So I am sitting here waiting for Mists of Pandaria to drop. I am not wildly excited by the thought of Kung Fu pandas but I expect Blizzard to do a decent job and I am curious. I strongly suspect I will end up playing more Guild Wars 2 than WoW in the near future. A lot of people are saying the same. That got me thinking about how many games have been called a WoW killer and how silly this tendency is in our media and not just in how it applies to games.
Way back when I worked in the pen and paper RPG and tabletop miniatures game business, there was always someone explaining how their game, or their favourite game, was going to be bigger than D&D/Warhammer/Magic:the Gathering, or at least it should be because it was better designed or more fun or whatever. This is one of those things, like calling a game a WoW-killer, that ignores the reality of how these things actually work in the market.
In hobby games it is very, very rare for a major game that occupies a certain niche in the market to be overtaken by another one. There are a few simple reasons for this. Usually the biggest games become synonymous with their fields. When the average non-gamer thinks of roleplaying games, if they think about them at all, they probably think about Dungeons and Dragons. Ask the average non-tabletop miniatures gamer to name a minis game and they most likely will name Warhammer, if they can name any. These are the brand names that people recognise. If your dear old granny who knows nothing about gaming thinks about giving you an RPG for Xmas, she will probably get you D&D.
There is usually a reason why the big dogs are the big dogs. If they are not the first in their field, they are usually the ones that broke out first and biggest. They took the top slot before it was occupied. It becomes infinitely harder to become the new D&D after D&D exists. The same applies to Warhammer. These games became so big in the first place because they did not have to compete with anyone. They found an unsatisfied desire among their customers and they met it. And once they were in the market, they had a huge headstart not just in brand recognition but in execution. They are already in the distribution chains. They are a safe bet for retailers to sell.
The next reason is what is known as network effect, basically the more people who use a product, the more valuable and/or useful it becomes. Think of Facebook—it’s not very useful if only a few people are on it, but once everyone you know is, it becomes invaluable. If you are a Warhammer gamer or a D&D player, the chances are you can go anywhere in the world and find a gaming group for your game. You’ll always be able to find other players and for social games that is very important.
The third effect is vendor lock-in. If you’ve spent hundreds or thousands of dollars on rulebooks and minis, you usually want to get some use out of them, and most people on a limited budget are not foaming at the mouth to spend the same amount of money again just to play another game.
All of these are things that work in Blizzard’s favour and make it unlikely that there will ever be a WoW-killer. They basically own the subscription-based MMO slot. The network effect is very strong because these are social games. I have friends, family and Guild in WoW. One of the reasons I play is simply to hang out. Unless all my friends move at once to another game, things are likely to stay that way.
In terms of vendor lock-in, it’s not a question of money. It’s a question of time. I shudder to think of how many hours I have put in levelling and grinding gear. This is a huge investment in time. I am not mad keen to replicate it in another game.
In the foreseeable future I can picture a long, slow decline for WoW but it’s hard to imagine it being toppled. I can picture it eventually becoming technologically outdated but not destroyed by a competitor operating on the same basis, not unless someone at Blizzard royally screws up anyway.
So where does this put my new favourite Guild Wars 2? It has its own slot—it’s buy once, play forever, no subscription, no need to buy anything for the full game experience. It is offering something different from WoW. It has already hit two million sales. Can I imagine it hitting 12 million plus sales — the number of subscribers WoW had at its peak? Yes, but these need not be active players—people can buy the game and stop playing still count as a sales. Presumably ArenaNet has factored all this into its revenue model. Making twelve million sales is still not the same in terms of revenue as having twelve million subscribers—that is 12 million sales plus a monthly income stream.
One last point I would like to make is that some of the same factors work in publishing, which is why it is a bit silly to imagine that you can become as big as J K Rowling by writing young adult stories about boy wizards at glorified public schools for magic. That’s already been done and J K Rowling owns the spot.
Obviously this has not stopped people trying and it has not stopped publishers publishing such things, but I suspect that is more because the success of Harry Potter has proven that there is a market for such books than because they will equal Harry Potter’s sales. It’s one reason I don’t shrink from trying something new like the cyberpunk reboot of Edgar Rice Burroughs Martian books in Sky Pirates or the weird gunpowder military fantasy of the Terrarch novels. They are not only the books my personal demons drove me to write, they are something different. There may be no breakout market for them, but if I am ever to find one, I won’t do so by copying what’s popular right now.
Anyway, Pandaria is now go and I am off to take a look at it.
Postscript— yes, I wrote the above while waiting for Mists of Pandaria to go live last night. As fate would have it, Blizzard activated the expansion five minutes earlier than they said they would on my server at least and I was there.
What did I think?
Well…I got exactly what I expected; a lot of lag, crowds so great I could not see the quest givers and the realisation that WoW certainly does not look dead to me. It reminded me of the Wrath of the Liche King launch in most every way. It wasn’t a lot of fun though so I decided to wait until things calm down a bit and went to bed. I’ll give you my thoughts on the land of kick-boxing Pandas once I’ve had a chance to explore.