Sometimes Im amazed when I look back at the beta images of World of Warcraft and compare them with what Im seeing on the PTR. Its like comparing the 3D version of Tron: Legacy or Avatar with those silent black and white films from the earliest days of cinema.
WoW has reached a plateau fueled by its own success, some might call this a crisis point. Since the release of Cataclysm, WoW has slowly been spiraling out of control. Deathwings return should have heralded a glorious new age when brave adventurers went out to rebuild a shattered world. Instead players are confused by the wealth of changes, by the plethora of recycled content and the constant hotfixing in order to balance raid encounters. The vocal minority has turned into a larger majority and the winds of unrest are blowing across Azeroth. So, what does the future hold for WoW?
Well, we know its highly likely that the official announcement for the next expansion is going to be released at BlizzCon. Its inevitable. We also know there are at least three major content patches coming in Cataclysm: 4.1 which focuses on the Gurubashi and the Zandalar, 4.2 which will include the Firelands, and the patch where we get to kick Deathwings arse (probably with the help of every major NPC currently in lore). This means there will either have to be lengthy gaps between the content or there will need to be quite a few more big patches. Right now, we just dont know.
The thing is, Azeroth is no longer the draw it once was. Players are feeling neglected by the amount of new, recycled content and the new hotfixing craze. This means theyre not afraid to embrace the new, even if its just a way of rekindling a love for WoW. Weve had RIFT and the MMO community is buzzing about Star Wars: The Old Republic and Guild Wars 2. Those are some massive IPs with, barring RIFT, long histories and big reputations. Trions new MMO has become popular because its filling a niche-sized hole: the need for a WoW clone that isnt WoW. Something familiar enough to be easy to play but a whole new world to explore with different lore and new things to kill. Its also been perfectly timed to appeal to the post-Cataclysm crowd. Whether it will succeed remains to be seen.
At the moment, RIFT is one of the challengers for WoW's MMO crown.
So where does this leave WoW? Well, simply put, in a disturbing place. WoW will not go the way of Tabula Rasa or The Matrix Online for a very long time yet. Yes that day may eventually come, but obviously not yet. I suspect, if things dont pick up in eighteen months or so - or at least after the release of the next expansion - that Blizzard might look more earnestly at the Free to Play model adopted by other games which started as subscription-only, such as The Lord of the Rings Online.
By last count Blizzard has over twelve million subscribers, all giving them a fixed amount per month to play. For anything to change, the number of people paying to play will have to drop. This is why I suggest it could be quite some time before Blizzard even thinks about changing its business model for WoW. To save themselves from this semi-inevitable fate, Blizzard needs to wake up and realize that they need to return to the old days and their pre-Activision-Blizzard mantra of when its done.
It seems like every other week, Im blaming Acti-Blizz and the failure of Cataclysm, identifying both as the root problem behind the unrest in the World of Warcraft community. Corners were cut, time was wasted and we are suffering as a result. Because of that, Blizzard will eventually feel the burn as well. How they choose to deal with it will shape the games future and its survival. The key point is, they do need to or Azeroth will falter and not even us, its bravest champions, will be able to save it.
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