The well-known MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game) World of Warcraft (WoW) was released in 2004, and was the best-selling PC game in 2005 and 2006. WoW continued to grow with multiple expansions, the newest of which was Mists of Pandaria in 2012, with Warlords of Draenor to be released in late 2014.
When WoW was first released, two deaths occurred in 2005 that were a direct result of addiction to the game. Further stories of addiction were published, with WoW being described as “as addictive as cocaine” when one teenager suffered from convulsions after playing WoW for a 24-hour stretch. WikiHow now hosts a page titled “How to Break a World of Warcraft Addiction”.
So has the world (of real life) been overrun with WoW addicts and a spate of game-related deaths? No – quite the contrary. Over time, WoW has continued to decline in player numbers (and player enjoyment), to the point where WoW is now far surpassed by other MMOs such as League of Legends. Once the MMORPG golden girl, WoW has definitively been set aside in favour of newer games, different MMORPGs, and new gaming experiences and platforms.
But what happened to World of Warcraft? How did we break the addiction?
There are a number of reasons why people stopped playing WoW. First, WoW is a community game – if players start leaving, this creates an exponentially-increasing exodus as the game world becomes emptier. At its peak, WoW could lay claim to 12 million subscribers in the latter half of 2010, coinciding with the lead up to the release of the third expansion, Cataclysm. After this point, subscriber numbers declined, and now sit at 7.6 million in 2014. There was a slight jump in numbers back to 10 million when Mists of Pandariawas released, but not enough to bring WoW back to its former glory.
So was it Cataclysm‘s fault? Why did people stop playing after that expansion was released? Patch 4.0.1, the “Cataclysm Systems Patch“, included some major new changes. Some of those changes made significant alterations to core parts of the game, such as the flexible raid lockout system, and overhauls to most player classes. The flexible raid lockout system was a good thing: it meant you could enter raids once a week in either 25-man or 10-man mode, and would not be locked out of the 10-man if you had completed the 25 man, and vice versa. Previously if you completed a raid in a 10-man group, you would be locked out for 1 week before you could complete it again, and would not be able to complete it in the 25-man mode. Whether the changes to player classes were good was debateable, depending on which class you played – many people would say that, for example warlocks or death knights were now “op” (overpowered), or that priests had been “nerfed” (reduced in strength). These changes however are not significant enough to cause a mass exodus from the game, as various classes are made stronger and weaker all the time to ensure the game is balanced. So why did people leave?
I believe that another patch, patch 4.3, was partially to blame. Patch 4.3, the “Hour of Twilight” included a new feature – the “Raid Finder”. The Raid Finder allowed you to find groups through a dedicated UI (user interface), instead of using the in-game chat. This slowly decreased the need to use the in-game chat to talk at all, and the community became more focused on leveling-up, rather than talking to other players. This fed into the decline of the community-focused aspect of WoW that I mentioned earlier – when your friends stop playing, and you can’t easily make new friends because nobody uses the chat, the “MM” part of MMORPG fades away. Rob Bernstein from Den of Geek also suggests that the aging of the player base also fed into the slowly dying community:
In the Mists of Pandaria pre-patch, patch 5.0, Blizzard attempted to expand and re-create the community aspect of WoW by adding cross-realm interaction. This patch allowed players to speak to and interact with players from other realms, instead of just their own realm as had been the case previously. I believe that this had the opposite effect than what Blizzard intended: it further destroyed the community aspect of WoW, as in the past players had valued their realm-specific culture and attitudes: now players from other realms were in ‘your world’ to group with, interact with, and raid with.
Fast-tracking to level cap
Another factor is glaringly obvious in the decline of WoW – as time passed, the number of expansions increased, the level cap went up, and players wanted to reach ‘max level’ as fast as possible. In the past, leveling up your character to level 60 was hard. As the level cap increased to 70, then 80, then 90 (and 100 yet to come), the first 60 levels became incredibly easy. Combined with the raid and instance finder, it was easy to find a group for instances, easy to find people to do it with you (because of cross-realm play), and character skills were generally overpowered and increased to allow players to level quickly to reach the new level cap. Players who have taken a long hiatus from WoW note that the game feels “pointlessly easy” now, which is one sure-fire way to ensure that new or returning players feel no enjoyment and no challenge from the game.
The final nail in the coffin for WoW has been the competition of other, high-quality MMOs. Guild Wars, in particular, was an early competitor for WoW, with its release in 2005. Many players played both games, or were staunchly in either the WoW or Guild Wars camp. Numerous forum posts asked the famed question “WoW or Guild Wars: Which should I play?“. The declining challenge of playing WoW, combined with the dying community, coincided with the release of Guild Wars 2 in 2012. Guild Wars 2 was released with “universal acclaim”, and within 3 months, sold 3.5 million copies.
At the beginning of 2012, WoW had approximately 10 million subscribers; in 2013 it had 8.3 million, and by 2014, 7.6 million according to statista.com . It is highly unlikely that the exodus of players from WoW was due to a direct shift from WoW to Guild Wars 2. However, for players who had looked at both WoW and Guild Wars in 2005 and 2006, if WoW was no longer meeting their needs, Guild Wars 2 would no doubt easily come to mind as one of the most likely alternatives. Furthermore, as additional WoW patches have come out, the graphics have only been slightly increased each time. Guild Wars 2 came out with brand-spanking-new 2012 graphics – WoW simply cannot compete with this – and Guild Wars 2 is far from being the only competitor!
All of these reasons combined to lead to the slow decline of the WoW subscriber base, to the point where subscriber levels are now nearly on par with when it was first released. While WoW is most definitely dying as an MMORPG, it will always be a pioneer and a classic in its genre. Many MMORPG players now measure their gaming experience with: “is this game as good as WoW?”. While the new game they are looking at may be far better than WoW is now, what the player really means is: “is this game as good as WoW was? Will it give me that experience that WoW gave me when I first played?”. WoW won numerous awards after its release in 2005, and was listed as one of the top 200 games of all time by Game Informer. These accolades were for no small reason: despite its decline, WoW is and will remain one of the bar-setting MMORPGs of the modern age.