What King’s purchase means for World of Warcraft

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We’re interrupting your normally scheduled Wednesday column for a newsflash: yesterday, Activision Blizzard completed their acquisition of King. You know them, they’re the people who make ‘Candy Crush’, and all of their outstanding shares were bought at $18.00 in cash each, for a total equity value of $5.9 billion. That means, as of right now, 1 in 14 people on the planet are playing a game owned by Activision Blizzard. That’s 500 MILLION users, just so we’re clear. What King’s purchase means for World of Warcraft might be a long way initially from CEO Bobby Kotick’s mind right now, but it’s front and centre in mine, and that’s what we’re going to talk about today. Because there’s a lot of potential in the mobile market just waiting to be tapped, and here is a company who aren’t exactly lacking in content that could be exploited. However, what is most likely to be the biggest advantage to King’s purchase for Blizzard?

The massive mobile market who’ve never actually played a ‘proper’ video game in their lives.

When this acquisition was first mooted last year, I got into conversation with a good friend of mine who works for a significant games developer. The direction was simple: how would King’s purchase redefine Activision Blizzard’s place in a market which they’ve only just inserted themselves via Hearthstone. I was full of ideas for possible ports or crossovers, while his rationale was damningly simple: you start by inserting a Candy Crush level with a Warcraft theme. Then you do one with Hearthstone, and Overwatch… and so on. It isn’t necessarily about redefining genres or adapting existing games for your phone, because that’s not even necessary. The hundreds of millions of Candy Crush players are more than likely to be an audience who’s never even seen Warcraft, let alone picked up the title. That’s your starting point, a valuable inroad that could and should be exploited. After that, there’s an argument that you could create a Warcraft ‘themed’ version of the Candy Crush ‘oeuvre’ for similar gain… but, I’ll stop myself here.

Blizzard released its Q4 and end of year figures a few weeks ago, and crucially for the first time in many years the number of active subscribers for Warcraft was not reported. The reason for this becomes abundantly obvious when you realise the kind of Monopoly numbers the company’s now playing with: four million players in Azeroth compared to the hundreds of millions that King brings to the table pretty much negates the need to be looking at who’s buying that game as an example. Warcraft, if you didn’t get the memo when Hearthstone was released, is no longer the ‘prestige’ title in the stable, or indeed the number one concern for Activision Blizzard’s plans going forward. What King’s purchase means for Warcraft is less about making that game significant again, and more around how the mobile market can be adapted to use the same toolset as Hearthstone and Heroes of the Strom is using. By that, of course, I mean the source material that binds them all, which is Azeroth’s rich and varied history.

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Fortunately, Blizzard also has that covered without the need to even have a new Expansion on the table or complete: there’s a brand new Lore book due, a sampler of which appeared online last week. This weighty tome will redefine how you see the World of Warcraft, and undoubtedly will link the movie release to the upcoming Expansion with threads that won’t be exactly the same colour as the original histories, but they’ll be pretty close. We already know the movie’s a divergence from what actually exists in game, and undoubtedly the New Lore (TM) will go some way towards smoothing the cracks between one place and the next. This might give King something new to play with too: perhaps we’ll see Orc vs Human heads as playing pieces, or art from Draenor and Outland as backdrops for levels. But again I’m assuming that matters: you’re just as likely to see Warcraft movie characters appearing as Heroes on rotation or as easter eggs in Overwatch to allow that marketing to maximise its potential for a June release.

The movie’s a whole new ballgame, and could give the opportunity for the ‘classic’ Warcraft RTS games a chance to port to mobile devices with the minimum of fuss. It’s not just about the current iteration of Azeroth, after all. When the dust settles from this merger, there are genuine portions of the Warcraft game that are begging to be taken to your handheld: Pet Battling and Garrison Missions are prime examples. Even with the Garrison going away in Legion that basic principle is being built into Class Order Halls instead. What has become immediately obvious in Warlords is that people will play for short periods of time in these ‘mini games’, but if you were able to give them a way to access the client away from their PC’s, many, MANY people would spend a LOT of time and effort doing so. The Mobile Armoury client is long overdue a do-over, and if Blizzard could tie the Battle.net client into a mobile App that allowed people to chat consistently wherever they were in the World? I know how much money could be made with a monthly ‘subscription’ to the channel. You could link all your purchases to a central interface, and you’d be able to synch micro-transactions from the App back into the Warcraft UI, plus every other Blizzard game.

The problem up until yesterday was that Activision Blizzard had no-one who ‘got’ how that worked. King has proven their ability to produce quick, addictive games and clearly have a strong grasp of the platform the company lacked. Remember now we’re not just talking the games I’ve mentioned: Skylanders and Call of Duty both have massive potential markets that could potentially eat up mobile titles. King’s purchase means for Warcraft and every other title that exists to be exploited that there’s a whole new way not only to design but to market to boot. We’ve not even considered the potential eSports ramifications either: with MLG in the frame, that’s a LOT of potential just waiting to be tapped.

If you’re interested, according to the press release there’s over 1000 games in the company’s ‘library’ that could end up being ported, amended or simply re-engineered to fit in your hand. The potential really is endless.The 318 million people who own a King game won’t notice that much of a difference, I suspect in the short term. In fact, for most of them it will be business as usual until the two companies get their strategies straight. However, for those of us who’ve owned Warcraft since release back in 2004, there’s a lot changing, and not all of it is encouraging. A leaked marketing survey a while back revealed that the company was considering offering viewers of the movie a complete copy of Warcraft plus every Expansion up to Warlords for the price of their cinema ticket. I worked out how much I’ve spent on various copies of the game and Collectors Editions since I started, and the total is many hundreds of pounds. To have that reduced to a 10 pound cinema ticket is a stark reminder of how much has altered in a decade, and how the future for some of us doesn’t seem nearly as rosy or as encouraging as the past we’ve left behind.

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King’s purchase is probably more significant in the long term than the move into eSports, because the market it taps is instantly larger and more diverse. How Activision Blizzard choose to use it? Well, there’s a shedload of potential, and undoubtedly the possibility they’ll recycle elements from all their major games. Some might say it’s too late for some elements to be adequately exploited, but I know full well that if that Pet Battle mobile game finally makes it people’s iPads they’ll play it like there’s no tomorrow. If there’s a way to link all of this back into Warcraft itself then so much the better, but nobody will get too upset if there isn’t. What has become obvious in the last year is that if its part of the Blizzard ‘family’ a lot of people won’t really care what platform its on or whether you need a particular setup to enjoy it. As long as there’s a plushie to accompany it or maybe an item of clothing? That’s all that matters, because this is no longer gaming, it’s a lifestyle choice and a marketing crossover, and for many people that’s more important than just playing the game to begin with. There are those of us, quite old and set in our ways, who may look on such things with cynical eyes, but it would be a foolish woman indeed who dismissed yesterday’s events as anything other than hugely significant move for the future of Activision Blizzard. This is a company already calling themselves ‘the largest game network in the world’, and you know that they mean business. Whether you like it or not, what King’s purchase means for World for Warcraft is potentially game changing or maybe this is all just wishful thinking on my part. What happens next will be very interesting indeed.

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