Thursday, April 16, 2009
Yet Another Patch
So patch 3.1 finally came out this week for World of Warcraft, and there was much excitement and rejoicing. Not from me. All I see is Yet Another Patch (YAP), of which the main feature, Ulduar, is something that should have been shipped with the Wrath of the Lich King expansion in November. For me that is pretty much the same as Mythic cutting 4 character classes from WAR at release, and then making huge publicity about the patches that put those classes back in.
Don't get me wrong, I am looking forward to playing Ulduar and the Argent Tournament. I just don't think the new content will be enough to last me, or even the average player, until the next content patch. Clearing Ulduar might take longer than clearing Naxxramas, just because Ulduar is harder, but that doesn't really increase the amount of new content delivered per patch. It's a crutch, you stretch the little content on offer by forcing people to repeat it more often before succeeding.
If I look back at The Burning Crusade, including all content patches, I still maintain what I said at the time, that this isn't enough to keep people occupied for two years. And if I look at Wrath of the Lich King, patch 3.1, and the previsions for future patches, I have the impression that this expansion cycle offers even less content. Unless a miracle occurs and Blizzard takes significantly less than 2 years to bring out the next expansion, there is simply no way to avoid large numbers of players becoming bored as early as this summer.
Not that I predict a mass exodus from WoW, as there is basically nowhere to go yet. But it seems as if Blizzard is operating on a schedule of expansion - YAP - YAP - YAP - expansion, with roughly 6 months in between each step, plus a couple of minor patches. They are feeding the players the minimum required for them to not completely abandon World of Warcraft. World of Warcraft is essentially their cash cow, maintained with minimum effort, and milked for maximum profit, which is used to finance the 5 projects rumored to be currently underway at Blizzard: Starcraft 2, Diablo 3, the third WoW expansion, the next-generation MMORPG, and a super-secret fifth game for which the only indication is some job postings on the Blizzard site.
That makes me wonder if Blizzard is operating on business model of built-in obsolescence for WoW. Which might not be such a bad idea, considering the alternative: EA twice announced and then abandoned sequels to Ultima Online, because of fears that the new game would cannibalize the original. By not developing WoW further to a degree which would be in line with its profits, Blizzard has more manpower and money available for their future games. By already operating WoW on a minimal life-support cycle, Blizzard can maintain that rhythm for WoW, even after their next MMORPG comes out. The disadvantage for the players is that there will be some boring periods between now and the release of that next MMO.
It is disappointing to hear Blizzard talking about the total development cost of World of Warcraft having been $200 million, and comparing that to their annual profit of $500 million. I don't buy the story that Blizzard couldn't possibly invest more into WoW, because that would dilute quality. There would certainly be diminishing returns, but other companies have clearly demonstrated that one can release quality expansions once per year or even faster, not just once every 2 years with a couple of YAPs thrown in to keep the player base from starving. If you compare the quantity of content in a typical Blizzard patch or expansion with that of a patch or expansion from other games, 30 times smaller, why is there barely a difference?