Mar 7, 2007

World of WarCraft’s Subscription Base Reaches 8.5 mil.

This scares me... and that's saying a lot coming from a game addict like me.

According to this article, the latest WoW expansion module is posting sales figures that would intimidate even the most popular stand-alone PC titles. Over 3.5 million in just one month, to be exact. And remember, that's just for an add-on to an existing game. Which means far more people own the original game... and even more are now picking it up to go along with the latest expansion.

Why am I not happy to hear about this kind of popularity for a company like Blizzard Entertainment? That's a good question. I'm a big fan of Blizzard. It's the only company that's ever produced a non-console-based game that has dominated a good portion of my time. I was a huge fan of the Diablo series. I was an active guild member back in Diablo 1 (read - complete geek.) And I waited eagerly, excreting not a small amount of slobbery drool while Blizzard took its sweet-assed time putting the finishing touches on Diablo 2.

Concurrent with these games, were a couple of other extremely popular online titles. the original Warcraft, and its spinoff hit, Starcraft. Both of these games helped launch the online military strategy sim genre into the mainstream. They were both wildly successful for much of the same reason Diablo was. Simple yet addictive online multiplayer gameplay - and no extra charge for the server time.

That's right... you could always play Blizzard games online for free. It's a concept pretty foreign to the developers of today's online games... (World of Warcraft included) These games sold tremendously well, and a lot of people logged a lot of hours on them.

But nothing like World of Warcraft. There have always been game addicts who spend far too much time attached to a keyboard or a controller... but never before in memory has a game ever sucked in so many such players as this one. There's a fundamental shift beginning to emerge in the online gaming industry which is extremely harmful in my opinion. And it's well on its way to contributing to a horrible stigma for the entire industry.

Back in the early days of gaming... Atari, NES, etc... it was pretty tough to get legitimately addicted to a game. Sure there were some real gems of time-suckers... but you can only look at the green bars of pong - the *blip, beep, smip* of Donkey Kong's barrels for so long, before you have to turn the goddamned thing off and listen to some Milli Vanilli tapes.

RPG games from the 16-bit era began to challenge that by including huge expansive lands to explore, multiple endings to experience, and tear-inducing musical tracks to keep your CD's on their shelf. But still, these games were drained of their exploration potential after at most, 80 hours of play. You can only fit so much on a cartridge after all.

CD-rom games had potential to lengthen things out a bit... but most of the space was utilized for movie cut-scenes and even better quality music. The games themselves didn't stretch too much in length... and partly because the money-grubbers in the emerging industry had begun to realize that shorter and easier games mean more people having to buy more games more often.

The addition of online multiplayer features didn't change this formula until quite recently, when producers of games like "Ultima Online," "Final Fantasy Online," "Phantasy Star Online," and now World of Warcraft, figured out how to charge for online server access per month.

With this development, the entire purpose of games changed. No longer was it in the best interest of the game developer to have gamers finish their game in a few weeks so that they'd head down to a retailer to pick up the sequel. The goal now, (similar to that of a phone-sex line,) was to keep gamers engaged (subscribed) as long as humanly possible.

This is no easy feat to accomplish considering how many games are available for play in today's industry. As such, the most commonly used tactic by game producers seems to be to include as many life-imitating features in a game as possible.

For instance, allow a gamer to acquire their own abode. Allow them to deck it out in a very customizable fashion. Instead of sticking to the age-old RPG formula of simply "levelling-up" insert hierarchical badges of achievement and ranks which dictate their relationship to other gamers. Throw in some career choices, like fishing, cooking, maybe becoming a merchant, etc. Facilitate fantasy marriages between characters, and then simulate group dynamics through guilds and clans. Tie it all together with a self-sustaining in-game economy which allows you to quickly amass a healthy portion of virtual wealth just so long as you're willing to go out and beat the tar out of an infinite number of baddies, and you've got a virtual world which is invariably more appealing than real life... particularly if you're working some dead-end minimum wage job, cause that's all your real-life economy will make available to you. (yes, and too much time playing video games will contribute to insanely long run-on sentences as well.)

Now, is Warcraft of bad game? obviously not. Quite clearly, it rocks as far as games go. I can't review it for you, cause I've never played it. But regardless of how good it is, it's time we started taking a look at the social effect this game is having on a growing number of users.

In many respects, I think open-ended games like this should be placed in their own unique categories. Personally, I don't consider them to be games at all. They are far more akin to early virtual reality programs, and in order for them to be profitable, they must be designed to encourage addiction among users.

And similar to any other form of addiction, we're beginning to see the social fallout emerge. Most folks have already heard of the young woman in Asia who died of exhaustion after a marathon stint of WoW. Others have heard stories of players losing spouses, jobs, etc after logging insane hours.

This Newsweek article, goes into the issue a bit, and is worth a read. So far, the ire of anti-gaming politicians in the US is focused on violence, sex, and generally anti-Christian content in games. Obviously these idiots are misguided and fake, looking only to appear "tough-on-the-heathens" to their religious-right support base. If and when the focus ever shifts to the addictive properties of games like WoW... the solution should not be to outlaw them, or regulate their content. Heroine and crack is illegal, and you don't see the use of those substances receding as a result.

What will be needed, however, is increased attention focussed on the increasingly addictive nature of games like WoW. Hopefully, attention like this will lead to an emergence of addiction centres, and other such programs which will help folks who have a tough time differentiating between life, and their $15/month virtual life.
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