WoW on the Wane?

I’m still in that state where I don’t have time or attention to spare on starting (or even resuming) a major game. But I figured I should put in a little more time on WoW as long as I’m paying for it, and logged in for a couple of quick sessions, doing low-level quests over in the Hinterlands. (I’m very close to getting the Achievement for that region.) But even as I come back to the game, it seems that a lot of people are leaving it. At least, that was the constant refrain on the chat channels.

Partly, it seems, it’s the competition: people torn away by Rift, which has been very specifically advertising itself as a WoW-killer for the last month or two. Partly it’s just that a whole lot of people reopened their accounts just to see the effects of the Cataclysm expansion, and now that they’ve seen it, they’re losing interest again. Or so it’s said. I honestly don’t have any direct evidence that people actually are leaving in droves. If I were to go to Orgrimmar, a place that I think of as the Times Square of Azeroth, and find it deserted, that would be something. But I haven’t been back there yet at all. Like I said, I’ve been in the Hinterlands. Not encountering anyone in the Hinterlands comes as no surprise.

Of course, even if most of the players are suddenly leaving, it doesn’t strongly affect my mostly-solo play experience. It might even be beneficial, by reducing the competition in auctions or something like that. But even so, the idea that the game is on the wane just as I’m getting into it is disheartening, like I’ve cast my lot in with a losing cause. Which is a completely irrational reaction for someone who used to play and enjoy A Tale in the Desert. I’m pretty sure that ATitD‘s user base on its most popular day ever was still multiple orders of magnitude below WoW‘s today. But that means that ATitD has always been the scrappy underdog, while WoW has to play the role of the empire in decline.

And when I say it “has to”, I mean that it’s inevitable. If not today, then someday, and soon enough that most current and former players will live to see it happen. This is the fundamental tragedy of MMOs: that they’re doomed to peter out. A single-player game can end in triumph, but a conventional 1Note that A Tale in the Desert doesn’t qualify as “conventional”, and tries to deal with the problem by periodically bringing its story to a conclusion and starting over. But since it does in fact start over, with mainly the same players, it’s not all that different for our purposes here. MMO can only end in lack of interest. Oh, sure, in theory Blizzard could decide to end it while it’s still on top, as various TV shows have managed to do, but while this might be right thing to do artistically, it’s unfeasible financially. They’re not going to kill their cash cow until it stops being milkable.

I spoke before about how WoW‘s popularity is self-supporting. And this isn’t just based on the perception of popularity; actual raw numbers of people give the game certain advantages, regardless of whether people are aware of them or not. But the perception of popularity is undeniably a factor. I mean, heck, my own perception of the game’s popularity, of its ubiquity in game culture, is what convinced me to start playing. So I start to wonder if this advantage might be double-edged. Will a perception of people leaving in droves induce people to actually leave in droves? I don’t know. Very likely not; the old-timers have probably heard it all before.

1 Note that A Tale in the Desert doesn’t qualify as “conventional”, and tries to deal with the problem by periodically bringing its story to a conclusion and starting over. But since it does in fact start over, with mainly the same players, it’s not all that different for our purposes here.

2 Comments so far

  1. Merus on 30 Mar 2011

    It’s hard to say.

    Part of the problem is that Cataclysm is a very different beast to the previous expansion. Wrath’s dungeons, at this point in the expansion’s life, were significantly undertuned. It caused significant problems throughout the expansion, as players were advancing too quickly, running out of stuff to do, and not being challenged when doing it. The last year saw one dungeon released, but the ‘current’ content was the home of Arthas, familiar from Warcraft III. Players had a very long time to visit the dungeon, slowly work their way through it, and maybe bring about his death. In any case, equipment was plentiful.

    Cataclysm reset that, and possibly went too far in the other direction. Dungeons are difficult again, and a few of the buffs they were tuned around weren’t working upon release. The tone is completely different, and players have had trouble adjusting; it doesn’t help that, as you’ve seen, the game just does not give any kind of training or tutorials for how the developers intend it to be played. Rift is lucky in that it swooped in just as players were caught in limbo, although it’s ultimately a very similar game.

    (I strongly suspect that the point of decline will be the release of Guild Wars 2. It feels like the first MMO that took the lessons from WoW and actually applied them, rather than merely copying its work.)

  2. malkav11 on 30 Mar 2011

    WoW has gone through cycles like this before. People come back for expansions, work through them, leave again when the experience stops compelling them. I’ve done it more than once (would have with every expansion, I expect, except that an extremely negative customer service experience drove me off the game for the entirety of the Burning Crusade expansion era and the early Wrath of the Lich King experience). I am in fact unsubscribed right now, in part due to the dungeon difficulty whiplash, but I’m not done with WoW for good and don’t expect it to actually go anywhere anytime soon.

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