What does a disruptive product do to the market? Firstly, it's a major success within the existing market space. World of Warcraft quickly absorbed the lion's share of the existing MMORPG market, and then started gobbling up large parts of the rest of the PC games market. Next, it consolidates - building a brand identity which makes it extremely hard for competitors to entice consumers out of that ecosystem. Most importantly, though, the disruptive product grows the market. The strong brand and the same values - usability, polish, design - which made it successful within the existing market also reach out to new consumers and new demographics.
This part of the lifecycle of a disruptive product - where it conquers, consolidates and expands the market - is well understood and has been discussed at great length both in the videogames industry and across the media and technology industries. However, there's another side to the lifecycle, one which we've seen far less of - what happens when a disruptive product goes into decline?
The optimistic view of WOW's detractors is that subscribers leaving the game would be absorbed into new and existing products within the videogames space, building audiences for competing games and encouraging more market diversity. The reality, however, is that while the small band of consumers who came to WOW from other MMORPGs (or other relatively hardcore PC gaming backgrounds) would probably jump ship to another service, the majority of the game's players who come from casual or non-gaming backgrounds are extremely unlikely to follow this path.
In fact, the chances are that these consumers will either stick with WOW, or fade out of the high-value gaming market (represented by subscriptions and full-price purchases) entirely. The simple reason is that WOW, in their eyes, has no realistic competitors - there is no brand with similar or greater prestige, or with sufficient inertia and promise, to pull them away from WOW. WOW has lifted a giant audience from being light consumers of free to play web games and other casual gaming experiences, but it's foolish to assume that they'll necessarily remain as more "core" consumers if WOW no longer holds their interest.
Instead, these consumers need an upgrade path - another disruptive product which will do to WOW what WOW did to the games that came before it, and pull the game's once-casual consumers further upstream, rather than letting them slip back into their previous state as largely uninvested, light consumers of games.
Despite the best efforts of other MMORPG companies - and many other companies whose strategy focuses on bridging the casual and hardcore markets - that game (or games) doesn't exist yet. There's every chance that when it does exist, it'll be Blizzard's own next MMORPG - or even a radical change to WOW itself - but the opportunity certainly exists for other companies to disrupt the post-WOW MMO space. Disruptive products aren't like childhood diseases - just because a market has been disrupted by a product like the iPod, the Wii or WOW doesn't mean that another company down the line won't be able to do the same thing again to the new market order.
Until such time as that product exists, however, WOW's rivals should be careful what they wish for. A decline in the market leader won't necessarily release a torrent of new consumers to the game's competitors - instead, it could simply drop millions of consumers back out of the MMO, high-income games sector entirely. The same problem exists with the Wii - were Nintendo's business to decline heavily, the Wii's consumers would not suddenly start buying Xbox consoles. Rather than taking for granted that newly converted game consumers will remain game consumers forever and praying for their wildly successful competitors' businesses to decline, the industry needs to focus its efforts on building upgrade paths to encourage these new gamers to swim further upstream.
For more views on the industry and to keep up to date with news relevant to the games business, read GamesIndustry.biz. You can sign up to the newsletter and receive the GamesIndustry.biz Editorial directly each Thursday afternoon.