WoW Factor: World of Warcraft is just coasting down the mountain

Do you really want to hurt me?

In November 1994, Marvel Comics launched a new comic book spin-off from the main X-Men series. Generation X, written by Scott Lobdell, was in many ways a return to a more foundational point in the franchise, with the team being a group of students under teachers Sean Cassidy and Emma Frost learning to use their mutant powers. It was an interesting book, with a lot of energy in the team dynamic and a fun cast of characters.

After Issue #28, however, Lobdell moved off the book and other writers took on the title, and the general tenor of the series was… not well-received. While some of the writers on the book (such as Larry Hama) were actually very good on their own, they couldn’t match the tone that the early years had set. Sales dipped, and the comic increasingly swerved into stranger directions in an attempt to re-invigorate interest. Despite this, the series continued until #75. It was clear that editorial understood this had once been important, that people liked this book, but they lacked the understanding of why it had been beloved or how to find writers who matched the tone fans missed from the original.

Keep all this in the back of your mind as today we talk about a rather bleak possibility for World of Warcraft.

In 2004, WoW launched and basically redesigned the existing MMO genre overnight. It was really a good eight years before we started getting games that were not either trying to be WoW again or trying to specifically push back against it, a trend that resulted in some good games getting overlooked, a lot of very lackluster MMOs, and some incredibly cringeworthy advertisements.

We have moved past that point. Some of that is other games coming into their own, to the point that we repeatedly refer to the big five as a thing. WoW no longer exists in an environment where it’s the big trendsetter and everyone else is in the “other” category. And I’ve mentioned before that a lot of people have basically gotten tired of really critiquing WoW and its direction at this point because… well, it’s clear that Blizzard is just going to keep making the same mistakes and defending the same decisions. It’s been almost 20 years.

So that’s bad enough in and of itself, but there’s another problem: The majority of people who still want to call themselves fans push back against critiques. They will twist themselves into pretzels defending the game’s weak character creator that improved but not nearly enough, the lack of housing or meaningful options for people who don’t find M+, raiding, or ranked PvP entertaining, and so forth.

And you have just as many bad-faith arguments coming in from the WoW Classic side, from people who still are clinging to the idea that there’s a substantive difference between the games in spite of the fact that the re-release of Wrath of the Lich King changed major mechanics that altered the play paradigm so everything can keep being just as closed off to the same little club.

Here’s the thing: All of my criticism above is predicated on what may be an incorrect assumption – namely, that these things are problems to be solved. Blizzard doesn’t seem to consider them problems. It’s possible, maybe even probable, that Blizzard just doesn’t care.

Skeleton dance forever.

I’m using “Blizzard” here as synecdoche primarily for upper management, as I don’t really doubt there are employees who do care and want to make the best game possible for players. But if the leadership doesn’t want to allocate resources to that… well, what difference does it make? All of the people who want to actually add housing to the game don’t matter at all if the money isn’t allocated for it, and perhaps more importantly, if Blizzard no longer considers the game to be important enough to merit it.

We can definitely see that the one-two punch of Battle for Azeroth and Shadowlands destroyed a lot of lingering goodwill for the game. It’s not a secret that Dragonflight hasn’t successfully pulled back a lot of players that were usually expected. But there are people who blithely say, “Oh, I’m not supporting modern Blizzard, just my gatekeeping version of Wrath of the Lich King.”

But folks, the people in charge don’t care. The subscription price is very literally the same. Your payment is not logged as a vote for one game or the other; the people behind the scenes do not care which one you logged into as long as you’re paying. WoW Classic has not, in fact, proved itself as the antediluvian state of grace that restored the game to its place of prominence, but it made money for very little effort or investment, so who cares?

If Blizzard wants to attract new players to WoW, changes need to be made. And if changes aren’t made, the game will continue to recede in prominence and eventually go into the same maintenance mode as other games the company no longer develops actively. But in order to critique that in good faith, you kind of have to assume that this is seen as a bad thing, that this is an outcome to be avoided.

There’s not much to be done if that’s seen as not worth fighting.


There’s clearly an assumption in Blizzard’s decision-making that if Overwatch 2 and Diablo IV are successful enough, that’s a tacit endorsement of everything that’s happened up to this point. The union-busting, the sexual harassment, the stagnant design decisions, the cruel treatment of employees from returning to the office to removing employee benefits… if enough people buy Diablo IV, it’s a message that no one really cared about any of that, or at least not enough people to make a difference.

And it’s not like you have to look hard for gamers already ready to forget everything else and pre-order the game, proving that yeah, even if it’s a pretty horrendous strategy, it’s not necessarily a losing one. All that lawsuit stuff was a couple years ago, right? Besides, MMO fans tend to be the sort of people who pay more attention to studio antics, so maybe it’s easier to just let WoW head out to pasture.

That’s not to say that WoW is on the cusp of death, exactly, merely that the people who are now steering the ship and making decisions fundamentally don’t see its problems as things worth fixing. They see the game as having reached the point when it’s too difficult to attract new players or expand, and the best thing to do is to just keep milking the existing players a little harder, make the most money possible as it coasts down, and eventually toss it into a quiet maintenance mode.

It’s not an unusual fate for an MMO. This sort of thing happens all the time. But it is a pretty sad ending for a game that made the sort of impact WoW did, and the worst part of thinking about it as a game where the people in charge are happy to just let it coast down and rely on an ever-dwindling playerbase remembering when the game was good? I can’t say that anything would look different from the present if that were true.

Which, y’know, kind of makes talking about how to make the MMO better a mug’s game in the first place.

War never changes, but World of Warcraft does, with almost two decades 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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