Strong communities are the lifeblood of successful MMORPGs. When you lose the support of your community, the game begins to unravel. Is Blizzard in danger of losing their community? That is probably much too broad of a conclusion to reach very quickly when you are speaking of over 11 million people spread around the entire world, but lately there seems to be decision after decision that is costing Blizzard revenue which is manifesting itself in the form of lost subscribers and angry consumers.
When Cataclysm launched, I immediately became concerned about several choices that Blizzard made. Among those choices were: Level cap; rate of leveling; and the merging of 10 and 25 raids. For the leveling cap and the rate of leveling my primary concern was that quite literally the first person made level 85 mere hours after the expansion went live. Active players were easily reaching the cap in less than two weeks. Large, active guilds have well over 100 members at the cap within the first month. While hard core raiding guilds always jump out fast, when WOLK launched the vast majority of the community took several months to reach the critical mass needed for its primary focus to shift towards end game content. In Cataclysm that shift began occurring within two weeks of the launch and had engulfed a large part of the games population within the first month.
So with a much higher percentage of the gaming population reaching the end-game quicker than ever before, the next major concern reared up. In WOLK, players could participate in both a 10man raid and a 25man raid in the same week. Each tier of raiding had its own lock-out and its own set of loot. In Cataclysm you could raid either one of those two options (or a hybrid of the two but you only cleared a single set of the bosses). There was is one lock-out (per boss). There is one tier of loot. So in effect, that meant there is half as much to do at the end game.
So leveling was very fast, relative to how it had been in the past. The end game was half as lengthy as before just in terms of the volume of content available. And players were burning through the content pretty fast with guilds fully clearing it in larger numbers and more quickly than in previous expansions.
All of that matters because it begs the question of "is Blizzard in danger of losing their community?" If there is one thing Blizzard is not known for it is being fast at creating content. While many would say they create compelling, polished, entertaining, top tier content (and I would agree) they are far from fast at doing so. When WoW first came out, there was a public commitment to 1 expansion per year. In actuality there has been about one every 2 years. The first new major content patch (the 4.2 patch that adds a new raid zone and a new crop of daily quests) is still in testing. Blizzard is not fast at creating content.
As a result... in their investor call this month they announced they had lost 600,000 subscribers since the launch of Cataclysm. While that is "only" 5% (and over $100M in revenue annually) of its subscriber base it represents the game shifting backwards and doing so very soon after the launch of a major expansion. WoW is returning to a level of subscriptions roughly equivalent to where it was at the launch of WOLK (i.e. 2 expansions ago.)
With subscriptions going backwards, one would think that a natural focus would be to re-energize the community and try to draw people back into the game. So what was the Blizzard response? "Hey! We want to SELL you a new feature to talk to your buddies when you aren't in game!!" Response to that offering was mixed. There were some who were very excited for it and who did not mind the idea of paying for it but there were also a sizable number of angry posts from people upset they were being asked to pay for yet another feature.
Following just a couple weeks later, another "for pay" feature was announced. If you pay a fee, you will be able to group with your RealID friends inside dungeons regardless of what server they pay on. Just 2 days after that announcement was made, there were already 8 threads that had maxed out the allowed number of replies on the Blizzard forum. The vast majority of those replies were very hostile towards the idea of charging players for yet more game related features. They covered a wide range of intensity but the upset players far outnumbered those in support of offering the new premium feature.
When I personally think about that new feature what strikes me is that the very scenario Blizzard wants to charge me to overcome (i.e. friends stuck on other servers) is a situation they helped to create. During the first couple of years of WOW, numerous times they "locked" servers disallowing new players to join them due to overcrowding. That forced people to start on other servers which in turn created the situation of splitting friends across different realms. They added a premium feature to pay to move but the cost of that feature limited its adoption as did the fact that players built roots on the servers they ended up on and not all of them want to give up those roots. So this new offering was created. It is both lower cost (per month.. but over the life of the subscription to the feature it could easily cost more than a character move) and does not force a player to give up their local server community relations. That said, it is ironic that in order to fix a Blizzard issue of insufficiently sized servers from several years ago, players can chose one of two options to pay them more money.
Regardless of whether you feel those player concerns are just sour grapes or completely valid, one thing is certain: Blizzard's subscriptions are declining. I contend that you must 'win the crowd' (to borrow a line from Gladiator) in order to reverse that tide. Community is key to long term MMORPG success. In my opinion, Blizzard is not winning the crowd/community right now. They are alienating an increasingly large portion of their community (is that another 5%? Is it 25%? Its hard to tell at this point. Come December when we assess the overall population decline for 2011 we will have a better feel for that) at a time they need to be drawing people in and reassuring the current subscribers.
In the online world, sentiments have an eerie way of taking root and spreading rapidly. If you look at Everquest, in 2004 the boards became full of people angry over how raiding worked at that time and with WoW just around the corner subscriptions took a 20% hit as things snowballed on the forums. As WoW launched and positive reviews came in, that fervor spread and within a year more than 60% of the EQ population was gone. But... the counter point to thinking things could snowball for Blizzard is that WoW is more than a billion and a half dollar business. Its the cash cow right now and one would have to assume there are some highly paid, very smart people looking at the growing sentiment coupled with declining subscriptions and noodling through ideas on how to change the tone of the conversation. It will be interesting to see which force turns out to be the greater one. Will player outcry turn into an avalanche or will the massive revenue, backed by a powerful brand name with a history of success, be able to head that off?
What are your thoughts on the recent direction Blizzard has taken WoW? Is Cataclysm a success in your eyes or a failure that is gaining steam as time goes on? What about their recent additions to the "premium services" including the recent plan to charge to group with your friends on other servers? Are those a smart business move or yet another signal Blizzard is falling out of touch with its core consumers?