Watching the recent series finale of 30 Rock got me thinking about how long-form media rarely has a satisfactory ending. A show like 30 Rock was impressive because it garnered just enough critical acclaim to stay alive despite its mediocre ratings, allowing it to be given a half-season to say goodbye to its fans of seven years. Most shows continue airing until they aren’t making money any more, usually because the ratings have plummeted. MMO’s tend to have a similar problem, going on and on until they are no longer profitable and the developer pulls the plug. We’ve recently seen City of Heroes and Star Wars Galaxies shut down, both of which debuted around the time of WoW, and I’m sure we’ll see more fall. WoW will not be around forever, and Blizzard probably won’t be given the opportunity to go out on their own terms either.
While most television shows know they’ll have a finite time frame to tell a narrative arc, WoW is more akin to a soap opera or professional wrestling in that it could conceivably produce new content for generations, well longer than any one individual can rightly be expected to follow the game. Sargeras has been commanding the Burning Legion and planning to attack Azeroth, and there are hints from Wrathion that he and the Legion could be returning soon. Even if he isn’t the villain of the next expansion we can still battle with other Titans and Old Gods, and that doesn’t include any new threats Blizzard might conjure up. Given that it wasn’t until the second WoW expansion that we finally faced Arthas to resolve the storyline that started in Warcraft III, Blizzard is no stranger to the long-form story. Mists of Pandaria will be the resolution to Garrosh’s story, a plot that started all the way back in Burning Crusade when Garrosh was introduced as a self-pitying whiner. As long as there are players to play the game, Blizzard will make sure there are raid bosses to slay, and they’ll do so in a compelling fashion by setting them up years in advance.
To look at an ongoing product like professional wrestling is to look at a cyclical yet evolving product. The WWE has been a national organization for roughly thirty years. In that time, they’ve had boom times in the mid-80’s and late 90’s with some lulls in between. Regardless, they’ve continued churning out weekly TV shows and regular pay-per-view extravaganzas. Over those thirty years most of the people watching have come and gone. Wrestling’s target audience is constantly the 18-34 year old male (if not slightly younger than that), and as people grow out of the product new fans cycle in. We’ve seen the average age of the gamer drift around the 30’s lately, but as people grow older and become bogged down with work and family, its only to be expected that they will eventually leave the game, as younger players will replace them.
This is already happening, for as large as WoW‘s population is, there are many people who played in vanilla and Burning Crusade that are no longer playing now. Older players mocked the Kung-Fu Panda motif and Pokemon-style pet battles of Mists of Pandaria, but those sorts of references are designed to attract a younger player. Making a weekly (if not daily) time commitment for eight years or more can be difficult. In this regard, being a fan of Warcraft means being a fan for a specific time. Eventually everyone is going to leave the game, as the numbers suggest the game will outlast most player’s ability to play it. However, games like Everquest and Ultima Online are still going strong after thirteen and fifteen years respectively, impressive numbers that exist mostly on a stable playerbase consisting of people long invested in the game.
WoW actively seeks out new players (When was the last time Everquest advertised an expansion on tv?). Everquest went free-to-play last year and while Sony has been tight-lipped about its subscription numbers, that’s generally a tactic used to infuse new life into a dying player-base. Attrition affects all games, and without a steady recruiting effort MMO’s will mature to a state where the old players slowly leave and young people (always looking for the new hotness) will have no interest in playing. To ward off such a situation, Blizzard has to aggressively maintain their substantial player base. High profile tv commercials, a regular roll-out of new features, and continually refining the new player experience are all ways that Blizzard keeps their numbers stratospherically above their competition.
The sad thing is that even if Blizzard decided it was time to shutter WoW with an awesome, universe ending expansion that would tie up all loose plot threads, it wouldn’t happen. Activision relies on WoW for a large chunk of its quarterly revenue. Even if Blizzard said they no longer wanted to support WoW, Activision would know that’s too much money to willingly sacrifice and it would do what it could to move WoW to another development team for as long as possible. The only way WoW dies is when the subscriber base dwindles and the game is no longer worth supporting. In that case, the game is cancelled with minimal fanfare. Not only will the game not have the money to stage a jaw-dropping finale that something as huge as WoW would deserve, but the reduced subscriber base means only very few people will still be around to care. Although Blizzard recently announced WoW’s population had dropped to 9.6 million subscribers, the death of the game is a long way off, so this is not an immediate concern.
MMO’s are not well-plotted tv series. They don’t get to go down in a blaze of glory, they just stop. It’s a fate most of us won’t get to see as for WoW to cease many of the current subscribers will have to disappear. Instead, WoW ends one day with us logged out, probably in Orgrimmar or Stormwind, with the full expectation of logging in tomorrow or later in the week, and then never getting the chance because life keeps happening. And WoW will continue on without us. The end of World of Warcraft won’t happen when it fades away from us. The game truly ends when we fade away from it.
Blizzcon returns this November! Start preparing now for the disappointment at the lack of news about Titan! http://us.battle.net/blizzcon/en/
Congressman Eric Cantor incorrectly accused North Carolina State University of wasting $1.2 million on a study about WoW. I wonder how much was spent on time wasted correcting his statement. http://wow.joystiq.com/2013/02/20/majority-leader-eric-cantor-incorrectly-cites-wow-study-as-using/
Diablo 3 is coming to the PS4! Now all the early adopters can be disappointed at the mediocre story and lack of true endgame too!!! http://www.joystiq.com/2013/02/20/playstation-2013-event-live/