Is World of Warcraft dying? You know, it's funny — I've been playing WoW on and off since the game launched in 2004. I've tallied over 10,000 hours of playtime in the game, going from hunting server-first boss kills and raid achievements in my youth to more casual high-end scheduled raids in my work-addled adulthood. I'd scoff at media types writing stories about "WoW killers" and hyperbolic articles talking about WoW dying, only for it to defy expiry date expectations time and time again. This time, however, something feels a bit different.
This recent player exodus might be temporary, but unless Blizzard takes notice, I believe it's only a matter of time before World of Warcraft relinquishes its crown for good.
WoW has long been the king of the paid-MMO world, until now. A challenger from another legendary franchise has arisen, dubbed Final Fantasy XIV: Realm Reborn. FFXIV was notorious for failure ironically in its early days, with a catastrophically under-realized system that failed to maintain a stable player base. To Square Enix's credit, they stuck with it, investing millions to literally reboot the entire world. Since that event, the game has steadily grown, reaching record concurrent players on Steam, with some third-party population trackers putting it on competing grounds with World of Warcraft for active players. I wrote recently about how some big WoW influencers have also deserted the game for FFXIV, flooding Final Fantasy XIV's servers with new players (affectionately known in-game as sprouts).
Is FFXIV going to kill WoW? Maybe not today. This recent player exodus might be temporary, but unless Blizzard takes notice, I believe it's only a matter of time before World of Warcraft relinquishes its crown for good. Why exactly are so many players leaving World of Warcraft? Here's what I believe.
Update July 26, 2021: This article was written before the massive California state lawsuit alleging Activision-Blizzard has a sexist work culture that marginalizes women, creating an environment of harassment and unequal pay and opportunities. Activision-Blizzard has denied the claims, although many Blizzard developers have both publically and privately to us have expressed their dismay and anger both at the report, and Activision's corporate response. The original article is below.
1. Itemization in World of Warcraft feels completely arbitrary
In years past, obtaining "best-in-slot" gear in World of Warcraft was a relatively straightforward affair. You knew what bosses you'd have to kill. You'd even know roughly how many times you'd have to kill them before you could get an item. Heck, you could even do a guild run with master looter activated, allowing the group leader to pass you the item, if everyone else in your team agreed. In the interests of player retention, Blizzard spent years adding layer upon layer of randomness to the loot process, making the chances of you actually getting the item you want remote at best. FFXIV feels far closer to the "old school" WoW-style item implementation system, where players actually have a degree of control over targeting and obtaining those powerful sought-after gear pieces.
In World of Warcraft, the game basically decides for you whether or not you deserve a piece of gear. Master looter was removed, preventing guilds from allocating items, removing control away from players. Blizzard claimed this was to reduce "drama" which may arise from players disagreeing with a master looter's decision, but I'd argue the impersonal RNG wizard that exists in World of Warcraft serves as a worse solution.
I killed over 40 high-end bosses without getting a single upgrade during World of Warcraft: Shadowlands. It was at this point I just decided the game wasn't worth my time anymore. Blizzard has implemented some improvements to gearing in the latest 9.1 update to Shadowlands, but you have to wonder why these systems weren't already in place, especially considering they are literally recycled from past expansions. I'd also argue that these "token" systems reduce the thrill of getting items from, you know, bosses.
Additionally, Blizzard stopped putting any effort into making items in WoW look good. Since the advent of transmogrification (transmog for short), players can swap the style of a weapon or armor piece to look like any previously obtained item. Blizzard seems to have taken this as an excuse to stop making art assets for high-end raids. It was the case in ages past that each class would get its own unique set of armor for running a high-end raid, but that's no longer the case. It serves only to contribute to the sense that gear doesn't matter, your class "fantasy" doesn't matter.
2. The story feels designed around player retention metrics instead of quality
Since the departure of long-serving Blizzard world-builders, World of Warcraft has generally struggled to build a coherent story. They dedicated literal years' worth of expansions to Sylvanas Windrunner's story arc, one of the franchise's most iconic characters. Sylvanas is the Banshee Queen leader of the Forsaken faction, or at least she was, until she inexplicably betrayed them, after committing genocide against the night elves for spurious reasons at best.
Sylvanas has always been a mysterious character, who worked her own agenda in the shadows in the background of the main storyline. With Sylvanas pulling into center stage for Shadowlands, Blizzard choked when it came to the resolution of her story, leaving it on a knife-edge cliffhanger soap-opera style "tune in next time!"
Sylvanas looks set to have some sort of redemption story unfolding now, despite her numerous crimes. The implication being that her undeath "made her do it" or something along those lines. For some random reason, the game's big bad, The Jailer, decided to resurrect her out of undeath, while also letting the champions of the Horde and the Alliance escape. None of it makes any sense unless you consider the fact that Blizzard doesn't want to end Sylvanas, for the merchandising and brand silhouette.
The way the story has been presented in recent years, much like the gearing situation, makes me care less about the game.
It feels increasingly like Blizzard writes the story in a whiplash-style reactionary way, rather than for the sake of, you know, writing a good story. Blizzard promised that Sylvanas' plots and plans would make sense, and that she wasn't just another basic baddie hungry for power for power's sake. Alas, that seems very much to have been the case, changing her mind on a mere whim at the last minute by half-heartedly firing a single arrow at The Jailer. How anticlimactic.
Honestly, this is just a small slice of everything that has gone weird with WoW's storyline as of late. More and more of it slips out of the main game and into books and comics that require extra reading and research. Some of it adds important context, but why wasn't that presented in-game? Despite incredible art, great voice acting, and improved tools for making in-game cutscenes, the way the story has been presented in recent years, much like the gearing situation, makes me care less about the game.
3. Time gating contributes to the sense of routine-like "work, not fun"
One of the most annoying mechanics Blizzard has introduced in recent years is this concept of "time gating," borrowed from the most annoying practices of Activision's King mobile division.
Many of World of Warcraft's endgame systems now come with a time-gated component, which on the one hand, seems like it could be a good idea in some ways. It prevents hardcore players from soaking up all the content, leaving more casual players to get left behind. It also takes the pressure of hardcore players to grind constantly and be at the top of the pack. However, in reality, it's just another instance where Blizzard takes control away from the player.
World of Warcraft's artists are among the best in the industry, but there comes a point where no amount of shiny paint can hide the ugly systems beneath it.
Do you know another area of life where you perform activities on a routine basis with set hours, largely out of your control? It's called work, except in World of Warcraft, you're paying for the privilege. Fel, the weekly timed loot chest from Mythic+ runs is almost like a paycheck, except you have no idea how much money you're going to get. More often than not, it's zero.
MMOs have always walked a fine line between game and grind, but World of Warcraft's recent design decisions pushed it too far to the point where immersion is shattered, and the fantasy is removed. Combine this with the carrot-on-a-stick storytelling, the removal of control from your itemization, the sheer volume of gameplay aspects that run on a timer, or a routine, and WoW has started to stray far too far away from what it means to be an actual video game. World of Warcraft's artists are among the best in the industry, but there comes a point where no amount of shiny paint can hide the ugly systems beneath it.
Is the Gysahl greener on the other side?
The real driver of the WoW exodus is the desire to find greener pastures. Final Fantasy XIV hasn't necessarily done anything new or special recently, maintaining a consistently growing player base on the basis of its quality alone. It's only recently started to grow at Blizzard's expense, however. World of Warcraft is killing World of Warcraft, not FFXIV.
Many players may eventually hit the cap in FFXIV and run out of things to do, and eventually slink back to World of Warcraft, owing to its arguably tighter combat and more responsive engine — but if Blizzard plans to rest on their laurels and simply hopes that this happens, they could simply doom themselves to further obscurity. By allowing players like me to even consider exploring greener pastures, Blizzard runs the risk of turning us into dedicated FFXIV subscribers, ignoring World of Warcraft completely.
It's not all WoW's doing, though. Final Fantasy XIV has a truly enormous amount of content. The fact you can change class on the fly without any real penalties is a huge boon. The deprioritization on damage meters and raider.io scores takes the pressure off those of us with reduced free time, while retaining incredibly difficult high-end content for those with the time and skill to participate. Crucially, FFXIV seems to also have a more pleasant community. Partially, I feel like this is because people are playing for fun, rather than the pressure to keep up with the latest gear curve. There are a ton of things FFXIV does better than WoW in my opinion too. The fact all raids are boss-focused without trash packs, while also giving you the option to scale raids to your level ensures that previous expansion content remains challenging and somewhat fresh. Obsolescence is baked into the fabric of World of Warcraft, and that is just another layer of routine that has gotten old. WoW: Classic's servers are basically dead now too, since all the raid tiers are launched, and there's nothing left to do.
I often wonder if Activision corporate even cares about WoW's future, or if what we're seeing is some sort of managed decline.
Final Fantasy XIV has mountains of meaningful side objectives to enjoy, whether you're crafting or maintaining your player house, participating in events, or hunting down triple triad cards. World of Warcraft has become a game that revolves almost entirely around being cutting edge and optimization, which creates a pressure cooker of negative will. In summary, so far, FFXIV feels like a video game. World of Warcraft's lack of innovation, lack of investment in fun side content, and gameplay designed entirely around carrot-on-a-stick mobile-style player retention metrics have gutted the game. Blizzard's attempts to "streamline" just result in removing depth and variety, although they have reversed course on some of these decrees, "de-pruning" class abilities to increase flavor. The fact remains that many talents and playstyles in WoW remain useless since Blizzard reduced the frequency by which they update class abilities and balance.
I'm sure I'd give WoW another go again in the future, but it would require a change in direction to the order of some magnitude. World of Warcraft needs to start feeling like a video game again, find a way to reward player's time investment while also respecting that free time. If WoW is to survive evolving player habits, in what is becoming a hugely competitive market for our hard-won free time, something needs to change. Does Activision Blizzard even care, though?
I often wonder if Activision corporate even cares about WoW's future, or if what we're seeing is some sort of managed decline in what they think is an inevitable death spiral. I sorely hope not, because despite its age, WoW has immense potential and has proven itself to defy all expectations in the past.