WoW Factor: No king rules forever

You may be my old favorite, but you don't get a free pass.

World of Warcraft patch 9.1 has been out for less than a month, and it is a bad time to be a fan of Blizzard and the game.

This column was already half-written on Tuesday and had to be completely rewritten when it turned out that Blizzard was going to be taken to task for egregious harassment and toxic corporate culture. But things weren’t going well before then. We’ve seen population surges in other games, with a lot of buzz around the surge in Final Fantasy XIV but similar (albeit smaller) bumps in games like Guild Wars 2 and The Elder Scrolls Online. We’ve watched WoW Classic get hit with population imbalance issues. We’ve seen some truly dim storytelling and a patch that took longer than ever to arrive and seemed to finally arrive with all the hype of a dead fish landing on your doorstep.

And, uh… it’s time to start asking a serious question here, folks. Because we’ve been talking around this point for a while, but with another corporate scandal brewing and all the other problems that are simmering just below the surface… are we finally witnessing the fall of WoW from the position it’s held for years?

Obviously, that is capable of being an incredibly hyperbolic statement, and so it’s important to make something clear. No, it would be silly to think that WoW is in any serious danger of shutting down in the near future. When we’re talking about losing its position, what we really mean is its place at the top of the MMO heap, as an unquestioned market leader.

Some people have been eager to say that’s already happened, based on some rather dubious metrics and personal opinion. However… well, those metrics look a lot less dubious than they used to. And some of that can be pinned on the fact that as mentioned right in the start, we’re talking about the game when it’s not yet a month out from a major content patch. This is the time when subscriptions, interest, and buzz should be going up.

Does that seem to be happening? Yes, the plural of “anecdote” isn’t “data,” but we see a lot of people leaving or abandoning, not showing up eager to do more. And that was before Blizzard became the latest main character in the ongoing thread of toxic harassment culture, which is definitely doing the opposite of driving people to the game.

Is this really a “blip” at this point?

Who benefits?

We’ve watched the game weather a bad expansion before. We haven’t, however, watched it go from a bad expansion to one widely considered uninspired and boring. We haven’t watched the game take more than half a year to deliver its first content patch, with no actual promise that next year will actually deliver the next expansion (normally a given with the cadence of the game’s release schedule). We haven’t seen this kind of open revolt from fans, influencers, and everyone interested in the title.

I think there’s a tendency for all of us to treat this as if it’s somehow business as usual with this game, but I think that’s also wishful thinking at this point. This is not business as usual. It might have started there, but at this point we’re dealing with something else entirely, and the people making decisions about the game aren’t showing even the slightest hints of contrition or accountability for anything.

Remember when I talked about the survey that Blizzard sent out, something that was unprecedented for the studio? Remember how I mentioned that the studio has, by and large, defaulted not to “let’s fix our problems” but to “don’t you worry, we know better than you, just trust in us and it’ll all be better, you’ll see”? Yeah, that’s feeling oddly prescient at this point.

The MOP writers were discussing this and noting that we’d been, up to this point, treating the people-fleeing-WoW narrative as chiefly a FFXIV story, and on some level it is. But it’s really a WoW story, too. It’s a splintering and a reduction. And you can see the ever-more-intense instinct of existing fans to circle the wagons, resist any outside influences, and refuse to engage with any of the problems going on in the game.

I also think our talk the other day about load-bearing fanbases is worth considering because WoW has now loaded all of its weight onto one specific fanbase that far, far outstrips its size. Talking with friends who do have guilds trying to make do, I find a lot of people who even were willing to choke through M+ progression are losing the steam to do so. Sure, the content keeps scaling, but is anyone really excited about another few months of the same dungeons with slightly different affixes in a patch that offers little to nothing else new?

And again, all of this happened before Blizzard revealed itself at long last to be a toxic workplace awash in harassment. It actively shot itself in the foot with its “response” to that revelation. It is once again shirking responsibility and dodging growth. That is definitely not going to help.

(And before anyone tries to chime in with it being a New Blizzard vs. Old Blizzard thing… if Afrasiabi was involved, and according to the lawsuit he very definitely was, this stretches back to almost the beginning of WoW. And it’s hard to imagine that many of the other veteran developers who’ve left in recent years were somehow unaware.)

Let bygones be bygones.

That’s where we’re at now, and it’s honestly pretty disturbing the more you think about it. The game is struggling under the weight of its decisions, it lacks a coherent vision or competent leadership, and the people who are in charge seem to have no goals beyond quintupling down on the exact same decisions that are driving people away from the game in heretofore unseen droves. And that leads to the natural question of what could actually fix this problem… or more pointedly, whether or not those fixes will be made.

We have seen games supplant others over time in the MMO space before, of course, in the pre-WoW generation. Ultima OnlineEverQuest, Final Fantasy XI, and Lineage all had their moments in the sun before WoW. And at least in the west, WoW’s stayed on top ever since. But now, after nearly two decades, it looks like WoW’s killer may very well indeed be what we always said it would be: WoW itself.

A steady set of design moves away from what made the game popular, a consistent arrogance, and a disgusting series of corporate scandals might have done what every would-be competitor failed to do in dethroning WoW. Is that what we’re watching happen right now?

I don’t know for certain. Maybe next week I’ll talk about what could actually reverse this slide. I haven’t decided yet. But it’s time for us all to stop pretending this is just business as usual and that the game is just going through a cyclical low patch. This low is much lower than what we’ve seen before, and the floor is close ahead. Without some serious efforts taken to right the course, we’re looking at a really hard crash for this game.

It’s not going to shut down. But the days of its dominance might have already ended.

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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