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Feature: The Real  World Of Warcraft  Cataclysm -- Subscriber Loss?
Feature: The Real World Of Warcraft Cataclysm -- Subscriber Loss?
August 31, 2011 | By Christian Nutt

Gamasutra's latest feature examines the drop in World of Warcraft subscribers following December 2010's launch of expansion pack Cataclysm -- and lead systems designer Greg Street says "we struggle with" satisfying long-time players "all the time."

For the feature, Gamasutra spoke to players, academics, and Blizzard's lead systems designer Street to get to the heart of what has lead more players to give the game up recently. Blizzard president Michael Morhaime admitted in May that "subscriber levels have decreased faster than in previous expansions," after the release of Cataclysm.

The team has put a lot of effort into updating the early game content, says Street: "The quests flow better, there's not so much traveling all the way across the world, the rewards are just a little better."

However, that may be at the cost of late-game content.

"We struggle with that all the time, it's huge," Street says of complaints from high-level players. "We just don't have a lot of examples of games that have lasted this long and been this popular for so long to show the right way to do it."

The issue is releasing new content to keep players satisfied, says Street. "For a long time now we've been trying to get to a place where we can release content a lot more frequently, that's something we've been working on for literally years."

"We think that instead of ebbing and flowing it keeps players more engaged because right when they're getting bored of old content we've got new content for them. We definitely know that three or four months after a patch comes out players feel like they've seen it all and they're ready for something new. We just haven't had time to crank that stuff out yet."

This echoes comments made by Morhaime in May, in which he said "We need to be faster at delivering content to players. And so that's one of the reasons that we're looking to decrease the amount of time in-between expansions."

The full feature, which investigates the churn from the perspective of high-level players and also includes data from an extensive survey of WoW subscribers, is live now on Gamasutra.

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Michael Hahn
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They made the user base pay for them to fix their own game and they called it an expansion pack with limited level increase and zones. They also changed some of the core concepts from Wrath to Cata where the casual gamer hit a brick wall after leveling to 85. Hard core raiding makes up like a few percent of the entire player base. Im not saying making hard modes is a bad thing but they need to remember that most players are casual. When Blizzard announces the next xpack at blizzcon they better be offering something huge to off-set SWTOR impact and reinvigorate the wow fan base.

Kevin Patterson
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The game really rewarded the raid players and left out the people like myself, the casual player who has limited time. I stopped playing before the lich king expansion. I thought about playing to see all the new stuff, and then realized that i would have to pay for two expansions to see everything. So, I played Rift instead, and I like Rift very much.

Ben Rice
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Kevin: You're joking right? The Lich King expansion was the most PUG-friendly raiding expansion to date. Toward the end of it, everyone had an automatic +20% damage and HP while in the raid.

Anyone with any kind of lifestyle could get into a weekend raid if they wanted to.

The game is certainly not perfect, and they have a huge issue with content becoming stale; but wow is popular to hate on, so let's do that.

The last thing that I though i'd do is defend Wow, but these arguments hold no water... "realized that i would have to pay for two expansions to see everything". The amount of content Wow has is substantially more than Rift, if for no other reason than it's 'old' by MMO standards. And when Rift has two expansions and you'd have to pay to see everything, what then?

Brian Linville
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They can lose all their subscribers and we'd still have to say they had a great run.

Personally, I think they're more likely to lose players because they cater more to casual players--something they do more and more all the time. That sounds ridiculous, since casual players might make up 98% of their base, but hear me out. If a game is really hard and challenging, it will attract hardcore players, and hardcore players drive the buzz of a game. It's their dedication that gives a game its "This must be a good game if so many people take it so seriously" cred.

Casual players will generally keep plugging away as long as they think they will eventually "beat the game." But if they get the vibe that beating the game really isn't a big deal and there's no real need to make it a goal, they might give up early, even before they hit the wall themselves. Casual players will complain that they'll never see the content that keeps being released. They might even claim that they canceled their accounts for that reason, but the statistics say otherwise.

Think of it this way, if the Olympics catered to casual athletes and gave out gold medals to dozens of athletes in each event, then the games would devolve from a sporting event to a fancy light show. And eventually, people would stop caring about it completely.

Alex Leighton
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Agreed, there needs to be some part of the game that only a handful of people will ever see, to give everybody a goal to keep going for. I don't play myself, but from what I've heard, it seems like they've adopted the "everybody deserves to win" mentality which has plagued the industry recently.

Allen Danklefsen
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So we had about a 15 man raiding guild in wrath. Cata came out we quit about a month after we all hit 85 (ie one month).

Reason for this was the change of how easy it was to do dungeons / raids in wrath, and the difficulty raised in Cata. Healers didnt like the healing changes, tanks didnt like the tanking changes, and supports were all 'meh'.

It wasnt the lack of content that we quit; it was the change in mechanics from what we actually liked.

Daneel Filimonov
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I think the big mistake that Blizzard made was that they released Cataclysm focusing on their own ideals, and not that of the [majority of] players. Sure, they answered to the call of those who said "These instances are mind-numbly easy and boring!" But what they didn't realize is that _drastically_ changing the core mechanics of the three main roles (tanking/healing/damage) WHILE RELEASING COMPLETELY NEW CONTENT, does not mix well. In fact, it can be argued that it can potentially (and in fact, did) alienate a lot of the long-time players. Blizzard in a sense 'refreshed' the franchise, but not in the way other players had hoped. They got nipped in the butt for it pretty bad too.

Jacob Barlaam
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Blizz could get their casuals to stick around more and have to nerf content less often if they actually taught players how to play the game. Right now, instead of teaching players how to play their class and what they need to do, they simply give them free gear and make content easier so they can just sleep through it. This is poor game design Blizz, come on. Subscribers are lost left and right this way. The hardcore get frustrated the content is too little and way too easy and leave and casuals still complain the game is too hard because they don't know what they are doing so they leave as well. When you make a game like this, the majority of the players should know how to play. With WoW, it's almost an even split which should either mean the game is new(not the case here) or the game does a very bad job at explaining how to play(WoW does not explain a thing). Such a simple concept should have been implemented long ago and can be attributed to the subscriber drop since Blizz shifted its focus to the casual market. Teach them how to play and maybe they'd stop leaving in droves.

James Kuzmik
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I couldn't agree more, Blizz does a horrible job of actually teaching players how to play their game! There are only really two ways to learn,..1.) You ask someone and they are kind enough to walk you through it(Goodluck w/ that because most good players are too good in their own mind to take the time to teach a "N00b" how to play and,..2.) Research your desired class at a 3rd party web site and hope the sites theory crafting is spot on(which most "N00bs" don't even know these site exists until another player calls them out for being "bad" and suggest research!) and you have many contrasting ideas on how each class should be played/geared/gemmed/reforged!

There really needs to be a training instance of some sort for lvl 10 players or somewhere in that range that has pop ups describing to new players what is advisable to use in each situation as well as describing what the spell rotation/priority is. How that would be implemented I have no idea because of all the variables there are but it should be something that is worked toward!

I have had the misfortune of playing w/ players that have no idea that they are playing badly and no one will take the time to help them, or not many will rather! Blizzard should author their own theory crafting site of sorts describing the designers expectation of how each class should be played at various levels, that in itself would clear up many playing issues for new players!

Awesome insight into this particular facet of the game and I think this would clear up many issues w/ bad players,nerfing, and player sub losses!

Martain Chandler
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WoW is so over-saturated that ANY change will cause a loss of subscribers. And, come to think of it, NO change will do the same. Bleeezard will follow the path of Coca-Cola; hopefully without that whole "New Coke" incident. ;)

Kenneth Te
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Hopefully the next patch 4.3.0 would introduce cross realm raiding via Raid Finder -- this would hopefully satisfy casual gamers that were left out back into the fold.

Jacob Barlaam
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Those casuals will still run into the problem of not knowing how to play the game properly. They either have to read up on how to play or have someone teach them and neither happens very often. Like in my raids, I have a low tolerance for pugs and if they fail more than a few times, I replace them in a heartbeat, despite what their gear is. This probably frustrates the pug and causes them to think the game is too hard and should be easy enough so even they can do it. Like I said, Blizz has to stop nerfing content because people say it's too hard. Their content is easy before that, these people just have to learn how to play the game right.

Michael Hahn
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how would you play the game wrong if they made it that way up to the evolution of wrath? I can understand your frustration of having someone not knowing how to play. Thats not because of being a casual player thats because they dont know their class. Every patch a different flavor spec is optimal for highest dps. I dont think thats fair to players to have to relearn how to play every 3 -5 months. Lets say i play a mage. Frost is optimal one month, then its fire the next patch and now its arcane. The specs should provide similar output in a perfect game but they dont. Do players have to research every talent and top spec? I thought that is why we went to shorter talent trees.

Jacob Barlaam
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almost all pugs i meet do not know the simple basics of the game like crowd control or not standing in bad stuff or even basic healing or tanking. Not only do they not know their class but they barely can move their character to kill something. I am not even exaggerating, I have flat out seen people not use any skills, simply auto-attack and then die to something that was apparent to anyone that it would hurt them(big-ass fire). Going through the starting areas again, I clearly saw their was no teaching of any kind to help you along. The game just gives you quests and assumes you will know your skills and how and when to use them. Plus, I am not all that frustrated over them not knowing their class as much as frustrated that blizzard doesn't see why they are losing subscribers so quickly which was my point.

Steven Ulakovich
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The healing change is what killed it for me the most.

I did not pay much attention to the 4.0 patch, and when it hit I was floored at how different everything got. It wasn't so much that healing required almost perfect timing with what heal to use, and the cooldown, but that everyone had to be on their toes all the time. Asking for some CC in a five man random was like pulling teeth.

The other thing is just how unimportant the world is. Blizz made a pretty interesting to explore, but it was pointless if you were 85. They repackaged the old world just so they can rush people into end game. the journey became boring.

Ben Rice
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The healing changes I felt were quite refreshing. Gone were the days where you could just spam one button to heal; that's not compelling gameplay.

Having to actually manage your mana by using conservative heals, etc is how it should have been all along.

As for how unimportant the world seems, I can't argue with you there. It does feel pretty stale and static. It's hard for me to articulate how they could improve this, but something meaningfully significant will have to happen in order to change it.

Chris Dickerson
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The problem with the thrashing around of classes centers around one of the biggest problems the game has, and that is that it tries to do PvP and PvE.

WoW needs to be split into two different games to do each side justice (talent trees that serve each, class mechanics for each, etc).

They have announced work on a new game, so they aren't resting on the laurels of this game. How long will people play an MMO?

It's simply amazing as fast as the top guilds are capable of burning through the content no matter what devices are put in their path to slow them down.

Simply put, the old girl is getting long in the tooth and a younger model is in the wings.

Geoff Yates
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Well I have been playing for nearly 6 years personally i think a lot of the changes have been for the better.

For example: being on a server with low population in the early days and trying to get a run through Undead Strath was at best tiresome and depressing. Sitting in Undercity hoping or trying to get a group for 30 to 60 minutes I much rather have the instant PUG system. Instant transportation instead of flying from dalaran to the furthest dungeon is a waste of 5 minutes flying time.

Gear is possibly the main reason for playing and social guild interactions being the next big reason. I now play in a more casual guild and we sort of a content behind. Some of us can gear as quickly because we may get our max valor every week and we may just get a boss or two down in a raid. The guild is essentially one raid behind.

WOLTK got the whole 10/25 man concept spot on and allowed people to gear at their pace. For example ICC 251 ilvl gear for 10 and 264 ilvl for 25 man. Could do both which helped the pug raiding system. Blizzard were concerned that the valor point system would be eaten up too quickly if you could do both every week. I think making 10 man slightly easier at a lower ilvl was the right way to go. I used to pug 25 man ToC to gear my alt shammy healer for guild 10 man ICC. The whole progression thing worked very well. Possible answer to accruing to much valor quickly is its limited to a boss per week. So if I do 10 man Shannox I get the 120 valor points but if I do him on 25 man as well I don't get the valor points but still roll on the loot. If 25 man gear is say 10 ilvls higher than its still worth the time and effort to go along.

If people could do raids properly and get the valor points the constant grinding through ZA/ZG would cease to exist or maybe limited to a run or two. The recent decision to reverse not getting valor on older content was a good decision and showed they did listen.

Joel Black
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I have been playing since March 2005. I have seen a lot of changes and I have played a lot of other MMO's since then (WoW was my first MMO). Man, did I not know what I was doing back then. I have learned a lot playing WoW and I have come to this conclusion - I have an 8 hour (or more) / day job. I do not need another in an MMO. That's why I'm just tired of it. I have cancelled and re-subscribed more times than I can count because I just get tired of the grind.

Something else I tire of is the (seemingly) focus on PvP vs. PvE. I do not PvP. I understand the war between the Alliance and the Horde (I started playing Warcraft back in the "Orcs and Humans" day). However, if you want to PvP go to a PvP or RPPvP server. Take it off RP and Normal servers. Completely eliminate it from any server that is not specified as PvP. I get tired of people talking about their "l33t" PvP gear - I do not care! I have played on a PvP server where you're constantly "prairie-dogging" while gathering mats, questing, etc. These people who want to quest in a "safe" environment, but drone on about their PvP "l33tness" on a non-PvP server drive me insane.

I still have a subscription and will play casually as time permits, but regardless of whatever MMO comes out, it is *not* a "job" I want anymore.