Possibly the most peculiar title I've ever written for a blog topic. Seven years and fans of the genre are appropriating funds elsewhere. The impending demise of World of Warcraft is a well-documented fable, debated on countless times in the Blizzard forums, everyone playing the blame game. Some peg Blizzard as the culprit, vastly "improving" the game over time to cater to multiple audiences. Accusations aside, the king of MMOs cannot rule forever. Eventually, the nostalgia factor will die out as more clones are brought into the fold and World of Warcraft will be seen as antiquated. Therefore, for a genre built on the coexistence of communities, could there be a new king on the horizon?
Arguably, Blizzard's crown jewel single-handedly made the genre the roaring success it is today. Multiple communities had existed before, starting with Ultima Online in 1997, but WoW has amassed a player base of twelve million, unrivaled by any single release. Blizzard's process was one of great ingenuity, contriving a masterpiece by blatantly copying aspects of previously successful games and further establishing brand recognition through one of the company's legendary franchises. But, as was the case in 2004, the times have changed. Many games employing the same tactics as Blizzard are making a splash in the genre, namely Aion Online, TERA and RIFT. The term "WoW-killer" has been thrown around one too many times to describe such games. Though common practice currently, Blizzard seems virtually unfazed by the rise in competition.
Amongst the player base, the large migration from World of Warcraft to RIFT was much talked about, offering bouts of disappointment about the head honcho directly from RIFT's developer Trion Worlds. The attacks received much attention from the gaming press, and around the time of the release of RIFT, sites dedicated to the genre heavily localized their articles targeting the game and what it offered. This brought even more attention, and through smart marketing techniques, the game quickly flourished. And most importantly, shifted the focus temporarily from its biggest competitor. In late May, RIFT reached two million accounts, a milestone for any new project, and a true testament that new games can succeed in a crowded genre. While it can still be debated why Trion Worlds has garnered so many sales, the success of RIFT and previous "WoW-killers" shows the vulnerability of Blizzard.
When World of Warcraft first launched, Vanilla as the early days are now called, the game was fitted for the hardcore. The leveling process took several rigourous months to complete, raids were unfriendly and very technical, and gear was a prideful possession. As the population grew, Blizzard realized not all players had the time or effort like their unemployed counterparts to see every piece of content. Systemically, the hardcore players were drowned out in favour of easing the hardships for the larger casual fanbase, sharply simplifying the process of attaining levels and gear. The game became so easy, the arduous task of leveling that previously took a few months could be done within a week.
Original players shifted loyalties to this similar bunch of games, the aptly named "WoW-killers", a trend likely to continue until the game meets its demise. And that's the core philosophy behind the idea that Blizzard is slowly killing its own creation. While true to a degree, something happened to World of Warcraft had no one anticipated. Back in 2004, the days of Vanilla WoW, there was no talk of FarmVille or motion control or smartphone gaming. Hell, Facebook was a novelty. Slowly but surely, the accessibility of Facebook and smartphones gave rise to a new type of gamer, the casual gamer, someone whom only sees gaming as a passive activity. And like everyone in the industry, Blizzard was caught off-guard.
The genre was unprepared for the mass rush of new players over the next couple years. Previously seen as inaccessible by many of the non-hardcore crowd, Blizzard scrambled and made World of Warcraft progressively easier as the money started rolling in. The outcome was a financially viable formula for Blizzard, but left a disdained hardcore audience looking for answers. The problem still continues today, and the lasting days of Cataclysm will likely decide the fate of the future for Blizzard. But the ending days of Cataclysm will also reveal the true potential of a casual-driven MMO, and whether Blizzard's efforts put WoW on borrowed time.
The failure of managing Star Wars Galaxies by Sony Online Entertainment left fans dissatisfied and aching for more. Another game from a different company, executed properly to suit the demanding needs of an audience. When word broke of a possible new MMO set in the universe, Star Wars geeks and the whole gaming universe leaped joyously. Electronic Arts then awarded Bioware the responsibility of restoring the credibility of the great franchise at their discretion. Colourful graphics and full voice acting for every cutscene have become the main selling points, and Star Wars: The Old Republic has taken the industry by storm. Expectations are soaring ahead of its projected Christmas release, and everyone is excited.
Fans are so restless in fact, SWTOR holds the record for the highest pre-order total ever accumulated by EA. Some serious numbers that could significantly challenge World of Warcraft's reign. It's still undetermined how triumphant Bioware's first MMO will be, or if the game will match the sustained success of Blizzard, but the buzz is a telltale sign of how the industry is shaping.
The genre can play follow the leader as much as it likes, but someday World of Warcraft will fall and what will be left is an industry trying to re-identify itself. Past the days of the Horde against the Alliance, MMOs will be available in greater variety and we are already seeing evidence of this. Facebook games like Mafia Wars have brought the capabilities of social gaming to the forefront, and once-monthly-fee heavyweights like Lord of the Rings Online are showing free-to-play can be successful as well. For a genre moving forward so quickly, it sure took a while.