30 May 2013

Crash of the Titan

You will get my impressions of RIFT's Storm Legion expansion this week, but a bit of news dropped yesterday that I would be remiss if I did not address.  So I'm going to "table" the discussion of SL for another day or so and instead discuss this news item and the potential implications of it.  For those that haven't seen the news yet, Blizzard has supposedly reassigned a significant portion of the staff working on their upcoming Project Titan MMO and told the remaining members of the team to "start over" from the ground up.  This will effectively delay any potential release of the game until 2016 at the earliest.  Links below for you to follow up on, then we'll get to the ramifications.




Implications for Titan Itself

Courtesy: MMO Champion

Let's start with the most obvious.  What does this mean about Titan itself?  Well first of all, we knew very little about the game to begin with.  Blizzard was playing its cards very close to the chest as far as what Titan actually was.  They acknowledged it existed and that they were working on it, but in terms of concrete details they divulged basically nothing.  The rumor mill was that they were finally going to cough up some details at BlizzCon this year.  But with this "restart," even if that rumor had been true, it most certainly isn't going to happen now.  So in essence this "reboot" of the game means nothing in terms of what we knew, what we thought we knew, and what the game itself actually is.  We never knew what the first "version" of it was, so we can't be confused when we find out what it turns out to be.

The next question is, why the "reboot?"  Well I posited my theory in replying to Keen's analysis on his blog.  My thinking is that Blizzard came to the realization that the MMO market had changed significantly since Titan began development and the game as it was currently realized was not in a good position to compete in this "new" market.  What I mean by this mostly pertains to the rise of all the different free-play models over the course of the past year or so.  F2P (in various forms) is the current reality of the MMO marketplace.  In order to compete, you either need to have some kind of F2P model yourself, or have the kind of unique product and/or fanbase that will allow you to be profitable on a different model.  I think Blizzard was building Titan with the "old" paradigm in mind, that is with the mandatory monthly subscription being the standard.  That time has come and gone.  For better or for worse, F2P is the model that must be reckoned with today.

So my theory is that Blizzard decided that Titan was not well suited to compete in the F2P environment.  It either wasn't designed for F2P itself (most likely) or Blizzard felt that it was not sufficiently unique to compete against the much higher quality F2P offerings that exist in the MMO marketplace today.  After departing from Trion, Scott Hartsman commented on the difficulty of "retrofitting" a game to an F2P model when the game itself was not designed for it.  That's what I think happened with Titan.  Blizzard looked around, realized that F2P was the new reality, realized that Titan was not designed with that reality in mind, and decided that rather than trying to "retrofit" their game to meet this new reality, they tore it down and started over from scratch.  This actually does fit with Blizzard's long time operating theory, in my opinion.  Blizzard is already notorious for its "when it's ready" approach to development and launch timetables and scrapping projects that they decide they don't like.  They trashed Starcraft: Ghost and spent nearly a decade working on Starcraft 2 and Diablo 3, so I don't think it is at all beyond the realm of possibility that they simply decided Titan wasn't up to snuff and scrapped it.

Implications for World of Warcraft

Regardless of the reasoning behind it, the most significant implication of this delay for Titan relates to Blizzard's most profitable commodity, World of Warcraft.  Speculation had already begun that Blizzard was looking to "ramp down" its dependence on WoW and hopefully begin to reorient both its fans and its financial outlook to a "post-WoW" scenario.  Perhaps WoW had one more big expansion in its future, a push to level 100 for player characters and a "final confrontation" of sorts with the Burning Legion to tie up the overall story arc of Azeroth dating back to Warcraft 3 itself.  Moving Titan from 2013 to 2016 changes this picture considerably.  WoW is not going to be "winding down" any time soon.  In fact, with Titan delayed, Blizzard needs to re-prioritize WoW and attempt to reverse some of the significant subscription losses they have sustained over the course of the past year.

Now let's dispense with the most obvious possible change first;  WoW is not going F2P... at least not in the near future.  Why?  It doesn't have to.  Blizzard has nothing to gain by taking WoW F2P at this juncture.  It isn't going to bring in new players.  By this point anyone who wants to try WoW has tried it.  And I don't think it would encourage the "tourist" types like myself to stick around (and spend money) if they already aren't.  WoW is still insanely profitable sticking to the subscription model and until that changes, Blizzard has no incentive to change it.  Besides, they are also making money hand over fist charging for conveniences on top of their subscription fee as it is.  I can't tell you how much money I "wasted" buying server transfers, faction swaps, etc. during my years in WoW and I know I am far from alone in that.  So put F2P WoW out of your mind... it ain't happening.

What is going to happen to the old warhorse?  Well the change in Titan's timetable likely means that we will see at least two more full blown expansions for WoW before Titan sees daylight.  Now I don't pretend to have any insight as far as Blizzard's long term creative plans for the Warcraft IP as a whole.  I felt they "rushed" the Lich King storyline too soon.  I thought that confrontation should have been postponed for later in WoW's lifespan, although Wrath of the Lich King remains WoW's high point as far as I'm concerned.  But after the total dud that was Cataclysm and the storyline silliness that is Mists of Pandaria, the game is certainly in need of a solid expansion again.  To me, two possibilities suggest themselves.

The first would be an exploration of the Emerald Dream/Nightmare.  This is something that has been teased in various forms all the way back to the corrupted green dragons that existed as open world raid bosses in vanilla WoW.  But for whatever reason, Blizzard never decided to "pull the trigger" on a full blown expansion based on this concept.  I'm also not sure how this would play out storyline wise after the events of Cataclysm with the dragon aspects giving up their powers.  I'll admit to not following the lore too closely since Cataclysm so I'm not sure if there were any consequences to the Dream for Ysera giving up her powers and Deathwing's defeat.  The other possibility that suggests itself is the aforementioned "final confrontation" with the Burning Legion.  Now if Blizzard is going to keep WoW running for several more years, this might make sense for a second expansion a couple more years down the road rather than the immediate follow up to Mists but it definitely would be compelling content if done right.  The Burning Legion has always remained one of the key adversaries in the Warcraft IP, but little has been heard from them since Burning Crusade itself.  They have been largely absent ever since.  Although, bearing that in mind, perhaps a "two stage" expansion first reintroducing the Legion then staging the final confrontation with them could be done.

Obviously Blizzard could go in a completely different direction.  Heck I think a lot of people still can't believe they actually made the Pandaren into the focus of an entire expansion.  There are still Old Gods to deal with, although based on the lore behind the Sha, it would seem that the Old Gods will end up playing a large role in the story of Mists so maybe Blizzard won't go back to that "well" again.  There is still the "loose end" of Alleria and Turalyon, but that would suggest a return to Outland and revisiting the Burning Legion storyline as mentioned above.  That could make a good "bridge" to a climax with the Legion though.  Needless to say there are a lot of options open to Blizzard, but regardless of where they ultimately decide to go, the pressure is on.  They can't afford another poorly received expansion.  They have to hit the next one out of the park in order to stabilize WoW's position and Blizzard's overall finances.

Implications for the MMO Industry

One final thing to consider is what the Titan delay means for MMO's as a whole.  One cannot ignore the impact that Blizzard has on the market overall, so how will this affect other games and developers?  Well it certainly removes one powerful "competitor" from the market for the foreseeable future.  This will give the next crop of launches a bit more "breathing room."  Games like The Elder Scrolls Online and WildStar will have one less elephant to deal with as they attempt to find their footing in the marketplace.  So I'd imagine there are sighs of relief being uttered in places like Bethesda and Carbine.  While they would never admit it publicly, I'm sure they are happier that their games will not have to contend with Blizzard's "latest and greatest" as well as WoW itself.

What this means for the future is a bit less clear.  MMO's (perhaps more than other types of games) have rather extended development cycles, at least most of the successful ones do.  Attempting to rush things (*cough*  Star Trek Online *cough*) typically leads to bad results.  If Blizzard is adjusting Titan to the realities of today, who is to say those realities won't change again by 2016?  I doubt we'll go back to mandatory subscriptions, but will F2P still be dominant in three years as it appears to be today?  Or perhaps Blizzard is more ambitious than that.  Perhaps they are rebooting Titan in an attempt to change the market again.  Maybe they see Titan as a truly revolutionary product that will dictate a change in the marketplace similar to what F2P has done over the past couple years.  I'm not sure they could pull this off as I see Blizzard as improvers not innovators.  They take an idea (MMO's) and refine it to a razor's edge of polish and performance (WoW).  They don't do so well at coming up with truly original gameplay concepts themselves.  But who knows?  They may surprise us all.

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