Wednesday, February 06, 2008
Innovation smothered by piles of money
Once upon a time there was a game company that stumbled upon a surprise hit, a MMORPG earning them unprecedented piles of money. The game company was Electronic Arts, and they would never have thought that over 200,000 players would be willing to pay a monthly fee to play Ultima Online. It was a great cash cow. But after a while the managers from EA started to worry: Other companies were developing similar games, and they would have to either add content to UO to keep people playing, or make a new MMORPG to stay the market leader. So in 1999 they announced UO2. But then they started to have doubts. Could the devs guarantee that the new game would be as profitable as the original? No, they couldn't. Would the new game canibalize the old game and draw players away from it? Yes, most certainly to some extent. So in 2001 UO2 was cancelled, before it was released. Then somehow EA managed to repeat the same story with Ultima X: Odyssey, another planned MMORPG, cancelled in 2004. Instead of new games, EA decided to add content to the old game, releasing 8 expansions up to now. But again they didn't want to rock the boat too much, preferring to add more of the same to UO. Graphical updates, new classes, new races, new continents, new dungeons. Except for the Renaissance expansion, which created a PvP-free mirror image of the world, the UO expansions didn't change the UO gameplay in a major way. But all the added expansions couldn't stop Ultima Online from decline. Nowadays its market share can only be described as insignificant, although there are still about 100,000 players, and UO is still a cash cow after 10 years.
Once upon a time there was a game company that stumbled upon a surprise hit, a MMORPG earning them unprecedented piles of money. The game company was Blizzard, and they would never have thought that over 10,000,000 players would be willing to pay a monthly fee to play World of Warcraft. It was a great cash cow. But after a while the managers from Blizzard started to worry: Other companies were developing similar games, and they would have to either add content to WoW to keep people playing, or make a new MMORPG to stay the market leader. ... Well, you can imagine how that story could possibly end.
It is totally possible that Blizzard continues going down the path they mapped out with the Burning Crusade and the Wrath of the Lich King announcement: One expansion every 1 to 2 years raising the level cap by 10, adding a new class or race, having a new continent with new zones and dungeons, especially new raid dungeons, and changing not much in the way that World of Warcraft is played. Blizzard is working on a new MMO, but who knows whether that will go through or be cancelled to not canibalize WoW. On its 10th birthday World of Warcraft could find itself where Ultima Online is now: Subscription numbers having declined to half of the peak, but that would be 5 million players, and the game would still be extremely profitable. A cash cow.
Of course as a player I wish that Blizzard brings out a second MMO which is at least as good as WoW. And hundreds of blog posts on the subject are proof that I would like WoW expansions to change how the game is played: Primarily by making the raid dungeons accessible to the majority of players, in some sort of "easy mode", while preserving the old hardcore raid focus only in the form of "heroic mode" visits to exactly the same dungeons. No more exclusive content for a small elite. I also would like World of Warcraft to much expand their social interface, making it much easier to find groups, giving guilds more purpose in life than just raid progress, improve crafting and add player housing with a possibility to set up player-controlled shops, add guild housing as a place to hang out and hang up guild trophies, etc., etc.
But changing World of Warcraft has its risks. Nobody knows what the secret ingredient is that makes 10 million players play WoW, not even the devs. What if changing WoW destroys just this secret ingredient? Making a new MMO is also a huge risk. What if you invest $100 million and the game flops? What if it doesn't flop, but all the players in the new game are just players who left WoW to play the new one, so you suddenly have twice the cost and still the same total number of players? A billion dollars is a pretty scary number, especially if that is 85% of your revenues. It takes balls to dare to tinker with something that is so successful, or to try to replace it. Sometimes just repeating to do what worked before, and hoping that the inevitable decline won't be too steep, seems like the safest option.
But I am an optimist. There are 6.6 billion people out there who do *not* play a MMORPG yet. EA probably thought that 200,000 subscribers for UO was impossible to beat. Blizzard probably thinks that 10 million subscribers for WoW is impossible to beat. But the number of PCs worldwide is growing every year, the number of gamers is growing every year, and there is no reason to assume that 10 million is the upper limit. If Blizzard goes the safe way, doesn't bring out another MMO and continues their expansions as they are now, they might still have a cash cow on their hands in 2014. But their market share might be as insignificant as that of UO is now. Blizzard has over $500 million of pure profit per year, investing just 10% of that every year could not only keep WoW alive and growing, but also get them an even bigger smash hit in a couple of years. They could be growing the MMORPG market instead of canibalizing their existing game by making the new game less hardcore endgame focused. They could keep the WoW subscription numbers up or even growing by adding new gameplay modes to the game, instead of just 10 new levels and the next layer of raid content. There are risks, but there are also immense opportunities. Blizzard should go and grab them instead of playing it safe.