Is a single game so popular that it’s dominating its space like a 800lbs. Tauren? That was the premise of “World of Warcraft Crushing PC Game Industry?” a frenetic Slashdot discussion launched by a recent interview with Age of Empires co-creator Brian Sullivan. “For retail PC,” Sullivan lamented there, “I think the biggest problem is World of Warcraft. It is such a compelling MMO game that it sucks up a lot of money and time that would normally be spent on other retail PC games.”
It’s a notion you hear often from folks in the industry, and the reasoning behind it seems irrefutable: with nearly 7 million copies bought, the online game, from Blizzard Studio and publisher Vivendi, is among the top-selling PC titles of all time.
Unlike nearly all the other bestsellers, however, Warcraft’s retail sales are joined to a monthly subscription model, so those consumers are also paying about $15 a month and spending anywhere from several to a few dozen hours a week to play it. So how could they find the time to enjoy other games, assuming they even had leftover cash to buy them?
“I don’t have any hard data to back an opinion up,” Warren Spector, one of the industry’s most respected developers, tells me by e-mail, “but it does seem logical to assume that a game that’s sucking up as much free time and available capital from so many people is going to cause a drop in game sales, overall. I know several people (including my wife, sadly) who play more WoW and less of everything else these days.”
“WoW’s large and dedicated audience has the money for more games, but not the time,” Billy Pigeon, Production Manager for the Consumer Gaming division of market intelligence firm IDC tells me. “WoW gamers’ enjoyment increases as their character grows in the game,” he says, “and gamers will spend more time in the game to justify their monthly subscription.”
World of Warcraft debuted on store shelves in late 2004, and the relatively flat growth of PC game sales in recent years would seem to bolster this argument. But other experts I spoke with are skeptical, pointing to larger trends.
“No, PC Game sales were declining or flat well before ’04,” says David Riley of retail analyst NPD Group. “There are many reasons for this (all speculative) but a lot of it has to do with the introduction of the Playstation 2 into the US consumer marketplace. It quickly grabbed mind and market share. Another key component has to do with antiquated PCs in households… Unless you’re an early adopter or can afford a new PC every couple of years, chances are you won’t get the gameplay experience you’d like OR the game won’t play on your machine at all.” Riley points out that PC games and their online subscriptions generate $1.5 billion in US revenue, compared to the mammoth $10.5 billion total for console and handheld games. “Could [WoW sales and subscription costs] negatively impact sales of console and port titles and hardware? ” He ponders rhetorically. “Perhaps, but there’s no definitive proof of that.”
Alexis Madrigal, Analyst for DFC Intelligence, doesn’t buy the theory either.
“[Y]ou figure that there are over 200 million PC online gamers in the world,” Madrigal explains, “so that’s why I don’t think it has a huge impact. More specifically, there are over 60 million moderate and hardcore PC gamers. Even if you only look at North America, you’re looking at over 12 million moderate and hardcore PC online gamers. These users already tended to play one or a small selection of games for a very long time anyway.”
Still, she does see Warcraft shaping and growing the industry worldwide. “I think where it has really had an impact is on the other MMOGs,” she says, “and in drawing a variety of moderate gamers who would normally have been playing other online games like, for example, Counterstrike. In China, it seems to be pushing Chinese companies to innovate and increase the quality of their products. It is worth noting that a lot of the game’s spectacular growth has come from geographical expansion (into Europe and China) and not purely the North American market. For example, as of May, 4.3 million of the game’s players were Chinese.”
Whether WoW’s has captured the PC game market or just expanded it vastly, it certainly raised the bar beyond all expectations for future MMOs. A few years back, one million subscribers for a US-based online world game seemed a spectacular enough goal– now to be perceived as a hit, Warcraft’s direct competitors will have to aim for numerical targets two or three times as high.
“The success of WoW will undoubtedly inspire copycat games,” IDC’s Pigeon says, “but these will fail miserably. Most publishers should look to other types of multiplayer and online experiences (and, perhaps, single-player games) to attract gamers.” In any case, he adds, “PC publishers would do well to keep an eye on the console market, which is a greater threat than WoW.”
Perhaps publishers’ even greater challenge is to find a studio with a development philosophy as solid as Blizzard’s– and still more difficult, not get in their way.
“The guys at Blizzard execute at an exceptionally high level in every area that matters to players…” Spector enthuses, “And they seem to put execution ahead of innovation– better to be second or third into a market and learn from the guys who get in early and fail.” (Here, one might name Electronic Arts’ Ultima Online and Sony Online Entertainment’s Everquest series, dominant up to WoW’s coming, now all but forgotten.) “Oh,” he adds, “and it doesn’t hurt that Blizzard seems to have found a partner in Vivendi that ‘gets it’, and let’s them do what they need to do to succeed, instead of messing with them the way a lot of publishers probably would. That’s huge.”
As NPD’s David Riley notes, most PC owners don’t have new systems with the latest graphic cards, and Spector believes this is a key to WoW’s revolutionary success: “[T]hey seem to have a knack for making games that don’t require bleeding edge hardware– they maximize the number of people who are able to play their games, unlike some others of us who tend– foolishly– to shoot for whatever system early adopters MIGHT have a year after we release!
“This is all so easy to say,” Warren Spector acknowledges, “but so damn hard to do!” He should know: he’s now hard at work on the first project from his new indy studio, Junction Point, expected to be distributed via the Steam broadband game network. One more challenger looking to compete in a far more demanding world that Warcraft made.