WoW Factor: Forecasting the future of WoW Classic

    
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AHHHH

It’s probably chiefly due to my professional life that I find myself kind of looking forward to the launch of World of Warcraft: Classic next week, simply because that’s at last the point when we can start replacing all of the wild predictions about what could happen next with an actual tangible reality. Don’t get me wrong: Obviously I love speculating as much as the next person, but especially with WoW Classic it feels a bit like predicting what the natural history museum will determine was significant in a thousand years, at once forward-looking and backward-looking without a whole lot of actual substance to hang any of that upon.

But amidst all of the speculation train fun, I haven’t actually done any looking forward to the future now that the live interactive history tour is actually going to be playable. I’ve speculated about what might happen with the version in the future, and I’ve talked about how it interfaces with our memories of the past, but I haven’t actually guessed about its success, failure, or what’s going to happen with this project. So let’s do that! I might be totally wrong, but then we can all point and laugh at that, and it can’t be said I’m not putting my money where my mouth is.

bork

Let’s start with what I’d like to consider a pretty basic caveat: Absolutely no one has any real idea how well this is going to do.

All of the actual information we have to draw upon in terms of this project’s success or failure is based entirely around pre-release preparation, and that’s about as effective at predicting performance as a town’s hurricane preparedness is at predicting the strength of the storm. No, adding new servers and queues when this is the title’s only real release in nearly two months isn’t really indicative of anything beyond preparations for the actual launch. Just think about how many totally new titles rolled out extra servers ahead of time and then merged them right back down after launch.

This sword cuts both ways. Blizzard not having expected the volume of response does not speak to its plans or predictions, and the fact that this stuff doesn’t predict success also doesn’t mean it predicts failure. You cannot actually know how Classic is going to do over the next year without taking a look at data, thinking a bunch, analyzing trends, and then… making a big guess that’ll either be right or wrong in a year’s time.

As the internet remains… well, itself, the discussion about this particular project has become irritatingly binary. Either WoW Classic will bring food and water and smite our enemies, or it’s a horrible idea and it’s going to be shut down in the evening on Tuesday and everyone’s going to realize it was so terrible. Neither of these extremes bears much, if any, resemblance to a plausible reality.

So with all that preamble out of the way, what awaits for the game? Will it be a success? And the answer to that question means that first we have to answer a different question: What, exactly, does success look like?

That’s a serious question. At this point in my life I really no longer have the slightest idea what it looks like to be successful. But it’s also sort of relevant because Blizzard has helpfully obscured success on this particular project thoroughly.

Welcome to the death of reason.

The fact that the subscriptions for both Classic and the retail game are rolled into the same fee is, on one level, a good business move to encourage people to try out either. But it’s also a good business move because while Blizzard will no doubt be tracking account information, the company isn’t under any obligation to disclose it. If Classic doubles the game’s subscription numbers, it can be just counted as a win for retail with no further thought given to which version of the game actually attracted that audience.

Similarly, if it results in a subscriber bump that quickly evaporates, it doesn’t actually have to be made terribly visible from the development end. It’s kind of a brilliant trick from that perspective, since it just looks like “we made more money” no matter what effect it actually has over the long term. And since no concrete plans for the future have been formally announced, there’s not even any need to cancel things if subscribers dry up.

Let’s start with the basics. Yes, on launch day, servers are going to have some queues, especially the PvP realms that people are very eager to jump in on right now for a variety of reasons. The PvE realms (and especially the RP realms) are probably going to have lighter queues, if any; the turnout’s not going to match the days of the game’s initial launch regardless, but you’re going to notice it. And these are probably going to be consistently present for the first month or so of the Classic launch.

This is probably not going to last. The hype is going to die down, as it always does, and the PvP servers are going to run into issues with any sort of lopsided faction balance, as whichever ones wind up with any sort of imbalance will see that issue become more pronounced, and then there’s going to be a general exodus of players away from PvP servers simply because that’s kind of the way it always goes.

Note I didn’t say there’s going to be a mass exodus from the game itself. There’s not going to be one wave or one moment when a whole lot of people leave; it’s going to be a steady and slow trickle of people who get frustrated with queues or inconveniences they don’t remember or ones they do remember but didn’t think would really be that big a deal until actually playing the game. People will trickle out. That’s just how MMOs work – even WoW.

The three-month mark is when that’s going to start being more pronounced. By that point, most of the people who have any interest in reaching the level cap will have done so, and it’s also when a critical mass of players are going to all generally be faced with the endgame. Again, it’s going to mean a lot of players who thought they were totally on board with this are instead getting worn down and tapping out.

Superhero landing!

You’ll note that I haven’t said much about people trickling in to Classic, and that’s not by accident. I don’t think there’s going to be a real influx of people past the initial launch. Lapsed subscribers? Yes, definitely. Current subscribers who never played vanilla? Certainly. Current subscribers just checking it out while it’s the thing dominating the cultural zeitgeist? Without a doubt. But people who hadn’t played the game before and don’t play it now are largely unlikely to come flocking in. Vanilla’s cultural footprint is limited chiefly to the people already in the group, so to speak.

By this point, we’ll probably know about the next expansion to the modern version of the game and what (if any) lessons are being taken from Classic. And we’ll also probably be seeing cries for some of the servers to be merged, we’ll know whether an actual RP community has taken root (I have my doubts, but I’ll never say never), and I suspect we’ll have a general community in the version of the game that’s not precisely welcoming to newcomers. (This isn’t to say that the community on Classic will be actively hostile to new players, just that it’s not welcoming – New England-style disinterest, not New York-style exclusion. The sort of self-selected in group that doesn’t really grow much beyond old faces returning.)

In a year’s time? Well, it’s still going to be there. I don’t think the community will have grown all that much. I suspect there will be vague rumbles about the possibilities of servers for The Burning Crusade that get shouted down by the community that does stay. My forecast is that it’ll be, ultimately, kind of a weird museum piece frozen in amber, without a whole lot of forward motion, and definitely without the marvelous possibility of an entirely alternate development path. A curiosity, a point of interest, but nothing to break down the doors.

Could I be wrong? Certainly; I’ve even talked about what I’d love to see done with the potential moving forward. But again, we’re making guesses at this point. We’ll find out if I’m right in a while.

War never changes, but World of Warcraft does, with a decade of history and a huge footprint in the MMORPG industry. Join Eliot Lefebvre each week for a new installment of WoW Factor as he examines the enormous MMO, how it interacts with the larger world of online gaming, and what’s new in the worlds of Azeroth and Draenor.
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