Blizzard's Appeal to Casuals and Why It Isn't So Simple

A look at why World of Warcraft has become more of a casual MMO and the cost from a gamer's perspective.

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.

New 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.

Practical Effects

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.

Featured Columnist

Writer, gamer, and generally hopeful beneath a veneer of cynicism.

Published Aug. 26th 2013
  • Mr. Everywhere
    Since Call of Duty popularized gaming with it's online multi player, ALL (or at least a grand majority) of companies have started to phase out hardcore gamers to focus on casual gamers. Why? Simply because there are far more them now that gaming is no longer a "nerd's hobby".
  • Earthenware
    This is as good a try at explaining the decline in WoW subscriptions as I've seen, but I think you are still rather wide of the mark.

    I've been playing the game since the release of the first expansion and I've seen a lot of players come and go and as a Guild Master I feel that I have got a fair insight into what has happened.

    The first thing to understand is what 'casual' and 'hardcore' players actually are.

    Hardcore players tend to be young, single people who like to devote large amounts of time to a game, researching game mechanics, crunching numbers and looking for a challenge. They tend to get bored once they have completed the content of an expansion. They tend not to leave subscriptions in place and often pay vis Blizzard's Pay Card scheme.

    Casual players tend to be a little older and looking for a time-sink. They are often people who want to unwind after work or perhaps have an hour or two online after putting children to bed. They enjoy social aspects of the game and are not usually looking for a challenge – which they got at work. These people tend to subscribe via Direct Debit and leave their expansions in place until a long period of inactivity when they are sure that they will not be returning.

    In light of this, you can see that changing the game to “a completely redone faster/easier levelling system” leading to faster entry into end-game content is not what casual players want.

    Furthermore, your quote from Tom Chiltern about the reason for the changes at the end of the WotLK expansion do not match the public statements of Blizzard's Lead Game Designer at the time (Greg Street). He said that there was going to be a shift towards making the game harder. This was, I believe, in his opinion a necessary measure to resolve the issue of hardcore players completing content and not renewing their subscriptions.

    The end result of this was that the “time sink” elements (levelling, professions etc) were neglected and end-game content (raids) was enhanced. This is what led to the most common reason I have heard for people quitting the game – it isn't fun any more.

    The game has lost appeal to casual players for the simple reason that Blizzard never understood what a casual player actually was. The number of subscriptions will decline further as there are many people still who just haven't got around to cancelling their subscriptions yet.
  • Germ_the_Nobody
    The loss of subscribers is only to do with the subscription fee. There are far more quality free-to-play games now that you can play 100% free.
    World of Warcraft has had a casual focus since its original launch. TBC was the first time they started making the game even more casual, not Cataclysm.

    Even with the decline, with 7 million subscribers it would be silly for Blizzard to just be like "okay we're done now".
    They "began crafting a new experience" years ago. And World of Warcraft itself has always been evolved.

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