Recently, Blizzard has been commenting that they’d like to pick up the pace of development for World of Warcraft. We’ve seen them accelerate the average patch lifecycle such that they can get a full expansion worth of content out in just under a year, but the problem is that they are still tending towards about two years between expansions. Ghostcrawler recently said they would like to get that down to one expansion per year. It’s an admirable goal, especially since new expansions usually bring an infusion of new and returning players, but is that a worthwhile goal? Is it even attainable?
Mike Morhaime has recently indicated that Blizzard is already working on the follow up to Warlords of Draenor, though it’s not clear to what degree that is the case. His comments indicate that, for the first time, the WoW team is big enough (having received resources previously allocated to the now back-to-the-drawing-board Titan) that they can do parallel development on two projects at once. What is not clear is just how far into development that second project is. Morhaime’s comments are vague enough to imply that the next expansion could exist just in the minds of Chris Metzen and Dave Kosak, or they could be well into the concept art phase or beyond.
World of Warcraft certainly generates enough revenue that it could support two separate development teams. Even at 7.6 million subscribers, that player base could support several MMOs (and fundamentally does, since that’s triple what even the nearest rival MMO has – and without a free-to-play playerbase, no less). Given that many publishers (including Blizzard’s partner, Activision, with its Call of Duty franchise) release annual franchises by supporting alternating development teams, it’s surprising Blizzard hasn’t attempted this sooner.
There are fundamentally two problems with a rapid development cycle of this nature, though. First is that Blizzard has yet to demonstrate they are ready for it. Mists of Pandaria released on September 25, 2012; The Siege of Orgrimmar patch went live on September 10, 2013. While that is less than a year, ideally players would need a good three or four months to work through that final level of content. Unless Blizzard cuts each expansion down to three major content patches (a process which they only achieved with Cataclysm, and only because they cut a raid tier.), fitting a full expansion into a twelve month release cycle is tight. In Mists of Pandaria, patches were going live just in time for the follow-up patches to be hitting the PTR. While some might feel that Throne of Thunder or Escalation dragged on excessively, overall the length of time felt about right for how long content should be active. There are concerns about this final patch being left without an update for too long, as happens at the end of any expansion, but compressing the full experience of Mists into just twelve months would be a rush. If Blizzard is to give the same quality as they have on prior expansions, a fifteen month life-cycle seems reasonable without cutting content.
The second problem that Blizzard faces is cost. While franchises like Madden or Call of Duty enjoy yearly releases, they do not require a monthly subscription fee (They may have additional costs associated, but they are entirely optional. Though I suppose one could argue that WoW can be enjoyed to level 20 at no cost.) Blizzard already has its players paying anywhere from $144 to $180 annually to enjoy their game. While an additional $40 per account each year would offset their continually-shrinking playerbase, increasing the annual cost to over $200 seems drastic.
Given that WoW just turned 9 years old, for someone paying $15 per month since launch, they have paid for a total of $200 for the original game and each major release and then another $1605 in subscription costs (107 months at $15/month since the first month was included in the box). That breaks down to $16.71 / month, which isn’t much more than the subscription cost. If we alter that cost structure to include a yearly $40 expansion, given that the ninth expansion would have just released, the monthly amortized cost jumps to $18.56. In an increasingly free-to-play world, a cost of near $20/month does not promise great value. Though the difference is not even two dollars, $16.71 still rounds to $15 more easily, while $18.56 rounds up to $20. The perception of those prices alone may force cash-strapped players to move on to cheaper entertainment.
One other factor will affect Blizzard’s ability to deliver yearly expansion releases as well. Blizzcon and the Warlords of Draenor announcement felt like a major event this year because it was – there had not been a Blizzcon, let alone a World of Warcraft expansion announcement, in over two years. When new, exciting things become ordinary and expected, then they are no longer new or exciting. Chris Metzen walking on stage like a rock star and growling for the Horde and the Alliance to get excited wouldn’t mean as much if he did it all the time. If each year, we can look forward to a clockwork announcement of new content, especially when we will only be halfway through the prior expansion’s content, then the excitement and hype generated by Blizzcon will be lost. Imagine trying to be excited for Warlords of Draenor and the garrisons, inventory, and item changes it contains, when we were still be yearning for the Siege of Orgrimmar. The Mists of Pandaria launch trailer suffered from this – having to segue from our imminent conflict with Deathwing to our eventual journey to a new land. Not that Blizzard should hold off announcing the new expansion until after the last one finishes (especially if we only want the last raid to last four or five months before the next expansion hits), but if anything, any sort of increased release schedule means that individual announcements mean less. Blizzcon will always be exciting, but it will not be as exciting, and that is a shame.
It would seem that Blizzard is heading in a direction to release content at a more rapid pace. For such a successful franchise, it’s odd that it took them almost a decade to figure out this process. While more content more often will be fun, there will be some issues, such as an increased cost and a loss of excitement. Still, having to face the same high-end bosses over and over again for six or seven months can also cause a loss of excitement, so if anything, a faster release schedule could be worth it. Of course, just because Blizzard says they want to do it doesn’t mean it will happen. I guess we will find out soon…
… “Blizzard” soon.
Blizzard’s Raid Finder improvements are beginning in Patch 5.4.2. This is needless. Trade Chat works just fine as it is. http://wow.joystiq.com/2013/11/21/patch-5-4-2-this-is-just-the-beginning-for-blizzards-raid-find/
Morgan Webb is back with another WoW Source interview with the devs. Doesn’t Blizzard have enough money to just reform and fund X-Play on their own now? http://us.battle.net/wow/en/blog/11704542/WoW_Source_Warlords_of_Draenor-11_21_2013
Enchanted Fey Dragon and Alterac Brew-pup are now available on the store. The dragon changes colors even if you don’t drink the beer the dog gives you. http://us.battle.net/wow/en/blog/11704540/New_Mount_and_Make-A-Wish%C2%AE_Charity_Pet_Now_Available-11_21_2013
This isn’t an article. I’m just including this because its an impressive movie that highlights how Garrosh has changed over the years. And well, just watch… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yjlEn88kABI
Happy Pilgrim’s Bounty! And of course, Happy Thanksgiving!!! http://us.battle.net/wow/en/blog/11767746/Pilgrims_Bounty_is_Here-11_25_2013