Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World of Warcraft

In The Gaming Community, Video Games on April 19, 2012 at 3:42 pm

You can tell much about a game by its release date. Or rather, you can get a whiff of the publisher’s intentions by such information. In this way, games can be likened to movies; lacking a successful model for episodic content, we rely on singular release events which carry varied intents based upon the time of year as well as its adjacency to competing releases. Unlike movies, games have both a pre-order model and staying power that makes adjacency to big titles tricky, moreso due to games being much more expensive than a movie ticket.

Broadly speaking, games released in the first quarter are for holiday latecomers and other games that want to take advantage of the diminished competition of the new year (or that surplus of gift cards and store credit). Second quarter releases are for first quarter slips and experimental and cult titles wanting to capitalize on a lazy summer buying season. Quarter three is for titles with their act together that want both a solid release and relevance into the holiday season. Lastly, we have the holiday season itself, typically compressed into just November with the fiercest competition among the year’s biggest triple-A titles.

I’ve experienced all kinds of buying habits in gamers, both in myself and others. Some buy any game they want, whenever they want. Others only buy a few games a year and take great care in considering their choices. Others still only receive new games at Christmas. Among all of these are those that cling fervently to expected price drops or used game discounts. Yet time is the equalizing factor among all of these, a limited resource that makes us choose what games to play. Don’t have time to play a new game? Why buy it?

You can also use a release date to screw your competition. This may seem odd, as release dates are set before hand, but there are a number of developers and publishers that have a juvenile, pedantic, idiotic, infuriating “It’s ready when it’s ready” stance. Less common than in the past, today you mainly see this out of Valve and the extended Blizzard family (refugees of which have gone on to make a number of studios). So when a studio plays its release close to its chest, they have plenty of Machiavellian maneuvering capability.

MMOs are the king of this. It’s long been held as common wisdom that gamers have neither the inclination, nor the time or money, to support more than one MMO at a time. An existing MMO must fight constant attrition from other games, MMO and otherwise, and those that stray for too long away from an MMO become less likely to return. The chief way to combat this is to keep gamer’s interested through major content updates, both “free” via patch or paid as a boxed expansion.

I’ll admit that Blizzard had its claws in me. Mainly through my friends, but as one with limited time, my single max level character represented months of hard work (and plenty of fond memories with my friends). Still, World of Warcraft is a game I yearned to quit for some time. It made me unhappy to play it, an anesthetized game world that seemed fundamentally hostile to my very casual commitment. I was out-DPSed in dungeons, out-PVPed in battlegrounds and out-economy’d against players that were willing to sink in the time to get the best gear or wait out the rarest of loot drops.

Because of this, I felt guilty for playing other games. The dozens of hours I put into other games could have gotten me those fabulous rewards. For a time, the reward was just playing with my max-level friends while I toiled in pre-endgame content. When I finally hit the cap, they rewarded me with gold enough to buy a fancy mount — they’d had well enough time to scrimp and save.

But the thing is, my friends felt the same way. They didn’t quite want to be playing WoW either, but, well, what else was there to play?

Hellgate: London was a pile of crap and I knew it from minute one, but we were all tempted away from Blizzard’s behemoth for the chance to get leave. Yet, Blizzard still timed a major content update for its release, making the decision ever more difficult: new stuff to do in the game we already had invested in, or continue playing the new game.

This same scenario would play out for the release of Warhammer Online. An ambitious MMO in its own right (and much less flawed and limited than Hellgate), we all tried our best to ignore Wrath of the Lich King‘s impending release, to no avail. This, in my opinion, caused its several million strong initial playerbase to dwindle below 500,000 — a success, claimed EA mythic but a fraction of what they had during that first hectic, heady month.

Today, Guild Wars 2 is under the same threat. Though the game still does not have a release date (even with pre-purchases beginning legitimately on April 10th), I’ve strongly suspected that Blizzard has been holding back the release of Diablo III to coincide with its competitor. With the billions of dollars in revenue from World of Warcraft alone, to say nothing of the absolute might of the monolithic Activision (which, unlike EA, should have gotten the “worst company in America” award), Diablo III should have no reason to not have been ready months ago.

It seems like we should be talking about a secret government black project, but we’re literally talking about a game being made with unlimited resources. It’s also a game that they’re willing to give away, with the very appealing free copy given with an “Annual Pass” that can cost as low as 155.88 (12.99/mo). That’s already discounted from the normal month-to-month 14.99, and you’re getting a sixty dollar game on top of it.  And you don’t even need to pay it all at once — the annual pass is a commitment, rather than an up-front charge.

So suddenly, Guild Wars 2 needs to beat not just World of Warcraft or Diablo, but the combined might of all of those that choose to commit themselves to WoW that got a free copy of Diablo.

It’s a tall order. This is a game that’s never pretended to be a WoW killer — a futile exercise, the devs have said. At the same time, every time they open their mouths, they talk about features that people have yearned for in other games, who then talk about …how it’s a WoW killer.

It’s strange that you really don’t see this elsewhere. Movies will avoid each other — there’s only so much time in an opening weekend, and it means little to open a few weeks earlier or later. Nor do you see this in other games. I can’t think of another developer that has so aggressively marketed its release dates as to screw competition as Blizzard.

However, if there’s one thing you can tell from these release date shenanigans, is that Blizzard is afraid of Guild Wars 2.

And rightly so. It’s not the end of the World of Warcraft, but you can see it from here.


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