Legion, the latest expansion for Blizzard’s World of Warcraft, goes live this Tuesday, August 30th. Originally released nearly 12 years ago, the fantasy-themed massively multiplayer game has proven to have massive staying power, and still has millions of subscribers. But the game, which brought in more than 50% of Blizzard’s revenue until last year, has begun to show its age, and Legion is seen by many as a crucial test of whether an already steep decline in subscribers can be halted or reversed.
Last year, Blizzard announced that WoW subscriptions were down to less than half of their 2010 peak of 12 million. They also said that they would stop reporting those numbers – so it’s unclear how we’ll be able to gauge Legion’s success. There has been a subscriber bump with most of the game’s five previous expansions, which arrived roughly every two years. But with both 2012’s Mists of Pandaria and 2014’s Warlords of Draenor, those bumps were followed by sharp drop-offs, which has been blamed both on an aging, busier playerbase, and on poor receptions for those two installments in particular.
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Blizzard’s efforts to retain players have included graphical upgrades and some gameplay innovation, but have mostly centered around streamlining and “quality of life” improvements. That has included pruning character abilities, speeding the process of building a character, and making it easier to move around in the game’s massive world. But those same changes have alienated some longtime players, who argue that the game is being dumbed down.
Perhaps the best example of the inherent tension between making the game more accessible and maintaining what attracted players early on is the implementation of group-finding tools. In the game’s early days, tackling dungeons meant laboriously assembling teams of players to fill specific roles in groups that ranged from 5 players to 40.
Now, though, players can simply queue up to be automatically placed in groups, largely for less-challenging versions of the game’s content. This gives many more players access to those experiences, but arguably reduces both the social immersion and sense of challenge that appealed to many players early on.
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Early reviews suggest that Legion pushes World of Warcraft even further in the direction of democratic accessibility. Every player is given powerful weapons and an important role in the game world. Legion also reconnects players to the game’s main storyline, as laid out in this summer’s fairly successful Warcraft movie, and lets them interact more closely with the franchise’s most popular characters.
It remains to be seen whether that approach will help keep Warcraft healthy. More than that, it may be seen as an index of the viability of subscription-based games as a whole. While MMOs with $15-a-month commitments proliferated after WoW’s initial surge of success, most of those have either disappeared or shifted to the same “freemium” model used by the most popular mobile games.