World of Warcraft and Life After Cataclysm

In an attempt to figure out why World of Warcraft has been shedding so many subscribers since the release of its Cataclysm expansion pack, Gamasutra sat down for a three-page Q&A with Blizzard Entertainment's Greg Street and a couple of industry watchers. Interesting reading:
Blizzard has been sanguine about these player departures, attributing the issue to frequency of patches and new content. "For a long time now we've been trying to get to a place where we can release content a lot more frequently, that's something we've been working on for literally years," Street said.

"We think that instead of ebbing and flowing it keeps players more engaged because right when they're getting bored of old content we've got new content for them. We definitely know that three or four months after a patch comes out players feel like they've seen it all and they're ready for something new. We just haven't had time to crank that stuff out yet."

Some people are skeptical about this explanation. While there has been a traditional drop in player numbers following each WoW expansion, the period of decline has lasted longer and been larger following Cataclysm.

"There's something going on with the game," McLanahan said. "There isn't a lack of content in Cataclysm. The problem is the lack of strong appeal for anyone in particular. The gear doesn't carry enough psychological weight for the hardcore players, and the raids are too difficult for more casual players, especially relative to the rewards they provide. The last raiding tier was significantly nerfed in 4.2, but its rewards are now behind what casual players can acquire by doing 5-mans, so there's no incentive to raid older content beyond doing it once or twice just to see the new bosses."

For years, the strongest tie to WoW was a social one. For high-level players it became a kind of IM with avatars, a place where the relationships built over months and years of planning, learning, and achieving together could be give some ambient comfort. Five years ago the world of social networking was a relatively broad but shallow place, but things have deepened over the years and many of those bonds are now diffused across Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ is waiting in the wings.

"People play to be in contact with other people; doing something in the game is just another pretext to socialize," Debeauvais said. "Whatever the mechanics are in the game, the bigger draw is the guilds and the social network. It's like Facebook and Google+. Right now everyone's friends are on Facebook, but if your friends start moving to Google+ then you'll eventually move too."

If WoW's mechanics are at a saturation point where adding variety doesn't add new complexity, and its charms as a social network are waning in comparison to other platforms, is this the beginning of the end?