Why 600,000 People Quit World of Warcraft

THIS WEEK, news came out of Activision’s quarterly earnings call that World of Warcraft lost 600,000 subscribers over the past few months, bringing the game back to pre-Cataclysm numbers. Immediately, the debate began: why did they leave?

To me, there’s no mystery, at least not if you’ve played WoW regularly over the past year or two. There are any number of issues people have complained about (and rightfully so in many cases), but if you’re trying to figure out what could have triggered such a mass exodus, it’s easily traced to one befuddling move on Blizzard’s part:

They made the game harder.

Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t think the game is too difficult now, and I don’t think people went, “waaaah, this is too hard” and ran away. The chain reaction was more complicated than that. But it’s still one Blizzard should have seen coming.

A FEW YEARS AGO, Blizzard introduced the concept of “heroics” with the Burning Crusade expansion. The idea was to create extra-challenging versions of 5-man dungeons that would reward currency you could spend on epic gear. This was a way of solving a big problem that existed in vanilla WoW: giving players who’d taken some time off a quick way to get caught up on gear without raiding. It was a success, and continued into the Wrath of the Lich King expansion.

About a year into Wrath, Blizzard introduced the Looking for Dungeon (LFD) system, a matchmaking tool that allowed you to queue for dungeons with random folks instead of having to recruit people out of public chat. LFD was an overwhelming success. Now you could chain-run heroics for emblems – the system would even teleport you to the instance! – and gear up in no time flat.

In fact, running daily heroics via the LFD system quickly became the lifeblood of WoW. Now players had a good reason to log in every day: in a half hour, they could breeze through a dungeon and pick up some emblems they could eventually use to buy endgame gear. LFD became WoW‘s gateway drug: the lure of easy loot got people to log on daily, at which point they’d often find other things to do.

BUT IT WASN’T all hearts and flowers. Even completely overgeared in outdated dungeons, random groups still found creative ways to fail. A tank would start chain-pulling before people had zoned into an instance, wipe the group, zone back in and do it again while people were still dead. A level 80 hunter would be running around with a tanking gun and no trinkets whatsoever. You’d start a boss fight telling people not to stand in fire, and ten seconds later, they’d die in a fire.

What LFD quickly revealed was that a large part of the WoW playerbase couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time. There were plenty of good players, but in any 5-man run, there was almost always a space cadet or two. With the launch of LFD, my guild started a forum thread called “Tales of Random Heroics” so we could share stories of the impossibly dumb things people would do, and there were plenty.

But more importantly, when we got dropped into newer ICC dungeons like Pit of Saron or Halls of Reflection, which routinely ended with repeated wipes and ragequits, it became blatantly clear that the LAST thing WoW needed was harder dungeons.

ANYONE WHO’D BEEN paying attention during Wrath knew the first few months of Cataclysm would be challenging. To start, players wouldn’t be overgeared any more: they’d be running dungeons at the appropriate gear level, and there would surely be some growing pains as people learned the new encounters. In addition, Cataclysm featured a talent overhaul: classes were redesigned, stats were removed from the game, and many players had to relearn rotations and playstyles from scratch. That seemed like more than enough difficulty for the playerbase to handle, so the idea of ratcheting it up much further seemed downright mean.

Blizzard obviously disagreed. Trash packs in Cataclysm dungeons demanded a return to organized CC like saps, sheeps and ice traps. Rampant AoE damage sucked healer mana dry. Boss gimmicks would wipe groups in a heartbeat if one player wasn’t paying attention. The players weren’t up to it. Heroics, a speedy pushover in Wrath, suddenly took an hour or longer, and killing the final boss was anything but a given. Heroics had turned into mini-raids that required a serious time commitment.

Personally, I was in no hurry to run heroics at the start of Cataclysm. I knew they’d be painful, so I spent my time questing and leveling several characters to 85 before going away for Christmas. When I returned, I spent most of my WoW time in January leveling a fresh Worgen hunter before seriously diving into the heroic pool.

When I did, my worst fears were confirmed: two months into Cataclysm, the WoW playerbase still hadn’t risen to the challenge. The new heroics were harder, but they weren’t THAT much harder. They simply required more attention, reaction and movement from everyone – a tall order for many WoW groups. The chumps who’d previously made sloppy affairs out of easy Wrath heroics had graduated to full-fledged gamekillers.

AS AN EXAMPLE, I was in a run through the revamped Deadmines that started out strong. In just ten minutes, we’d already dropped two bosses and had reached Foe Reaper 5000, a fight that involves one person piloting a harvesting robot to round up enemies while the rest of the group focused on the boss.

One of our DPS, a death knight, asked in chat “how u drive vehicle?” Before I could respond, another player took the words out of my mouth: “if you haven’t done it before, please let someone else do it so we can finish quickly.” Maybe not the cuddliest response of all time, but relatively polite and coherent for WoW.

After several requests, the DK refused to get out of the harvester or even respond, so we finally gave him some simple instructions. “Stay here and grab the adds while the rest of us fight the boss.” Of course, he ignored us and did the exact opposite, attacking the boss while adds spawned, wiping the group within 15 seconds.

The reality is WoW is loaded with people like this, incapable of simple communication or following basic directions. Are they drunk? Stoned? Brain damaged? I don’t know the answer, but the result is that these special people, who groups used to be able to carry through Wrath dungeons, have turned Cataclysm heroics into a parade of fail.

THE CHAIN REACTION is easy to follow from here. A lot of people who enjoyed Wrath‘s quick heroics have little use for a 20-30 minute queue followed by an hour-long failpug. Heroics have ceased to be a fun, daily event and become more of a pain in the ass people force themselves through, like eating their veggies.

Sadly, the quality of heroics hasn‘t improved much over time. Unlike Wrath, there hasn’t been a steadily growing population of overgeared people to carry newer folks. Instead, there’s been constant turnover: once people get the gear they need, they stop running heroics, so the majority of people running randoms are generally on the undergeared side.

What it boils down to is this: for many people, heroics have declined into a tedious, unpleasant experience and it’s sucked the heart out of WoW. If you’re not interested in raiding, what else is there to do daily? After you’ve chewed through the new quest zones and tired of daily quests, it’s easy to see why many people decided this was the time to part ways with WoW.

IT’S EASY TO IMAGINE some people looking at the numbers and thinking, “bah, 600,000 subscribers isn’t that big a deal when you’re going from 12 million to 11.4.” You’d probably feel a little different if that 600,000 people represented 9 million dollars a month out of your pocket, but that’s not what Blizzard should be most concerned about.

The bigger issue Blizzard should be worried about is that, for every person who actually canceled their account, there’s certainly another two or three or more people more who are considering leaving and just haven’t pulled the trigger. And so the clock is ticking: Blizzard has already expressed a desire to churn expansions out faster, which will attract people who enjoy the quest content, but in the meantime, Blizzard needs to return some daily fun to game, pronto, or the exodus will continue.