Blizzard's Appeal to Casuals and Why It Isn't So Simple
Blizzard Entertainment has set quite a few benchmarks over the years with its games. Warcraft II, Starcraft, and both Diablo and Diablo II all served as genre-defining franchises in the past and remain solid experiences even years after their respective releases. Of all Blizzard's games, though, World of Warcraft has probably had the most overall impact on the gaming world, if only because it was one of the most visible games outside of the traditional gaming community for many years and remains so today.
Depending on who you ask, however, all is not well in the World of Warcraft. The game has been losing subscribers fairly steadily ever since it hit its peak during its Wrath of the Lich King expansion, and one of the oft-cited reasons given by players who quit is the game's similarly steady trend in target audience.
World of Warcraft has been increasingly seeking to appeal to less hardcore gamers with each of its expansions since Wrath. Simplified skill systems, a completely redone faster/easier leveling system, and the addition of even a Raid-finder tool have all given appeal to less hardcore players.
With Mists of Pandaria, Blizzard has openly acknowledged they have been attempting to appeal to a more casual breed of gamer. As lead designer Tom Chilton worded it,
We would have been in bad shape had we not done that... People who played Vanilla always say 'if it had stayed the same, I would have the same fun now as I did then.' But that's not true. Audiences always evolve...
True enough, but...
An experience which remains static will certainly get boring for a sizable number of the people who originally found it appealing. Adding to the original experience will inevitably lead to some people, at least, having a difficult time adjusting. Let's be honest, though, World of Warcraft did not start these changes because they needed to stop people from leaving the game so much as to try and attract more people to it.
Blizzard is hardly alone in trying to appeal to a more wide-spread audience. Unfortunately for Mr. Chilton, it does not appear to be working quite as well as Blizzard might want us all to believe.
The sad truth is that World of Warcraft's peak subscription numbers were achieved back during Wrath of the Lich King, shortly before Cataclysm was released. Wrath was the last expansion before Blizzard started to make major changes to the game's basic formula for the sake of new players, and the changes started a few months before the release of Cataclysm, fitting the peak subscription timeframe perfectly.
The subscription numbers did jump briefly back up with the release of the newest expansion, but they resumed their downward trend shortly after. According to the raw numbers, however, Blizzard started shifting their focus when they were at the top of their game, when World of Warcraft was at its absolute peak. Why would they change the basic fundamentals of the game when they were at their best?
Looking at the subscription trends shortly before their peak with World of Warcraft, the growth rate of subscriptions had slowed by a significant amount. Blizzard could see they were starting to scrape the barrel, that they were getting close to attracting as many people as possible to their MMO. They had to decide how to proceed from there.
On the one hand, we have the argument of keeping the same focus and direction in an attempt to maintain the subscribers they already had. Obviously it would be the choice most of those subscribers would appreciate, but it would also be effectively admitting the game was approaching within eyesight of its natural death. Some niche MMOs manage to hold on after they pass their peak, with Final Fantasy XI and Runescape both being famous examples that still run to this day, but many more MMOs eventually simply cease to sustain an economically viable playerbase.
Blizzard, it would seem, rejected this possibility in favor of trying to redefine the game to appeal to new audiences.
Rather than wait for the game to begin declining naturally, they tried to revitalize it, and it is entirely possible they succeeded. We will likely never know if the change in direction slowed or accelerated the inevitable drop in subscriptions from peak.
As a former player who quit halfway through Cataclysm, I can only hope Blizzard eventually decides to accept that the World of Warcraft is likely past its prime and begin looking to crafting a new experience to match or, just maybe, surpass it.