Gamer psychology. Is World of Warcraft dead or dying?

               I’ve been watching the drama unfold for the past couple of years. It’s about the World of Warcraft subscriber losses and trends, not something people might want to read but it’s something I’m interested in – it can also prove useful for other products. How? By looking past the numbers and into the abyss of basic human psychology. I’ve seen this behavior copied on many products that require content delivery, from websites to games, and they all get it wrong. Yes, I’m right about it. Yes, I’m quite sure of it. If you think that helps you, read on, otherwise stop right here.

               Blizzard’s hit MMO, World of Warcraft, started out in 2004. I’ve played it on and off since 2007-2008, just enough to get hooked on it. The biggest number of subscribers were around 12 million players, in 2010 – at the height of Wrath of the Lich King expansion – and it’s been declining ever since. Now, the number of subscribers has fallen to 5.6 million – the 2005 level. People say it’s dying. I agree. The trend is true. But why? Can the trend be reversed? Let’s see..

               Frequent reasons for this decline include “Game engine is outdated”, “Looking for raid”, “No flying”, “Raiding”, “Lack of content”, “lack of difficulty”, “bad choices in expansion lore”, “less social interactions” and so on. I don’t think that’s it. I really, really believe that’s not it. Why? Because that’s not how reality works. First of all, the amount of content required for something to reach “adequate” levels differs, it depends who’s defining “adequate”.

               You see, the company needs to expand, to sell more, to get more money from the customers – this is done by charging money for various things, from new expansions to in-game items. To make more money they need to look at the cost of development/marketing and compare it to the baseline, therefore the company has to ask a simple question: “what’s the minimum amount of content one has to offer in order to have the customers pay for it and not ask for more?”. Blizzard has to keep subscribers hooked, because 60 euro for an expansion times 10 million subscribers equals 600 million euro but 13 euro a month times 10 million subscribers times 12 months equals more than a 1.5 billion euro. Keep in mind every expansion lasts more than a year. Furthermore, a happy subscriber sometimes spends even more money on in-game items, cosmetic stuff, various services – hell, revenue from one expansion is less than one third the total revenue – assuming the numbers don’t change. But they do.

               The other side of the equation defines “adequate” content quite differently, the customers consider the amount of content as well as the quality of content, it has to last until the next expansion hits and it has to keep them entertained, not an easy task since everybody’s got the attention span of a goldfish. They don’t want to pay for anything else, not for services, not for cosmetic items, not for mounts, pets or other pixels – yet they will, if they’re happy. If they’re not happy, they’ll leave, and goodbye revenue. Most games producers can’t understand this, which is the reason 99% of them failed and went free to play or out of business.

               There are tons of things to improve, fix or make on such a game once it goes live, I know. Story, lore, is only just a part – it’s the hook to get people to play. There’s only one or two games with more story in them than Warcraft, yet none of them even managed to keep it going for so long. Story is good, but not enough. Game graphics is often brought up to show the massive (and I do mean massive, really) difference between a MMO like World of Warcraft and other games, yet this can’t explain the numbers. Guess what? Wikipedia clearly shows that 3 of the top 5 games for PC are Blizzard’s. World of Warcraft, Starcraft, Diablo III – without accounting for Warcraft 3, Diablo, or other expansions or games from that same company, though the data may be a little outdated (2013, 2014 numbers). None of those games has top notch graphics and you know why? Because those who complain about high quality graphics are actually trolls – I’ve recently ran a Monster Hunter benchmark on a E8400 Core2Duo with GT 730 gddr5 graphics card and it told me the setup was above 35% of those who ran it. I’m willing to bet 70% of the PC-s that people use are about the same performance, if not worse thant that. Making a game excluding 70% of the potential customers is like shooting yourself in the foot – it’s idiotic. Hell, make a game for those people and you’ll make more money than a game with graphics the latest Witcher 3 would not top. Graphics aren’t the issue here, game stability and the lack of bugs on lower performance computers are the issue. Lore brings people to your game – yet those numbers give you only about 30% of the potential revenue, so what’s actually missing here? Heh. Gamer psychology.

I’ve got 5 bullet points I’d frame on my wall if I could:

  1. People buy things they don’t need only if ego is involved (or if they’re forced, but let’s not expand on that). All of us are elitist at our core, the need to appear better than others sometimes overrides even basic logic.
  2. People avoid life at all costs because it’s so hard so they try to replace it with things that validate their choices.
  3. Nobody likes to be told they made the wrong choice – we all want to be right on everything.
  4. Never, ever, not once, not in a million years, give something to somebody then take it away from them.
  5. Everybody wants to be accepted, cared for, pampered, yet nobody wants to do that to others. Do unto others as you’d have others do unto you is not a guiding principle for most people.

               Obviously buying a new game won’t do much for anyone’s ego but it is a big part of keeping the customers hooked and paying. You see, if you’ve put enough time and sweat into something, you’ll be less likely to stop – especially when you’ve got more gear, achievements, mounts, gold, pets than half the player base of the game. “I’ve been playing since vanilla, you noob!” – that one’s an actual quote from somebody, and it’s quite common. Also, your knowledge of the game allows you to feel superior to many other players, while in real life …

               I’ve said it before, I’ll sait it again – nothing will hurt you more than life. There’s no manual, no guide for life, the only sure thing in it is death. We’re all required play, yet success and happiness aren’t certain so naturally, there’s more than half of humanity actively avoiding anything to do with life. We don’t know what to do with our time except work – because there’s a manual for that. Eventually, we dedicate our free time to doing things that reward us, that give the validation real life denies us. Some take up hobbies, some watch TV, some play video games. The only way to hook people is to make them all winners. Yet, if we’re all winners, who’s losing? Ego needs to be fed. Like I said, we’re all elitists, we need to know there’s somebody doing worse than us. Ergo – there has to be different content to cater to different groups. PvP, PvE, pet battles, raiding, achievements – they’re all good for making groups feel good about their progress, unless you screw it up and make them available to everybody. Guess what happened? Yeah, they thought differently. They opened everything to everybody, even giving them the same rewards (maybe colored differently). Hardcore players raged – because they’re not elite anymore. No, they are, but what makes them elite (the number of bosses killed) is not obvious at the very first glance. Ego took a hit, ergo frustration and rage.

               There’s something every single game developer has to understand – there is a division of consumers, an active one. You have the hardcore who’ll take everything to the extreme, you have the casual elitists who were once or just consider themselves almost hardcore but can’t actually do it for reasons they can’t control (like work, family, kids, and so on), the casual socials who are only in it to escape life’s dissapointments and care only about spending their limited time and be rewarded for it and there’s the kids with the attention span of a fruit fly who can’t keep doing anything for more than a few minutes because they get bored. Your offer only has to keep everybody entertained for the duration. Ouch. There’s hope though, you can trick them if you’re always aware they want different things. How?

               Easy. It has to do with time. A hardcore gamer, for instance, will spend alot of time doing mind numbing things because the reward is so rare, so exclusive, it will feed his ego. Make things harder for them, give them Archimonde-type raids and achievements, rare spawns like TLPD and so on. Make those rewards time-consuming. A casual elitist also wants to feel better than the rest, yet knows there’s a reason he can’t be hardcore, time limits. They’re willing but unable, so this group will care about rewards that show others they’re better, but still not top dog. They won’t care about mythic raiding, they know they don’t have the time for it, so lesser rewards will work wonders – just as long as they’re out of the reach of somebody. Ego feeding for them, too. The casual socials are something else, though. They only want to feel useful, appreciated, cared for – so they’ll be the ones doing most of the achievements, pvp, questing, pet battles and so on. This group is the one who values the quality of the content you’ve created. They can’t be bothered to raid, unless it’s LFR, they can’t be bothered to do anything taking more than one hour at one time. Anything that requires more than one hour a day without interruptions will be avoided, unless they can choose their time. They aren’t that vocal, they aren’t that elitist but they are your biggest obstacle to overcome – if you keep them happy, they’ll keep paying. Oh, and they work in packs, too.

               However, there’s the last group that kills the mood – those that skip content then whine about the lack of content. They’re the ones most likely to troll, hurt, demean or complain – yet they’re also paying customers. They can’t be bothered to play, yet demand to be called hardcore because everybody knows yelling and making fun of people makes you hardcore. I knew a young fellow once that managed to disband our raiding guild by cursing on voice chat and calling everybody stupid because we didn’t use his strategies even though we did and failed – he thought his strategies were sound and our failure ment we didn’t use them. 3 quarters of the raiders were over the age of 30 who loved raiding drunk because it was fun and, like a buddy said, he won’t play a game where a kid curses him because it’s too much like his real job, his boss being half his age. This group is also the most volatile of all, they get bored fast and complain the most. If you want a game to fail, target them.

               Now all of this is good and well, but why is World of Wacraft down in subscribers? Because of their choices. They made several types of the same raid – LFR, normal, heroic and mythic, yet all give the same type of rewards, but colored differently. The difficulty of normal and heroic is rather close, too. The only things you can’t get in LFR are pets and mounts, and I think they’re actually trying to bring the pet drops there, too. Also, legendary items are now for everyone – who the hell thought this was a good idea? Of course there’s rage – there’s nothing to feed the ego. Then again, the same thing happened in pvp. Fast leveling is allowed, allowing content skippers to skip content. Going from 1 to 100 now takes a few days – of course there’s drama over the lack of content, especially since they’ve never seen 80% of it. Then there’s the flying. You can buy flying mounts from the online store – but can’t use them in the current expansion. Genius, really.. You’ve just told them they made the wrong choice with their own money. Yeah, it’s not so good when you think about it. Besides, you could fly in older expansions, but not in this one. Like I said, never give things to people then take them away from them. Yes, you can skip content by flying but no, that’s not a real reason to forbid it – work around it. Just once I’d love to fly somewhere to mine or fish without being followed by a dozen lower level mobs in Gorgrond. Yeah, not a good choice. Of course, the worse thing for casuals was something else entirely – garrisons. Good, nice content, but solo. Raiders don’t do garrisons, casuals do – but they work in packs and … again, you don’t get to mingle with other players in your garrison. Bad, bad, bad choice. This was even worse than the story, which was about orcs, again. Time travelling orcs, alternate universe orcs, two expansions of orcs. Even Cataclysm was about orcs, if you consider Mary Sue Thrall. Nothing new there, moving on.

               The real problem was not this expansion, actually, but how content got twisted over the last 3 expansions. WotLK was good, very good, yet people complained it was too easy – so Blizzard made end-game content harder, going to the extreme – it made 5 man dungeons that were so loved by casuals previously, too hard. Then they made it too easy. Different classes many of the same utility abilities, so there was no real need for choosing a shaman over a mage. Unless you did Firelands, then suddenly fire mages became mandatory (unless you were an idiot like me, doing Alystrazor as arcane). DPS went full retard, it was so not balanced you couldn’t even compare different classes, or hell, the same class on a different boss. Then they went to make things better for solo players because apparently socials love solitude – yeah, a big no-no for casuals, then scenarios were introduced. Easy work, easy rewards, less social interactions. Queue, no need to talk to people. Then, again, dailies became sort of mandatory – that one made casuals even less social. In other words, the rewards were there for all and the social aspect was down the drain. Trolls everywhere rejoiced (and I don’t mean troll trolls, but the trolling players), as more opportunity for grief and drama suddenly appeared. Achievements for everyone, the same gear for everyone – communist utopia in the making. You still wonder why the game’s on a downward spiral? There’s your answer. The game designers forgot their target demographics. And there’s the bugs – anyone remember servers crashing when they decided to make garrisons mandatory? Everybody had to make a garrison in order to progress – ergo, too many people using the same resource, servers, at the same time. Ergo, crashes. For days people couldn’t play the expansion they paid money for. Yeah, beta testing and stress resource allocation is for the weak. Genius thrives in chaos.

               Can Blizzard reverse this trend? Yes. No. I don’t know. I like the story, I like the content – but the players changed. The game’s less MMO and more FPS. It’s becoming Eve Online only without the guilds, players are more likely to do things solo and that’s what made the casuals unsubscribe en-masse, there’s nobody sane to talk to or do things with. Hurting the hardcore didn’t help, either. I do hope they learn their lesson, though.. I don’t know if they can. It looks to me as if they’re reacting to events instead of leading the events. Somebody there really ought to hire a psychiatrist as game designer, that’d give them a nice edge.

Post scriptum:

               As usual, the subscriber loss is blamed on the eastern front, China & Co, by Blizzard. How many subscribers you have there, fellows? How many of those are left? When are you going to understand that out of the 10 million subscribers you had in WotLK, none of them was from China? How many of them do you still have? What’s the actual revenue loss that comes from relying on new markets/content skipping kids and failing? What’s next, kill pets and pet battles?

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