For years, Blizzard has occupied a cosy place at the top of the Massively Multiplayer Online game pile with World of Warcraft. New challengers constantly sought to overthrow it, like kids repeatedly pumping coins into the slot of an arcade machine, hoping that this round would be the one to dethrone the champ. But they faded away in the long run, while WoW carried on. Expansions kept the game alive for years after release, but with the latest one, Mists of Pandaria, things seem to have fizzled a bit. Maybe it is the fact that the goofy pandas did not fit well in the WoW universe, or maybe the Well of Warcraft has finally run dry.
It does not hurt that the MMO crowd have some other robust options to go for these days. First, there is the matter of the ‘hero strategy’ (MOBA) genre, with League of Legends gaining a massive user base, some of which must be at the expense of the WoW crowd. With the impending arrival of Valve’s DotA 2, you can expect more inevitable distraction. Somewhat ironic, since the original Defense Of The Ancients was a multiplayer mod of the Blizzard game, Warcraft 3. Sure, they have still got Blizzard All-Stars as a foot in the door to the MOBA scene, but Valve is one of the few industry veterans with more muscle in the PC sector than Blizzard, so it is not going to be a cakewalk by any means.
Within MMOs themselves, the competition has become pretty stiff. The Old Republic had some great player character arcs going for it, multiple stories for different classes, as well as the ultimate geek power — the Star Wars licence. However, launching with a subscription model in an age when people had become accepting of free-to-play games turned out to be a bad idea, and the momentum never really reached critical mass. A similar fate has befallen the Korean game, Tera, which came over to the US and Europe with big promises of making MMO combat much more visceral and skill-based than before, only to find that few people were now willing to plonk down money on a single game month after month.
One game that played it smarter was Guild Wars 2. Like its predecessor, the pricing model was similar to regular games — a fee at purchase and no subscription costs at all. When you consider that the gameplay is a more refined version of WoW, with efforts made to make tasks less monotonous, as well as additions like platforming elements, it is going to be increasingly hard to justify paying a monthly subscription for a more dated form of play.
Even if you do not want to pay a single rupee, there is still the highly anticipated Planetside 2, which is being released as a free-to-play game. Sure, you can pay $40 now to get into the beta straightaway, but that’s purely optional. The fact that it is a shooter might put it a bit apart from the traditional MMO, but with large armies clashing in a chaotic battlefield, each unit under the control of an individual player, it definitely earns its ‘massively multiplayer’ tag.
Ultimately, it would seem that the paid subscription model is on its last legs, and taking WoW down with it. There is always the option to change it to free-to-play, but with fresh choices for the savvy gamer, you would think their dominance is at an end. Maybe some day, they will be back on top with something like World of Starcraft, that refines and improves on their competitor’s offerings. For now, let the crown pass, at long last.