Rewriting the Rules

Cataclysm isn't just an expansion pack - it's a fundamental change to how MMOs are operated.

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If many of your friends are gamers - and if you're reading this, I'd rather hope that least some of them fit that profile - then you may well have noticed something of an exodus from the real world occurring this week. Ever since Tuesday, my various social networking accounts, my phone's email inbox and even some real-life conversations have followed a familiar pattern. "Cataclysm's here," they say, "I'll see you on the other side."

What's extraordinary about this flurry of defections from Earth in favour of the homely charms of Azeroth is the sheer range of people involved. Age, gender and occupation are no barrier, and the launch of the new expansion provides the stimulus (or perhaps excuse) required for WoW's most casual players to return to the game for a few months and explore.

Yet Cataclysm represents something more than just another chance to marvel at World of Warcraft's success, to regurgitate the enormous numbers - players, revenue, and so on - which have defined the game in the media in recent years. Nobody in the games business needs reminding of just how successful Blizzard's monstrous MMO really is, of how dominant it remains within its sector, or of the inevitability of a truly enormous launch for any new expansion.

What makes Cataclysm more interesting than any of this is that it's not, at heart, really an expansion. Rather, it's a ground-up revamp of the original game - a reworking of the six year-old content which defined the experience at the outset, along with a fundamental re-imagining of the stats and mathematics which are the beating heart of WoW's gameplay. Compared with these changes, the new races and zones, while exciting for many players, are a side dish.

In changing the fundamentals of World of Warcraft, Blizzard is taking an almost unimaginable risk. This is not comparable with releasing an update to a much-loved franchise which alters the basic structure of the game. A franchise can have the occasional dud game, or simply turn out the odd annual update that doesn't resonate with the audience. It might make it a little tougher to sell the following year's game, sure, but it's not like a weak game in, say, the Call of Duty franchise would change the fact that earlier games in the series were much loved.

World of Warcraft, however, is not a franchise. It is an active product, a living, breathing, revenue-generating part of Blizzard's business. Its creators don't want to convince people to buy another game in 12 or 18 months time - they want to convince them to keep parting with a subscription fee on a monthly basis. In that this involves sustaining devotion among an existing fanbase while growing the appeal into new audiences, that's a goal that's somewhat similar to that of standalone game developers. In that it demands the operation of a service which keeps players coming back month after month, it's utterly alien to them.

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