When it comes to World of Warcraft, I can divide my friends and acquaintances into two groups:
- Those interested in playing WoW
- Those not interested in playing WoW
The former group is mostly made up of those who currently play the game, those on a break but who know they will come back for the next expansion, and those who once played and still have some interest in the game and who might come back some day. The union between that group and the group made up of those who have played WoW would make for a Venn diagram that would almost completely overlap. Being a member of that first group almost requires that you have already played WoW at some point.
The second group is more diverse. It includes people who played WoW and didn’t like it, or who felt betrayed by some change along the line, as well as those who don’t like the MMO genre, or didn’t like some other game in the MMO genre and are thus soured on it forever (EverQuest being the primary source of those people), or people for whom video games are pretty much a game console only thing, or, of course, people who just don’t play video games. Lots of those out there.
Basically, nearly ten years into the life of World of Warcraft, most anybody I know who is going to play WoW already has. The pool of people who haven’t played WoW, but might at some point, has basically dried up.
Or so I thought.
The other day a friend mentioned that he and his wife had started playing WoW. They downloaded the very limited Starter Edition, of which I wrote recently, rolled up trolls, and started in on Azeroth. He reads the blog occasionally, so I’ll have to ask if that post planted a seed.
In hindsight, I suppose them picking the game up wasn’t a huge leap. They play Diablo III and StarCraft 2, so have Battle.net accounts already and probably the Blizzard Launcher installed as well. It is just a short step from there to having WoW installed.
And they are both MMO players. He played EverQuest at launch with a big group of us from work way back in the day, though since then he and his wife have trended more towards free to play titles like Runes of Magic and Rappelz. Their free time can be “bursty,” with stretches of not being able to log on being common, which tends to make a subscription game something of a drag. You hate to pay if you aren’t going to play.
But the fact that they picked up WoW… so technically there are TWO new players in Azeroth… got me thinking again on the whole MMO lifecycle again.
At the start an MMO is nothing but new players, and new players drive the game and are its life’s blood. You basically fizzle on the launch pad if that is not so.
Then at some point there is a transition, a time when the audience for a game is primarily people who have played the game. New players are still important, but maintaining a loyal installed base becomes a primary mission. EverQuest has been in that zone for about a decade. WoW, while still seeking new players, is clearly past the tipping point and catering to the installed base, and keeping them subscribed is the primary business model. It is certainly no coincidence that housing (of a sort, in the form of Garrisons) is coming now, as Blizzard probably hadn’t felt the need to play that card until Cataclysm. Given their speed of development, it wasn’t going to happen for Mists of Pandaria, so Warlords of Draenor becomes the expansion where Blizzard finally responds to the realization that their business model needs people to settle down and live in Azeroth. The game needs to be a bit stickier. Dailies and faction and things like Timeless Isle aren’t quite enough if the content gaps are going to keep getting longer.
Of course, stickiness and people living settling down to live in a world is great for the game of choice, but is another problem with the genre. I won’t play the fool and say that the potential market for MMOs is only n players big, as some have in the past. The potential MMO audience is big and probably getting bigger. But we also, as a group, tend to stick with our MMOs over time. I remain interested in the next new game, but when it comes down to playing, I spend my time in WoW, which is about to turn 10 years old, and EVE Online, which is now past 11, as do a lot of people. (And I pine for EverQuest now and again, though so much time has elapsed that I probably will never really go back. Maybe there is an expiration date on MMOs if you’re away too long.)
As a group, we don’t jump to the next game so much. That Ultima Online, EverQuest, and Dark Age of Camelot remain viable, money-making enterprises in this day and age speaks to that as much as those of us who try the next new thing, only to return to the game we feel is home. It isn’t that the genre doesn’t have a big enough audience, but that MMOs are like sponges. They soak up players and hold onto them. Even after all these years sitting in a corner, EverQuest is still moist, just to push the sponge metaphor a step too far.
Anyway, I was happy to hear about friends starting off playing WoW. I was careful not to smother them with a burst of welcoming gifts. When somebody is discovering a new world, it is often better to let them explore on their own rather than jumping out from behind a bush and shouting, “Come to this server! Join our guild! Have some free stuff from the guild bank! You should really go here and do this and kill that mob and get that drop and run this dungeon and blah blah blah…” I’ve killed games for people doing that, and have had the same done to me.
So we shall see if a new seed grows in the game.
What do you think? Do you know anybody who hasn’t played WoW who might still be interested in playing it nearly a decade into its life?
Addendum: Semi-related, something Noizy Gamer tweeted about WoW new player retention rates… from 2010. 70% of of players were not making it past level 10. But then 70% of new players in F2P games seem to leave right away.