Is World of Warcraft dying? You know, it’s funny — I’ve been playing WoW on and off since the game launched in 2004. I’ve tallied over 10,000 hours of playtime in the game, going from hunting server-first boss kills and raid achievements in my youth to more casual high-end scheduled raids in my work-addled adulthood. I’d scoff at media types writing stories about “WoW killers” and hyperbolic articles talking about WoW dying, only for it to defy expiry date expectations time and time again. This time, however, something feels a bit different.
This recent player exodus might be temporary, but unless Blizzard takes notice, I believe it’s only a matter of time before World of Warcraft relinquishes its crown for good.
WoW has long been the king of the paid-MMO world, until now. A challenger from another legendary franchise has arisen, dubbed Final Fantasy XIV: Realm Reborn. FFXIV was notorious for failure ironically in its early days, with a catastrophically under-realized system that failed to maintain a stable player base. To Square Enix’s credit, they stuck with it, investing millions to literally reboot the entire world. Since that event, the game has steadily grown, reaching record concurrent players on Steam, with some third-party population trackers putting it on competing grounds with World of Warcraft for active players. I wrote recently about how some big WoW influencers have also deserted the game for FFXIV, flooding Final Fantasy XIV’s servers with new players (affectionately known in-game as sprouts).
Is FFXIV going to kill WoW? Maybe not today. This recent player exodus might be temporary, but unless Blizzard takes notice, I believe it’s only a matter of time before World of Warcraft relinquishes its crown for good. Why exactly are so many players leaving World of Warcraft? Here’s what I believe.
1. Itemization in World of Warcraft feels completely arbitrary
Source: Windows Central
In World of Warcraft, the game basically decides for you whether or not you deserve a piece of gear. Master looter was removed, preventing guilds from allocating items, removing control away from players. Blizzard claimed this was to reduce “drama” which may arise from players disagreeing with a master looter’s decision, but I’d argue the impersonal RNG wizard that exists in World of Warcraft’s servers is a worse solution.
Additionally, Blizzard stopped putting any effort into making items in WoW look good. Since the advent of transmogrification (transmog for short), players can swap the style of a weapon or armor piece to look like any previously obtained item. Blizzard seems to have taken this as an excuse to stop making art assets for high-end raids. It was the case in ages past that each class would get its own unique set of armor for running a high-end raid, but that’s no longer the case. It serves only to contribute to the sense that gear doesn’t matter, your class “fantasy” doesn’t matter.
2. The story feels designed around player retention metrics instead of quality
Source: Blizzard Blizzard claimed Sylvanas had some kind of grand plan. She didn’t.
Sylvanas has always been a mysterious character, who worked her own agenda in the shadows in the background of the main storyline. With Sylvanas pulling into center stage for Shadowlands, Blizzard choked when it came to the resolution of her story, leaving it on a knife-edge cliffhanger soap-opera style “tune in next time!”
Source: Windows Central The Jailer is shown throughout the story to be sadistically vindictive, but he for some reason lets the Horde and Alliance champions live at the end of the raid, like an average cartoon villain.
The way the story has been presented in recent years, much like the gearing situation, makes me care less about the game.
It feels increasingly like Blizzard writes the story in reaction to perceived criticism rather than for the sake of, you know, writing a good story. Blizzard promised that Sylvanas’ plots and plans would make sense, and that she wasn’t just another basic baddie hungry for power for power’s sake. Alas, that seems very much to have been the case, changing her mind on a mere whim at the last minute by half-heartedly firing a single arrow at The Jailer. How anticlimactic.
Honestly, this is just a small slice of everything that has gone weird with WoW’s storyline as of late. More and more of it slips out of the main game and into books and comics that require extra reading and research. Some of it adds important context, but why wasn’t that presented in-game? Despite incredible art, great voice acting, and improved tools for making in-game cutscenes, the way the story has been presented in recent years, much like the gearing situation, makes me care less about the game.
3. Time gating contributes to the sense of routine-like “work, not fun”
Source: Blizzard Entertainment Look at all these powers you can have in Shadowlands! Each node represents several weeks of waiting, though.
Many of World of Warcraft’s endgame systems now come with a time-gated component, which on the one hand, seems like it could be a good idea in some ways. It prevents hardcore players from soaking up all the content, leaving more casual players to get left behind. It also takes the pressure of hardcore players to grind constantly and be at the top of the pack. However, in reality, it’s just another instance where Blizzard takes control away from the player.
World of Warcraft’s artists are among the best in the industry, but there comes a point where no amount of shiny paint can hide the ugly systems beneath it.
Do you know another area of life where you perform activities on a routine basis with set hours, largely out of your control? It’s called work, except in World of Warcraft, you’re paying for the privilege. Fel, the weekly timed loot chest from Mythic+ runs is almost like a paycheck, except you have no idea how much money you’re going to get. More often than not, it’s zero.
MMOs have always walked a fine line between game and grind, but World of Warcraft’s recent design decisions pushed it too far to the point where immersion is shattered, and the fantasy is removed. Combine this with the carrot-on-a-stick storytelling, the removal of control from your itemization, the sheer volume of gameplay aspects that run on a timer, or a routine, and WoW has started to stray far too far away from what it means to be an actual video game. World of Warcraft’s artists are among the best in the industry, but there comes a point where no amount of shiny paint can hide the ugly systems beneath it.
Is the Gysahl greener on the other side?
Source: Windows Central FFXIV is flooded with “WoW refugees” to the point where its servers are full.
Many players may eventually hit the cap in FFXIV and run out of things to do, and eventually slink back to World of Warcraft, owing to its arguably tighter combat and more responsive engine — but if Blizzard plans to rest on their laurels and simply hopes that this happens, they could simply doom themselves to further obscurity. By allowing players like me to even consider exploring greener pastures, Blizzard runs the risk of turning us into dedicated FFXIV subscribers, ignoring World of Warcraft completely.
Source: Square Enix
I often wonder if Activision corporate even cares about WoW’s future, or if what we’re seeing is some sort of managed decline.
Final Fantasy XIV has mountains of meaningful side objectives to enjoy, whether you’re crafting or maintaining your player house or hunting down triple triad cards. World of Warcraft has become a game that revolves almost entirely around being cutting edge, which creates a pressure cooker of negative will. In summary, so far, FFXIV feels like a video game. World of Warcraft’s lack of innovation, lack of investment in fun side content, and gameplay designed entirely around carrot-on-a-stick mobile-style player retention metrics have gutted the game. Blizzard’s attempts to “streamline” just result in removing the charm from the game, although they have reversed course on some of these decrees, “de-pruning” class abilities to increase flavor.
I’m sure I’d give WoW another go again in the future, but it would require a change in direction to the order of some magnitude. World of Warcraft needs to start feeling like a video game again, find a way to reward player’s time investment while also respecting that free time. If WoW is to survive evolving player habits, in what is becoming a hugely competitive market for our hard-won free time, something needs to change. Does Activision Blizzard even care, though?
I often wonder if Activision corporate even cares about WoW’s future, or if what we’re seeing is some sort of managed decline in what they think is an inevitable death spiral. I sorely hope not, because despite its age, WoW has immense potential and has proven itself to defy all expectations in the past.