, and Blizzard seemed determined to correct the course a bit in Cataclysm. 5-man heroics were made more difficult, and epic drops were removed entirely. Despite Blizzard's statement about Icecrown Citadel in the previous expansion remaining accessible to casual raiders (to paraphrase, they weren't going to have a "you must be this elite to enter" sign after an entire expansion of accessible raiding), entry-level raids in Cataclysm were significantly more difficult than what players were used to.
This created a problem because the game had trained players to expect two things: easy gear and accessible content. Without either one, some players found themselves forcefully ejected from the carefully crafted cycle of addiction between raiding and gear acquisition.
The New Point System
Gone are the days of several types of emblems dropping from different raids/instances in the game. In Cataclysm, the whole process was streamlined with ruthless efficiency. Now, 5-man instances award justice points, and current-tier raids (and fully completing 5-man heroics, capped weekly) award valor points. Justice points can be farmed and immediately spent without limit, while valor points have a weekly cap.
Both sets of points can be used to purchase gear for almost every single slot. No more being stuck with a crappy blue tanking necklace for an entire expansion. If there's a slot you need to upgrade to justice-level, it's likely just a couple of hours of points-farming away.
And here's the big kicker -- every time a new tier of raiding content is released, all valor points are converted to justice points, and all gear previously purchased with valor points is now purchased with justice points.
In other words, there is no piece of gear that a typical player (who's not doing heroic raids) can realistically acquire in the entire game that will not be trivialized by a single patch, in which gear of equal value can be purchased with easily acquired justice points.
"But Why Do You Care if Other Players Get Better Gear? This Doesn't Affect You."
This is a common question that people constantly ask even though they know what the answer is, simply because the person on the other end of the question usually doesn't want to admit what the answer is. But yes, the scarcity and difficulty of acquiring gear matters. And no, it's not logical. But it is psychological.
Diamonds aren't expensive purely because they're shiny, and I didn't spend 4 hours unlocking the Silver PP7 in GoldenEye 007 because it was a terrific weapon -- I did it because it was really hard, and thus, the achievement carried significant psychological weight, even in a single-player environment.
Even if I don't care about other players acquiring gear, I do care about the perceived value of the gear that I acquire. When it's trivialized, that psychological significance is reduced.
The Problem with Full Transparency
What the new points system has done is given everyone a tour through the sausage factory. Suddenly the meat isn't quite as tasty when the whole process is completely transparent. The thing about WoW is that our brains need some level of psychological trickery for the magic to work.
Back in previous expansions, we all had lingering thoughts in the back of our heads -- "This gear will all be replaced in the next expansion at the latest," "Blizzard is just going to add better badge gear later," "Current dungeons might drop better emblems later," "This gear will be easier to acquire later when the dungeons are nerfed a bit," etc. But there was at least some smoke and mirrors to the whole process because no one knew the specifics before patch notes were released.
Now, it's all laid out. With the regularity of content patches, we can practically look at a calendar and calculate when all of our current gear can be replaced or matched with a weekend of queuing up for 5-man heroics.
For an emphasis of this point, take a look at the census link from the beginning of this article. Shortly before an expansion is released, player activity drops drastically -- many players feel that there's little point in acquiring gear that will just be outdated in a month or two. But perhaps most drastic about the graph is that even after the spike in activity from Cataclysm's release, the activity level has already dropped to a point below where it was during the second half of Wrath of the Lich King.
But What About PvP Gear?
Since Burning Crusade, the gear progression system for PvP gear has been pretty similar to PvE gear progression in Cataclysm. Players fought in battlegrounds or arenas to earn honor/arena points, and they used these points to purchase gear. Every few months, a new arena season would begin, with new gear available for purchase -- the old gear would be made cheaper or available with lower-tier honor points.
This system works within the limited confines of PvP progression simply because there's no other way it could really be done. In general, hardcore PvP players care more about a level playing field with human opponents than they do about RPG-style character progression. A problem arose in Burning Crusade where PvP gear being used for raid content was often easier and more efficient than acquiring PvE gear, but this issue has since been largely corrected.
I would speculate, however, that the hook of PvP gear progression in World of Warcraft is much weaker than that of PvE gear, and it is new PvE content -- not new seasons of old PvP content -- that keeps the majority of the playerbase resubscribing each month.
Finally Getting to My Stupid Point: Content Accessibility and the Psychology of Gearing Up -- the Worst of Both Worlds
In vanilla WoW, end-game content was inaccessible for most players, but gear carried significant weight. I was damn proud of my crappy blue dungeon gear in vanilla WoW -- not because it represented the best gear that other players could acquire, but because it represented the best gear that I could acquire. I didn't care about whether raiding was easy for other players or not; it was inaccessible for me, so the lower gear still carried substantial weight for my character.
Burning Crusade was a better balance, but most end-game raids were still too difficult for the majority of the playerbase. Nevertheless, gear continued to carry significant weight -- or at least gear in the slots that couldn't be upgraded with "welfare epics" badge gear.
Wrath of the Lich King swung in the complete opposite end of the spectrum compared with the original game -- gear carried very little weight, but players had near-universal access to fantastic raid content, even if they started up late in the expansion.
But Cataclysm managed the worst of both aspects. Raiding is much harder, but gearing up through this content carries much less weight because equal gear becomes trivial to acquire at the exact moment that the next raid tier is released.
In other words, the addictive cycle of gearing to raid and raiding for gear has been shattered. Raid gear will never be required for the subsequent raiding tier because as soon as the subsequent raiding tier is released, the previous tier of gear will be trivialized by being 100% available to purchase with easily acquired justice points. And because gear acquired from raiding is never more than a few months away from being easily replaced, it serves as a much weaker incentive for completing difficult content.
An Illogical Conclusion
On paper, Cataclysm is a great expansion, and the new points system is clean, simple, and a streamlined version of the same basic underlying concept that WoW has been doing since Burning Crusade.
But let's be honest here -- MMO addiction isn't logical. It's filled with psychological trickery, smoke and mirrors, carrots on sticks, social pressure, and a perpetual loop between content and character progression.
Without these elements, an MMO can still be a fun game with great content, but it's not going to keep 11 million players spending years of their lives immersed in its digital world.
Or it could just be that the current end-game content is boring and I've wasted 10 minutes of your life with a completely irrelevant theory. Or maybe the census sites and my anecdotal experience are completely inaccurate and subscriber numbers are better than ever. One of the three.