Eleven million people are registered to play World of Warcraft globally. Its gameplay is solid. Its community is enormous. Its customer service is unmatched. And it was the key driver in the biggest merger the games industry has ever seen. It’s the inarguable king of MMORPGs, particularly in the West, and rules the ubiquitous PC platform.
So why are people constantly looking for the first opportunity to ditch this game?
No, this is not a "WoW is doomed" editorial and we’re not asking whether or not WoW can be toppled. But poring over user comments on blogs and message boards, there is a common theme that can be summed up in the common forum topic, "[Insert new MMO] vs. WoW."
Or, as it has been most recently, “Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning vs. WoW.”
Months, or sometimes years before a new MMO like WAR even hits the shelves, WoW players log in to message boards to discuss amongst themselves, "Will you be leaving WoW for XXX MMO?" Such discussions go beyond MMO wars rooted in brand loyalty. These subjects come around because MMO gamers, particularly WoW devotees, feel this instinctive pull to move onto something new, an instinct that’s compounded by boredom with the same scenery. When they participate in these forum discussions, they want to know if there’s a reason to move on, and to find out of others will skip along with them.
But WoW has successfully fought the instinct to move on since 2004—with unmarked graves full of would-be competitors left in its path of destruction as evidence—by offering updates and expansions that draw gamers back into the Blizzard fold. Or sometimes, all it takes is a few weeks away from Azeroth to recharge the Warcraft batteries.
Aside from “instinct,” people also want to leave the game because they do get bored of WoW. People are bored of WoW. But they keep playing, despite there being perfectly fine alternatives out there. It’s like the married person who gets the seven-year-itch, contemplating extra-marital shenanigans—but in the end, she just doesn’t have the heart to jump into bed with someone else.
Reading through message board posts reminds us of the desperate housewives.
Giddeon, a level 70 player from the official WoW forums admitted that, like many, he’s bored of WoW and often keeps an eye out for the next big MMO–but can’t quite quit Blizzard: "…No one ever seems to really quit [WoW] completely or for good. It’s so hard for some reason to let go of your character you made and all the friends you met along the way.
"There are a few people from the land of the internetz [sic] that I will keep in contact with beyond this game, but even so I find it fascinating how you can spend so much time immersed in an online game and actually make pretty strong friendships in that virtual world."
Others try (in futility) to convince themselves it’s time to move on. Says user "Steakform" regarding WAR: "Four years of WoW and I’m kinda bored with it. Can’t wait for a little change of pace."
"Kinda" bored? Wanting "a little" change of pace … after four years of WoW loyalty? This guy’s not leaving WoW. He kids no one.
Despite a desire to leave, on a large scale, no one developer has been capable of capitalizing on gamers’ purported “boredom” with the game or their instinct to leave WoW. Steakform might as well have "Warcraft" branded into his forehead. Yes, there is Lord of the Rings Online, Guild Wars, Eve Online and the like, but nothing has caused WoW players to leave in droves and stay away for an extended amount of time.
Blizzard president Mike Morhaime recently gave a small bit of insight into the impact that a strong MMO competitor could have on WoW.
He said in July, "Age of Conan released with some initial success a couple of months ago, and we did see some of our players leave to try the game. However, we’ve seen about 40 percent of those players return to World of Warcraft."
Again, the desire to move on was there (it’s unclear to what extent), but Age of Conan didn’t have sufficient meat to keep its players. Months later, ex-Age players are again playing WoW, the co-founder of Age developer Funcom resigned, and game’s servers were merged. The MMO is still alive, but its greatest achievement may be that it provided hard evidence that people are willing to leave WoW in numbers significant enough for Blizzard to at least take a passing notice.
Mythic Entertainment’s WAR has the pedigree to be a huge success, but EA CEO John Riccitiello came right out and said he doesn’t expect it to rival WoW in terms of subscribers (what kind of maniac would predict that?). Even Mythic said the game would take on the role of Led Zeppelin to WoW’s Beatles–both are great, but one definitely has more popularity.
Despite these concessions from WAR’s makers and despite the fact that WoW bats away competitors like annoying mosquitoes, in the backs of our minds we’re all wondering just how far Mythic can take its new game. Just judging from anecdotal evidence on message boards, there’s certainly a meaningful chunk of WoW players that are getting their feet wet in WAR. A lot of them seem to like the change, and are willing to stick with it as Mythic provides updates and fixes. But only Blizzard can say exactly how many WoW gamers have left to check out Mythic’s title since it launched (and they certainly won’t make those numbers public).
There’s something else. Inside its formidable battle chest, Blizzard has Wrath of the Lich King. Even if people have left WoW to check out WAR, the latter might only be serving as a stopgap before the next major WoW expansion launches. To many gamers, WAR has only until November 13 to prove that it’s got what it takes before the frigid overlord arrives (unless they quit their day jobs to take on two MMOs).
Is developing a new MMO a fool’s errand? No, that’s not the point at all. Any dev knows that you don’t need 11 million paying players to be successful (actually, there are some like Jagex that have shown that you don’t even need to require all players to pay to be successful). But what Blizzard has done with its success is turn the MMO market into a spectator sport for industry watchers, pundits and gamers. Can the young up-and-comer catch the champ off guard, or will the contender’s first jab only wake a sleeping giant? It’s fun to see what will happen, much like the console wars.
And we’re pretty sure that Blizzard sleeps with its eyes open, if at all.