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[MMO juggernaut World of Warcraft has been shedding subscribers at an unexpectedly high rate since the launch of its latest expansion -- but what's the cause, and can anything be done to stem the tide? Gamasutra speaks to Blizzard, academics, and players.]
What is happening to World of Warcraft? In the months after the launch of Cataclysm, WoW's third official expansion, the game has lost almost 1 million players, dropping to 11.1 million subscribers from a peak of 12 million in 2010. The seven year-old MMO has been among the most successful video games in history, turning Blizzard into an essential piece of the biggest games company in the world.
In recent years the MMO model has changed dramatically, the pot of MMO gold has moved from a subscription model to free-to-play, with several games boasting player bases similar to, or surpassing, WoW's numbers. Where WoW once appeared to be king of an expanding empire of subscription-based games, it suddenly appears to own a market few compete in anymore. Indeed, with Cataclysm, even Blizzard revised its free-trial model, moving from a 14-day period to free-to-play until level 20.
Has WoW finally begun a slow but inevitable process of decline? Or is it simply changing, moving from one business model to a newer and sounder one? Is it possible to keep an MMO alive in perpetuity? Or do all virtual worlds have to die, no matter how big, glorious, and beloved they once were?
While Cataclysm famously destroyed the landscape of Azeroth, some of its most successful changes were to early game content. "The rework we did to the older content -- which was really showing its age -- was just huge," Greg Street, lead systems designer at Blizzard, told Gamasutra. "The quests flow better, there's not so much traveling all the way across the world, the rewards are just a little better."
Yet, fixes in one stage of the game can have unintended consequences in other areas, and with Cataclysm many of the changes to the changes meant for lower-level players have dampened the enthusiasm and sense of specialness for long-time players. Items, armor, and weapons that old-timers spent countless hours grinding, training, and raiding for have become increasingly accessible to newer players.
"One of the primary reasons I stopped playing was that I felt like so much of what made raiding interesting and fun was that elite end of the game where you have access to content that only a few people every get to see," Doug Thomas, Associate Professor at USC and co-author of A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change, said. "Systematically, I felt what Blizzard has done is taken their high-end game content and made it increasingly accessible to larger group of players."
"Even if you couldn't get the high-end Epics, you could get something that was pretty much equivalent through token systems. That kind of thing kind of eroded one of the core dynamics about what was fun about the game for me."
While many of these changes are off-putting to long-time fans, Blizzard is aware of the complaints. "We struggle with that all the time, it's huge," Street said. "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."
"I think coming up with new mechanics and new systems is relatively easy, the problem is integrating it with what we already have. World of Warcraft today is so much more complicated than it was when it launched six or seven years ago."
While the joys of having an Epic item are diluted by the increasing number of ways for players to get them, the high-level game can still provide the special pleasures derived from gameplay itself. With new Heroic raids, new dungeons, and complex new challenges for experts to solve there could have been some off-set for the increasingly accessible loot rewards. But this approach comes with its own problems.
"The worst part of Cataclysm is the reward structure being all out of whack with content difficulty," Greg McClanahan, a long-time WoW player and frequent Gamasutra blogger, said. "Raids are much harder than they were in Wrath of the Lich King, but the rewards aren't significantly better than what you can acquire by queuing up for five-mans. On top of that, there's no longer any mystery about exactly which patch all of your gear is going to be obsolete."
"What this means is that you end up with a lot of people who are frustrated about wiping in raids, and there's not a strong rewards-based incentive to keep trying. That's precisely what happened with my own guild, and it drove us to stop raiding entirely, with a good chunk of people quitting or cutting back their play time significantly."
Another long-term challenge for WoW, or any MMO that's survived as long, is competing against an increasingly savvy and capable player population. "The problem with the current structure of MMOs is that they're playing this kind of racing game with the player community based on expansions and creating new content," Thomas said. "They're never going to be as fast creating it as a certain element of the player base is going to be at defeating it."
"The amount of time it takes to do an expansion, or even to open a new dungeon, is astronomical in comparison to the amount of time it takes a high-end guild to get through it. Information from the high end guilds trickles out very quickly through the information network. It really only takes a couple teams knowing how to defeat the content to put it out onto various forums and wikis."