Tobold's Blog
Friday, September 28, 2007
Dethroning WoW

Yahoo wrote up a list of the next ten major MMORPGs to be released and declared them all contenders for dethroning World of Warcraft. Keen disassembles that list and finds that none of the games mentioned stand a chance against WoW. I agree with most of his observations, but then maybe we have a bad definition of what the throne is: Everybody thinks to dethrone WoW a new game would have to beat the 9 million subscribers number. And Keen is right in saying that this will take another couple of years to happen, none of the games mentioned will arrive at 10 million subscribers in 2008.

But then, they don't necessarily have to. Of WoW's 9 million subscribers, more than half aren't actually subscribed, at least not to a monthly fee business model. WoW has over 5 million Chinese subscribers paying with game time cards at an hourly rate of about 6 US cents per hour. And of that money, Blizzard only gets a part. Before The Burning Crusade Blizzard only got 22% of the money, the rest went to their Chinese partner The9 Ltd. But Blizzard was able to renegotiate that contract by holding TBC hostage, the expansion was only released this month in China. Still they probably don't get much more than 2 US cents per hours played. That adds up to good money with those millions of Chinese playing, but still significantly less than $15 per month per subscriber. In the more profitable regions of North America and Europe Blizzard keeps mum about the subscription numbers, and there is evidence that the subscription numbers there are in decline. A new game getting just 1 million subscribers, but all of them in North America and Europe would already put a visible dent in Blizzard's earnings, as we can assume that many of them would be ex-WoW players.

And that is just the financial throne. That is arguably the most important one, but not the only possible measure. Look for example at the hype surrounding WAR compared with WotLK. Many people are giving WAR a lot of advance trust and applause, while the general media and blog reaction to WotLK can be summarized as "meh". Wrath of the Lich King might well sell much better than WAR, and get a lot less media coverage at the same time. "Blizzard adds more of the same" doesn't make much of a headline. Once both WAR and WotLK are released, you can be pretty certain that it will be Warhammer Online that everybody talks about in the second half of 2008. I remember in 2004 some people claimed that WoW was all hype and no substance. But marketing has turned out to be very important for selling MMORPGs, and if there is one company that is able to beat Blizzard in marketing then it is EA Mythic.

The other games on the list, Age of Conan, Gods and Heroes, Pirates of the Burning Sea, Pirates of the Caribbean, Tabula Rasa, Huxley, and SUN are all what I'd consider second league. I'm not even trying to rank them in any way. They might all be successful if you consider getting 100k subscribers and not shutting down as success criteria. None of them will even come close to 1 million subscribers in North America and Europe (SUN and Huxley will probably get more than that in Asia though, with Tabula Rasa hoping to join them there). But whether for example Pirates of the Burning Sea will sell better or worse than Age of Conan or Gods and Heroes nobody can say. A lot depends on finding the sweet spot between releasing an unfinished game too early and getting steamrolled by the release of a much bigger game in 2008. So many things can go wrong at the release of a game which are hard to predict in advance. And then the not-quite-an-MMO Hellgate London isn't even on the list, although it is easy to see how that could be a direct competitor to a game like Tabula Rasa.

The one company that can, and probably will, dethrone World of Warcraft is Blizzard themselves. It has become increasingly obvious that they haven't found the recipe for eternal MMORPG youth. WoW is slowly fading from the spotlight, while continuing to create massive amounts of cash. It is up to Blizzard to decide whether they want to milk that cash cow until it drops dead, or whether (and when) they want to get their spot in the limelight back by announcing something new like WoW2 or World of Starcraft. If they wanted, and if they reinvested a good part of the money they are making, they could remain at the top of the heap for a decade.
Any serious attempt to dethrone WoW will pretty much succeed, if it's a serious try. Serious means a good game first, with a big IP and a blown up budget. Most of the games trying to scratch WoW doesn't even offer a fun gaming experience. This isn't rocket science, hire some WoW players as your content tester and do not pull a Tabula Rasa e.g. trying to sell MMO-light as something brand new and improved.

What limits the list of possible WoW killers is the lack of possible IPs, big enough to counter Warcraft. The recent Halo 3 launch shows signs of a very media viable IP. A quality Halo MMO would be huge.

The critical point will be the budget. Very few companies will risk a 100 million product to throw into a pretty much saturated market. That's why we see so many attempts to cut a slice of the pie, rather than trying to bake a whole new one. This is a business first and foremost. Even a Microsoft will not risk 100 million budgets, especially after the Vanguard experience, which they burned their fingers with. MS is rumored to lost 30-40 million right there. EA already had their Sims Online trauma and they play a very risky game with Spore right now, wich btw could/should be a WoW dethrone candidate, although it lacks a brand.

You need a strong brand and reputation to lure the core players in. You need a fun to play game, when those core players try to get their families and friends hooked. This is what blown up WoWs playerbase. It started with high EQ numbers and ended with 9 millions for now.
Oddly enough, your mention of 9 million subscribers in this article made me think back to your "Not enough social engineering" post. Ironically, by pulling together unprecedented numbers of players into an MMO from previously essentially untapped demographics such as women and people aged 50+, has built a "throne" that may defy traditional analysis.
And a MMO pulling in women and a 50+ demographic counts as "social engineering" in my book - for example, I would NEVER have thought that my wife would be in an MMO endgame with me in a guild with leadership including women and people over 50!

But think about it: MMOs typically target (generally speaking) a male aged 15-40 demographic. And that's probably still the target demographic of the MMO challengers, and probably also the demographic that writers of "dethroning WoW" articles are considering by default.

But a big chunk of the WoW base is atypical in regards to the pre-WoW MMO business model, and who knows how long women and retirees will stick to a game? And who knows what, if any, MMO would pull them from WoW?

I certainly don't claim to know - just thinking out loud here - but I have to point out that I seem to remember people predicting the decline of WoW since before TBC hit the shelves, and it hasn't happened. So I would postulate that a non-standard MMO demographic may be one reason that the predictions of the decline, or even doom, of WoW are so far off over 8 months post-TBC-release.
Warhammer Online is the only surefire hit and the rest of those titles are going to flop or barely tread water.

Star Trek Online has the brand recognition, but the developers have no previous success in the mmorpg genre.

Here's the game that I think will put some serious hurt on WoW:

Guild Wars 2

Now, on to Blizzard. It is increasingly obvious that WoW is being developed on the fly. Blizzard clearly has no long term plans for the game and that explains the mishmash of ideas and concepts; especially the new class and how it's being implemented.

It's astounding to me that Blizzard developed WoW without a long term plan for character advancement. Instead of a smooth transition from expansion to expansion, we get extra features that just seem tacked on.

Examples of problems:

1. restricted flight in new expansion
2. must replay content with hero class

These issues are symptoms of a rudderless mmorpg, with no clear vision to guide future development.
@ =##=

I don't suppose Blizzard ever expected this game to take off the way it did, and neither did they suspect it would be so popular years down the line.
Ineveitably things have had to be tacked on, because Azeroth as it was initially designed, is old and out of date.
WotLK may be a thrown together mishmash of lore and gameplay, but as long as it is enjoyable to play, people are going to buy it.

Look at Zelda, Pokemon, and Sonic the Hedghog. On release days you can guarantee people are going to buy games associated with those names, whether the games are quality or not. The Brand has reputation.

Guild Wars 2 will put the hurt on WOW? I doubt Blizzard are losing any sleep over it.
People have already decided whether they like Guild Wars or not; sticking a 2 on the end is like saying it's the same game as Guild Wars, only with new content. That won't get huge numbers of people rushing into the shops to buy it.

I am not too sure about the Guild Wars analogy. I played GW, and loved it...but there was not any longevity to the, I knew that once I finished the story...really what else do I need to do here...move on..PvP cool to play once in a while...but not rewarding for me.
But, I also played WoW, and it kept my interest just as long as GW...but it overstayed it's welcome...but, it had longevity...I could go back and do more all the time if I wished..and still progress
If GW2 could do the right formula of longevity like WoW, but with the playability of GW (better quest lines without the need for the kill 10 of this quests)...missions structures with stories built into the living world...I think it would have potential..
I DO agree that the name will need to be something unique though...
It a shame because almost everyone I know who started WOW, believed that the concept of a constantly changing world meant that everything would change. I took that to mean they'd revisit old content. Add stuff to the old areas. I really believe if they'd do that that WOW could last another 5 years. I come back for that kind of game. Give me a reason to go roam around and see what changed.
I want to ride into westfall at 70 and see that the marshall there has a quest that requires real heroes.

I want to be summoned by the king of IF and be sent to BRD to deal with more baddies or negotiate with Princess Moira.

With all the money they make even knowing that chinese subscribers generate about 15% of the income US, EU an aussie subscribers do I don't understand why they don't have a team that does nothing but revisit old content. It would it so much more appealing to new characters if they saw the old timers running around. Oh well that's my armchair dev'ing for the day.
I'm with sam on this one - I'm really surprised they haven't done a better job of revisiting old content, rather than just adding new continents. But it goes back to that question of milking it versus keeping it fresh. So long as they can rake in the dough without needing to pay a team to revisit old content, they will.

On some level, it fits in with the static nature of the world. I always expected when developers were given the opportunity to revise content after the sale they would add an overarching story, like SWG did, and I think a couple of the newer games are.
I'm not jumping on the "Tobold is a WoW hater bandwagon" but it does strike me as odd that we're seeing yet another post implying that subscribers are dropping without any actual back up. The last time I remember Tobold posting something very similar was after the 6 million player announcement but before the 8 million player announcement and it seems like that turning out to be such an incorrect assumption would have given you pause.

I'm playing WoW still because the other MMO options so far suck. I wouldn't consider myself a fanboy but I have no extra Blizzard hate either. It just seems like we may want to wait for subscription numbers to finally start their inevitable decline before we rush to assume anything.
I don't know if any of the upcoming MMOs will be able to dethrone WoW, but I do know that I would be first in line to play World Of Starcraft! Not a WoW fan, personally I play EQ2. But Starcraft was such an aweseome game back when I was a teenager, I would love to see that transferred to MMO form. Alas, they're working on Starcraft 2, so the event of a MMO of the same name happening is slim, at least at the current timeframe.
I completely fail at figuring out how to trackback so at the risk of being slapped about the head from self-pimpage: my comment here was way friggin too long, so I just made my own post about it.
Let me put it another way - if I was a betting man, I'd lay better odds on GW2 than anything else in development, except Warhammer Online.
We'll see. Mind you, I'm a huge fan of GW, but I don't view it as an MMO so maybe that's what helps me enjoy my time there. One thing's for certain though: the guys at ArenaNet are damn creative and come up with downright gorgeous artwork, especially given the low system requirements.

They claim GW2 will be a full-on MMORPG however, but keeping with their "buy expansions every X months" business model with no monthly fee. I'm all for that, and I'll certainly pick the game up. But with the no monthly fee model, does that mean the atrociously horrid GW1 community will migrate there as well? WoW is bad enough, I don't think I could take the GW "community" in a real MMO. And yes, I think that aspect alone would turn many people away.
Yahoo!'s list is also, very dated. The video clips they show for some of these games are over 3 years old.
Having participated (or still being) in the betas of most of the new games you are quoting, at least for the most serious contendants, I can tell you there's zero chance WoW is ever going to be dethroned by those.

I'm not jumping on the "Tobold is a WoW hater bandwagon"
Well Tobold jumped into the "WoW is a game for sms-speaking casual-hater 12 years olds named Kevin" so it's all right for you to jump in :) .
I saw the leaked beta footage for STar Trek online and am not impressed.

I'm sticking with eve. Eve is like the 2nd most popular MMO and if you count as many ppl on one server eve wins.

Eve just released Dominon and broke 55000 subscribers logged in at teh same time with an average of 25000 to 36000 at any given time.

Star Trek online will probably not even get eve's number it will depend on Free Trials which isn't going to happen yet. Plenty of people rely on reviews and I want to see some reviews before I get into STO.
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