For those who truly hate World of Warcraft and cannot stand to grant it even one accomplishment, the real reason for the success of WoW is encapsulated in the idea of the perfect storm.
The circumstances were simply right at that moment of time and big, dumb old Blizzard fell into their position of market leader due to circumstances beyond their control. The changes, the flailing about, and the constant “dumbing down” of WoW only fuels the flames of the fire that keeps this theory on the boil in certain quarters.
And you will notice that “perfect storm” has a bad connotation in almost every usage, so no doubt refers to how Blizz destroyed the MMO market, one more slam against the current front runner.
I do not agree with this theory. People espousing it tend to ignore the fact that Blizzard had a series of best selling games before WoW, so had a good reputation, and that the Warcraft franchise was popular. A lot of factors went into the success of WoW, a topic that has been bounced around ad naseum.
But while the whole “perfect storm” thing cannot stand by itself, things were certainly working in Blizzard’s direction.
EverQuest, WoW’s spiritual ancestor and former market leader, had trained a lot of people on what a 3D fantasy MMO was. There were a lot of EQ players and probably even more former EQ players by 2004 out in the market looking for something new.
Games requiring 3D accelerated video cards were common, and such cards were readily available and not too expensive, so the base of machines capable of playing WoW was much bigger at launch than it was for EQ back in 1999.
EQ itself had reached the stage of shoving unfinished expansions out the door every six months, while SOE was creating its own successor to EQ, EverQuest II, which wouldn’t figure out what it was about, in my opinion, until the two years later with the Echoes of Faydwer expansion.
So the market was ready, in a way, for Blizzard to come along with World of Warcraft. And even with its own troubled launch, it still looked like a better deal than its competitors on the market.
Yes, that is a grossly simplified look at WoW’s competition. There were other games out there like Dark Age of Camelot. But things did seem, in general, to work to Blizzard’s advantage in late 2004.
And it is news this week that made me start thinking about what the market will look like for Star Wars: The Old Republic, and how things will work out when it launches late this year. (Or so they say.)
Certainly there are some immediate parallels with WoW in 2004, so much so that it is tempting to start forecasting the weather in search of another such storm.
What might we predict if we took today and projected it out to the SWTOR launch?
The Blizzard Conditions
Like Blizzard, BioWare is well regarded, has a strong following, and a track record of best selling, high quality games.
And while Warcraft is a popular IP, very few IPs beat Star Wars. And this is not a new IP with which BioWare is working. Their success with Knights of the Old Republic gives them credibility with the public that they can deliver a good Star Wars game as well as the leverage (or so I have heard) to tell LucasArts to “screw off” if they start telling BioWare what to do.
The market too seems to be aligning itself in favor of BioWare.
World of Warcraft – It’s Draining Subs
World of Warcraft is in the position EverQuest was in 2004, the undisputed market leader. And like EQ, it is slipping into decline. While it does not suffer from quality problems in expansions, it is still managing to alienate sections of its core player base. Even my mom says Cataclysm is nice looking, but “meh” otherwise. And by destroying the old game to redo levels 1-60, they cut the nostalgia cord with their loyal fans. Blizzard has the summer to come up with something new or they look to be in the long cycle of decline. WoW will still be huge and profitable and highly polished for years to come, but things appear to be on the down slope now.
Star Wars Galaxies – That’s No Contract Renewal!
Then there was last week’s announcement of the closure of Star Wars Galaxies. Of course, LucasArts is declining to renew its contract with SOE in order to support SWTOR. The announcement said as much. And while it is silly to assume that SWTOR will somehow automatically get all of SWG’s subscribers, it will be the only Star Wars MMO in town, so no doubt some of that population will come in for a look. And those that come to look may stay because, unlike the mass of EQ players that went to EQ2, said “no,” and ran back to EQ, there will no “home” to which to return.
EVE Online – Unrest… but when isn’t that the case?
EVE Online is in chaos for the moment. But when does it ever go for six months at a stretch without something driving the player base to howl? And it is unclear to me if the echo-chamber of the threadnaughts represents anything more than the most vocal segments of the minority of EVE players than play the 0.0 segment of the game. Still, EVE is a very interconnected game, so your empire space based mining corp would feel the pinch if null sec players stopped needing resources. And EVE is a home for those who want a space MMO, and while SWTOR won’t be anything like EVE, you can be sure there will be some cross-over… and all the more so if CCP keeps stoking the fire or ire in the player base.
Rift – So Happy Today
Rift, the darling of late winter which bloomed so rapidly in the spring seems to be enjoying a stable summer. The biggest selling point for a lot of people seemed to be that is was “not WoW.” But it has started moving closer to WoW in difficulty and mechanics. Will this flower be a perennial or merely an annual, shedding a chunk of its player base for the next “not WoW” thing? Are the new trial servers an innovation or just a clever way to do a server shut down without doing a server shut down? Will Rift be able to claim a sizable loyal core, or will its player base be tempted by something that may be even more “not WoW?”
Guild Wars 2 – When it Ships
Guild Wars 2, a serious contender for attention in this market now sounds like it won’t ship until 2012. If SWTOR makes its own plan and launches this year, having GW2 out of the way will be an advantage.
Other Titles – Any High Pressure Systems?
What else will be coming out this year? Diablo III and the next installment for StarCraft II represent all that Blizzard will have to offer. They will steal some attention, but are really for something of a different audience. There will be other games, many of them free to play, as well as expansions.
So What Is The Forecast?
Having taken a semester of meteorology in college, I know a wee bit about forecasting the weather. And one of the truths of it is that a forecast gets more accurate the closer you get to the particular time for which you are attempting to forecast. And accuracy only hits 100% when you are telling people what is happening right now for your current location. The further away you get in time and space, the bigger the margin of error.
We are months away from a SWOTR launch and many things can change.
BioWare might need to slip the release into 2012. Or, worse, they might really need to slip in to 2012 but get forced by EA to go out the door unready for prime time.
Blizz might figure out what it needs to do to get WoW out of its slow decline and restore growth.
EVE might stave off a player revolt (actually, it surely will, as such unrest is part and parcel of the game in my opinion) and introduce walking on stations in time to make space interesting enough to attract those who might not be sold on SWTOR. (Though that level of change would no doubt instigate another player revolt in the threadnaut echo chamber.) Or EVE players might just stalk off to Perpetuum and be invested there when SWTOR rolls out.
Guild Wars 2 might launch this year.
Some other game, some sort of indie MMO with Minecraft-like powers of appeal, might show up and change the whole scene.
Heck, if we want to get wild in our speculation, SWG, riding a resurgence of interest based on nostalgia and its imminent demise, might start delivering enough dollars to LucasArts to make it think twice about shutting it down. But I would rank that on the scale of “maybe the horse will learn to sing” as far as likelihood goes.
There is a lot that could happen between now at the launch of SWTOR.
And sometimes the weather throws you a curve ball.
That is this week’s forecast for Silicon Valley. Rain is very uncommon in the summer here, but it happens. And two hours ago that forecast had the picture for thunderstorms. Even more rare those.
So, like the weatherman sitting here in late June and saying it is likely to rain in the fall, it is pretty hard to dispute the idea that a BioWare produced, Star Wars themed MMO with EA’s marketing muscle behind it is going to sell less than a million boxes in a short span of time. Beyond that, you have to guess at what conditions will exist at the time of its release.
What do you think will influence the forecast for the launch of Star Wars: The Old Republic?