WoW Factor: No king rules forever

    
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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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Ewan Cuthbertson

This was the last straw for me after the Hong Kong scandal I didn’t think Blizzard could sink any lower but man they could. I have cancelled my WoW sub and will not purchase anymore Blizzard games. I will only ever consider coming back if two things happen one the toxic culture employees are facing is completely rooted out and that means firing anyone who thinks its okay to sexually harass a colleague and two J Allan Brack that useless piece of shit is removed from Blizzard he has destroyed the company and the fact he was allowed to even continue after the Hong Kong scandal and giving that half arsed apology not to mention this statement. Theres a cancer in Blizzard and its J Allan Brack he needs to go if Blizzard is to grow again.

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Bruno Brito

You really need to read the thread again if you think Brack is the main issue here. Brack is a spineless coward who follow orders, but this shit is there waaaay longer than him. Afrasiabi was old on the company and known for doing this shit.

Brack didn’t destroy anything. He was just incompetent. Blizzard just became sloppy after Activision meddling and now we’re getting leaked everything that has happened under their “golden age”.

There was never a “good” Blizzard. Never. Corporations aren’t good.

Yangers
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Yangers

All I’ll say is that if FF14 is the wow killer, and I doubt that somehow, god help the awful state of the industry. A mediocre game, cobbled together from the ruins of a failed game, and one of the most boring slogs I’ve played in a while. People are that desperate I guess.

I’ve pretty much given up on mmo’s at this point – and ashes of creation and new world really sealed it for me. Nothing new – the same old crap in a new skin.

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Unnar Thor Thorisson

Funny thing, but when I say this is “business as usual” I am not being optimistic. That’s actually me being depressed and cynical and hopefully wrong. I dropped the game early this year, after finishing the covenant campaigns and finding that it didn’t really have anything I cared about. The gameplay was good enough to move me along as I did the content, but with no new content, I’m not gonna stick around just for that.

This isn’t the first time I’ve fallen out of the game, it happens sometimes, but it is the first time I’ve decided to do so. Normally I just lose interest and forget to resub a month or so after I last played. This time I lost interest, got the email, and went “No, don’t think I’m going back yet.”

Here’s the thing: I want WoW to do well, but I want it to do well because it’s GOOD. Right now, it isn’t good. It isn’t worth my time anymore. It’s very visually interesting, but the story is a garbage fire. Even I could do better, and I am not a good writer.

And that’s why I hope this isn’t “business as usual.” If it is, then the game will definitely continue rotting. It needs a shakeup. It needs to change. If this actually HURTS them, if they feel genuinely threatened, then maybe, just maybe, there’s the slightest chance that they’ll actually make some improvements, though even then probably not.

The most likely outcome is that World of Warcraft will linger on like the Simpsons, only much less intelligent. An MMO on life support is not a new concept. The shareholders will cut the budget again and again as player numbers drop, and soon it won’t be able to improve anymore. It’ll be just barely sustained by a few hardcore players and its own inertia as even the investors still think of it as a flagship title, but eventually even that won’t carry it anymore.

And in the distant future, when the servers shut down, we’ll look back and ask ourselves: “When did this game truly die?”

Stefan
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Stefan

Well King Varian died during legion….

It does seem to be a series of events happening in quick succession and while WoW did a great service to bringing money into the MMO scene what caused a lot more projects to happen, i do not believe it falling from the top spot would suddenly change the current landscape all that much.

However it also raises the question how long will this scandal stick around, at the rate we are bombarded with news will this still be a hot topic for the majority of gamers come november?

As for WoW it self, big projects cannot be easily steered away from its current course, it also does not seem that there’s that much room left for creativity or opposing voices on the project or at least that is what i am getting from the report of how management and senior staff deals with people.
So i think we will see more of the same or perhaps something of interest pops up in other MMO’s and they will have to follow that trend.

I also believe that WoW for large part was a fluke, a series of lucky events and once it got big it generally stayed big and it did not have to do much to compete with others to reflect if things were working or not, the amount of people that kept paying and playing has and still is quite significantly more compared to other MMO’s.

I do not think it will die and if does, it will go slowly not with a bang.

Lighthope
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Lighthope

WoW makes a lot of money, but what people don’t understand is that is not the point.

What matters is how much WoW makes for its investment.

If I take a dollar, invest it in WoW and make two dollars, that’s great. But if I can take that dollar, invest it into another product, and make five dollars, that’s better.

Activision may be taking a hard look at WoW and wondering if their money can be better invested elsewhere.

Stefan
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Stefan

Still a big money cow i would figure, so long expansions keep selling as they have in the past, it is worth the investment.

Lighthope
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Lighthope

Yes, it is. There is only so much money you can throw at something, so some accountant somewhere is saying that investing in WoW is still a good deal.

There’s no doubt in my mind that the calculus has changed over the last few years, months, days.

Stefan
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Stefan

I think all this really means is less money for the projects they got going, so that means less content in patches and long term more content behind expansions.

Which is something i think we will see happen, would also sort of explain the longer patch cycles.

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Danny Smith

Well every shareholder call for years now blizzards touted wow income only to get totally mogged on by the most mediocre of activision and king products. At some point thats going to dip low enough they go full mobile or start supporting call of duty or something.

Lighthope
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Lighthope

I can see longer patch cycles. In fact, I actually asked what people thought about that possibility over on mmo-champion. https://www.mmo-champion.com/threads/2597874-What-if-WoW-keeps-up-this-longer-release-cycle

Longer patch cycles is definitely a way to reduce costs. We’ll see that long before WoW ever starts to have agonal breathing. (50 internet points if you know what that is and what it signals.)

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Khrome

Even longer patch cycles are a surefire way to lose most of the remaining customers i imagine. If they actually decide to do that it’ll be short-term thinking at its finest.

The only way longer patch cycles could possibly work for WoW is it Blizzard stops making literally all content which isn’t a part of the new patch irrelevant, but i suspect stubborn arrogance won’t let them recognize that they they’ve been designing new content for years now is not necessarily the best way to do it.

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Bryan Correll

Opportunity cost is a thing, but it’s not that simple when borrowing money is so easy for a company of Activision’s size. A 100% rate of return isn’t nearly as good as a 400% rate of return, but until (very) recently that return on WoW was enough of a sure thing that funding it was still a no-brainer since even if you had to borrow the money it was still going to be a net gain on the bottom line. The opportunity cost doesn’t kick in until it really isn’t feasible to do both.
In fact, it’s the cash cows like WoW and Call of Duty that give Activision the stability to fund those projects with potential but uncertain major returns. WoW will be around as long as it can remain profitable enough to beat the cost of borrowing (which is really, really low.)

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Knight Porter

It’s ratio, but it’s also *volume*. WoW’s size means it’s remained king, even if there were better potential margins out there. We’ll see if that changes.

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TomTurtle

The writing’s been on the wall for a while now, and this has only magnified it immensely.

I agree that it’s important to consider how likely that this toxic culture probably existed in Blizzard even with the old guard. The investigation is relatively new, but that doesn’t mean the problems only sprang up recently. Nor are they likely to have either.

It really makes me reconsider all the departures over these past years, putting them in a new light. How many knew what was going on? If they knew, did they leave to try to avoid being put in the spotlight? All the praise for ex-Blizzard developers starting new studios never excited me. Now things just feel tainted all around, and I’m left to cynically wonder.

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TomTurtle

Case in point, starting at 4:24 in the video:

This culture is definitely not new to Blizzard.

MariedeGournay
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MariedeGournay

When I was going through a serious depression, my WoW guild helped me keep it together long enough to get the professional help I needed. We rped, wrote fiction together, helped each other with dungeons and dailies. A fun little community. That was during Wrath. Since then, I’ve tried to comeback but most of my guildies are gone and something about the feel of the game just seemed off. I loved the new animations and customization. Loved some of the questing a lot. But I always got to a place where the mix of story (WoD just pissed me off, fricking WoW: Infinite Crisis) and systems were just enervating. I mostly chalked it up to nostalgia and tried other games. However ever, this last year really hammers home just how rotten leadership has gotten, and that they’ve alienated themselves from their own game and the employees and players who loved it. I don’t know what’s going to happen next, but I know I’m done.

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Paragon Lost

Need a “like” button when I just want to let you know I really agree/like what you posted but really don’t feel like posting. I often find myself in that frame of mind, I just don’t want to join Facebook to do something like that.

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IronSalamander8 .

As I’ve posted before, my one friend that used to vehemently defend almost everything about WoW, even minor things I’d point out would upset him, he liked the game that much, hasn’t played in 3 expansions, barring a brief time in classic at first. That alone speaks volumes. And now this new ghastly news about their internal issues makes even more people upset, and I’ve seen people who love WoW or Diablo or other number of their games, seriously pissed off over this news, it’s definitely not looking good for WoW.

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Josh

Nothing can “fix” this.

A woman DIED and it was brushed under the rug.

This is no longer about patch delays, bad or offensive story telling, bad systems and mechanics or boring and uninspired settings.

This is about apathy in the face of horror, abject evil being allowed to not only go unchecked but flourish. What can be done to fix this?

Nothing, nothing short of the DFEH smothering Blizzard under the weight of it’s own consequences.

My single, solitary, and only hope for the company is that the people involved with it who are victims or have the potential to become victims find a way out and a way to be prosperous however possible.

I said it in the other article I’ll say it again.

Go to hell Blizzard