The Real Cataclysm

Competitors hoping for WOW to decline should be careful what they wish for.

Published as part of our sister-site GamesIndustry.biz' widely-read weekly newsletter, the GamesIndustry.biz Editorial is a weekly dissection of one of the issues weighing on the minds of the people at the top of the games business. It appears on Eurogamer after it goes out to GI.biz newsletter subscribers.

For a company to organise a huge gaming conference dedicated solely to its own products feels rather like hubris, but this is an indulgence which Blizzard has unquestionably earned. Few developers have had such a profound impact on the games market in recent years - it's with good reason that the eyes of the games industry around the world turned to southern California last week.

The big news, as you are all undoubtedly aware, was the unveiling of the third expansion for World of Warcraft, titled Cataclysm. The expansion has already won plaudits from critics for being both radical and daring, overhauling the now-familiar game in fundamental ways which should, in theory, make the experience fresh even for those who have been playing for five years.

Blizzard's goal, of course, is easy to divine - they want to hold on to their player base, preferably continuing growth (albeit slow compared to the dazzling ascent of the past few years) rather than overseeing a gradual decline in subscriber numbers.

How the rest of the industry feels about that is a little harder to gauge. Of course, the success of World of Warcraft has vastly elevated the whole MMO space, changing it from being a niche interest for a handful of bearded, sandalled types into being a key pillar not only of PC gaming but of videogames as a whole.

WOW has revealed MMOs as an unlikely bridge between casual and hardcore gaming, demonstrating that the right game mechanics and presentation can appeal across this perceived divide in the market. In the process, it has attracted tens of millions of dollars of investment to MMO development and spurred the creation of dozens of pretenders to its throne.

Yet in the view of many within the industry, WOW has also locked up a huge chunk of revenue. Generating over a billion dollars a year, its sheer inertia, some argue, makes the MMO space impossibly hostile for new contenders - while others grumble that WOW players don't invest in other games, meaning that Blizzard's 9 per month is, in theory, depriving other game publishers of a full boxed game sale.

In the eyes of WOW's detractors, a decline in the game's subscriber numbers would be healthy for the games business. It would unlock millions of consumers, expanding the potential audience pool for other MMOs - thus allowing more of them to thrive - and sending more revenue back to both traditional boxed games and new gaming business models. Eroding WOW's monolithic status would, they claim, spur variety, innovation and diversity.

The problem with that theory is that it ignores the underlying reasons for WOW's success. The games business has talked a lot in recent years about "disruptive" products, largely due to the success of the DS and the Wii - low-tech, financially accessible systems which marry a certain degree of innovation with extremely polished design and desirable content. My contention would be that while it isn't a hardware platform, World of Warcraft is every bit as much a disruptive product as anything that Nintendo has created.

It's not hard to see the parallels between WOW and products like the Wii or the iPod. It's certainly low-tech - which allows it to run happily on old hardware, lowering the bar to entry significantly - but it makes up for that with stunning polish and design. While not being amazingly innovative (its designers happily confess to the extent to which they were influenced by games such as Ultima Online, Everquest and Dark Age of Camelot), it took pre-existing ideas and polished, honed and (in some cases) simplified them into a much more marketable state. This is, in many ways, the essence of a disruptive product.

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