Thursday, June 11, 2009
WoW goes Free2Play
... probably around 2020. :) I got mail from two readers, one asking me how I thought the decline of WoW would look like, the other proposing the idea that WoW expansions are a case of diminishing returns. I quickly realized that those were actually the same subject: The decline curve of World of Warcraft is going to be determined by the diminishing return of its expansions, but could be modified by major upsets like the change in business model that DDO just announced.
The third expansion for World of Warcraft will probably be announced at Blizzcon in August. It will probably add 10 more levels to the game, one new "continent" with several new zones and dungeons, and one new hero class. Other than that there will just be some minor added features, like a new tradeskill or something, and nothing that really changes the gameplay of WoW. I mean, why would they? The only major change in gameplay a MMORPG ever did, Star Wars Galaxies' NGE, was a spectacular failure. You don't risk alienating 11 million players, you just provide them with more of the same old.
And of course that policy of expansions has diminishing returns. An expansion with content for level 80 to 90 does nothing to attract new players to the game. And while many of the veterans will probably resubscribe, there is always this feeling of deja vu, added to the realization that the expansion just made all of your previous achievements obsolete. And of course a typical WoW expansion only adds about 6 months worth of content to the game, but then needs to last you for 2 years.
Thus the decline curve of World of Warcraft will have spikes of resubscriptions every 2 years, which after 6 months or so fall back onto the underlying curve of gentle decline. Theoretically the mythical "WoW killer" game could be released and put a dent into that curve. But I consider that unlikely, because the most promising contenders for that are themselves far too similar to WoW, and end up suffering from the same diminishing returns as the WoW expansions. Why would you want to quit WoW for another game, if all that other game offers is the same kind of gameplay in a different environment?
At some point the decline curve gets naturally steeper. This is due to the server architecture of World of Warcraft. The game can still have millions of players, but so dispersed over hundreds of servers that any single server is having less than critical mass. Then you get into the messy business of server mergers, where people find that on that other server there is already some elf hunter named Legolass, and they quit in anger about having to change their name.
About that time Blizzard could think about changing to a Free2Play business model for WoW. Could. It depends on how successful other companies have been until then revigorating flagging games like DDO with the Free2Play business model. It is totally feasible to have a Free2Play World of Warcraft, where leveling to the level cap is free, but the Blizzard store sells everything from epic mounts to teleport tickets to entry tickets for dungeons. I don't think that Blizzard is planning that far ahead yet, but a Free2Play transformation can work wonders to restore critical mass, by attracting those who don't want to pay a $15 monthly fee.