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Is the end nigh for World of Warcraft?

It’s taken almost ten years but it appears that World of Warcraft’s story is drawing to a close.

Over the last four years the game’s subscriber base has shrunk from 12m to 6.8m. And even the game’s developer Blizzard isn’t convinced the game will grow again.

It is possible, although I wouldn’t say it is something that we expect,” Blizzard’s lead game designer Tom Chilton tells MCV. It is difficult to see though, because of the types of players we are getting now. All throughout Warcraft’s history we have had churn.

"People have said throughout the game’s lifespan: ‘I played that. It was fun. But now I’m moving on.’ And that has not changed as meaningfully as the funnel of people coming in has. The players that are coming into the game now are just not as apt to stick with it as the players that came in ten years ago were. So that may create an environment where it is just not realistic for WoW to grow again.”

"The players that are coming into the game now
are just not as apt to stick with it as the players
that came in ten years ago were. So that may
create an environment where it is just not
realistic for WoW to grow again.”

Tom Chilton – lead game designer, Blizzard

But it’s not that Blizzard is giving up on its lucrative MMO. Far from it – this Christmas it will release its fifth expansion, Warlords of Draenor, which Chilton calls definitely our most ambitious expansion”. And the firm is giving away a Level 90 character with every purchase of the add-on, in an effort to win back fans who have left the game.

We are at the point now where there have been people that have dropped off all through Warcraft’s history,” says Chilton. Increasingly, by releasing expansions you are almost building up barriers to these players coming back. So by including the Level 90 character with this expansion, it gives these people the opportunity to, wherever they were, jump right back in.

This also has secondary benefits to our existing players, because often our existing players want to have another high level character.”

It’s clearly a popular offer. Gamers can obtain that Level 90 character right away by pre-ordering Warlords of Draenor, which has made it the most pre-ordered Warcraft expansion in its history.

But what about new fans? Can Draenor win those over too?

That is not really a focus for us with this expansion,” says Chilton. We do get a substantial number of new players throughout the year. We are making a significant effort to convert a higher percentage of them, because what we are finding is that people who are coming into the game today are very different to those that started playing eight years ago – just in terms of their general experience of playing PC games.

"We focus test new groups of players trying it out and it is painful to watch because they have the camera stuck to the ground, they don’t know where they’re going or how to move. These are a lot of things that we really took for granted when we first created the game. So we have a tutorial for players who are totally new, and that should help.”

Indeed, Chilton admits WoW can be a bit too much for new players.

The game can only get so complicated before it starts
to collapse under its own weight, and becomes very
cumbersome to do anything new with. So we are always
trying to simplify the game, while at the same time add
new things so that the total complexity does not get
completely out of control. And you could already argue
that the complexity of WoW is already huge. That can be
overwhelming to new people coming in.”

Tom Chilton – lead game designer, Blizzard

The game can only get so complicated before it starts to collapse under its own weight, and becomes very cumbersome to do anything new with,” he comments. So we are always trying to simplify the game, while at the same time add new things so that the total complexity does not get completely out of control. And you could already argue that the complexity of WoW is already huge. That can be overwhelming to new people coming in.”

But Warlords of Draenor is not intended to win new fans; it’s more a way to keep the firm’s existing 6.8m players engaged.

Draenor has taken over two years to arrive – longer than expected – but this was because the firm has actually grown its WoW team from 150 to 220. The plan, says Chilton, is to release more expansions faster.

By growing by 50 per cent, you don’t get people in off the street who can make content exactly in the way that we would want. There’s an acclimatisation process. That has resulted in slowing us down.But in the long-term we are now positioned to release expansions more frequently.”

The World of Warcraft story clearly has a few more years in it yet.

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