WoW Factor: Dragonflight, Wrath Classic, and trying to stop the bleeding

    
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Everybody dies.

So if you somehow missed it, Activision-Blizzard posted its most recent earnings report this week. It was not good for the company as a whole, and it was definitely not a good look for Blizzard, which saw a QoQ revenue drop and only barely managed to gain more users thanks in no small part to the fact that it released Diablo Immortal and that won it some attention. I’d ask what the heck happened, but the fact of the matter is that we know the answer to that question already; we’ve been watching it happen steadily, after all.

Obviously, it’s not my job to watch Blizzard beyond how it pertains to World of Warcraft directly, but the two are linked things. It’s not like WoW exists outside of the Blizzard ecosystem, after all. And in the wake of the financial report and another WoW-related mobile title apparently getting cancelled, I think it’s worth taking a look at the year’s planned releases from another angle that I haven’t really been talking about: a pitch to stop the bleeding, and a perhaps ill-advised one at that.

Let’s just be clear about something: Blizzard has been reporting MAUs instead of strict user counts for about four years now, and our editor Bree has been compiling the data about these counts the entire time. Over 18 quarters reported by MAUs, do you want to guess how many have actually counted an increase in overall numbers? Two, including this last one. That means only 11% of the time, MAUs rose. Every other time, they’ve either stayed the same or fell, no matter what has been released or what has been on offer.

This is not strictly dire, but it does tell a pretty compelling narrative wherein Blizzard has been consistently losing players over time. And one doesn’t need to do much to extrapolate that WoW, which at one point was unmistakably the crown jewel of Blizzard’s portfolio, has been consistently losing subscribers. This is kind of a big deal because out of all the games Blizzard can count MAUs in, WoW is the only one where you can be reasonably sure that the people who are playing the game are paying to do so on a regular basis.

Placed in this context, it’s easy to read the fact that this year is meant to see the release of both Dragonflight and Wrath of the Lich King Classic as what amounts to a sort of desperate push. We already know that Overwatch 2 is on deck with its PvE content delayed to an as-yet undetermined date despite that being the initial selling point of the sequel, and so it’s easy to look at this entire setup with a cynical eye as a case of the studio trying to pull absolutely anything possible out of the “coming soon” category and into the “coming almost immediately” setup just to get some desperately wanted support.

Soulless.

On paper, this is not only an understandable but even appreciably goal. We all know that Blizzard has a major problem with actually delivering on its content pipeline, and this is an effort to actually redress that issue. All good, right? Except for the part where it’s clear that this stuff isn’t just being pushed out before it’s ready; it’s being pushed out without understanding the appeal.

I already did a whole article marveling at the sheer incoherence of how Blizzard decided to handle Wrath of the Lich King Classic, an article I will keep referencing until the day it stops being funny to me (so, probably forever). But even aside from all of that, the entire idea of releasing the expansion without one of its central features to market solely to existing subscribers speaks to an odd sort of marketing weirdness. It’s the marketing equivalent of preaching to the choir, selling your product strictly to the people who are already buying it rather than trying to expand your market to the people who might otherwise want to come back.

No, the Venn diagram of people who thought WotLK was the highlight of WoW’s history and people who hate being able to queue for dungeons is not two non-intersecting circles. But there’s still not a whole lot of intersection there, and when you have the opportunity to sell the same thing to more people by making fewer changes, why would you not do that?

The answer, of course, is because you have basically decided that reaching a new audience is impossible and your best bet is to just keep digging down on the core audience who has stuck by you this long and you figure is pot-committed at this point. It’s the same strategy you see in comic book publishers, which is why comic books haven’t actually been profitable in years.

Seriously, you can search this out yourself. Actual comic book sales are not where the money is in that industry. Marvel and DC make money hand over fist by using their characters in movies, video games, TV shows, and so forth; the actual comic books are basically a form of testing new ideas that might eventually be adapted into other forms that actually make some money. And now you know why that’s a thing.

Ups.

When you’re selling a product only to the people who are already invested in it, your sales basically have nowhere to go but down because over time, that audience is going to have things that draw them away from the product. New hobbies, lack of time, having kids, just disliking a decision or two… the list goes on. What we’re seeing right now with Blizzard seems to be that strategy going into overdrive all over the place, begging people to come back to games without changing any of the things that drove people away in the first place.

Again, I hate using Overwatch 2 as a reference point, but the people who like Overwatch as a PvP title already own and play Overwatch. Free-to-play is not going to entice people to the game if they didn’t already like it, and as the game has been out for several years now, there’s very little chance that someone is looking and saying, “Hmm, I could play the PvP shooter that all those pornographic film characters show up in.”

If you aren’t already pot-committed to WoW, what about Dragonflight would entice you? What is it that you can get there that makes this seem like it’s the time to get into the game for the first time? Even the biggest and most obvious headlining features don’t really work there. If you’ve never played before, why would you be excited to have talent trees back? You never got used to them being gone in the first place.

And yes, I get the decision from a marketing perspective. I get the thought process that Blizzard has lost more players than a lot of MMOs ever get in the first place, so what would really be great is if it could just bring all of those players back. But all those people left for a plethora of reasons, and very few of them are being meaningfully addressed by the company, so that’s simply not happening.

It increasingly feels like the back half of this year is being filled with Blizzard trying earnestly to reverse its subscriber losses. I understand that motivation. But I don’t see how it’s a plan with a high chance of success for many, many reasons. And that makes me more than a little leery of the releases themselves.

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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