I felt a familiar pang this week; one familiar not only to me, but to quite a few of you as well, I imagine. Ahead of the launch of the seventh - count 'em! - expansion for World of Warcraft, Blizzard announced that it is making the base game and all of the previous expansions free to anyone paying a subscription.
Given the various bundles and deals that have always been available to make the onboarding process as smooth as possible, this is in itself a relatively minor and common sense move. That's not the point. The point is that seeing Blizzard do even a relatively minor thing to try to entice back its former subscribers, to make it even slightly easier to hop back into Azeroth; well, there go the pangs.
"My /played statistic for was heading towards being counted in months at the point when I stopped entirely"
For all that I've loved the extensive time I've spent in many other fictional universes - be they in games, movies or books - there's nothing that can compare to the sheer amount of time I spent in Warcraft, or the extent of the familiarity its game world holds. My /played statistic for the game was heading towards being counted in months at the point when I stopped entirely - vastly ahead of the time I've spent in Final Fantasy's multitudinous worlds, in Middle-Earth in all its literary, cinematic and interactive forms, in Westeros, or in Marvel's various dimensions.
I'm not arguing, or interested in arguing, that Warcraft's world is 'better' than any of those; I'm simply saying that I can close my eyes and navigate my way from Stormwind to Booty Bay, or from coast to coast of Northrend, with perfect recall, and hum the music from each zone along the way to boot.
I'm far from alone in this. Even among my own friends and acquaintances there's a whole cohort who lived and breathed WoW through its first few expansions, before trailing off somewhere along the line as, well, adulting went and got in the way. Given the extraordinary cultural phenomenon that WoW was at its peak, the number of people around the world who share that experience must number in the millions - no longer engaged, but still prone to enormous nostalgia every time the game's head pops above the media parapet.
Blizzard, of course, is keenly aware of the existence of people like myself and those millions of others. I'm sure that to some extent we're precisely the reason why it keeps reducing the barriers to re-engaging with WoW. There can't be very many brand new players deciding to set foot in Azeroth for the first time. The game's intake likely depends primarily on former players' nostalgia pangs overpowering the friction of starting to play again, so Blizzard's focus is on maximising the nostalgia while minimising the friction.
"WoW is perhaps the most perfectly crafted time-sink ever created, and I don't have that time to sink any more"
That's well and good, but there's a pretty hard limit to what can be achieved with that approach, because the reality is that the most straightforward lever for reducing friction is removing financial barriers (as this latest change to the business model does), but the real friction for many players has nothing to do with finances. I ignored my nostalgia pangs this week for the same reason I've ignored them so many times - that it was never a financial barrier that stopped me delving back into the new WoW expansions (I stopped at Mists of Pandaria, personally). Rather, it was a question of time and dedication. I can't justify re-engaging with Warcraft for exactly the same reason that I can remember the walk across those game maps with such clarity; it's perhaps the most perfectly, beautifully crafted time-sink ever created, and I don't have that time to sink any more.
This leads to an obvious question that must, I imagine, keep those charged with Blizzard's business success awake on the occasional night; what to do about millions of former players who still have a deep, lingering affection for Warcraft, but whose life situation has turned around entirely from the one that allowed them to engage with the game in years past.
"There's money on the table here, and an audience with a hunger for something that has yet to be invented"
Where once they had little money and tons of time - making an MMORPG into an ideal, and actually very cost-effective, pastime - they now have fewer financial constraints but little time. That makes them arguably far more appealing customers - less demanding of endless content, yet willing to pay more - which is why a company would rightly kick itself over leaving them unserved. Fitting them into the WoW paradigm, however, is a very difficult circle to square.
Part of the problem is that this speaks to the great revolving debate that has defined all of WoW's lengthy lifespan - the argument about the "casualisation" of the game, which has been lamented eternally by self-styled core fans, yet is also undoubtedly a huge part of the game's broad appeal. I have no doubt that the debates about casualisation continue to this day in some circles, but the reality is that for a great many of those of us who used to play for countless hours, WoW still isn't remotely casual enough. I'm not sure it ever could be, in fact, at least not without ripping away some of the other core aspects that made the game so enjoyable along the way.
Yet squaring that circle would make for a pretty amazing final act for one of gaming's greatest success stories, a swansong for the creativity and innovation that defined WoW from the outset. As it stands, the fascination and nostalgia that former players hold for WoW's game world - its storytelling and its atmosphere, the NPC characters and world-lore mysteries we spent so many hours (days... weeks... months...) with over the years - remains largely untapped.
Unless we're willing to delve back into the core MMORPG itself, which simply isn't on the cards for most people, Blizzard offers little; a handful of tie-in media aside, there's no way to engage with that world that isn't a full-on re-entry to a game that we know we can no longer make time for. Perhaps that's fine. Perhaps we're simply no longer the target audience. But there's money on the table here, and an audience with a hunger for something that has yet to be invented. It's a problem that may not demand a solution but would certainly reward one.
WoW is arguably in a unique situation that it would be tricky to generalise from - at least for now - but that in itself offers an opportunity to try unique solutions. Blizzard has done all it can to remove the financial friction from those who'd like to re-engage with WoW in some way. The question is whether it can do the same in a meaningful way (beyond simply reducing levelling-up time) for those for whom the barrier has never been price of entry, but rather the price of the time we'd lose once inside.