Faced with that task, Cataclysm is as bold a move as can be imagined. It risks, of course, breaking the fundamentals of a game which is arguably the most successful in the history of the medium. It represents something that no other media company, let alone game company, has ever attempted to do - the radical reworking of a live franchise which generates over a billion dollars a year. It's the entertainment equivalent of open heart surgery.
Of course, the reason that nobody has ever attempted this before is because nobody has ever needed to. Blizzard doesn't have any choice but to invent a brand new playbook for World of Warcraft, because no other company has ever been in this situation. WoW is unprecedented not merely in its scale, but also in the fact that it continues to grow even after six years on the market. By this point in the lifecycle of other MMOs, even the most successful of them are winding down, to some extent - content expansions are designed to keep dedicated players going for as long as possible, but there's a broad acceptance that the years of growth are over.
WoW's situation is unique, in both a business and a cultural sense, because it hasn't followed that curve. Its growth slowed a little in the past year or so, certainly, but there's no sign of an actual decline - no reason to believe that having hit 12 million subscribers, the game won't eventually pass the next milestone at 13 million. Cataclysm, in this regard, is a fascinating experiment not just for WoW but for the games business as a whole. It's an experiment which seeks to answer the question of whether there can be such a thing as an evergreen game, one which is refreshed in perpetuity and keeps its consumer base fascinated in an entirely open-ended way.
If so - if Cataclysm truly works, a question which won't really be answered for at least a few years when we can gauge its long-term impact on WOW's growth curve - then it creates tantalising possibilities for gaming. Blizzard's success will, of course, be extremely difficult for even the most talented teams to replicate, and anyone who actually sets out to "replicate" WOW is doomed to failure from the outset. However, if evergreen games are a possibility, then it's inevitable the WOW will ultimately be joined by more of them - perhaps, in fact, it already has been, although it'll be tough to recognise that without the benefit of hindsight.
Either way, Cataclysm's bold, experimental nature makes it vastly more than just an expansion, just like World of Warcraft's extraordinary scale makes it more than just an MMO. Whatever your personal feelings on Blizzard's game may be, it's a cultural landmark, one which casts a long shadow over every other effort in the online gaming space - and Cataclysm is a turning point which will define the future of WoW, for better or for worse, and with it, the future of the entire subscription gaming market.
For the players, of course, this isn't important. They have new lands to explore, new races to play and a changed world to adventure through. For the next few weeks or months, their social lives (and those of their friends, I fear) may be somewhat diminished as a result. For the watching industry, however, it's what happens after those months that truly matters. For years, each new move on Blizzard's part has written a brand new chapter in the history of MMO gaming. Which way the story twists after this chapter will give us an important new perspective on the possibilities of gaming in a connected world.
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