Tuesday, December 19, 2006
World of Warcraft not the end of history
Looking back to what happened in the MMORPG genre in the year 2006 the short summary is: Not much. World of Warcraft is dominating the market to a degree that other games fail to make news or take off. Is that the end of history? Have MMORPG stopped evolving? Fortunately not. Just 5 years ago it was Everquest which dominated the market, and today it's down to a 1.6% market share. World of Warcraft is just another Everquest, taking the center stage for a few years before disappearing into history.
While doomcasting World of Warcraft usually ends you up with egg on your face, I think that 2007 will be the year in which WoW peaks. Inevitably the Burning Crusade expansion will bring back a lot of people into the game who had stopped playing sometime during the last two years. So in the first quarter of 2007 the number of subscribers will hit a new record.
But by the middle of 2007 that growth will at least stop, or there will even be a decline, although you won't read about that anywhere. Blizzard isn't likely to release declining subscription numbers. You'll just notice a lack of new press releases announcing new records. There are two major influences that will stop the growth of World of Warcraft: The appearance of a range of alternatives, and the lack of content in the Burning Crusade.
I don't see any single "WoW killer" MMORPG appearing in 2007. Vanguard will probably be a total flop. And many of the other new games will just reach a moderate success, getting a few hundred thousand players each, enough to keep them alive but nowhere near the World of Warcraft numbers. But as there are many new MMORPG coming out in 2007, the sum of all the players trying out the new games will be a visible drain on WoW. The one game that has the potential to rival WoW in subscribers, at least locally in the US and Europe, is probably Warhammer Age of Reckoning, but that will only come out in 2008.
People will move to other games because they will quickly grow bored with the Burning Crusade. The Outland is a large continent, but in the end it is just 7 new outdoor zones and 8 new dungeons (including Caverns of Time and Karazhan). Sure, that will keep us busy for a while. But even the average player will have seen most of it after a couple of months. No way is the added content enough to keep people occupied for a whole year, until the next WoW expansion comes out. Once we reach level 70 we will again have the "treadmill" option of raiding, giving us the appearance of progress while not actually moving us forward. But by now there is a strong expectation that the next expansion after the Burning Crusade will again invalidate all raid progress. Having a short look at the endgame and then cancelling your account for half a year until the next expansion definitely looks like the more clever option.
Again, this is not a doomcast. World of Warcraft will have many million subscribers for years to come, and many more expansions. But while the number of WoW subscribers will stagnate or even fall a bit, the total number of MMORPG players will steadily increase, thus shrinking the market share of WoW to something less intimidating. World of Warcraft is a very good game, but it isn't perfect, and there is no reason to think that nobody else could make a similarly good or even better game. World of Warcraft is not the end of history.