Congratulations. If you’re one of the 12-million people worldwide who have sunk their lives into World of Warcraft—er, 11.4 million, I should say—then you’ve joined a giant, contingent of digital athletes that have done a few stretches, maneuvered into position, and taken a giant flying leap over a shark.
I don’t have the numbers in front of me, so I can’t say that the game’s recent drop from 12 million paying subscribers (paying up to $15 or so a month) to a mere 11.4 million is WoW’s first such major subscriber loss. But it is rather telling that we’re just half a year out since the launch of the game’s Earth-shaking expansion (literally) and WoW’s total subscriber numbers have returned to their pre-Cataclysm levels.
Is Warcraft a dud? Hardly; Blizzard’s still filling up its Scrooge McDuck-like vault down there in Irvine, California from the monthly contributions of its gigantic player base. But that doesn’t mean that World of Warcraft, as a whole, isn’t giving off the complete and total impression that the game has given up its lease on life.
Like an old, sputtering car, WoW just keeps slowly chugging its way toward Irrelevant City. It might take a year; it might take five years. But mark my words: WoW has passed its peak. The drop in subscriber numbers you’re seeing right now is the first big chink in World of Warcraft’s armor, and it’s pretty easy to see why people are leaving.
You know the old cooking trick where one dunks a frog into a lukewarm pot of water and then gradually turns up the heat to kill the frog without startling it? Well, that’s a complete and total myth. But it could be true were the situation applied to WoW players’ bank accounts.
I commend Blizzard for offering up a number of account-specific customizations for its players: Changing your character’s factions from alliance to horde or vice versa, changing your character’s appearance and, now, even allowing characters from different servers to queue up in dungeon parties together.
Unfortunately, these features come with a price: Yes, if the cellular industry has taught us anything, it’s that bits and bytes carry high premiums in the modern era. Want to move your character from one faction to another in WoW? That’ll be $30 (more than the cost of a boxed copy of WoW, I might add). Want to play with people on a different server? That’ll be an undisclosed amount of money.
There’s a phrase for this in the non-Azerothian world: Nickel and diming. The more Blizzard charges premiums for features that should be part-and-parcel of the gaming experience (mobile access, anyone?), the more they start to look and feel like a reverse Robin Hood.
I know, I know. You’ve heard this one before. Again, to Blizzard’s credit, the company has done much to try and up the ante against the good ol’ “tank and spank,” or the default strategy groups of players use to clear boss content within the game’s dungeons. We have raids! We have raids of varying sizes! We have raids and dungeons of varying difficulties! We have actual strategies one has to employ during these fights in order to not wipe the entire party!
But, still, that all goes out the window once you’ve run your 30th trip through the ever-long Halls of Origination. Or even the newly refreshed Deadmines. Or even (even) Blackwing Descent. The problem that plagues WoW is the same problem it’s had since its inception: The end-game might introduce new elements and landscapes but, at the end of the day, you’re still playing the exact same content over, and over, and over, and over. If you aren’t in an active raid group, you might as well take up a drug addiction: It’ll give you something to do while you play Warcraft’s “numbers game” pursuit of slightly better loot, to borrow a phrase from Ben ”Yahtzee” Croshaw.
And I’m not sure this is a problem that wants to be solved: A high percentage of WoW’s average player base doesn’t much care for a dungeon’s quirky add-ons, achievement hunting, or other such fun. They want to finish a run as fast as humanly (or elvenly) possible, grab the loot, and do it all again. For a casual-to-average player, this isn’t fun. This is digital torture.
One of the things I liked most about vanilla WoW was that the game offered a few interesting ways for a character to distinguish oneself. Perhaps that came in the form of a special tabard that you sunk a ton of time into getting, or a zone-wide yell because you accomplished some crazy task (severed dragon heads included), or because you were that jackass who kept snowballs from Blizzard’s winter event until summer in order to pitch up some freezing delights into the faces of your friends.
Fast-forward years later: Warcraft is now a smorgasboard of uniqueness.
I can’t decide if I want WoW to have more content for players to slap onto their characters or less. Here’s why: Nowadays, a simple walk through town yields people wearing all sorts of indistinguishing armor, with all sorts of titles appended to their names, with all sorts of goodies that they’re carrying with them, or throwing on the ground next to them, or petting as it walks alongside them. Everyone’s special, which makes everyone… refreshingly dull.
I want to play in a world where others can appreciate my individual accomplishments and I, theirs, but not a world in which a wide pool of accomplishments muddies everyone’s ability to stand out. And perhaps this is just an unfortunate byproduct of WoW’s longevity: At nearly seven years’ existence, the game has given players ample time to accomplish just about… everything. Maybe it’s a graphical treatment; maybe it’s a mechanics overhaul. But in a digital city full of badass veterans, what’s the point of tackling WoW’s more esoteric content or non-combat features if you’re not much different than everyone else at the end of the day?
I mean, it says something when we’re still playing variants of the same holiday events year, after year, after year. Which leads me to…
One way to fix Warcraft’s “stale” feeling would be for Blizzard to constantly refresh the game with new quests, new items… just constantly new things to do. Even the game’s daily quests can get old after a while, especially if you’re on your who-knows-how-long-its-been fix for your Daily Quest Addiction—the process by which one loads into a zone, runs the same seven or eight quests over the course of an hour or so, then logs out before doing it all again the next day. Rinse, wash, repeat. Do this enough times and I don’t care what the final loot reward is for your efforts: It’s boring.
Let’s get to the meat of the issue: Blizzard sits on a mountain of cash. A country of cash. A freakin’ digital world of cash. Why they aren’t spending their obscene amounts of monthly wealth on an army of producers, actors, or superfans who would be willing to produce heaps of unique and interesting content on an accelerated timeframe is a question that’s beyond my predicative abilities to answer. One of the largest MMOs in existence—or, at least, one of the biggest MMOs to have transcended from geek circles to mass-modern appeal–should have brand-new things to do going up on a daily basis. There’s simply no excuse for endless repetition in a game this big!
You know what else feels stale about World of Warcraft? Its fashion sense. While pretty, the actual in-game assets of Azeroth and its inhabitants are starting to show signs of age—perhaps unavoidable, given just how much the game has to scale to meet all the system configurations its users log in with. But even semi-new titles like poor Age of Conan, or really new titles like Rift, make World of Warcraft look ancient by comparison. The graphics don’t need any more crazy add-ons like rain effects or glowing raid targets: WoW needs a Cataclysm-sized update for its models, skins, rendering enging, effects… you name it!
And the first thing WoW’s graphical designers need to do before they start makin’ swords all pretty again is sign a blood oath that they will never reuse the same character models for differently named (and differently colored) enemies. Or to put it another way, no more Scorpion and Sub-Zero treatment. When you’re fighting a boss that suspiciously looks either like a boss you fought one expansion ago, or a normal mob that’s just been magically resized to 30 times its original dimensions, come on. Slapping a dress on a pig doesn’t make a new raid boss, especially if you just killed the first pig in another dungeon a few hours ago.
Try an experiment for me. Stop playing WoW for however long it takes you to break the urge to log online and finish your daily quests: For some, that might be days. For others, a full month. Don’t cancel your account. Just stop playing. Now once you’ve achieved this Zen-like state of clarity, think about everything you’ve been doing with your digital life. Does it sound like this?
You log online to your level 85 character. You’re on the Horde, because “Da Horde Rulez #1.” You load up in the capital city of Orgrimmar, immediately queue yourself up for your daily random instance, and start to think of things to do while you wait. You could check the auction house, but the goods you need to level your latest secondary skill are obscenely expensive. You could do some normal quests, but you’re already outgeared for any of the rewards. You’re not really in the mood to grind reputation since the time/payoff ratio is scant, and your guild chat is full of people looking for 5 more offline members to finish out their newbie raid. Your primary raid group is one you’ll never see because, though you feel like you’re at the top of your WoW game, you aren’t anywhere near the item levels you need to play “real Warcraft.”
Your instance pops up. You run the same dungeon you’ve been running the last 3 months. You alt-tab out during the boring parts or you run WoW in a window so you can just kind of half-ass your way through the dungeon while concentrating on your latest Reddit posts (or Maximum PC reviews). The loot that drops throughout the dungeon is nothing you need, but the simple act of finishing it brings you 1/65 closer to a slightly better piece of gear that might, someday, help you raid with the big boys.
And you, like many, ask yourself why you continue to play the “game.”
Blizzard’s World of Warcraft is hardly a flawed creation. And there are certainly parts of the game that are novel, fun, and downright hilarious. But just as you can’t beat an endgame boss without tweaked-out gear and strategy, Blizzard can’t expect its followers to just play blindly, forever, without offering them the latest and greatest incentives to continue. And right now, I don’t see strategy in Blizzard’s methods; I see content shoveling.