By now, if you’re dedicated enough to read even this blog, you’ve seen this announcement from Activision / Blizzard. To wit: Activision / Blizzard has bought its financial independence from its corporate masters, Vivendi Universal.
I’d like to point out a few things.
First of all, note that it’s still Activision / Blizzard. Not just Blizz. Blizz is still joined to Activision via a cash-transporting umbilical cord. The pernicious influence of Activision and Bobby Kotick is still very much an active part of Blizzard’s future. Vivendi didn’t once enter into things, but Activision, well, that’s a very active threat to Blizzard’s moral well-being, and has been. I have no idea if they’ve managed to hold the line against the darkness over there at Pasadena, but here’s hoping they can continue, if so.
Second of all: I don’t care who they are, if they were valuated at EIGHT BEEEELYUN dollars and have over THREE BEEELYUN in cash reserves after that, they are not an "indie" company, any more than EA is. "Independent" and "indie" really mean two different things, and the people calling the A/B monstrosity "indie" should be hauled through the internet into 4chan by their lower lip and left there to suffer. Independent is fine. Indie is not.
Finally, this should send chills through anyone’s heart:
"The transactions announced today will allow us to take advantage of attractive financing markets while still retaining more than $3 billion cash on hand to preserve financial stability."
— Bobby Kotick
"Attractive financing markets" sounds suspiciously like "we’re going to invest our capital in things other than producing games." There’s an accountant in there somewhere urging little Bobby to put cash on derivatives or something.
Well, I hope not. But anything that is other than a direct investment in the game studios’ health is a misuse of funds, in my opinion.
"There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics."
— Mark Twain, who attributed to Benjamin Disraeli
You may have also noticed that in the same conference, they quietly released the subscriber numbers for 2013Q2. Aaaand the numbers are down again, down to 7.7 subs, which haven’t been that low since before BC launched..
These are based off of Blizzard’s reported subscription numbers, and represent roughly the paying player base – though the numbers leading up to MoP are probably artificially inflated by the annual pass numbers – though they seem to be interested in good-faith estimates, so maybe they’re based off of active logins or something.
But the interesting thing is, as you can see, the numbers form a bit of a bell-curve formation. If you fit a trend line to this, you end up somewhere between 2015 and 2017 for the day that the final WoW player logs out of Azeroth, never to return. This is of course not a real date, because this would never happen – Blizz would pull the plug at 100 players, obviously, and they’d all log off at once. Or something like that.
The variation on the curve depends on whether you take the whole data set, or start at 2010Q4 when WoW was peaked. One is an overall dataset, one is just a map of the decreasing trend. Take your pick, but I tend to favor the latter because it takes less of old and obsolete data into account. The fact that it yields the more favorable 2017 date has nothing to do with it.
Something else jumps out if you cook the data in a different manner.
This is a chart explicitly showing gains and losses, rather than just bulk numbers. Here are things about this chart.
- Up through the start of Wrath, the rate of growth was flat; that is to say, the numbers kept growing, but at a more or less steady rate – no glitches that weren’t understood.
- One of those understood glitches was the start of BC, when we got what is now considered the traditional "expansion bump". We see this throughout the game’s history.
- Sub data for most of Wrath is missing1. In that gap there IS one quarter reported, and it had zero growth on the previous quarter (11.5 mil).
- From the start of Cataclysm, it’s been more or less a steady down trend, though I caution that the biggest down spikes are outnumbered by lesser down spikes (or one upward).
- But the data do suggest a pretty profound downslope, nonetheless.
It’s also impossible to say when Blizz started to sweat the losses. The huge gaps in the Wrath period reveal nothing. Maybe they saw a down trend at that point and decided to start compensating by nerfing up the game in Cata. Or maybe they thought of nerfing up the game as part of a grand strategy that started to be realized in Cata.
Either way, it’s pretty obvious where the decline really starts to gather momentum. So what are the possible reasons for this? Here are some possibilities.
- Players are getting bored and just come back for the new content. This seems like it would be a more gentle downturn, with sharper uptake and more gentle dropoff in between expansion lines. And we do see some of this, but it’s not the overarching pattern.
- Players don’t like the changes to the game’s difficulty. i.e. "Azeroth has been nerfed!"
- Players hate casuals. This goes with the above. Sure, I’m part of the quested-in-the-snow-uphill-both-ways crowd at times, but I don’t begrudge others the less difficult climb. I don’t need others to suffer to feel better about myself. But the haters, the ones that hate "casuals", well, if I hadn’t seen it myself I would say it was impossible for people like that to exist, but they do. WoW has its own virtual Civil Rights movement, in which the haters are played by Archie Bunker and the "casuals" are played by, well, actual people. More on this anon.
- Other games have come online that are clearly as good or better. I don’t know about better, but many have come online that might be as good in many ways. I’ve personally experienced Eve and Neverwinter and feel both hold up well. Where they don’t hold up is the people, in that the people I like to hang with aren’t in those games. I’m such a camp follower. And STWOR came out right in the middle of that big decline, so it’s not so much a "trigger".
- Free to play games! This too is a big one, and probably one of the biggest. Back when WoW came out, you could pay money to Sony or to Blizzard to get your fantasy on; these days, fantasy MMORPGs are all over the place, and free-to-play. Neverwinter, Rift, Aion, GW2, and more are out there just waiting for you to download a free client or buy one and then play for free. Even STOWR made the transition (not very well, I hear.). More on this in a minute, as well.
- WoW is old and crufty. Well, that’s about as subjective as it gets. I’ve played other games that have "better" graphics and I can’t really say there’s a lot going on there. I will say the armor and weapon models are, a lot of times, a lot more interesting to look at. The toons – player and NPC – however often hit that "uncanny valley" of near-realism that just turns off the brain. WoW makes no pretenses about how it chose to depict its characters, and it’s paid off again and again. Just … hurry up with those player model improvements, guys? Thanks.
So there’s two things I want to focus on.
The Nerfing of Azeroth
Over time, Blizzard has done a lot to nerf things in the game. I’ve generally felt it was a bad idea.
This harks to the recent Blog Azeroth shared topic of "is leveling too easy?". A lot of people confused "too easy" with "easier". Can we agree that the two aren’t equivalent? Yes? Good. Let’s proceed.
If you accept that "easier" and "too easy" aren’t the same thing, then you won’t feel locked into asserting that leveling in Azeroth is NOT "too easy" but it IS "easier". I can think of dozens of examples.
- Mor’ladim is a joke compared to his past self, who terrorized the Raven Hill cemetery with an iron fist. You always had to work your questing around his whereabouts or suffer the consequences. And don’t give me any guff about "it’s subjective". He was an elite.
- Stitches‘ epic journey from Raven Hill to Darkshire put terror into the hearts of travelers. Many’s the time I stopped to help someone else bring him down. Also many’s the time I hid to one side of the road until he passed. You needed a group; now the game supplies you with one.
- That horrendous run from Menethil to Ironforge so you could take the tram to Stormwind if you were an Night Elf or Draenai.
- That horrendous run to Booty Bay. Back then there wasn’t a Rebel Camp with a gryphon. And, as I found out on my first outing, even the grass was deadly.
- Even Princess was painful.
- You didn’t just waltz into the area outside of an instance; it was full of elites. People forget how terrifying it was to go into Deadmines the first time to do that quest for the miner’s guild.
These were all painful rites of passage that those of us that leveled up in early WoW remember and understand. They are all gone the way of the dodo, either because of new flight points, or new boats, or nerfed zones, or even nerfed NPCs. There are hundreds more examples like this, things that are absolutely, indisputably easier than they were prior to Cata. Anyone that says it’s just my experience in the game making it SEEM that way isn’t thinking it all the way through. There were real challenges that simply aren’t around anymore.
The question of whether it is too easy is another matter because it addresses Blizzard’s actual decision to make the leveling game go easier at lower levels. Starting as far back as Wrath, maybe sooner, they started taking the starch out of expansion zones as we got near the end of the expansion. A journey that might take you all the way to Storm Peaks at the start of Wrath, for example, might end somewhere in Sholazar – if you got that far, even! Faiella managed to get to 80 in Dragonblight2.
Did they go too far? There is a fine line between challenge and chore; did they cross it? That’s at the heart and soul of this issue, I think.
When they redesigned Azeroth for Cataclysm, many zones were reworked completely – quests redone, levels changed, elites nerfed, and so forth. And yet people felt like they were on a conveyor belt; you couldn’t start quests at hub "B" until you finished all the ones at "A" and were directed to "B".
My feelings are that they went too far, and did a poor job on the redesign of Azeroth, and that this legacy has carried forth into other aspects of the game, including MoP.
They’re *trying* to understand user feedback, but I think they’re letting their game designer’s instincts be subverted by management’s insistence that they "make the game more accessible", and it’s backfiring because people don’t want to be spoon-fed stuff. After all, if you just want to look at the assets3, there are tools that let you do that without actually playing!
Here’s an example of a designer going against what he knows is right; flying mounts take you out of the world and make you an observer of, rather than a part of, that world. When he speaks elsewhere of the importance of "exploration", he’s referring not to the act of flying all over the place to clear areas of the map – that’s "mapping" – but being down in the world’s nooks and crannies and discovering things about it.
Granted you can’t currently fly in a zone until you hit max level. But even that’s an arbitrary rule imposed to overcome the hinkyness of being able to just fly all over the place. It was a bad idea in BC, it was a hakneyed idea in Wrath, and it was a hideous idea in Cata, so now that we’re in MoP, it’s pretty much a given that you’re going to get it one way or another.
When we played one of the old Gold Box or Black Box series, exploration – the peering into corners, the poking at things and the pulling of levers4 were integral parts of the games. This is part of what made them fun. Games without a few dead ends and red herrings were generally received with a gigantic yawn.
Blizzard game designers know this, but in an attempt to make the game "more accessible", some of this aura of mystery and magic may have been lost.
I think that if they plan to turn things around, they may have to address this. Put back some of the danger. Make a few things not pan out exactly the way the user wants. Require a little bit of effort in some (non-critical) places. Give people a reason to want to explore places like Winterspring, which is otherwise pretty useless since nobody ever sees it.
Answering the Threat
The one-two punch of new and prettier games, along with the F2P model, are another concern, and one which I think Blizz is dealing with.
Improvements to the gaming assets – character models, scenery, and so forth – have been taking places incrementally since Vanilla. But to many, that’s not good enough. They look at the character models presented in Neverwinter, for example, and complain that "all they have to do" is add some polygons.
But overall, I don’t think anything major will happen in WoW concerning the game engine. They’re working hard on "Titan" for the next big thing, but since it’s been set back, don’t look there for help.
For good or ill, we’re going to have to make do with incremental improvements in our game assets until WoW is sunsetted5.
The other threat is the F2P model.
Early on, F2P pretty much meant "free to play but don’t expect much in the way of updates". I encountered F2P first in Anarchy Online, which is still going strong on that model – well, as strong as an out of date game can go strong.
The advantages of F2P is that the barrier to entry is pretty low. All you need is a game client and an internet connection. In some cases you have to pay for the client, but that’s a one-time expenditure that few would argue with. Others will even give you the client for free. Some have turned that around and give you the client but charge you to play – we won’t talk about them for now, they’re small and okay with that.
How does a F2P game keep the servers running? Well, there are a few ways, such as ads in-game (I first saw this in AO), and, and … well, there’s the "cash shop".
The "cash shop" is usually an external web site that you go to to purchase items to use in-game. In most cases you buy currency, then use that currency in-game, such as "Zen" in Neverwinter. For the most part you can only purchase cosmetic and non-game-changing items, though in some very poorly implemented instances, that’s not necessarily true.
So what have we seen implemented recently? A cash shop.
I know dozens of bloggers and opinionators have said that Blizzard would never go F2P. I have never heard anyone from Blizzard say that.
WoW is Blizzard’s "cash cow". For those that have never heard of such a thing, a "cash cow" is something that’s not really top of the line, but keeps bringing in money in a reliable stream. So you keep "milking" it until it runs dry. For example, at one place that Grimmtooth Actual worked, he worked on a lot of bleeding edge server systems, but over in a dark corner was a guy named "Dave" that worked on some pretty archaic looking stuff. He explained, while it was far from state of the art, it was being used by thousands of banks across the world, and any time one broke down, they needed a replacement. So he was the guy that farmed our cash cow while we went and burned off that money with our splashy R&D.
So WoW’s kinda like that right now. And Blizz wants to keep that cash cow on the farm for as long as possible. With today’s numbers, that’s over 100 million bucks a month of solid income. At TWO million players it’s 30 million a month, so even that can’t be sneezed at – would it actually cost that much to keep the servers up?
Unfortunately, that’s where I run out of steam, sort of. I have no idea of what kind of numbers a big F2P title6 brings in. I don’t even know how to guess. SWTOR claims that shifting to F2P "doubled" its income, but given its draconian implementation, let’s hope for better if WoW ever goes that route.
At the moment I think it’s likely they will, especially since the wait for "Titan" is probably going to be well past 2015, and possibly even 2017.
The question becomes, then: will I play an F2P WoW?
It’s going to depend on the implementation. A Neverwinter-like implementation MIGHT work, assuming the restrictions aren’t too annoying. One like SWTOR would see me drop out in a hurry, however.
At the moment we can only hope for the best.
- I’m guessing that Blizz thinks of reporting sub numbers in the same way it thinks of Blizzcon – if too busy, just skip it. [↩]
- The plural of data is not anecdote, of course, so take that for what you will. [↩]
- "Asset" in this context is the artwork, character models, sounds, music, and anything else even remotely "arty" used by the game itself. [↩]
- Wait, no, not THAT one!!! [↩]
- It’s a word, now. [↩]
- That doesn’t suck. [↩]