Last night, Blizzard announced that World of Warcraft Q2 subscriptions had dropped to a level not seen since… well, ages. 5.6 million players isn’t the news cycle though. The real story anyone wants to spread with an axe to grind against Blizzard is simple: the company managed to lose nearly 50% of their subscription base since the game launched in November 2014.
Except actually? This is absolutely the best thing that could have happened, and I’m here to explain why.
Whenever people try and decry the end of World of Warcraft, there’s always the quiet voices in the background reminding of the unerring truths behind the numbers. Still more subs than a small country. Dead is not the same as extinct. Nobody else is even close however hard you try and fernangle the maths. This time however there has to be a moment of realism in the understanding that half as many people who started playing in November are now subbed, and a thought as to why this happened. So, why did everyone leave? Well, I think I can answer that as well, and they’re the list of issues that I’ve been talking about on and off in this column since I started writing it. In fact, let’s do this with bullet points, because it’s just easier.
- A systematic failure to consistently produce engaging content outside of raiding.
This is probably a big enough statement to cover all my many and various criticisms since Draenor went live. The 90-100 leveling experience promised so much, and then just stopped. The sweeping Lore stories of Expansions past simply failed to materialize. The hugely significant potential that Garrisons presented pre-expansion evolved into a series of Mini Games and an exercise in project management. What started off as such a grand plan seemed to reduce in both size and complexity as time went on, to the point where it was hard to see where the real work started and the bug fixing ended. The best analogy I heard on what this all represented? This was a series of experiments on the player base, judging reactions as to what floated and what sunk (no Shipyard pun intended) for what comes next.
- Lack of respect for the long term subscriber base
Loyalty, according to some I’ve spoken to, does not seem to be counting for much with Blizzard any more. The 10th Anniversary Statue ‘incident’ was just one of a series of badly-considered events that were supposed to recapture the thrilling nostalgia of a decade’s gameplay, but instead made quite a few long-term subscribers uncomfortable at what passed for current versions of ‘classic’ experiences. Then, there was the WoW Token, which was either a godsend or the most poorly-executed excuse for taking cash from long-term players, depending on who you spoke to. Needless to say, those 5.6 million people who remain are, at least in part, funding their own gameplay now, which they couldn’t do last year. So, depending on who you believe, there is progress.
- Inability to communicate successfully with players over change
So you remember that Flying thing? If that had been the only incident that I could recall off the top of my head that Blizzard failed in communicating successfully during the last year, it might be possible to forgive it as an exception, but there were so many flash-points that I can recall that just added up to people wondering if Blizzard truly did grasp what people wanted from the title. In the last two weeks Blizzard have formally advertised the post of Social Media Manager: Warcraft, and I think it would be fair to suggest that that role will come into its own just before the movie is released. So, things are not necessarily going to get worse before they get better: how the next few days play out are gonna be vital for the PR aspect of the company.
However, at least from where I stand, there are other, more pressing issues to consider than simply the state of the game. The state of the community might be a great topic for a future blog as it happens, as I got to experience first hand at the weekend. Having been part of a discussion on the future of the game with a number of high-profile YouTube streamers, Sunday night for me was a salutatory reminder that this game has lots of spaces that are inhabited by vastly differing groups of people. Wading through Reddit and YouTube comments on the event yesterday was in turn a lesson in self control and one of the most amusing exercises I’ve undertaken in quite some time. You see, there are those that will tell you there’s a proportion of the player base that, for the want of a better expression, doesn’t like to be told there’s another way than theirs. When you do just that, or you disagree with their point of view?
Things have the ability to get ugly really rather fast.
These are the part of the audience that Blizzard has to sell a new expansion to. It doesn’t need to capture the interest of those 5.6 million who form the bedrock of their community any more, but what it really wants is all the people who play for a month (as long as they buy a copy of the game) AND IF THEY HANG AROUND FOR LONGER? Well, that’s great too. That means Twitch, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and all points in between are the marketplace and frankly, after that? It doesn’t really matter who your audience are, however entitled and narrow-minded (oh dear, think my internal monologue’s on the fritz again ^^). The fact remains, bums on seats and pocket money on digital downloads is how Blizzard make their living. Considering the emphasis that was put on new hires in the earnings call? Clearly there’s some new employee wages that will need paying, so suddenly, the pressure is on.
This is probably the most compelling reason for why the drop in subscribers is a good thing: because suddenly, we are at a defining moment for the franchise. If they come back from this loss of confidence? Yes, it will be impressive, probably enough to make even the most jaded of commentators admit that actually, Blizzard may indeed be able to do party tricks with bread and anchovies. If that expansion happens to coincide with a massive surge of interest with Warcraft and THAT MOVIE? Heck, I doubt anyone is going to try to paint that as anything but a triumph. Because frankly you take your moments where you can, and you learn from the negatives in order to come back stronger.
Now, of course, everything depends on what happens tomorrow.
I’m writing this as the Blizzard press briefing takes place, and there’s not even a WHIFF of what might be in the pipeline for Azeroth. Yes, you’ll get jousting in Hearthstone and Rexxar in Heroes of the Storm, but as to what happens in World of Warcraft? NO CHANCE SQUIRE. Everyone and their PR Representative know just how important this next 48 hours are for the flagship title, and that’s why nobody wants to be the person who spoils the party. Having a worldwide release centered in Europe is a very shrewd move on the part of Blizzard, but it’s what happens in the next couple of weeks that will define the next Expansion’s success or failure. Because, like it or not, this could be the end of the line.
The Q2 Earnings Call revealed a company who is anything but financially strapped or inconvenienced, in fact quite the opposite. If you’re not making your game to garner revenue, then why bother? Because, when you’re in this position, creativity can actually be allowed to shine. You can afford to find the right people to fix the issues, properly, and then you can try and make a game that does what you always wanted it to do: engage and immerse your player base. The only way things go at this point is upwards, and the only means to regain customer confidence is to give players what they want. This will mean flying in short order I would suspect after the announcement (Mercenary Mode is now being actively tested on the PTR) and after that? If there’s content ready, testing should not be far off. What Azeroth needs now is a clear definition of future intentions, and then solid support for potential change with robust PR and structured feedback. I’ve not been this excited for an expansion release, I have to say, for quite some time. I can guarantee lots of really annoyed people at whatever gets launched, because that’s pretty much de rigeur at any point like this. People will hate it and malign it and then when it launches…?
Because if there’s one thing the World of Warcraft community loves, it’s a good old moment of Drama.Related: Column, Expansion, MMORPG, News, World of Warcraft, WoW Wednesday