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WoW in Decline and Blizzard in Denial
by Greg McClanahan on 05/15/11 12:47:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Last weekend I theorized that World of Warcraft was losing subscribers, and I offered my own hypothesis for why this was the case. The next day, Blizzard confirmed that it had lost 600k subscribers, and they offered an explanation that could not have been more diplomatic and, in my opinion, wrong. In this article I'll attempt to debunk the official explanation and offer my own solution to the problem.

World of Warcraft: Too Big to Fail

With a P/E ratio of 26, Activision Blizzard's stock is currently priced with an expectation of high future growth. And with $4.45 billion in revenue from 2010 and nearly half of that coming from WoW subscriptions alone (by my amateur calculations -- 11 million x $15 x 12 = $1.98 billion), allowing World of Warcraft's subscriber base to go stagnant, let alone decrease, would be disastrous to the company's stock value, especially after the Guitar Hero franchise fizzled into cancellation. (Correction: Chinese subscribers throw off these numbers; see TK's reply.)

Let's make something clear -- Cataclysm is basically World of Warcraft 2. With this expansion, Blizzard essentially created a sequel to WoW while retaining the subscriber base and not having to worry about maintaining 2 separate MMOs. In Cataclysm we saw a whole new tutorial system for new players, the quest interface revamped, Azeroth's terrain remade, leveling quests overhauled, graphics improved, the talent tree system completely redone, many abilities changed/added/removed, the stat system greatly simplified, healing design changed, stat reforging, and a whole new points system for purchasing high-end gear. Whew!

Prior to Cataclysm's release, Blizzard stated that they were losing most potential players early in the game -- around level 10 or so. So it's no wonder that Cataclysm puts such a heavy emphasis on carefully guiding new players through the game with a shiny, easy-to-understand tutorial system and vastly improved quests (the goblin starting area is fantastic).

I can only imagine how frantic management must have been to learn that despite WoW being masterfully optimized to appeal to new players while simultaneously offering 3 new raids' worth of endgame content, subscriber numbers quickly plummeted to a level below where it was during Wrath of the Lich King, just 4 months into the new expansion's launch.

The official explanation -- that players are now awesome at completing content quickly and more of it needs to be made -- is eye-rollingly diplomatic. It simultaneously compliments the playerbase while disregarding the possibility of any systemic problem with the game's design; the solution, of course, is that they simply need to do more of what they're already doing.

Why the Official Explanation is Bogus

Part 1. Players are not getting better at the game. How are players "good" at WoW, exactly? What is the skill component in the game?

The answer: It changes constantly. Sometimes it's situational awareness. Sometimes it's all about how well you can split your attention. Sometimes it's reaction speed (Cataclysm raiding is very heavy on mandatory spell interrupts). Sometimes it's how well you know your class. Sometimes it's how much you've practiced an encounter. But here's the thing -- this stuff is constantly changing. Class mechanics are changing. Boss mechanics are changing -- Blizzard does a great job of keeping raid bosses constantly varied with new mechanics.

From Wrath of the Lich King to Cataclysm, the strategies for healing completely changed. Now mana conservation is a big deal. Picking the right healing spell for the right situation is emphasized. Reaction speed is less important. How are players suddenly better at a mechanic that was just introduced this expansion than one they've been practicing for years?

And how can players be better-practiced with raid bosses like Atramedes, which has a noise/gong mechanic that doesn't exist anywhere else in the game?

Situational awareness, the ability to split attention, and reaction speeds are basically just things that your brain is good at or not. Once you've put in a few hundred hours with WoW, you're probably about as good at these things as you're going to get.

Part 2. We're not even consuming content faster -- dungeons and raids are actually far more difficult in Cataclysm than they were in Wrath of the Lich King. We blasted through Naxxramas almost immediately, and heroic 5-man dungeons were trivial affairs.

It's true that progression was much slower in vanilla WoW and Burning Crusade, but we can't ignore the fact that WoW had easy raids for 2 whole years during Wrath of the Lich King without hemorrhaging subscribers. The average players are not completing Cataclysm raids especially fast, and Blizzard even acknowledged this and cited it as a reason for delaying Firelands (the new raid instance) to patch 4.2 instead of patch 4.1.

In fact, Blizzard has a history of acknowledging the importance of raid release timing. They acknowledged that Trial of the Crusader was released too soon after Ulduar in Wrath of the Lich King (referencing this again while announcing that Firelands was being delayed). And yet now they're claiming that pure content quantity and shorter release cycles will save the game.

Part 3. We don't need more content; we need a compelling reason to do the same content repeatedly. People ran Molten Core so much that it was nicknamed "Molten Bore," yet they still did it every single week. Raiders grinded through Black Temple for an entire year before Sunwell was released, and the game didn't lose substantial subscribers during this period. The same thing happened when players were left grinding through Icecrown Citadel for an entire year before Cataclysm's release.

Also, WoW players are mostly gamers. We have other games. Sometimes we even play other MMOs. Blizzard will never be able to provide enough content to compete with other sources of digital entertainment. The focus should instead be on giving us a compelling reason to keep coming back and completing the same content again. If Blizzard just turns WoW into a content race, it's going to lose. It needs to stretch the content it has as far as it possibly can.

This means motivating people with gear. See my previous article for a more elaborate explanation of Cataclysm's current problem with this aspect, or Ed Alexander's response article with similar sentiments.

Part 4. Decreasing the amount of time between expansions isn't going to do any good. We saw a big drop right before Cataclysm was released, then a spike with its release, then another drop, where we're now below Wrath of the Lich King, just 4 months into Cataclysm (source, which is possibly very unreliable, as a disclaimer). If sheer expansion quantity were the answer, Cataclysm's subscribers should at least be on par with where it was during Wrath of the Lich King, considering how recently Cataclysm was released.

Averaging out the drop before Cataclysm and the spike afterward, the entire expansion's effect on the activity of the playerbase seems to have been a complete wash. Even the release of Zul'Aman and Zul'Gurub, formerly 10- and 20-player raids, completely revamped for 5-man groups, barely increased player activity by a blip.

Proposed Solutions

The problem with the game is not that it has been "dumbed down." I could write a whole other article about why I disagree with this theory, but the summary would be that only unnecessary/unfun complexity/fluff was lost in the streamlining of WoW's stat and talent systems, and player class and boss mechanics are just as complex now as they've ever been. Hard modes are also home to some of the most difficult encounters the game has even included -- players just often discount them because completing them offers little incentive, and it's debatable whether they're truly considered "new" over normal modes.

Part 1. Let's assess just how much gear progression everyone actually needs. Let me start with a full disclosure of my raiding experience in WoW. I didn't do any in vanilla -- Molten Core was inaccessible for me. I got about halfway through Black Temple in Burning Crusade, but only after the "ultra nerf" patch near the end of the expansion. I was able to complete most hard modes in Wrath of the Lich King, but only after a few months into each raid. Normal modes in Cataclysm virtually obliterated my guild. So I'm slightly biased.

Blizzard has stated repeatedly that everyone deserves to advance their character. This leads to hardcore players scowling at the peasant-like "casuals" with their "welfare epics," but Blizzard has a point. To remain addicted to the game, players need to feel like their character is going somewhere.

However, what's often overlooked is that this feeling of progression is, psychologically, relatively constant. Back when I was grinding away in 5-mans in vanilla hoping for a new piece of blue gear every few weeks, I didn't feel like I was progressing my character any slower than getting about an epic every week in Wrath of the Lich King. This is because the psychological weight of blue dungeon gear was much higher.

So, yes, everyone needs to progress. Everyone needs to keep improving their gear. But this does not necessarily mean that everyone needs to do so within the same general ballpark, nor does this mean that it needs to be done quickly. Because raiding was inaccessible to me in vanilla, I did not compare my character against other players with raid gear. I compared my character against the gear that was within my reach. When I was decked out in full blues, I still felt very powerful because I had essentially conquered the version of the game that I was playing. By the time I actually did this, Burning Crusade was just around the corner. Yes, I spent an entire expansion progressing through green/blue gear. Yet I still had a sense of pride in it.

I am, in fact, quite certain that the effect of this gear would have been severely diminished if I were allowed to buy epic raid gear with points/tokens acquired from 5-man groups. This is because I wasn't raiding. The gear didn't directly drop from anything I was doing. In fact, the gear might as well have been from an entirely different game -- its only purpose would have been to trivialize the gear in the game that my character actually had access to.

A forum argument as old as time arises when casual players insist that they "need" raid gear, and raiders ask them what they need it for if they're not raiding. Both sides have a valid point -- on one hand, casual players need to be able to continually progress their character. But on the other hand, no one really benefits from giving them gear that's required for content that they don't have access to (often for scheduling reasons). It just cheapens the psychological weight for both groups.

Solution: Keep casual progression alive, but widen the gap between the gear that 5-mans award and the gear that raid instances award. It's completely ridiculous that spamming 5-man heroics for valor points currently awards gear on par with difficult, top-tier raid encounters. No wonder people have lost the motivation to put up with the much higher difficulty of raiding.

Part 2. Drop less raid gear. Two epics per 10-man boss was fine back in Karazhan days when there was a bunch of different player specs and downing a boss was more difficult. Now, with raid bosses being easier (relative to anything but Wrath of the Lich King) and many class specs sharing the same gear (meaning less overall gear wasted to random chance with no one being able to use specific drops), it may be time to consider whether raid bosses are dropping too much.

Yes, players will complain quite vocally if 10-player bosses only drop one piece of gear. But they'll get over it because that single piece will carry twice the psychological weight, if not more. Upgrades would feel far more meaningful. Blizzard could even ensure that only gear usable by specs currently in the raid ever drops (this is a feature that is constantly requested, but likely turned down because the rate at which players would upgrade their gear would be obscene).

In fact, this system would likely still mean faster gearing up than vanilla, back when raids consisted of 40 people and downing a boss was an enormous headache, due to both game difficulty and organizational logistics.

Part 3. Make upgrades smaller. Let's all admit it. We are obsessed with minuscule numbers. If there's a "+8 all stats" chest enchant on the auction house for 100 gold and a "+10 all stats" chest enchant up for 1000 gold, we might consider this a tough decision.

We will always, always, always be interested in improving the numbers on our character, regardless of how tiny. We'll spend hours in spreadsheets researching the exact optimal gemming/enchanting/reforging combinations, then we'll spend thousands of gold on new gems/enchants just to achieve an increase in performance that is realistically impossible to actually notice. We will squeeze out every last drop of power from our available gear that we can, and we'll get excited about any increase at all no matter how tiny.

So there's really no reason to drop enormous upgrades in each new raid tier. In fact, it accomplishes two detrimental things: First, it trivializes all our current gear, which in turn makes us reflect on how quickly the new gear will be trivialized. And second, it largely removes any incentive for doing any raid tier other than the highest one.

So, by offering smaller upgrades, two things are accomplished: First, each piece of gear carries significantly more weight, even if we know that better upgrades will be available next patch. And second, it gives players a reason to keep running a wide range of content. If Blizzard is so concerned with giving players a ton of new content to chew on, why not get even more bang for their buck and stop making every single raid instance in the entire game completely obsolete every time a new one is released?

Part 4. Make the encounters themselves less dependent on gear. Sometimes raids will have "gearcheck" bosses that simply can't be defeated unless the raid has good enough gear. These serve to make gear feel more meaningful to players, but they also serve to lock off content from players who are otherwise skilled enough to complete it.

But this ties back to a crucial point. The main reason that WoW so liberally awards high-end gear (even if it's one tier behind) to casual players is because it's important that they are able to catch up and play with their friends. If, however, it were possible for more casual players to join a raid with some friends while wearing sub-optimal gear, it would no longer be necessary for the game to ensure that the player is able to acquire higher-level gear before raiding.

While it's true that this system would somewhat diminish the value of gear, I believe that this effect would be far outweighed by the fact that it would allow the game to be much stricter with how it awards gear to players in the first place. We will still, after all, care very highly about topping dps meters and having the most health as a tank, even if the difficulty of a raid boss is based more on a mastery of mechanics than on passing a certain gear threshold.

Boss mechanics could therefore become the primary source of difficulty.

Part 5. Stop with the dominance of the points system. It is much, much more fun to acquire a piece of gear by having it drop than by saving up the points and buying it. Our brains are just wired for the former scenario to be more exciting. Farming points is less fun because we already know the outcome before we begin -- we're going to get X points, and it's going to take Y runs before we get Z piece of gear.

Yes, it can be frustrating when we keep missing a specific drop, and yes, it makes our lives easier when we can just purchase something to go in that slot. But sometimes getting a gear drop for a slot that we can't otherwise fill with a points purchase is actually pretty exciting. And when we have a sense of frustration over not having one specific piece of gear, that just makes us more psychologically invested in the system as a whole, as we become increasingly fixated on the possibility of finally filling it with each new raid.

Additionally, this would give us an incentive to go back and do older raids if we're missing gear in just one or two slots.

TL;DR Conclusion

Adding sheer quantity of raid content and expansions to the game is not the answer. We already have plenty of content; we just need a better reason to actually do it. In fact, fast release cycles might be a detriment to the game if it ends up cheapening the psychological weight of gear from each tier, while simultaneously making old content quickly obsolete.

The game would be served best by instead finding a way to restore the psychological weight of gear while still keeping raid content accessible to casual players who are able to overcome the logistical hurdle of organization.

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Game Designer


Charles Patton
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The biggest problem is the reason I created my own downtime calculator. The average encounter in a raid can last anywhere between 1 minute and 5 minutes. Average time to recover from a wipe in your typical pug? Anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour. It's ridiculous.

Not to mention the typical DPS queue time for random dungeons last time I was subscribed was around 1 to 2 hours. That's a long time to be sitting around in a game realizing you have nothing else to do.

Not to flame blizz, I love thier games, but this has got to end. I love that RIFT took MMO back to it's roots but it's still no World of Warcraft and lost my attention after the first month. World of Warcraft has the content, has the vision, it's just time for yet another redefinition of what a skinner box is capable of.

Greg McClanahan
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"Not to mention the typical DPS queue time for random dungeons last time I was subscribed was around 1 to 2 hours. That's a long time to be sitting around in a game realizing you have nothing else to do."

This was largely fixed in 4.1, which offered tanks/healers additional rewards to queue up if there's a shortage. The queue for dps is much shorter now (around 10 minutes).

Jason Bryant
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Actually 10 minutes is not the case for all. In fact for my server, dps queue times sit firmly at 30 minutes every day all day. If you are able to get into a dungeon earlier than this, it's because someone left a group already in progress.

Kaitlyn Kincaid
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But when all the tanks/heals have all the gear they want from those bags (or find out that the drop rate is so low they will not get it for months), what will happen to the queue times?

Call to Arms is a band-aid. Make tanking/healing fun again and players will do it without temporary bribes.

Mark Buzby
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There are some very good points in this article.

I've been a long time tank (since classic) and I think the tank/healer gigolo program offers no incentive for me to tank for mostly obnoxious, ungrateful DPS who flame the tank for wiping... usually after they refuse to get out of the fire on the ground. A better incentive, for me, would be to for you to gear up any of your toons regardless of which one you are playing. I would tank randoms a lot more if I could give anything I get out of it to my healer.

I played more during the WotLK gearing scheme because I found that it actually made raids accessible to me. The gear progression was nice and I felt like I was getting someplace. The repetition of doing 5 man heroics weren't so bad because I could keep up with DPS threat and could compensate for bad DPS players (which there are a lot).

With Cataclysm I have to work my rear off to keep up with DPS threat in my longtime group. The gear seems pointless, as 5 man heroics offer next to nothing over questing and crafting... at least for the amount of effort they require. Early on timing is so precise that having one person with bad lag often gets the entire group wiped.

I believe that making the players feel like they aren't very good at the game after being so epic in WotLK is a main contributor to the loss of subscriptions.

Ian Uniacke
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"I believe that making the players feel like they aren't very good at the game after being so epic in WotLK is a main contributor to the loss of subscriptions."

Spot on.

Sting Newman
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WoW was already dumbed down the day it was released. Come on it's an MMO' you're scraping the bottom of the barrel if you think MMO's don't cater to the lowest common denominator. WoW wasn't a very good game to begin with it's just that a certain portion of gamers are such chumps.

There's a very good reason for WoW's decline - genre fatigue. You can only do so much WoW before you've seen it and done it all.

Greg McClanahan
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"There's a very good reason for WoW's decline - genre fatigue. You can only do so much WoW before you've seen it and done it all."

This does not explain why the decline has been so sharp only recently, this soon into an expansion with plenty of new content and features.

Simon Ludgate
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I think games based on gear progression are inherently limited in the scope of their appeal. It's fun getting something new, but you can only get new things for so long before it is no longer appealing. It's a function of marginal gain. When you have no items, 1 item is amazing. When you have 1 item, 1 more item is still pretty amazing. Even when you have 10 items, 1 item is pretty exciting. But when you've gotten your 10,000th item, 1 more item isn't a big deal anymore. It doesn't really matter how its tuned or how long it takes or what alternate routes there are to gear: eventually, if a reward-based game isn't inherently fun, the game stops being fun when the rewards stop feeling rewarding.

Imagine WoW with no levels and no gear. Would it be fun? Until it is, the game can't recover people who have left due to desensitization to gear rewards.

Greg McClanahan
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I generally agree with what you're saying, but WoW can still be successful if it continually cycles through players, assuming that these new players continue to play the game for long enough. I wish I had some data about what percentage of the people who started playing the game at launch still have active accounts.

With its revamped tutorial interface and leveling quests, I would expect Cataclysm to retain new players much better than previously. If the game could at least MAINTAIN the level of gear incentive for veteran players relative to how it's been over the past few years, I'd expect the subscriber count to increase.

But instead, it's dropping. And rapidly. This leads me to believe that the problem lies more with Cataclysm's handling of end-game rewards rather than an inherent flaw with the psychological rewards system. I think what we're seeing right now is a larger and more sudden effect than what the latter can account for.

Simon Ludgate
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But cycling through players requires a steady supply of new players. Isn't WoW getting to the point where there aren't many new players left? How many people can there be who meet both the criteria of (A) never having played WoW and (B) willing/interested in playing WoW? There can't be that many left, can there?

I'm also not sure the numbers are dropping quite as severely as you seem to imply. From your WoW census data link, the numbers are lower than WOLK numbers, but not HUGELY lower. It's more like a lot of people who had quit WoW came back for Cataclysm, didn't find the changes they were looking for, and quit again.

There could also be issues from competition from other MMORPGs. There were drops in the census data around the time Rift was released.

Perhaps the social aspect is also relevant. Social networks are a very important factor in player retention, with players staying in games in order to maintain friendships or stick with groups/guilds. When certain core "node" people are removed from the network, some people will be left in the dark, as it were, and might be prone to leaving the game rather than rebuilding their network. This can have a compounding effect on player departure, because a small number of key players leaving the game results in many peripheral players also leaving. Moreover, nodes can affect one another, and can lead to cascading departures with long-reaching repercussions. These can even affect unrelated players: if server populations on the whole drop, players might have a hard time getting groups for dungeons or pvp, or pickup raids might stop forming, leading to players not actually connected to those social networks still being affected by their departure.

Then again, you also have the issue of delayed departure in subscription games. If a player signs up for a 6 month subscription, but decides 2 months later to leave the game, they might still be playing it for the last four months they paid for. Their reason for departing doesn't coincide with the time they actually depart. For a large number of people to be leaving at the same time, it must mean that their subscriptions are also running out at the same time, which, it seems to me, is most likely if they all picked up the same duration of subscription at the same time. The suddenness of the departures might be indicative of a large number of people picking up very short-duration subs to check out Cataclysm, rather than systematic hemorrhaging of players who previously intended to keep playing.

Greg McClanahan
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Those are some good points, but I think *something* is inherently amiss with Cataclysm, and the official Blizzard explanation seems suspect.

Some spike/settling is expected with any new expansion, but with previous expansions, I don't believe subscribers or activity ever settled to a point *lower* than where it was prior to the expansion's release, let alone so quickly after the expansion's launch.

The basis of both of my articles on this topic are highly speculative, though, so I'm open to the possibility that I'm completely wrong about everything.

Doug Ralphs
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Great article. I think that you have really nailed what has happened with why subscriptions are declining.

First, I have played WOW from day one, rull time have no life raider from launch up until I became utterly bored in WOTLK grinding on 25 man heriocs and just like Forest Gump, I stopped running. Then came Cataclysm, all excited to raid again but made the mistake of picking the wrong DPS class switching from hunter to lock. In the start of the cata 25 man raiding I got a bit behind on gear combined with not being able to figure out the complex Warlock DPS mechanic, was down in the bottom third of the dps, always catching up and I stopped running again with my progression based guild. Was no fun at all.

Then I thought I could run in my more casual work guild who had success in BC Karazahn and WOTLK 10 mans. Not great raiders but enough skilled players to grind through content with a little help from welfare epics and dungeon nerfs.

But Cataclysm 10 mans where just brutal for our guild. 3 hour wipe fests getting down one boss after two weeks. Like Tom Hanks in the movie Big "how is that fun?" My guild of 15 people completely stopped playing WOW and just went on to all the other great gaming content including Rift for fresh, current generation MMO environment.

What did WOW get so wrong? They made the tragic mistake of taking away the best part of the game for a large part of the 12 million users. The real fun of WOW for a very large percentage of the population is making progress through 10 and 25 man raids. This is where you feel like you accomplish something special, a real accomplishment at least for me and my work guildies.

The Cata raids are just too hard. WOTLK if I missed a 10 man or even 25 man raid I could still keep current and progressing by pugging Naxx or ICC. When you take away raiding from the end game except for the very small percentage of the 12 million that invest the time to have no life and raid three times a week, you are taking away the best part of the game.

Sad to say Blizzard made such a tragic mistake. At least they should have made one or two of the bosses at the start of the instances or the PVP bosses easy enough to pug or for casual guilds to progress through.

Amazing how such a remarkable game like WOW can make such a small mistake that has such a major impact. I can almost imagine the internal almost religious arguments that most like were occuring within Blizzard between the accountants trying to stretch out the content, the hardcore zealots believing it had to be hard, and the voice of reason from the casual players advocates. Unfortunately, in my opinion, the wrong religion won the argument.

Erik Yuzwa
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Great article and long overdue.

All I need is a dialog at level 60 "Do you wish to skip the Outlands for $19.95" and include a "hell yeah" button.

Jeanne Burch
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Y'know, I've leveled multiple characters to 60(ish), have Death Knights on three (four?) servers, and as soon as I hit Outlands I'm bored/irritated enough to create new characters on a new server. I'm not sure what it is about Outlands that brings me to a full stop. I, too, would pay for an expansion that let me skip Outlands (or, rather, that gives me alternative content to Outlands).

Victor Perez
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THE SOLUTION, the big one, will be to let WoW as open development platform to integrate ideas, codes and everything from other developers and/or users.

There is not limit for imagination, dont limit it.. open mind, open business. It should be a step forward following the trend started with Facebook, that now is a platform, no longer a software...

Erik Yuzwa
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I agree with Victor's comments.

I would love an ingame simulator similar to City of Heroes, where I can create dungeons and share them with friends.

I would love to turn my avatar into a quest giver. I can wander through the starting zones and hand quests out in Goldshire. Nothing fancy, maybe make it profession based. If I'm a max level tailor, I can hand out quests for newbie tailors to gather linen, wool, etc.

Sherman Luong
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I don't know about you but the reason for me and several of my friends did quit wow was.

1. I log on each day thinking what i need to grind. argh.

2. Waiting in line finding a DPS/Tank/Healer that knows what he is doing so we don't waste 3hrs of life trying to get a gear.

3. Can't do much with just 4 people why force people to have over 10 to 25 raids? So we end up most days not doing anything but do trades and Auction houses.

4. Logging on again thinking about the above points.

5. Recession hit, first thing to cut was WoW after weighing in the above four points.

Don't get me wrong if you play a lot of wow each day having WoW actually saves you money. spending $15 a month occupied is cheaper than going out to bars or other activities. But if you are already burnt or bored, theres no reason. The recession was a final kicker to cancel.

Gerald Belman
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(this is all anectodal and subjective so please don't debate me)

Yea I got bored with WOW. I do not understand people who can play it for years. I will probably go back to it one day but probably not within the next year.

The reason I quit was just boredom. I player during WOTLK. I liked PVP. I liked it at levels one through 80. I Liked PVP at 80. Battlegrounds were awesome. Even when my gear sucked and I got toasted by people in full Arena gear, It was still fun trying to take people down who were much stronger. But I think, the gameplay of WOW and many rpg's is rather strange.

I will describe WOW's level 80 PVP mechanics this way: You play as a class. Your class is stronger with/against certain classes and weaker with/against certain classes. If you have just reached level 80 your gear sucks and you will probably not win often against anybody but classes that are weak to you. The longer you grind honor/arena points and get gear at level 80, your character will become stronger and you will be able to pwn most other characters in one on one or group PVP. There will be many players that are equal with you in gear and character strength. These will always be pretty even(and probably exciting) matches.

In the end, against players that have similar strength due to gear, your success will be determined by several things(not in any order):

1)the sequence of buttons you press - this is related to your interface setup and hotkey/scripting setup

2)the location/movement of your character.

3)Your reflexes to the actions of your opponents.

4)Your ability to teamwork with other players

5)Your ability to sneak up on people.

6)Your utilization of potions and other consumables.

Would WOW PVP be fun if all players had equal strength(due to gear) and it was completely up to your skill, class role and teamwork to succeed? I think it would be fun(maybe even more fun). I am not sure it would be the funnest game I have ever played but it would be pretty darn fun. Is a $15.00 dollar monthly subscription (15*12 = $180.00) a good bang for your buck. I don't know. That's a tough call. That's a large amount of money for a game. What if WOW was ported to the XBOX as like a weird multiplayer type game? Would people rate it high(I know WOW is more than a PVP game but just hypothetically)?

In truth, the game I have probably played the most for the amount of money I have paid is Left for Dead 2 multiplayer versus. To me, that provided tremendous bang for the buck. Nearly two years of it. I probably paid 10 or 15 bucks for it. That's a pretty good deal.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Greg McClanahan
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I've had a lot of fun with WoW, and I don't regret my time spent with the game at all, nor the time I will continue to spend. I critique because I love.

Cody Kostiuk
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I'm with you, Dave. However, I confess that I did play EverQuest. The socializing and exploration were the most intriguing aspects for me, but ultimately it's just a huge time sink. I think I escaped relatively unscathed with only 4 or so months of my life gone to waste.

Ian Uniacke
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Interesting article. I think I disagree with many of your points however I still found it interesting.

I think the drop off of players is overstated a little. At this point there are still well over 11 million subscribers. This could just mean that a certain subset of players were really unhappy with the changes and left. It doesn't necessarily mean the first drops of a storm of people quiting. In fact I think it's even possible that the majority contingent of players are enjoying cataclysm more than previous expansions and maybe Blizzard has expanded and strengthened it's core audience, while losing some of the fringe categories of players. Only time will tell.

I can see the gist of your argument. I am in a casual raiding guild and getting through the current raids is definitely harder than I recall it being to get through the likes of Naxxramas (although I was in a different casual raiding guild at the time). However I think that might be further evidence of my theory. I think that for hardcore players they are getting through content much quicker. Blizzard may be referring to this sub set of players whom may be the players leaving. I suspect this would make up a substantial percentage of players but I don't agree that most wow players are "gamers" as you suggest, although I'm not sure what you classify under that category. I think the hard core gamers would make up a small but significant percentage of players (10 to 40% is my estimate).

Andrew Calhoun
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I recently quit WoW in early April, after realizing -- at least for me, Cataclysm was a flop and WoW had become a full time job. Raiding became far more like a job than it did before, and I was never huge on raiding, but people became transfixed on raiding and nothing else, because raiding went from a 2-3 hour megadungeon ride to a 4-8 hour grind fest for the chance for some Bind on Pickup Epic that they could easily lose in a roll. For me, 4-8 hours to get a tchotschke is not worth the effort. The psychological weight versus time I could spend doing other things.

That did not appeal to me at all in the end, and I would try to gear up and get stronger, but I kept falling further and further behind due to my schedule and eventually I was drummed out of raid groups because I couldn't pass a gear check. Now, this is partially my fault for not "playing enough", but why should I be punished because I have a life and am achieving things in real life, such as getting a job promotion, a book written, and applying to grad schools? The people I played with became increasingly like the guy parodied in the South Park episode "Make Love, Not Warcraft", as to the point they would actually take sick days or vacation days to do raid content and neglect their jobs, families, and social lives. These people are likely the exception, not the rule, but it became depressing, especially when all they would do over Teamspeak is complain about all the real life stuff or that kept them from the game. It was after one of these discussions, where someone called WoW an escapist reality rather than a game, that I just finally said: "Eff this, I quit."

Getting away from the player side of reasons to quit, I agree with the "make content replayable." Let me put it this way, as I stated before, if something is a long grind fest, I really have VERY little interest in doing it again.

Maybe it's just how I am psychologically, but if something is a painful, drawn out experience, like most animals and people, I'd prefer not to endure it again. Heroics and Raids, even with proper gear, were relatively unpleasant experiences for me overall due to the wipeage, difficulty level, and the need to plan my life around a game. I understand that queues are way shorter now, but I had to wait for over half an hour just to get into a dungeon, I felt like I was just hanging out in a lobby rather than playing the game, and when I can't play the game because of how the game is made or presented, I lose interest very quickly.

Furthermore, I felt a lot of the content was buggy and underpolished at release. There were typos that I would have been embarassed to make in middle school and many things felt un-playtested in "dry run" environments -- aka they didn't actually tune things to how players would/might play; instead just opting to get the biggest game-stopping bugs stomped and then releasing content that was entirely too difficult for the resources available only to turn around and say: "l2play n00b." That was extremely insulting to me as a player and fan of the game. Small things, typos especially or having broken quest chains (certain areas of Eastern Kingdoms and Kalimdor spring to mind) scream volumes about laziness and lack of quality control; which for me are major stickling points.

Increasing content quantity will just continue the flood of untested content that will serve only to alienate and aggravate players. The hugely ramped up difficulty was cool at first, but then I began to feel, especially in Twilight Highlands -- WTF, I've finished this zone and have fairly decent gear, I should be able to survive being attacked by a small time group of mobs and take down the majority of them without breaking a sweat ala WOTLK. Instead, one or two non-elite mobs could stomp me pretty easy. (Yes, squishy mage, but come on!)

Now that I'm done with my reasons for quitting the game, I suppose I could identify myself as a casual player, and when it became very difficult to progress as a casual or "part-time" player, I left, because I simply don't have time to sit around and play WoW all day.

Jason Schwenn
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A lot I could say here, but I'll just throw a few comments/points into the fray.

1. Basing WoW's revenue on the standard "11 million times $14.99" belies more than just being naive I fear. Millions of those accounts are in China and they pay FAR less.

2. WotLK was the low-point of WoW. They were able to pad their subscription numbers by 2 things: the amount of Farmville-type casuals they lured in and the fact that their Chinese server-partners came online after many months of being down and that introduced a huge upsurge of Chinese accounts mid-WotLK.

3. When people like me went to the WoW forums to complain about the travesty that was WotLK, many people claimed about the "11 million subscriber" mark. To be clear, Blizzard's original goal for WoW was 500,000 subscribers; by the end of Classic WoW they had 5 million, by the end of The Burning Crusade they had TEN MILLION...and this was when the game was at it's "hardest".

So here's the thing, adding in only a million players when you essentially Facebook-ized the game IS NOT GOOD. WoW was bound at some point to lose subscribers, unless slowly the entire world became MMO'ers.

See, that is what is GREAT about Cataclysm; they at the very least went back to making the game for people who enjoyed MMO's for what they are, not for what the shareholders would like to see them be.

Not trying to be negative, but it's a lot of arm-waving over something that has many angles and this article seems more written by a fanboy that someone who has a broader perspective on the industry, game design and the minutae of a huge game like WoW.

Think of it like this: WoW needs to shed some of it's playerbase if it wants to retain any of the qualities that allowed it to become the cultural phenomenon it became SIX YEARS AGO.

Blizzard will serve the entire game community better if they stopped listening to both the shareholders and the over-passionate fanboys or complainers and make a quality game that they themselves would play. Sorry, but I didn't see Jeff Kaplan or Rob Pardo playing WotLK.

If you want to complain about Blizzard though, complain about the new Real ID cross-realm LFD feature that will be a premium service.... (the shareholders again...)

Andrew Calhoun
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Bobby Kotick. *nods sagely*

Greg McClanahan
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The point about Chinese subscribers is an interesting one that I had not considered, but I wouldn't expect Wrath of the Lich King to substantially boost the Chinese subscriber base after it was taken down for a while and relaunched entirely. If anything I would expect this to reduce its subscribers during that period, but I'm just speculating here, and perhaps there's something else I'm overlooking.

"...this article seems more written by a fanboy that someone who has a broader perspective on the industry..."

Yes, I am writing this article from the perspective of a player. I've put 200 days /played into the game since the first day of launch, so I think I'm entitled to write an article from this perspective. I didn't think my angle was subtle. I am not sure what you're aiming at with a jab at not understanding the industry, though -- you go on to criticize the game for trying to appeal to a wide base and bring in lots of money for the sake of the shareholders.

I said right in the article that I'm partially talking about shareholders here. Games of this scope are produced to make money for companies, and publicly traded companies exist to provide shareholder equity. I am sorry if this is cold and soulless, but I'm not the one who set up our capitalistic structure. Ideally games make money by being fun -- there is no logical reason for these two goals to conflict.

I am not sure what your beef with Wrath of the Lich King is -- just saying that it's terrible without specifying why isn't a terribly strong argument. Ulduar was probably the best raid instance in the entire game at that point, and Storm Peaks was probably the greatest questing zone ever created. But these are just my opinions; feel free to disagree.

Perhaps your problem is that raiding was made more accessible (a point I addressed in my previous article), but I would argue that the inaccessibility of raids like Naxxramas 40 and Sunwell were far larger detriments to the game than the fact that Wrath of the Lich King allowed semi-casual players to experience all the raid content, hard modes aside.

Judith Haemmerle
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I know of one person who left WOW and moved to a new MMORPG after Cataclysm because her favorite add-on stopped working on Cataclysm and the maintainer walked away from it rather than continue battle with Blizzard's increasingly hostile attitude to the add-on writers. At one time, writers of add-ons could earn some money through donations, but Blizzard has blocked that as much as they could. This would be a non-issue if the tools that Blizzard provides for navigating the game were robust, but many players do not find them adequate. So that's one way that Blizzard has been alienating their user base.

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Interesting article. Lots of good points. Just a correction on your first comments on WoW revenues. Of their 11m subs, approx half (~6m) are in China and half (~5m) in the West. The Western subs pay $15/mo. So $15x12x5m= $900M for Western subs. The remaining 6M subs mainly in China, generate approx ~$300M in revenue which implies an monthly ARPU of around $4. Of this $300M of revenue however, Blizzard only gets a rev share from Netease their Chinese partner. Say ~1/3 cut of this implies a net revenue of ~$100M going to Blizzard. This of course, however, is pure profit since Netease would bear all of the operating and marketing costs. So in total, WoW is approx a $1B rev biz for Activision or roughly ~1/4 of their revenue but much much higher as a % of their profits.

Greg McClanahan
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Thanks for the correction. I've updated the article with a link to your comment.

bo jangles
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I started losing serious interest when I learned that the cap was only 85.

I got a little more into it again during the epic quest lines for each new zone in Cata.

I started to check out when healing on my shammy was so mana intensive i was running out of mana after every basic trash mob pull.

I am now in the teetering on the edge of checking out because in order for me to heal heroics, I basically need to be wearing raid-quality gear. Which I have no shot at getting until I get heroic-quality gear.

I'm a casual player who's been with the game since the early days of vanilla WoW, and I'm assuming I'm in the target audience for the game - not a hardcore player, but sticking with it over the long haul and can more than hold my own in instances and raids when I'm properly geared. I know how to play my classes, and I pay attention and help others. And I suspect that Blizzard is on the verge of hemorrhaging guys like me.

I've gotten bored with the game off and on each time I reached the grinding stages. The challenge of Cata is that it got to grinding early AND the gear-centered mechanics of the various stages of endgame make it hard to justify putting forth the effort to start raiding. It's too frustrating, and I know I'm not alone.

Santeri Saarinen
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Are people dropping out because Europe/USA are bored of Cataclysm or because China is bored of WotLK? Since Cata isn't launched there, and they are quite a big group of players.

Also you said that people don't want to do the same content again and again. This is exactly where Cata got it right and WotLK failed. in Wrath we had to repeat the same boring content over and over again. Now we rarely have everything raid boss on farm, so there's always something new and intresting to look forward to.

I agree with your fixes, but the problem lies elsewhere. I believe people are not staying with the game because they are not ushered to guilds during leveling, meaning they hit a wall at max level when they want to find one that suits them. People are allowed too much solo play, when it is actually the community and feeling of belonging somewhere that keeps people playing.

The gearing isn't working as it should be, but I don't see that as the main goal anyway. The raiding game itself has never been better. There's suitable content for everyone from the casual once a week guy to the hardcore 7 times a week guy. If this is too hard, maybe you should turn the tv off. That's what makes it hard. This ain't Farmville.

Brian Devins
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Greg, I agree with just about every one of your points but I disagree with your premise. What percentage of WoW players participate in raids? I'd guess less than 10%, and probably significantly less than this number. Are raiders really the lion's share of the 5% of players who left?

My beloved raiding guild fell apart waiting for Cataclysm to launch. Finding a new guild has only resulted in heartache. Now I'm content never raiding again and have rediscovered my love of levelling.

In Cataclysm the dungeons are fun and I love the challenge but levelling is what I'm enjoying most of all. I'd embrace more expansions at an increased pace if it meant I could do new solo challenges on my main. I cared about gear and numbers theorycraft while raiding but now I care more about the lore and immersion of the world. I want to be exposed to more challenges, not a new carrot on the same stick.

Greg McClanahan
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Less than 10% would be an appropriate estimate for end-game raids in vanilla and Burning Crusade, but WotLK made raiding so accessible that most people seemed to be doing it at least to some degree.

My impression from Blizzard during WotLK was that they realized how powerful raiding was with player retention, so they wanted more people to experience it. I wish I had hard data about the percentage of active players who raided during WotLK, but my guess is that it's much higher than 10%. I could be wrong, though.

Santeri Saarinen
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I believe that if you count all the 11 million players, those who are at maximum level are a minority. Sure they might play a lot more, but out of total number of accounts, they're not the biggest part. And out of those I think maybe 50% might have raided in WotLK. So the number of raiders out of all accounts is quite small.

Greg McClanahan
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That would be interesting data to have. shows about half of surveyed characters at the level cap, but there are 2 factors that make this number difficult to read -- max-level players playing alts, and, as you said, max-level players playing the game more.

However, I can't imagine someone who plays the game so little that they wouldn't hit the level cap would remain a subscriber for very long in the first place, so that further complicates the matter if we're trying to weigh their value to the game's success.

Santeri Saarinen
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That does make it hard to judge whether the drop is because of low-level people quitting after the leveling change or highend people quitting because of the endgame changes.

I think your second point might be true in some occasions, but I personally know people how've had accounts for several years, but been active only a month there and a month here and not even close to the level cap. And now that the leveling was changed, they've felt that they should start over to experience the new quests in the old zones again.

Shaun Huang
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"my amateur calculations -- 11 million x $15 x 12 = $1.98 billion"

That shows how utterly ignorant you are. Do more research before you make further fool of yourself, and you will realize why Blizzard is not as worried as you think they should be.

Andy Fish
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First, great article--articulately written.

Your comment about psychological weight and blues in vanilla was spot on. I ran Dire Maul ~30 times to get a blue drop because it was the best class weapon obtainable outside of raids. That was my mentality for each of the vanilla instances--I knew them inside and out because that was the game I was able to play.

When BC came out, the game was different because easily obtained epic gear undermined the value of running an instance. This, of course, was amplified in Wrath and Cata. While you still *have* to run instances to get gear needed for raiding; instances are more like expressways than destinations in and of themselves.

But the real effect here is about attitude: after BC, Wrath, and now Cata, the community has an ingrained "gogogogo" mentality. This undermines the satisfaction of the instance itself. This, more than any other reason, was why I quit WoW.