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The Soapbox: Defining the WoW-killer

Jef Reahard

Disclaimer: The Soapbox column is entirely the opinion of this week's writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Massively as a whole. If you're afraid of opinions other than your own, you might want to skip this column.

I haven't written much about World of Warcraft. There are many reasons for this. For one, Massively rarely pays WoW more than the bare minimum lip service (due to the game's being fairly exclusive to our WoW Insider sister site). For another, I don't look at Blizzard's behemoth all that fondly, and the sum total of my time in Azeroth amounts to about 20 hours spread over six weeks.

As it does for everyone else who makes a living off of MMORPGs, though, WoW looms over my shoulder like a billowing dust cloud after a titanic explosion, reaching relentlessly for the heavens and effectively blotting out the sun. There's really no way to measure how influential this one game has been on not just MMORPGs but gaming in general. There are the population numbers, of course, and even though WoW has been shedding subs in bushels of late, it could continue to do so for the better part of a year and still dwarf the second largest subscription title by a considerable margin.

That kind of success cannot be planned, nor do I believe that it will be replicated. WoW was a happy accident for Blizzard, a perfect storm of polish and timing the likes of which the MMO industry will not see again.

World of Warcraft - sunset over the water
At one point in time, 12 million players called themselves World of Warcraft fans, and it doesn't matter whether half of those 12 million were playing from Asian internet cafes, the lost city of Atlantis, or the dark side of the moon.



Think about that number in terms of a game's population. It's larger than the populations of many of the world's countries, including Israel, Switzerland, Belgium, Bolivia, Greece, and dozens of others I could pull off this list. Twelve million people were playing this one MMORPG, and many of them now have WoW as a blueprint of what an MMORPG should be firmly branded into their brains.

Many of those 12 million call WoW their first MMO. Hell, many of them probably call WoW their first video game. With apologies to Nintendo's Wii, I can't think of a single product that's been more influential in terms of introducing gaming to non-gamers. I suspect that many of those non-gamers are still non-gamers despite the fact that they play WoW with regularity.

World of Warcraft - flying mountThey've put down roots in Azeroth. Friends and family are there; they've invested years of time and effort into their characters, guilds, and social circles; and as they're not really gamers aside from WoW, the chances that they'll jump to the next "WoW-killer" are slim.

Honestly folks, do you think your average WoW player gives a damn about The Old Republic? Really? I'm sure some do, but the reality is that BioWare's would-be WoW competitor is about as nerdcore as it's possible for a $200 million title to be. It lacks the whimsy, cute factor, and inherent family friendliness of Azeroth, and it takes itself pretty seriously in comparison.

What about Guild Wars 2, you say? Yeah, the payment model gives it a theoretical advantage over TOR, but again, do you really think that huge numbers of non-gamers who have invested heavily in WoW are interested in jumping ship to what is, for them, a completely alien commodity?

That leaves Blizzard's own Titan. Now, I'm as excited about Titan as it's possible for someone outside the realm of Blizz fandom to be. The rumors of sci-fi piqued my interest initially, and the fact that Massively will actually be able write about the game (and hence reap the benefits of the traffic that a Blizzard MMO generates) excites me as much if not more than the prospect of actually playing the company's new product.

How much traffic is that likely to be, though? There's the rub, because Blizz has intimated that it would like WoW to continue for another couple of decades. Due to the substantial cultural impact WoW has already had, not to mention the head start, I think Titan is going to have a very hard time sustaining a number even remotely close to the 12 million that WoW enjoyed at its supposed apex.

I say supposed because another wildcard, and potential life-extender, is WoW's business model. Despite the trendiness of free-to-play, Blizzard has maintained its monthly cover charge and has even said very recently that it has no plans to alter that approach going forward. And why should it? Millions of gamers think the title is worth supporting, and Blizz is indulging the F2P developer mentality anyway by charging for digital sillies on top of the sub.

F2P is Blizzard's safety net at this point, its ace in the hole should the subscription numbers continue to decline over time. Can you imagine how far beyond 12 million the player count will balloon should WoW ever throw open its doors to the F2P crowd? Most of those people will probably spend far less than $14.99 a month, but I'd be shocked if Blizzard didn't continue to make a hefty profit anyway due to the sheer numbers involved.

So at the end of this piece, have we actually defined the WoW-killer from the title? Not really, and I think that's telling. I suspect that there is no such beast, just as there will never be another WoW. The game is more than likely going to exist in some form or fashion for years to come, and it's going to absorb BioWare's best shot and ArenaNet's best shot and keep on keeping on. It might not be as monolithic or as freakishly profitable as it has been for the last half decade, but it will still be much larger, in terms of population, than the second- and third-place entries. WoW isn't going to die so much as it may eventually peter out, and by that time, you and I are likely going to be well past middle-age.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!

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