The maintenance of the WoW playerbase has been a popular topic of late with the release of figures relating to the decline of subscriptions since Cataclysm’s launch and the publication of two prominent pieces, one being IGN’s interview with Blizzard about WoW’s future and the other being Gamasutra’s examination of WoW’s future prospects. Both articles speak volumes about WoW’s future.
Existing versus Potential Players
In the IGN piece, game director Tom Chilton says, “I would say that the majority of our mindshare as a team goes toward our existing player base,” but then adds, “I don’t know if that’s necessarily the right approach as time keeps going on.” He thinks instead “that for us to continue to be successful we have to think more and more about the new players that are coming into the game now and the potential returning players. What are we doing to the game that lowers those barriers to entry?”
Blizzard is a business after all and is quite mindful of how much potential income there is in the form of new and returning players. It has to think about how much of a pain it is for players to acquire the baseline game and three expansions just to be up to date. It has to think about how easy it is for a player to learn their class and begin to participate in endgame content. It also has to consider what things might be barriers to people who otherwise might want to play, such as not wanting to start a subscription without a lengthy trial period.
What strikes me about this, though, is the potential for Blizzard’s interests in catering to new and returning players to run up against the interests of continuing players. That is, the very things that Blizzard is doing to bring potential players into an aging game are the things that the Gamsutra piece cites as reasons for existing players leaving. Making raid-quality gear easily accessible reduces gear as a barrier to entry but it also reduces the prestige and relative stat gains of obtaining raid gear. Making normal mode raids simple to step into is great for getting more people to raid but it can also leave longtime raiders with less motivation because there is the implication that there is nothing special about normal mode raiding. Heroic modes are instead where experienced raiders are challenged but this also has its problems. Downing a hard mode boss is familiar rather than new because you’ve cleared it on normal so many times already; it is challenging without being interesting for the same reason; and you’re already wearing the loot, it just has different numbers on it. Allison Robert shares similar concerns over at WoW Insider, saying that “by the time you get to heroic, you don’t much feel like celebrating because you’ve already beaten versions of the encounter several times over. The joy of the first kill is distinctly muted in comparison to its counterparts in classic WoW and The Burning Crusade, mostly because the first kill is essentially meaningless.” Thereby we have the diminution of normal modes making raiding as a whole less compelling and joyful for veterans even as it allows for more raiders in general. Mind you, “compelling” and “joyful” are subjective terms and so you should feel entirely free to disagree with me.
Another tension between new/returning players and existing players is related to information. In the Gamasutra piece, WoW’s lead systems designer Greg Street is quoted as saying “to entertain players and make them feel like there’s reasons to keep playing we’ve expanded the systems, but those aren’t free in terms of player comprehension.” Developers can add things like reforging and glyphs, but those are each things that players have to understand. And the more things like this there are, the more intimidating and exhausting WoW becomes to new players. Conversely, it is through new systems and ways of playing the game that WoW remains interesting to existing players. Blizzard is forced to try to hold to a middle path with the peril of making the game overwhelming on one side and the risks of stagnation and overfamiliarity on the other.
There being such tensions between the interests of longtime players and new players does not mean that catering to one requires the exclusion of the other. Let me stress that: Blizzard paying more and more attention to new and returning players does not always come at a cost to existing players. For example, the random dungeon finder has been appealing to new, returning and longtime players alike. We also cannot say that veteran and elite players will have nothing that is designed specifically for them: despite WoW’s increased interest in accessibility, Ragnaros HM is widely regarded as one of if not the most demanding boss in the game’s history. However, if “feeding the beast,” to use Chilton’s words, requires tuning the game to appeal to new and returning players, then we can expect that when the interests of those players run up against those of veteran players that on average the veteran players will lose out. We can expect increased accessibility to receive preference over added depth (because the game is already pretty rich) and eased learning and leveling curves to trump endgame difficulty where they conflict (for example, Blizzard sees more worth in making tanking easier than sticking with its well-established threat mechanics). This is not jaded supposition on my part so much as a statement of Blizzard’s economic self-interest: if the money rests with new and returning players, and it appears that it will according to Chilton, then that is who Blizzard will cater to.
This is in one way a novel concern for Blizzard and indeed for all MMOs. No other game like WoW has lived as long as WoW. The company is entering uncharted territory. As Street says in the Gamasutra piece, “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.” We can therefore expect continued innovation and experimentation from Blizzard as things move forward because there is money in figuring out how to draw in the masses. It is my hope, though, that the innovations continue to have mutual benefit to new and existing players alike rather than benefits to one coming at a cost to the other.