The size of World of Warcraft is difficult to overstate. Revenues generated by the title are estimated to be in excess of 10 billion dollars, and that’s before sales of Pandaria are taken into account. That’s $1.5 billion a year. It is still the second most-played PC game, losing only to upstart free-to-play title League of Legends.
World of Warcraft has enjoyed subscriber numbers that peaked at 12 million, and fell down to 9.9 million - a slip that many have somehow declared a death knell for the game, but it's worth pointing out that there's still the matter of some 7 to 8 million subscribers between World of Warcraft and its closest competitor.
Sales of this new expansion hit 2.7 million within a week. This sounds like an impressive feat, but with approximately 10 million players it’s a surprisingly low number.
It’s also the first drop in expansion sales. Burning Crusade sold 2.4 million, setting records for fastest selling PC game. These records were later broken by Wrath of the Lich King, at 2.8 million, and then trounced again by Cataclysm at 3.3 million. The fact that these sales figures are all for the first day and Pandaria’s 2.7 million is for a week makes the difference particularly noteworthy.
It is easy to look at figures like this and pronounce the expansion a failure. But this would be misleading. Sales of World of Warcraft are a trivial amount of money by comparison to the revenue that comes from subscriptions. Expansions don’t need to sell well, they need to keep players engaged.
World of Warcraft is now an eight year old game. To keep player levels as high as ten to eleven million for nearly an entire decade is an impressive effort by any standard. It’s also a mistake to pay too much attention to the negativity of the player base. In many cases it’s a noisy minority.
For some time now, World of Warcraft has had to balance the needs of wildly differing playstyles to provide an enjoyable game to all players. In particular there are the hardcore players, elite endgame raiders with serious guilds, who smash through endgame raid content quickly and then “farm” it, always looking for the bigger challenge and the best gear.
But the counter to them is the more casual player. These players are unable or unwilling to give the game the hours of gathering materials, researching encounters, and maximising their character’s gear. They wander to the end game cap and then pick up an occasional dungeon or raid run here and there.
Neither of these options is wrong, but they are, or can be, antithetical. If the challenges are too low the hardcore player base gets frustrated, and quickly runs out of things to do. If the challenges are too difficult or time consuming, though, the more casual players can never achieve anything, and will not see all of their game. In either case, a dissatisfied customer, and with 10 million players, even a few percent here and there could means significant loss.
Increasingly, World of Warcraft has focused on the more casual end of the spectrum. This makes good business sense. While the hardcore players make the most noise, especially on the forums, it’s the more casual players that pay the bills. Mists of Pandaria is undoubtedly an appeal to the most casual of players. Tonally it’s as far from the high drama of Cataclysm or Lich King as it’s possible to be. This is not a criticism. Variety is a welcome thing, and the change of pace Pandaria provides a nice contrast to previous expansions.
When a new expansion comes out, the first thing to look at is what’s new, what has been added. Mists of Pandaria adds the misty island of - unsurprisingly - Pandaria. It's is the homeland of the Pandaren, a race of anthropomorphic panda bears. These creatures were originally conceived as an April Fools Day joke in the Warcraft III era. It’s somewhat concerning that something can be absurd enough to be an April Fools Day joke, and then become an expansion a few years later.
In any case, a dense mist has shrouded the distant island of Pandaria from view for some time. That mist has now thinned, just a little, allowing the forces of the Horde and the Alliance to land ships and soldiers, continuing their war. But all is not as it seems on Pandaria. The peace and tranquility of the island is due to a deep magic, one that makes the aggression and violence of the newcomers, and manifests itself as dark creatures. The harmony of the peaceful Pandaren may be lost forever.
Pandaria is clearly of Chinese influence, the stereotypical China of misty mountain peaks, paper lanterns and aesthetically shaped trees. The comparison is routinely made to Dreamworks’ Kung-Fu Panda, and this is entirely apt. Whether one drew inspiration from the other is impossible to determine, but the China-Kung-fu-panda connection is hardly so obscure as to be impossible to come upon independently. As well as the new Pandaren race there is a new class that comes with the expansion. This is the Monk class, a collection of martial arts masters, melee-based damage dealers who also bring with them a bevy of buffs.
In the time since the last expansion, much of World of Warcraft’s complexity has been stripped back. In particular, the talent system has been vastly simplified. Instead of deep trees where points are put to form a specialisation, the specialisation is explicitly chosen. Points are then given at rare milestones, only every 15 levels. This means that instead of being complex trees, the levels give tiers of major upgrades. This may be a new talent, or a permanent statistical improvement, but they’re significant improvements, not one or two percent.
Newly added is another feature that screams “casual player”. In fact, it couldn’t be more casual. Players have always been able to have pets of a range of kinds. Some pets are combat pets, such as hunter pets or warlock minions. But a lot are purely vanity pets, cosmetic items that are collected and simply follow the player around achieving little or nothing. This new gameplay mechanic allows the pets to do something – fight. Players can find rare pets in the world, or buy them from various places, which are capable of entering into Pet vs Pet battles. The system is not unlike an in-game Pokemon arena, something that appeals to the younger and more casual players, but seems to be taken as evidence of disenfranchisement by the more hardcore.
Like Cataclysm, there are no new trades to be learned in Mists, but of course, new recipes and materials to be learned for the ones that are already present. Surprisingly, skilling up trade skills is actually remarkably easy now, at least up to a point. Effort has clearly been made to take the grind out of skilling up, a process that was always much more mundane and difficult than actually leveling the character, and one that usually cost a small fortune. Now maxing trade skills is still a challenge, but at least getting some usable patterns or blueprints is viable. Many useful early patterns can be made can be made from the plentiful materials that are lying around, with very few material bottlenecks on production. The items that are hard to make are the ones that will see a player into the early stages of the level 90 dungeons and maybe even early raids.
World of Warcraft has always excelled in one specific area, and that’s its endgame. In fact, it’s been dominated for many years by an addictive and all-consuming level cap experience consisting of extensive raids and endless grinding for reputation with new factions. In an interesting twist, Blizzard has not released all raids upfront. Of the three raids Pandaria launches with, only one is available, having gone online in the last few weeks, nearly a month after launch. The other two are being released towards the end of October. This staggered release probably won’t help the longevity of endgame content, which has in the last few expansions typically been beaten and set on “farm” by top guilds within weeks.
In this way, as in many others, World of Warcraft is a victim of its own impressive success. Its phenomenal revenue generation has kept it alive past where many might have initially expected, perhaps even Blizzard itself. As an eight year old PC game it’s showing its age. Occasional updates to the graphics engine have improved the quality of the models and overall graphics notably, with Cataclysm’s opportunity for a revamp being a particularly good step up. But the game is still, after all, hitting nearly a decade. There are fundamental parts of the engine, particularly in terms of interacting with the environment, that are very dated.
For example, setting a hearthstone to a new inn causes the innkeeper to run an animation, casting a spell on the player. But the animation merely goes forward. If the player is behind or beside the innkeeper, the animation isn’t directed at them. This sort of “polish” issue comes up regularly, and they make the game feel maybe a little old and disjointed.
Eight years is a long time. Most particularly it’s a lot of baggage for a new player. Anyone joining now has to wade through 90 levels, seemingly infinite lore, spread over what is now a vast area, through the original game and then four expansions. They also have to wade through a playerbase that has now had eight full years to hone its elitism. Everyone's experience will differ, but it seems to me that many players have become more toxic and obnoxious.
Of course, this isn’t the point of World of Warcraft. The point is to play with friends, and that’s something the game has always had. While other MMO contenders have failed to achieve that critical mass of people playing together, World of Warcraft snowballed, with people playing because all of their friends did. Strong guilds at various levels and of various playstyles formed and broke up and reformed again under different names. Guild dramas became real life dramas, and guild mates became best mates. Many of those connections are long dead. A lot of once-hardcore players seem to have lost the faith, and moved on to other MMOs, such as Guild Wars 2, or onto other genres, such as League of Legends.
But certainly not all. With every new expansion, dormant guilds unfurl like flowers in a spring thaw. Guildies greet each other, begin leveling, and work towards the inevitable endgame. These connections, vast networks of players that fire up with each new expansion, are what make World of Warcraft unique, and profitable.
Mists of Pandaria has a lot to offer players. Its tone and style are a drastic departure from the super-serious-business of previous expansions. And that is commendable. Many players will enjoy the questing and the level design, much of which is still genuinely impressive. And yet, for a veteran there is something wrong. There is something about being surrounded by panda bears and poke-battles that makes an old vanilla player think fondly of fire resist gear and forty-player raids.
While subscribers may be up again, topping 10 million active members, the game itself is not as it once was. It has been compromised. It was inevitable, and it probably was necessary. But the World of Warcraft many of us knew and loved, and that so many of us sunk so much of our lives into, seems to have had its time now.