So as much praise as I had for the WoW Classic side of the World of Warcraft equation last week, there’s something that was interesting as part of the presentation that’s been rolling over in my head the whole time. One of the recurring talking points that was raised was the idea that the staff expects the majority of people to move on from the existing Classic experience to The Burning Crusade, and I feel like that’s an interesting assertion. Not because it’s necessarily wrong, but because analyzing it provides some interesting fodder for thought.
Let’s be clear here, it’s very obvious that plans are in place to ensure that people who don’t want to move on will not be forced to, and as I said before I think that’s probably the right answer for what was always going to be a complicated transition phase for the project. But I think it’s worth unpacking the question of whether or not most people will, in fact, move on. To do that, we have to unpack the people playing Classic now – and also take a look at the future destinations of the project.
First and foremost, it’s important to note that this discussion is largely speculative by nature because there is no pop-up window in the game that asks you every couple of hours why you’re playing Classic instead of retail. That would be kind of terrible, for one thing. I don’t have any definite answers here beyond speculation, as a result, but I concurrently imagine that the data Blizzard has are not tremendously clear on this point either.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure Blizzard knows how many people are actually playing Classic (obfuscating MAU statistic aside). But the company probably has less of a clear picture of why they are, partly because… well, at least for most of the project’s lifespan, it hasn’t really mattered. But with TBC, it kind of does.
Let’s break this down. As I see it, the current Classic population falls into loosely three groups.
- The novelty crowd. This group is composed of people who genuinely did not experience the older eras of WoW’s history and want to take what amounts to an interactive walking tour of same. While this may not be new content to them depending on when they started, the experience of having it be novel or the entirety of the game is novel all the same. For this group, moving on to TBC is most likely a natural progression, a new step along the same walking tour as before.
- The Wrath crowd. I’ve named this group as such because they’re the people most looking forward to their preferred version of the game, and statistically speaking that’s probably going to be Wrath of the Lich King. These are people playing Classic right now not so much because it delivers what they want but more because it’s about a step removed from what they want. It’s closer than the retail experience, at any rate. Again, for this group, TBC is probably a natural progression toward what they’d really like in the first place.
- The pure crowd. It’s easy to forget, but there were people crowing for a return to “classic” WoW pretty much as soon as TBC arrived, and it only intensified over time. There are a number of features that were introduced over time that this particular group of players genuinely disliked, most of them related to accessibility or social friction, and for this particular crowd moving forward to TBC is the opposite of what they want. For this particular group, there’s not going to be any sort of moving forward.
Herein lies the question. With this breakdown, two of the three groups are going to want to advance. But how big is each of these groups? If the purist group is only one of the three main player types in the game and accounts for, let’s say, 60% of the population, the majority of the playerbase isn’t going to be moving forward into the expansion.
As I mentioned earlier, this is something that is kind of unknowable. There are surveys taken about whether or not people would like TBC to be a classic option, so obviously Blizzard feels at least remotely confident about that, but it’s still hard to be sure exactly what percentage of the existing base each group makes up. And that raises some interesting questions about the Classic project as a whole because as time goes by this sort of subdivision is going to become more and more of an issue.
Consider, for a moment, what happens if most of the population doesn’t move forward. That’s going to kneecap TBC right out of the gate because the group content for the endgame is going to suffer from a paucity of players and a general inaccessibility. The same thing happens in the reverse if most of the population does move forward. Sure, you might be happy doing Naxxramas until the end of time, but if 32 people of your 40-person raid group move on to the expansion, you’re going to have to start rebuilding almost from scratch.
Consider also that people like the Wrath group are going to reach a certain point wherein the game does hit the stage they’re actually interested in. The people looking into the history are similarly going to hit a point wherein the game is no longer stuff they never experienced, and if the primary motivator there is a walking tour of unfamiliar content, hitting familiar content is likely to be a good reason to not move on or just stop bothering to log in either way.
I suspect, although I can’t be sure, that there were people who genuinely were hoping that the Classic project would remain frozen in design philosophy but not in time, that new content would actually come out for the older version of the game after the game’s natural endpoint was reached. That’s never going to happen (if indeed it was ever even considered). And you wind up with a long tail for older content that was never actually designed to sustain people for a year, or two years, or further onward over time.
Wrath in particular seems as if it’s going to be a flashpoint because I suspect that if there is a majority of people willing to move from the vanilla game to TBC, there is not a majority of people willing to move from Wrath to Cataclysm. By heading along this particular path, we reach a point wherein that assumption of most people moving on may not be true, and that pretty thoroughly screws up the expected dynamic.
For now, well, it’s hard to know. As I have said repeatedly, I don’t doubt that Blizzard has reason to believe most people will move forward, and it’s entirely possible the company has access to some crucial data I don’t that makes the goals clearer. But I do think that we are looking at a future where just releasing the next expansion isn’t going to consistently produce a popularity boost, and I’m curious about whether or not that’s been planned for or if it’s just the assumption that people will want to progress every other year or so.
If it’s the latter… well, I suspect that’s going to only work for so long.