The closing of a private WoW server has sparked some good debate, particularly around my favorite fact (not topic) of discussion; that WoW stopped growing during WotLK, thanks in large part to the design changes made at that time. Az disagrees (with a historical fact…) because he believes during WotLK more new players signed up for WoW than ever before. And while that’s true, very true actually, it doesn’t help the cause of WotLK as the total number of subs flat-lined. It actually hurts it tremendously.
From a revenue standpoint one sub is the same as another in any given month. Meaning someone who has played for a year pays the same $15 that someone who is new paid (ignoring the one-time gain of selling a box), so you aren’t growing revenue if you are bringing in more people than ever, while at the same time more people are leaving than ever before (churn), and from a business standpoint if you aren’t growing you’re dying.
Az brought up churn rate, but never answered whether he thinks WotLK or Vanilla had the higher rate. He doesn’t really need to answer (other than for a sanity check), because I think we all clearly know the answer, but that answer leads into some interesting territory; what sells an MMO, and what sustains it?
Mr T sells your MMO. TV commercials sell your MMO. Marketing, hype, and yes, the basics of what your game is all about sell your MMO (mostly graphics and the general theme, not the damage % of ability X on class Y being nerfed .5%). Those things get people in the door, but no one playing at the time said “ooh, Mr T is talking about WoW, let me buy another 6 month sub to continue facerolling content that isn’t getting updated for a year!”.
Once you are playing an MMO however, the details of what the game is actually about is what retains you. If the content you are enjoying changes to something worse, that might make you leave. Hell, if the content you enjoy stays stagnant or doesn’t have long-term appeal, and another MMO comes along that does what you like better, that might make you leave. Retaining a player in an MMO is both very easy (social hooks and all that potentially being so strong) and very hard (because unlike most other genres, the goal here is keeping someone months if not years longer than they would play a single-player game, though titles like LoL, CS, and CoC already blur the lines a bit in this regard.)
In other words, while hype and marketing will get you in, content and design choices will determine whether you stay or not, and for how long. Today WoW still has the hype and history to move boxes when a new expansion hits, but it’s also a dumpster fire in design, as almost everyone that comes back leaves shortly after consuming the little bits of bleh content that were added. How WoW arrived to its current sad state started with WotLK.
Vanilla grew more than anyone thought was possible, and TBC continued this unprecedented growth. That growth trajectory was very different (unique really) from other successful MMO. EQ1 hit its peak 1-2 years after release, EVE had a far longer growth, but obviously not nearly as sharp before hitting its current stall, Lineage 1 hit its peak something like 15 years after release, FFXIV is still growing 3+ years in, etc. Point being: there is no magic timeframe of expected growth and then decline for an MMO, because how you update your MMO is what really determines whether you grow or fade. Had WotLK been designed better, ala vanilla/TBC, WoW would have kept growing.
So yes, during WotLK the marketing and hype for WoW dwarfed what it was during vanilla or even TBC, and you no doubt had far more new people jumping in to try it. The actual design changes of WotLK though? All of those combined resulted in a game going from gaining millions of subs to flat-lining, and then ultimately declining by 60%+. Factor in all of the social hooks and forward moment WoW had at the time (to say nothing about the financial ability to spend on content and marketing compared to anyone else), and stalling out growth of that snowball rolling down the hill is actually quite the amazing feat that WotLK pulled off, and its why its place in MMO history is so significant.
PS: On the topic of Blizzard hosting vanilla servers and how difficult/costly that would be; if multiple amateur teams can do it, even to the scale of 150k+ accounts, I’m pretty sure Blizzard (even New Blizzard) could figure it out (Hell if TWO separate teams can get Darkfall 1 up and running, I’m pretty sure its easier than current-day WoW dungeons!).
From a technical standpoint this whole thing is trivial, and the easy money is there on the table. But again, imagine the ego hit (and really, reality check) everyone at New Blizzard would take when vanilla WoW had more active players than current-day WoW? The server will eventually happen, because current WoW will continue to decline, but we won’t see Blizzard do it until desperation really sets in. Perhaps once the WoW movie flops and Legion follows the same pattern as Warlords, but not before that. Early prediction time; we see legacy WoW servers in 2017. Second prediction; those servers become insanely popular, and that popularity sustains itself far better than EQ1 legacy servers or similar ventures.