Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Is WoW causing punctuated equilibrium in MMO release dates?

Punctuated Equilibrium is a theory that evolution is a relatively steady process punctuated by sudden spikes of change in a species. I'm using this theory as a example since I think its a good parallel to how World of Warcraft has effected the MMO market. Since the release of World of Warcraft in 2004 there has been a dearth of new MMO releases and a couple of really spectacular failures. While not everything can be blamed on the release dates of these failures enough evidence exists that publishers are now wary of releasing new products before World of Warcraft next expansion.

Pretend that World of Warcraft is a relatively slow and steady force of nature. They release content in 3 month patch cycles and seem to be adopting an expansion cycle of 18 months. Their subscription numbers tend to slowly grow or remain stable during the patch cycles while greatly jumping during an expansion release. New MMO's released during the patch cycles of World of Warcraft never seem to gain as many subscribers as their publishers predicted. In fact the only weak point in World of Warcraft seems to be the first patch cycle directly after a major release of content.

Taking advantage of the Slow and Steady
In May 2007 Blizzard patched in the Black Temple about three months after the released of the Burning Crusade. To prevent criticism against favoring raiders they also included a small amount of quest hubs where players could grind faction or gold. This was the perfect time for Lord of the Rings to release since the amount of new content they had was much greater then that in the WoW patch. Lord of the Rings actually convinced gamers to cancel WoW subscriptions and join up with them. This was one of the only times the subscriptions numbers actually dropped for World of Warcraft.

A similar success story was in February 2005 when Guild Wars released about 4 months after the initial World of Warcraft launch. It was a very polished fantasy MMO with free online play which allowed many players to buy the game and still maintain their World of Warcraft subscription. Even if Guild Wars was subscription based it probably would have achieved some moderate success. But by having a different pricing structure then World of Warcraft it sold even more boxes.

Being steam rolled by the Slow and Steady
Everquest 2 has probably suffered the most from World of Warcraft. Since they released at the same time many gamers had to make a choice between one or the other. Blizzard patched in new content like Maraudon, Dire Maul, and Battlegrounds on an almost military three month cycle. During the same time Everquest 2 was mostly redesigning itself to be more accessible and squashing bugs. In 2007 the same thing happened with Vanguard trying to compete directly with the Burning Crusade expansion and losing big time.

The other big losers to World of Warcraft's steady pace were the casual MMO's designed to be simple and more fast paced then the standard fantasy MMO. Games like Auto Assault and City of Heroes have constantly bleed subscriptions with one of the most common complaints being not enough depth in the game play or content to justify a subscription. Reviews of Tabula Rasa seem to be going the same way with most gamers giving the same complaints. The interesting thing is why NCSoft didn't follow a similar pricing structure with these games that they used with Guild Wars.

WoW players tend to be the most likely to switch games 3-4 months after a big content release.
New MMOs will probably start timing releases after World of Warcraft expansions.
More alternative pricing structures such as box only costs and lifetime subscriptions are coming.

Age of Conan does not want to release before the next WoW expansion.
Tabula Rasa will sell a lot of boxes but not pick up many subscriptions.
Hellgate London will do better then Tabula Rasa with its alternative pricing structure.
Warhammer might be ballsy enough to release against Wrath of the Lich King but would probably be better off waiting.


Kaziel said...

I'll be brutally honest. Unless WotLK comes out way later than I expect it to, I will be downright shocked if Warhammer Online is even ready when WotLK comes out. Personally I'm expecting WotLK to be released in a little under a year from now at the latest, and I really doubt that Warhammer Online will be ready in an equal or shorter amount of time.

But that's just my semi-uneducated guess.

Relmstein said...

I'm never one to scoff at semi-uneducated guesses.

My own guesses put WotLK at a May release with Warhammer and Age of Conan fighting over late summer dates.