WoW! Thoughts! — On Blizzard’s Rapid Release Cycle
With Patch 5.3 releasing today, Blizzard has proven that their talk of an aggressive patch schedule for Mists of Pandaria was serious. Given that we’ve had patches released roughly every three months, patch 5.4 should hit no later than August. Since Blizzard has previously stated that the Orgrimmar raid in 5.4 will be the conclusion of Mists of Pandaria, Blizzard seems to be setting themselves up for the usual end-of-expansion dry spell where nothing new is released until the next expansion is ready.
If Blizzard holds to form, they won’t announce the next WoW expansion until Blizzcon, which starts November 8th. Even if Blizzard announces that the expansion beta is ready to go, Mists was still in open beta for over six months before its release date. That would mean that even if patch 5.4 is released as late as October it may have to satisfy WoW players for roughly seven months, with Blizzard’s expansion launching no earlier than May of 2014. A seventh month dry-spell wouldn’t seem so bad compared to ten month window between the Hour of Twilight patch and Mists‘ launch. However, it is a problem given WoW’s declining player base.
When Activision announced World of Warcraft had dropped to 8.3 million subscribers, CEO Bobby Kotick suggested a solution: “It is important to note that the nature of online games has changed, and with the environment becoming far more competitive, especially with free-to-play games. To address this, we’re working to release new content more frequently to keep our players engaged longer and make it easier for lapsed players to come back into the game. We believe in the long-term value of this franchise and will continue to commit substantial resources to World of Warcraft.”
Anything short of Blizzard announcing that the next expansion is ready for launch at Blizzcon will be a repudiation of Kotick’s comments, and will result in WoW experiencing a period of player loss with no possible attempt at player retention. Yet this is exactly what I think will happen. How will Blizzard stave off this period of decline? By repeating one of their more successful promotions in recent history — the return of the annual pass.
Mists of Pandaria wasn’t the only WoW-related announcement Blizzard made at Blizzcon 2011. They also announced the annual pass program, which gave players Diablo III, Mists of Pandaria beta access, and an in-game mount all in exchange for simply agreeing to maintain a WoW subscription for the next twelve months. Blizzard knew that year would be a lean time, as it would include the end of the Cataclysm expansion. Rather than watch players temporarily abandon their accounts while waiting for the Horde and Alliance fleets to discover the lost continent, Blizzard made sure that the subscriber numbers would be bolstered.
Essentially, the post-expansion content was Diablo III and the Mists beta. Players didn’t mind that they were still paying their $15 per month as they had access to one of 2012’s most anticipated games in addition to access to all the new content early. The annual pass kept players engaged with Blizzard for those twelve months (if not WoW itself) and helped numb the pain of the normally boring time between expansions. I fully expect Blizzard to reintroduce some form of the annual pass in the lead up to the next expansion to combat the problems they are currently seeing. The only problem is that without Diablo III-type enticement, what property could Blizzard capitalize on to keep everyone excited?
There is one property everyone is already excited over: Hearthstone. Hearthstone‘s release (being real-world-soon ready as of PAX) is going to be timed to fall just after Blizzcon; right when players would begin to notice the lack of new-patch content as 5.4 becomes stale. The playable state the game was in at PAX, and the shoutcast videos being released regularly show the game is just about ready to be launched. All Blizzard is waiting for is the right time. Why release it now when Heart of the Swarm and Mists of Pandaria are still relatively strong? They will wait till the end of the year when they will need it most, and that will be the “new content more frequently” to save Warcraft while we wait for what comes next.
Unless they do something crazy and announce the expansion at E3 or something. But when has Blizzard announced something outside of Blizzcon before???
Interview with Ghostcrawler about patch 5.3. He should challenge Garrosh for Warchief! http://wow.joystiq.com/2013/05/20/patch-5-3-and-more-with-ghostcrawler/
Someone finally did it!!! Hooray! Even if it is a patch old now… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jG8NG1zUqB8