There is a fascinating quote from WoW’s Tom Chilton in this IGN interview that, I believe, conclusively discredits the notion that Wrath of the Lich King (or really any expansion) was somehow responsible for the stagnation and peaking of subscriptions:
Moving forward beyond 4.3, Chilton explained the focus of the development team. “I would say that the majority of our mindshare as a team goes toward our existing player base. How do we keep them entertained and how do we keep them enjoying World of Warcraft? I don’t know if that’s necessarily the right approach as time keeps going on. If you look at, if you look at the way the population breaks down, we’re at a point in our history where there are more people that played World of Warcraft but no longer play World of Warcraft than currently play World of Warcraft. That was totally not true four or five years ago, and so in a way the demographic of the potential returning player becomes more and more important over time.”
On the one hand, some might argue that this phenomenon is not particularly noteworthy at all. If a MMO sells 100 copies and two months later only 49 are still subscribed, then more players have played that MMO and stopped than continue to play it – that does not means that there could not be another 100 potential customers who might not have known about the MMO.
The difference with WoW, of course, is one of magnitude. Depending on when Chilton looked at the population breakdown, that means WoW could have had in the neighborhood of ~24 million players overall. How much bigger can we imagine the market for a fantasy-based Warcraft IP MMO be? While we can only speculate, I think it is reasonable to assume based on Chilton’s response that the market is saturated to the point that Blizzard’s time is better spent recapturing lapsed players than it is marketing new ones. Surely they have done the market research, and if we accept them as rational businessmen, then this interview (and their actions) confirm the hypothesis of market saturation. In which case, as I argued several months ago, raid/reward philosophy shifts in Wrath of the Lich King (and Cataclysm) likely had little to nothing to do with slower subscription growth.
Beyond that, what is similarly fascinating about that interview is the very next paragraph:
“I don’t think we’ll ever be able to stop feeding the beast,” said Chilton. “It’s kind of what we call trying to keep the players entertained, you know the guys bored right now and you know what are they going to do next month? But I think that for us to continue to be successful we have to think more and more about the new players that are coming into the game now and the potential returning players. What are we doing to the game that lowers those barriers to entry?”
I suppose it could be read multiple ways, but I got the impression that going forward Blizzard’s design will be less centered on keeping existing players happy and more on enticing back former players. Obviously, things like tier sets on vendors and more accessible raids make hardcore players unhappy, but this seems a confirmation that – in true triage form – the designers would rather make you (an existing customer) unhappy if they could potentially lure back two former customers. The ideal would be that they could both make you happy and former players happy simultaneously, of course. That said, this is the first time I have come across so candid a game designer.
As a former player myself, it will be interesting to see how this shakes out.