The times are changing, and the legendary MMO struggles to change with them.
Ten years ago, James Taulbee and I stood before a locked gate in World of Warcraft's Blackwing Lair, along with 38 other players of our guild, Risen. We've all just worked together to kill the big red dragon sprawling before the gate for the first time on our server, and all logic dictates that it should open now. Some of us argued that we may have missed another boss that makes it open, but that seemed impossible. Some people murmur that it's probably a bug. (This turned out to be true, but we had no way of knowing at the time.) Then Taulbee looks at the decorative dwarven chairs lining the chamber and has an epiphany.
"Maybe we should all sit in the chairs," he said.
"A puzzle! Why didn't we think of that before?" we all exclaimed in voice chat, and scrambled to claim our own chairs with a right click. When the last person plopped into place, we expected the gate to open and lead us to glory, but nothing happened. That's the first time I heard around twenty people say the same curse word at once.
"It was utterly stupid," Taulbee told me when I reminded him of that day. "I still cringe thinking about that. I blame sleep deprivation."
Taulbee and I laugh at the chair incident now, but all these years later I'm struck by how unlikely this series of events would have been in World of Warcraft's modern incarnation, and how it relates to the game's decline in popularity.
Today, World of Warcraft has 5.5 million subscribers, down from a high of 12 million in 2010 and a rebound to 10 million as recently as last December. Earlier this month, though, publisher Activision-Blizzard announced that going forward it will no longer release updated subscriber numbers. For any other game, that's practically an admission that it's heading out to the hills to die alone.
It's a significant loss that points to the ways in which massively multiplayer online (MMO) games will never fully regain their former magic. Players can now immediately watch YouTube videos that precisely outline the "right" way to execute a boss fight, while we spent hours and hours experimenting with crackpot theories in the weeks leading up to the day when we'd be the first American guild to "down" (meaning kill) the lich Kel'Thuzad. With minimal interaction with your companions, you merely have to perform your role as described and follow instructions from players who already completed the quest months earlier on one of Blizzard's test servers.
"The guild experience back then was different," Taulbee said. "It wasn't one guy just telling everyone how to do a fight and then counting on our execution of the strategies. It was more of a community coming together and discussing how best to overcome the obstacles and challenges."
That spirit of experimentation was an important part of World of Warcraft's early success, and it's improbable that we'll see its like again anytime soon. It built a community. It used to be the place where I could usually find my friends. Before my parents got Facebook, before Doritos got Twitter, World of Warcraft was a social network of its own. Others games may try, but no other MMO will ever be able to achieve the magic that springs from being in the perfect place at the perfect time.
Raph Koster, lead designer on one of the earliest MMOs, Ultima Online, and the creative director behind the MMO Star Wars Galaxies, told Motherboard that it's going to take a paradigm shift for another MMO to reach the heights we saw with World of Warcraft.
"The experience we've had with MMOs all along is that people play them, and most players play for a couple of years, then they say okay I get it, and they're done, and they tend not to come back," he said. "It's usually with excuses like I'm older, I don't have the time, I need bite-sized play, or whatever. It might be virtual reality, who knows, but it's going to take some other big design or technology change that really resets the picture of what an MMO can or should be."
Times have changed. For one thing, Taulbee doesn't play anymore. He hasn't played in months. He's but one of the 4.5 million people who've dropped their World of Warcraft subscriptions since the Warlords of Draenor expansion dumped a fresh load of explorable zones, quests, and bosses a year ago. That's a staggering drop in subscribers by any metric.
The players I talked to didn't say they hate the game, only recent actions by the development team.
Warlords of Draenor's "garrisons" get the bulk of the spite. They're single-player instances that (for a hefty chunk of in-game gold) consolidate many in-game activities that used to require active exploration and socialization into a lonely, centralized space where conversation only takes place in chat channels. For players like Taulbee, they remove an essential ingredient in World of Warcraft's success that helped keep it afloat for years.
"I used to hang out somewhere between Ironforge bank and the auction house or jump around in Stormwind," he says. "You could check out other people's gear or they could check out your gear. You made friends with people who just randomly passed by. You didn't really experience that with the introduction of garrisons."
It's the kind of approach that has players jumping ship by the millions, and rightly so.
I don't think the goodwill that's keeping players in the game will last forever. After all, we still have months until the next expansion, Legion. In the past it was relatively easy to deal with these long "content droughts" by fighting our way through harder versions of the existing dungeons, but for World of Warcraft's increasingly older and comparatively devoted "old guard," that's simply not possible anymore. So many of us are approaching middle age now. Many others have already reached it. Ain't nobody got time for that.
It's partly why Taulbee quit earlier this year. He finds he just can't stomach the commitments necessary for his former achievements. When his current guild asked him to start raiding four nights a week to progress through one of Warlords of Draenor's raid instances, he just walked away and started devoting his time to games he could enjoy to their fullest on his free time. It's a mindset that's shared by Michael, our former guild leader, who hasn't played World of Warcraft since 2012 and who spends much of the free time he formerly devoted to games like World of Warcraft in shorter, match-based multiplayer games like League of Legends.
"I have time for raiding, to be honest," he says, "but there's a difference between having time and being able to say 'Yes, you can rely on me to be on from 7 to 11 on this night.'"
World of Warcraft's future thus depends on its ability to adapt to these circumstances, and its impressive resilience proves that it's up to the challenge.
For every massive foul up like garrisons, there's usually something amazing that instills the belief that Blizzard's still on the right path. Despite his disappointments with Warlords of Draenor's later months, even Taulbee claims the time he spent leveling through the new zones and experiencing the new story last November was the most fun he's had on that leg of the MMO experience ever. Blizzard just didn't keep up the pace.
Will they be able to next year? It's hard to say. Legion will almost certainly see a massive bump in subscribers, but Warlords of Draenor's issues prove that its success after that depends on Blizzard's willingness to give it the attention it gave the game in years past.
World of Warcraft will certainly endure, even if in diminished form, as in the case with its 16-year-old MMO progenitor EverQuest. If Blizzard handles the coming months right, there are many more good years still ahead for World of Warcraft gated behind Legion, much as better times and better loot awaited me and James Taulbee as we stood behind that bugged gate in Blackwing Lair. Millions have left, but millions of others still profess their faith.
As for an MMO with 12 million subscribers? It could happen again, but probably not with World of Warcraft or anything trying to copy its success. There have to be more massively social games in the future, the allure of spending time with friends in digital spaces is too powerful for there not to be. We just don't know what they look like yet.