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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.
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.
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.