Thursday, June 22, 2006
Raise or fold
There is a gigantic poker game going on behind the scenes between the giants of the computer game industry. When talking about World of Warcraft I often mention Blizzard, but Blizzard is just a game studio wholly owned by Vivendi Games. And in the five-card stud poker game between the big PC game publishers, Vivendi has three face-up aces in the form of World of Warcraft, undeniably the strongest hand visible. So it is to the other players to raise or fold.
THQ just announced that they are folding in this particular game. CEO Brian Farrell said "To come out with something competitive now I think would be misguided for anyone, including THQ."
But EA refuses to fold, and has raised the stakes by buying Mythic Entertainment. Thus Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning will now be published and developed by Electronic Arts. That is certainly not a bad business decision. Of all the contenders for WoW's throne in a few years, WAR is one of the more promising ones.
Blizzard still has some time to reveal a 4th ace, by showing how they will develop World of Warcraft further. WoW is currently stagnating at around 6.5 million subscribers, the time where Blizzard announced rising subscription numbers every month are gone. Of course the stagnation is at a very high level, but for every new customer they are winning, some existing player cancels his account. And that is mainly because WoW shipped with a huge, but not infinite, amount of content, and people have consumed this content in the last 20 months, until they had nothing new left to see. Now Blizzard must show that in the expansion they can add enough content which is accessible to the average gamer, and will keep him playing until the next expansion after that. If the second expansion takes another 2 years to get out, and content patches only add raid dungeons for a small minority of uber guilds, the subscription numbers of WoW might well start declining from the inevitable spike at the release of Burning Crusade. Blizzard needs to add content faster, and the content has to be more accessible to the millions, to keep them p(l)aying.
EA has a dismal record in the development of MMOs. They failed to grasp the full potential of Ultima Online, and then started and shot down the development of a sequel not once, but twice. Their other MMOs, "Earth and Beyond" and "The Sims Online" flopped. Nevertheless they obviously have the cash and the will to succeed with their next attempt. Mythic's Dark Age of Camelot was a solid competitor to Everquest, with a quarter of a million subscribers, although it is in decline now. DAoC is by many people considered to be the top title for PvP, their realm vs. realm combat beats WoW PvP hands down. So WAR is hoped to be WoW with good PvP, which could certainly be a winner. In any case, competition between companies is always good for the customers. We, the players, can only win if the game publishers don't all fold and leave the MMO market to Vivendi.