Will it take the decline of WoW to bring back the virtual world?

An interesting thought entered my head this morning as I bought a month’s subscription to World of Warcraft. Has it taken WoW’s decline to finally get them focus on the  virtual world again? I mean, beyond the set-piece stuff we need to quest. WoW has done a lot for the industry, but one of the things it has undone is the pursuit of a true virtual world. Who would have that that something as innocuous as quests would dismantle what was the foundation of our outlook.

Yet, now that WoW has seen a consistent decline in subscribers, we see a marketing shift away from endgame. While yes, they have acknowledged how important raiders are and plan to accommodate them in large fashion, their marketing has followed a much more casual air, highlighting Pokemon battles and pandas.

Pandas which while might seem ridiculous, strike me like a breath of relief. For years, we’ve seen Blizzard present “big bad” after “big bad” with a seriousness that is both too much and not enough over what the adul-cartoon art style leads you expect. After all, it has gracefully stolen the middle ground between playfully safe and cartoonishly serious. They have repeatedly denied that Pandarians would ever be part of the game yet here we are with an entire expansion devoted to them.

Maybe they were talking to a different audience. Those old schoolers (5 years or so at this point, right?) have had it reinforced again and again that WoW is just a FOTM – a noteworthy point in an evolving personal history. Absolutely, that’s not how they think of it in private, but culturally, that’s the reason we’re seeing the changes of the 2011-2012 MMO. WoW, as it happens, is just a great tracking point. Look to Blizzard’s added feature list and then to the MMOs recently released, and you’ll get a pretty good picture of MMO history.

Those 5-plusers want the competitive seriousness of the endgame in the same way the most vocal Ultima players wanted open-world PvP and scripted everything. Three generations in so few years: First: EQ/Ultima/DAoC +; Second: WoW/EQ2/LotRO Pre-F2P; Third: Allods/RIFT/Aion/SWTOR.  (There are way more games but we both know that, so let’s move on, shall we?) Gen3 is the Facebook generation, the Farmville daily, and only caught on to WoW after the vets got done arguing about who should be able to enter a raid instance and became a memory of yesterday’s blogs.

Those vets don’t play WoW anymore, not in the same number. I’d say they’re probably off in RIFT or SWTOR and probably both eagerly awaiting GW2. Good for them.

My point?

Maybe now that the subscriptions are leveling out the developers are more free to build up parts of the game their corporate backers considered second-rate. What does a world matter when it’s all about retention? (A cash register rings in the background). Is it at all possible that Blizzard’s dev team really did give a shit about virtual worlds and all those other fundamentals they destroyed?

Or is pokemon and personal farms a sub-grab, noteably the first outside the MMO genre?

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