Tobold's Blog
Monday, May 04, 2015
What if there were several World of Warcrafts?

A decade later, with many people having long grown bored with World of Warcraft, and many MMORPGs having been released since, it is hard to remember the impact WoW had when it was released. By being far more polished and far more accessible than its competitors at the time, World of Warcraft singlehandedly changed the landscape of MMORPGs forever. A few months before WoW a financial analyst calculated that the overall market size for MMORPGs in Europe was 280,000. Then WoW came and sold 380,000 copies on the first weekend. Everquest II came out a month before WoW and people at the time considered that as a scoop that might "win" the war for SOE, but once World of Warcraft was released it just left EQ2 in the dust. As much as some people would like to deny it today, at the time World of Warcraft was far above its competitors in quality as well as accessibility, and we still feel the impact of that revolution today.

But what if World of Warcraft had been released onto a market where the already existing competitors were not so much different in quality? Sounds like a stupid hypothetical question, but I feel that something like that is happening now: Blizzard is soon to release Heroes of the Storm on June 2. It is a nice, accessible, polished game like pretty much all Blizzard games are. But it isn't much better or much more accessible than the competition. Yes, there is a training mode against the AI to test out new heroes, and some rules changes are designed to limit asshattery between teammates during a game. But it competes with a League of Legends with 27 million daily players, not an Everquest with 400,000 subscribers.

I am pretty sure that Heroes of the Storm will get millions of players, and that some people for different reasons will prefer the Blizzard version over the Riot version. But I don't see Heroes of the Storm being a "LoL killer". It will be somewhere in the list of the top 5 MOBA games, but not necessarily number 1. Blizzard is really late to this market (which is somewhat ironical, seeing how they could be said to be involved in starting the genre), and the existing games are already highly polished and accessible for a multi-million player mass market. The WoW/Hearthstone effect of "I'm taking a niche genre and make it accessible for the mass market" just isn't going to happen here. And thus I doubt that Blizzard will have such a huge impact on the future of this genre than it had on MMORPGs.

I think Blizzard is trying to explore new gaming markets/areas/niches. They've been well known for Diablo, Starctaft and WoW. Now they want to try something different.

They have the money to take a risk. HotS wont be a LoL killer, I agree, but even with a fraction of the players could become an alternative way to milk even more the Blizzard players (via hats/cosmetics).

LoL isn't for casuals, from what I've read. Also, it has a lot of toxic players. Something you will never find in Heartstone, for example. Let's see what happens with HotS.
I think you undermined the basis of your own argument with your closing remarks there. Millions of words have been written about why WoW grew the MMO market in a way no game before (or since) was able to do and clearly no-one has yet come up with the exact definition. The one undeniable fact, however, is that , as you say, Blizzard was able to take a niche genre and "make it accessible for the mass market".

That is a fantastic ability for any commercial organization but it has little or nothing to do with "quality", or, at least, aesthetic quality. I know from long reading of your blog that you do equate success with quality but you must surely be aware that that's a particular, political perspective, one that's not universally shared but that's widely denied.

Cultural significance can and does come from major commercial success: it's not nothing to be "50 Shades of Grey" or Justin Bieber. It's not necessarily, however, proof of anything beyond than the ability to tap into an aspect of the zeitgeist that's currently going unserved. I've played WoW. It's good. It's a sold, well-made MMO. It's also, most importantly, the first and arguably the only such that's been able to find resonance with something that could be called a "mass market".

We shouldn't let WoW's millions of concurrent players, which may be many more tens of millions consecutively, lead us to overestimate the supposed "mass market" penetration it has had. There are almost 3 billion internet users. Insofar as WoW is a "mass market" phenomenon it's because of how it's been referenced by the genuine "mass market", where it has almost always been used a touchstone for the niche interests of a niche subgroup. WoW is the biggest operator in its niche, yes, but MMOs are still a niche for all that.

We're still waiting for the breakout to a real mass market.
One thing I've learned over the past 6 years is to never discount Blizzard.

To that end, I suspect that they're hoping for publicity off of the Heroes of the Dorm tourney that they ran on ESPN. Blizzard is getting in on the broadcast television (as opposed to streaming) area right at launch, as opposed to waiting a few years. I'm sure that's not an accident.

Your definition of "mass market" basically excludes everything ever.

The best selling music albums of all time sold 40-50 million copies, not even 1% of the world population. The highest grossing movies are in the $1-3 billion range, but depend on ticket prices they were still seen by well under 10% of the world population. The most watched TV show ever was the MASH finale, at 106 million viewers, roughly 2.5% of the world population at the time.

I'm not sure about calling a game still "niche" when it has pulled in more than 3 times the total revenue of the top movie ever. There is a very good argument to be made that it is in fact one of the most "mass market" things in the history of media.
I think people tend to forget the "market" part of "mass market". Gangnam Style was viewed 2.3 billion times for free on YouTube, but worldwide *sales* are only about 10 million. League of Legends has more players than World of Warcraft, but less revenue.

Because "free" is such an easy sale and sales depend on price so much, I think the revenue is a better indicator of how much people appreciate something than simple "number of players". Otherwise we would only be talking about Candy Crush Saga.
IDK - Riot is huge and well run with a massive customer base. OTOH, don't discount ATVI.

I think the killer "adjective" also misdirects. It was not a zero sum game. Arithmetically, EQ players could not have been that big a part of Wow growing to 1000% of its size.

Riot also pulled in $964 million in the first 9 months of last year, so it isn't like their status isn't also reflected in revenue.
Having played the game, it's not going to go anywhere. Due to the limited nature of how the Champions work, the game is even more heavily reliant on team comps than lol is.

Blizzard of today is not the blizzard of yesterday, there's a reason sc2 and d3 didn't take off like their other titles did.
@ Pancakes

I don't know about SC2 but it seems to me that D3 was a very succesful successor of D2.
I suppose if you count sales it was. In terms of popularity? No, the game was panned pretty much by everyone, and while they've fixed it up a lot since then, it still has obnoxious design choices that they won't let go of.
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