WoW Tourists? The Market Is Not To Blame

The recent publication of subscription numbers for Warhammer Online has stirred up a bit of a meme among MMOG Bloggers and other commenters. That meme is the concept of WoW Tourists and the damaging effect they are having on the massive gaming scene, in particular the viability of massive games that don’t fit the World of Warcraft mold.

The idea is that there are a huge number of players, who most, if not all, are World of Warcraft players who will jump into a new MMORPG when it is released. They will then complain that the game is buggy, unfinished, and different. Many of these players then cancel their subscriptions and go back to WoW. On their way out, they’ll be quite vocal about how the game doesn’t meet expectations and they’ll deter other players from buying in.

The blame then seems to be placed on these so-called WoW Tourists for the failure of the new MMORPG to reach its target subscription numbers. The idea, it seems, is that it is wrong for a player to expect a quality experience, or a substantial amount of content in a new game. The early adopters of MMORPG’s had it tough, what do these casual players want anyway?

I think this blame is misplaced.

There are a few things that we probably should consider

  1. The total size of the massive online game market, pre-WoW, was probably just short of 1 million players. I’m guessing here, but taking into account the subscriber numbers of Everquest, Anarchy Online, City of Heroes, and Star Wars Galaxies at the time, including the players who had tried and left the MMORPG market, I reckon that’s a reasonably safe guess. Pretty much all of these players would have experienced poor game launches, server issues, and other bugs. There’s a reason the saying, “don’t bother playing on patch day” become very often repeated.
  2. It’s true that the launch of World of Warcraft was rough. However, it didn’t take that long before the worst issues had been ironed out. By the time I started playing, sometime in mid to late 2005, the game was stable and provided a decent gaming experience. Since that time it’s only got better, apart from times of overcrowded servers and queues. It’s this experience that the majority of WoW players have encountered. A polished, well-made game, with enough content and activity to keep them happy.
  3. Blizzard also did a great job marketing World of Warcraft. Not only did they have an already well established and popular franchise, they got on the television and pumped a bunch of dollars into promoting the game. Blizzard also continued to promote. We’ve all seen the Mr T WoW adverts, they’re even shown in Australia. This has had the effect of bringing millions — literally millions — of players into the massive game space.
  4. A players first game, perhaps like a first kiss, becomes memorable and can even take on a somewhat mythic quality. I still remember crossing the countryside in Asheron’s Call — my first MMORPG — dodging mobs and Lugian boulders, just to climb a mountain and take in the view, and there are plenty of other events in that game that are just as memorable. These memories then cause players to compare every new game with the first game, and since the first MMORPG is mythical to the player, the comparisons tend to be unfavorable to the new. There are one million players whose first games were not WoW, given the attrition factor, it’s possible there are ten to fifteen times that many players whose first game was WoW. Most of these players will compare any new game against WoW. That’s just human nature.

So what does this give us?

We now have a different market than we had in 2004. Where once it consisted of a small number of players willing to put up with a lot of crap — indeed a lot of veteran players look back at the hard times with fondness, wearing their MMO scars as a badge of honor — however the market is now a group of consumers who have a set of expectations of quality and style.

To call them WoW Tourists or WoW Lemmings and to blame them for unsatisfactory subscriber numbers and the failures of highly anticipated games makes as much sense as calling television viewers ‘Cop Show Tourists’ or ‘Medical Show Lemmings’ because the early ratings on that great new SciFi series were excellent, but the viewers went back to their cop, doctor, or lawyer shows — the most popular TV genres for decades by the way — and the great new SciFi series was canceled after five episodes.

The market for TV SciFi is much smaller than the market for cop shows. It doesn’t mean that SciFi TV can’t succeed, it just means the expectations from mainstream viewers are higher. It’s the same for MMORPG’s. Expectations are higher. The question is, is this wrong?

I also tend to think that the term ‘WoW Tourist’ is a little misleading. Warhammer Online sold over 700,000 copies and the initial days after release experienced an influx of more players than the servers could handle. This lead to EA Mythic installing a bunch of new servers to cater for that growth. The launch went of better than they expected.

So… Over 700,000 people purchased Warhammer Online knowing full well that the game was highly PvP focused and offered a lesser PvE experience. A box in the US costs… what? Around sixty dollars these days. Should we believe that all of these players paid full tote to buy a game they were only going to play for the free month?

I don’t think so.

I believe that most of these players were hoping for a different experience from WoW, and that they would have stayed had the game met their expectations. These expectations could only have been expectations of quality. WAR was not released in a marketing vacuum. The Mythic team had been quite vocal that Warhammer was not Warcraft, and most customers would have known that.

That Warhammer wasn’t released with the same quality as four-year-old-WoW or with the promised content — don’t get me wrong, it was still a great launch — hurt it more than the fact that it was a different style of game.

I reckon that a significant portion of WoW players are willing to try new things, but if that new game is buggy or lacks ‘promised’ content they will head back to the quality experience that they are used to. A worse case for the new MMORPG is if a player bored with WoW is presented with a Warcraft clone. In that event, why would that player play WoW-Lite or WoW-Buggy when he can play the real thing?

For better or worse, the MMOG Market has changed.

And here’s the thing. Every market changes over time. Every market is subjected to forces beyond it’s control. Look at the US big car market. SUVs were selling like hotcakes a few years ago. Then oil prices headed north and the bottom fell out.

A few years ago, the MMORPG market was doing okay, not as well as the single player market, but okay. New games were coming out, and the genre was slowly improving. It’s likely the massive game space would have continued a slow and steady increase in market share over the long term if the industry had continued the way it was going. Then World of Warcraft came out, targeted to casual players.

World of Warcraft changed the market. It changed the dynamics of the player demographic and what those players expect, not just with the game, but with the game launch.

What Game Developers are going to have to accept is that this will change the way they do business.

And those old veteran jaded gamers, like me, are going to have to get used to the fact that things are going to change, like it or not.

6 Comments

  1. Pike

    The only people I know personally who have tried out other non-WoW MMOs, are people who have played MMOs before WoW.

    But that’s just me >.>

  2. Pitrelli

    hit the nail on the head stropp, your articles are very well written and well thought out. I guess its why I always return to see more. Keep it up 🙂

  3. Blue Kae

    Nice post. While, I totally agree that WoW has changed the MMO market, I’m not so sure that Warhammer’s quality issues were at fault for the trail-off in subscription numbers. As it is designed now, WAR is heavily dependent on player population balance and volume. Not enough players in each tier on each side on each server, and the PvP experience suffers. Mythic is using multiple shards and had to ramp up the number of shard initially with the launch player spike, I think this caused a lot of the initial PvP/RvR disappointment.

  4. Sara Pickell

    I believe tiered marketing, with an emphasis on the service aspect rather than the product aspect, would clear this up quite quickly. Basically, you save at least 50% of your marketing budget by not spending it on a pre-release push. Then three months later you spend that money on a serious marketing push. Sort of a soft opening, if you will.

  5. gfunk

    Uh, that’s how it works folks. If the king of MMO sets a high standard, then you better expect the competition to be on par, or better than that standard. We’re talking about a game that was made in 2004, man. WAR SHOULD HAVE BEEN BETTER than at least that! It wasn’t, plain and simple. I was there for the first year of WoW. I can still say that I had much more fun in a dated product than I did with WAR. Game came out late 2008, so I expected 2008 quality and inovation. I got NONE OF THAT.

    Every company has a right to take on the king. Just don’t be shocked if it doesn’t happen. The blame game on this “tourist” theory is silly. Trust me, if WAR is as good or better, it won’t matter what people say, they will play it. It will stand on its own, just like WoW did in the face of EQ, when EQ was the king. Not rocket science.

    Gfunk.

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