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Heads Bludgeoned

Aion Wins The Battle, But Can It Win The Warcraft? Sam's avatar
A New Kid On The Block?
Like a dual Warglaive of Azzinoth wielding rogue, Blizzard president and co-founder Mike Morhaime dealt a double blow to World of Warcraft's world domination plans while speaking at Activision's Calendar Year 2009 Conference Call. Under the guise of increased stability, the company announced a halt in growth, with the market leading MMORPG currently having 11.5 million current subscribers, the same amount as there were in December 2008. Less easy to sugarcoat was the bombshell that a massive 70% of World of Warcraft players fail to progress past level 10, a process that usually doesn't take longer than a few hours.

What makes this news even more interesting is that on the very same day NCSoft, arguably Blizzard's biggest competitor, announced that their revenue in 2009 had risen by 83%, with Aion alone responsible for 43% of the year's income. Given that the Korean developed MMORPG was only opened to the Western World in the latter half of the year, resulting in Q4 profits rocketing by 1000%, comparisons are bound to be drawn between the recent performances of World of Warcraft and Aion.

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Sam's avatar

In answer to the question I posed myself above, I think the reality of the situation lies somewhere in-between the two perspectives I detailed. You can't ignore the fact that WoW is currently at the very end of an expansion cycle where subscription numbers dwindle as content dries up and it's hard to see why all of those departing players would immediately jump ship to a game that mirrors most of its features, often to a much lower quality level.

That being said however, people are undeniably starting to notice WoW's age and will often have a dabble with alternatives, causing most new MMORPGs, such as Aion, to be heavily overpopulated in their early days before settling down to more sober numbers. The difference now might be that instead of mass migrating back to Azeroth once the free trial is up, players are opting to ditch the stagnating genre altogether, effectively shrinking the market. It's this scenario that I feel is more likely to be responsible for NCSoft's success and Blizzard's "stability" issues than a David verses Goliath story.

With regards to most players failing to get past level 10, the lack of clarification about whether this statistic referred to accounts or characters severely limits what can be inferred from the statement, as most players, myself included, keep a plethora of bank mules and forgotten projects around for rainy days. In addition to this, Blizzard seem to be well aware that the first few levels of WoW haven't aged too well and the upcoming Cataclysm expansion should go a long way to rectify the problem. Either way, I don't think too much can or should be read from this particular piece of information.

I'm in no doubt that WoW is still the school bully when it comes to MMORPGs, but just as playtime thugs mature and get ousted by new kids on the block (no, I don't mean Donnie Wahlberg), I feel the time is ripe for a successor. Any usurper to the throne is going to need to have a ton of money to throw at a game for it to have the quality necessary entice loyal players to shift their allegiance, but as Blizzard have proven, the rewards are there for the taking. All twelve million of them.