Wednesday, February 1, 2012

That Great Gig in the Sky

"Nature just gave up and started again.  We weren't even apes then.  We were just these smart little rodents hiding in the rocks.  And when we go, nature will start over.  With the bees, probably.  Nature knows when to give up, David."  --Stephen Falken, Wargames

Lately, I’ve been wondering how WoW will end.  Not the storyline, mind you, but how the game itself will shut down.

(In February, you get some serious brooding done.  Either that or I’m listening to too much Dar Williams and Pink Floyd these days.)

How will it look to those of us who have been around for a while?  Will we know the contraction caused by lost subs when we see it?  I’m reminded of what it would look like for people living in the decline of an empire, and whether the citizens would recognize the decline around them. 

I suppose the first sign would be the lack of activity on the servers themselves.  Of course, at this stage of an expac it would be difficult to notice real subscription loss versus the ‘end of expac blues’, so it would be quite easy to ignore the wide open spaces and empty zones.

But it wouldn’t be easy to ignore server shutdown.

I imagine there’s a certain level of subscription loss on a server that, once crossed, would place the server on a path to consolidation.  Corporations do this all the time to save money; they will go through periods of server expansion up until someone finally checks out the amount of support they’re paying for each server.  Once that happens, a corporation will consolidate as much as it can to retire old and underutilized servers.  Electrical costs, maintenance costs, and other items affecting the bottom line will push Activision, and they will in turn push Blizzard into making their server farm more ‘efficient.’

Eventually, that will happen with the WoW servers.  One day you’ll wake up, login, and find a message stating that Wyrmrest Accord is being folded into Argent Dawn.  Then it will hit you:  WoW really is contracting.

The large population servers may not even notice this contraction going on; they have, after all, a huge number of toons on them, and they wouldn’t have any mass migrations of their own.  It’s only when you check to see server availability on Patch Day and you mutter to yourself that the server list looks smaller than it used to be that you’ll start to wonder.

Tools such as LFR and LFD will hide declines very easily too, giving the appearance that server activity is up when the reality is quite different.

If server activity declines and consolidations occur, what about character/faction transfer?  Those will already be in decline due to LFR and LFD and cross server grouping, but as fewer toons are being played there is less incentive to take advantage of these offerings, so Blizz will see revenues fall in this arena too.
Once a decline begins, it is very difficult to stop it.  Typically, a corporation will cut staff in response to a lack of funding, causing development staffs to scale back release schedules and content, which only creates a feedback loop, accelerating the decline.

But at this critical period a development team needs more funding, not less, to dampen the subscription loss and reverse the long term trend.

In the end, if this cycle goes on for a while, the product will limp along with a small amount of hard core players, until some corporate boss will pull out a PowerPoint stack and demonstrate how cost effective it would be to simply shut the servers down.  People have moved on, he will say, and our resources would be more efficiently deployed on other teams.  Or maybe the corporation would be best served selling the product to a third party who would be more focused on the business than they can hope to achieve.

Such a spinoff, if any, might give an MMO a second chance at life, but these divestitures are often a complete crapshoot.  Either way, it may only stave off the inevitable for a few years.

And then the ghosts of SW:G and other defunct MMOs will gather on a specified day to watch their most well known cousin finally join them in the graveyard of software.  The cycle will be complete, and another will have taken WoW’s place.

(Hopefully I’ll come up with something a bit more uplifting next time, like people acting stupid in Isle of Conquest.)


  1. I think one thing that WoW has going for it is a muted expansion cycle. They've released 3 expansions in 8 years. In that same time frame, everquest pushed out a dozen expansions, a sequel, and 8 expansions to the sequel. LOTrO did four expansions in five years. So the development resources required are much less than other games, and that will work in WoW's favor.

    There will be server mergers. I'd be willing to be we'll begin to see them in MoP. Eventually it'll be a shell of it's former self, maybe two or three million players spread across a dozen realms in each region. But I think the actual death of WoW is still a good 10 years off. It'll linger for a long time, just as everquest has.

  2. True, WoW doesn't push out quite as much content as some other MMOs, but they don't have to. And on the flip side, WoW probably has fewer development resources assigned than other staffs, which means that it is harder for them to turn stuff around on a dime without it impacting the overall schedule.

    With the overall death of WoW, you never quite know. It could be that WoW will be allowed to linger, but it could also happen that Activision will want it killed to push people (and staff) into Titan. Sometimes, corporations do strange things like sell off a product line that is profitable, but not profitable enough.