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Blizzard Entertainment isn’t accepting the doom-and-gloom reports about World of Warcraft’s changing subscriber base (and neither is one analyst).
The massively multiplayer online role-playing game has always seen peaks and valleys in subscriptions when a new expansion comes out, but never more so than with last fall’s Warlords of Draenor.
Paying players surged by millions, to heights not seen in years — then plunged nearly as precipitously, leaving the game this month about 300,000 subscribers ahead of its low point in the Mists of Pandaria expansion.
GamesBeat interviewed with lead game designer Ion “Watcher” Hazzikostas to chat about the recent roller-coaster ride, and ended up having a wide-ranging conversation that discussed how in the heck a 10-year-old game still pulls in 7 million people — and what those players have to look forward to that should keep them paying those monthly bills.
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He also objected to a popular argument by longtime players that World of Warcraft has gotten easier to play and outlined some things that Blizzard finds disappointing with its flagship game and plans to fix.
GamesBeat: How much do you pay attention to the rise and fall of subscribers?
Ion “Watcher” Hazzikostas: Obviously, it was tremendously exciting to see the reception that Warlords got. It was gratifying for us; it affirmed that we had picked the right idea and the right setting for an expansion and managed to deliver on an experience that really got a lot of people excited about the game. At the same time, we try to be even-handed in how we consider what those subscriber numbers do over time.
Our goal first and foremost is just to make a fun and engaging experience. It’s not about chasing numbers as much as [it’s about] making a fun game. We have faith that the numbers will follow in the wake of that.
GamesBeat: Are people playing differently since the start of the Warlords expansion?
Hazzikostas: We’re seeing more people than ever before doing organized [large group dungeon] raiding, which is really cool and a testament to some of the conveniences and benefits of things like cross-server raiding in current-tier content, flexible group size, the premade group finder, and the more-accessible normal difficulty.
All of those things mean that a significantly larger percentage of the player base, compared to any prior expansion, is actually going in with a premade group and experiencing our raid content. We’re seeing tons of tons of PvP use of the premade group finder as well [to achieve group objectives].
GamesBeat: Has anything about the content in the Warlords expansion disappointed you?
Hazzikostas: There are areas where we’ve seen slight declines, but we attribute that largely to a failure on our part to properly keep them incentivized and interesting.
I think [five-player] dungeons is a great example of a shortcoming there. We created a bunch of new dungeons for Warlords of Draenor, but we didn’t really give much reason to keep running them after the initial weeks or couple of months of the expansion.
In the past, you kept running Mists [of Pandaria] dungeons, which probably overstayed their welcome a little bit, but you kept running them for valor points [which you could exchange for gear] a year-plus into the expansion.
We felt that was a little silly to keep running the same content as you got stronger and stronger and stronger, still getting that reward, which is why we removed something like valor points. But I think we went too far.
GamesBeat: Have the player-created garrison towns in Warlords, which offer missions for followers you recruit in game, changed the amount of time people log in? Players joke about playing “World of Garrisoncraft.”
Hazzikostas: One of the things that garrisons do is give players reasons to log in deliberately in short spurts when they wouldn’t have logged in at all otherwise.
In prior expansions, if you didn’t have a couple of hours to play, you might have not logged into the game at all. Now, it’s actually a pretty commonplace thing to say well, I have my morning cup of coffee, I’m getting ready, I have five minutes. I’m going to log into WoW, collect my mission rewards, send my guys out on new missions, and then log off.
Those login sessions, they’re simply a different type of experiencing the game. I don’t know that those are coming at the direct expense of, I’m going to log on and go do my guild raid, or I’m going to log on and do battlegrounds, or do PvP or whatever else I might have been doing — core multiplayer social functions.