Rewriting the Rules
Blizzard's Cataclysm isn't just an expansion pack - it's a fundamental change to how MMOs are operated
If many of your friends are gamers - and if you're reading this, I'd rather hope that least some of them fit that profile - then you may well have noticed something of an exodus from the real world occurring this week. Ever since Tuesday, my various social networking accounts, my phone's email inbox and even some real-life conversations have followed a familiar pattern. "Cataclysm's here," they say, "I'll see you on the other side."
What's extraordinary about this flurry of defections from Earth in favour of the homely charms of Azeroth is the sheer range of people involved. Age, gender and occupation are no barrier, and the launch of the new expansion provides the stimulus (or perhaps excuse) required for WoW's most casual players to return to the game for a few months and explore.
Yet Cataclysm represents something more than just another chance to marvel at World of Warcraft's success, to regurgitate the enormous numbers - players, revenue, and so on - which have defined the game in the media in recent years. Nobody in the games business needs reminding of just how successful Blizzard's monstrous MMO really is, of how dominant it remains within its sector, or of the inevitability of a truly enormous launch for any new expansion.
What makes Cataclysm more interesting than any of this is that it's not, at heart, really an expansion. Rather, it's a ground-up revamp of the original game - a reworking of the six year old content which defined the experience at the outset, along with a fundamental re-imagining of the stats and mathematics which are the beating heart of WoW's gameplay. Compared with these changes, the new races and zones, while exciting for many players, are a side dish.
In changing the fundamentals of World of Warcraft, Blizzard is taking an almost unimaginable risk. This is not comparable with releasing an update to a much-loved franchise which alters the basic structure of the game. A franchise can have the occasional dud game, or simply turn out the odd annual update that doesn't resonate with the audience. It might make it a little tougher to sell the following year's game, sure, but it's not like a weak game in, say, the Call of Duty franchise would change the fact that earlier games in the series were much loved.
World of Warcraft, however, is not a franchise. It is an active product, a living, breathing, revenue-generating part of Blizzard's business. Its creators don't want to convince people to buy another game in 12 or 18 months time - they want to convince them to keep parting with a subscription fee on a monthly basis. In that this involves sustaining devotion among an existing fanbase while growing the appeal into new audiences, that's a goal that's somewhat similar to that of standalone game developers. In that it demands the operation of a service which keeps players coming back month after month, it's utterly alien to them.
Faced with that task, Cataclysm is as bold a move as can be imagined. It risks, of course, breaking the fundamentals of a game which is arguably the most successful in the history of the medium. It represents something that no other media company, let alone game company, has ever attempted to do - the radical reworking of a live franchise which generates over a billion dollars a year. It's the entertainment equivalent of open heart surgery.
Of course, the reason that nobody has ever attempted this before is because nobody has ever needed to. Blizzard doesn't have any choice but to invent a brand new playbook for World of Warcraft, because no other company has ever been in this situation. WoW is unprecedented not merely in its scale, but also in the fact that it continues to grow even after six years on the market. By this point in the lifecycle of other MMOs, even the most successful of them are winding down, to some extent - content expansions are designed to keep dedicated players going for as long as possible, but there's a broad acceptance that the years of growth are over.
WoW's situation is unique, in both a business and a cultural sense, because it hasn't followed that curve. Its growth slowed a little in the past year or so, certainly, but there's no sign of an actual decline - no reason to believe that having hit 12 million subscribers, the game won't eventually pass the next milestone at 13 million. Cataclysm, in this regard, is a fascinating experiment not just for WoW but for the games business as a whole. It's an experiment which seeks to answer the question of whether there can be such a thing as an evergreen game, one which is refreshed in perpetuity and keeps its consumer base fascinated in an entirely open-ended way.
If so - if Cataclysm truly works, a question which won't really be answered for at least a few years when we can gauge its long-term impact on WoW's growth curve - then it creates tantalising possibilities for gaming. Blizzard's success will, of course, be extremely difficult for even the most talented teams to replicate, and anyone who actually sets out to "replicate" WoW is doomed to failure from the outset. However, if evergreen games are a possibility, then it's inevitable the WoW will ultimately be joined by more of them - perhaps, in fact, it already has been, although it'll be tough to recognise that without the benefit of hindsight.
Either way, Cataclysm's bold, experimental nature makes it vastly more than just an expansion, just like World of Warcraft's extraordinary scale makes it more than just an MMO. Whatever your personal feelings on Blizzard's game may be, it's a cultural landmark, one which casts a long shadow over every other effort in the online gaming space - and Cataclysm is a turning point which will define the future of WoW, for better or for worse, and with it, the future of the entire subscription gaming market.
For the players, of course, this isn't important. They have new lands to explore, new races to play and a changed world to adventure through. For the next few weeks or months, their social lives (and those of their friends, I fear) may be somewhat diminished as a result. For the watching industry, however, it's what happens after those months that truly matters. For years, each new move on Blizzard's part has written a brand new chapter in the history of MMO gaming. Which way the story twists after this chapter will give us an important new perspective on the possibilities of gaming in a connected world.