I started playing World of Warcraft on launch day in November 2004. Back then, it was a great progression from Everquest in that is was more player friendly, better graphics and was overall a better system. It did maintain the nose grinding raiding mentality of the day though. When the first expansion came out, raiding was the #1 priority and because of gating, maybe 5% of the entire population saw anything but their town gates. It was a flawed system that catered to a super small minority. Next expansion, Lich King, swung the pendulum the other way. Gear was easy to get, raids were pretty easy too. By the end, people with skill could faceroll the final boss. A lot of people who had been with the game for the first 4 years thought this was ridiculous and to be honest, based on the game’s history, it was.
We’re now 6 years in and there are 3 main expansions, each with 4 content updates each – so 16 or so modules in 6 years. Contrast to ANY other game with over 200K subs and you get an expansion at max every 18 months and multiple content updates within. Rift is 6 months old and has had 4. With the ease of single player content in WoW, people can hit max level in a week of play, see every dungeon in 2 weeks and perhaps attempt to raid for another month. At best, any new content is completely worn out within 3 months yet WoW has insisted upon a 6 month cycle. People burn out and leave.
Late last year the recent expansion came out, Cataclysm, whose goal was to to simplify stats and talents yet increase the difficulty of mechanics. This meant you needed a lot of skill to succeed and for the tanks and healers, this was a huge pressure that simply did not exist for 2 years. Quite simply, the game is standing at a point where a bad tank (20% of the smaller groups or 5% of the largest) take 100% of the blame of failure. This has caused huge burnout and as numbers have shown, WoW has lost 1 million customers since the expansion came out about 9 months ago. Sure, they still have 11 million left but 1 million people is $15,000,000 a month lost. Any game but WoW would love to even break the 1 million player mark.
So WoW has issues, core fundamental issues, that have been ignored for a while now. Many of the original devs have left due to the change in vision and started their own games. Free to Play games (DDO, LOTRO, AOC) have shown that you can have tremendous success with simplified modular games. Pay to play games have faltered incredibly in the past yet Rift seems to be taking a different path where WoW has evidently been lacking. They listen to players and have a general need to appease all of their players, not just the hardcore raiders.
What is WoW doing to combat this? Backtracking of course. Huge threat changes to make tanks easier to play. A possible new expansion with a mind blowing casual focus. Customization options for armor and weapons. A new patch schedule. 4.1 came out after 6 months, 4.2 came 4 months later and 4.3 looks to be 3 months after that and it would be the final update. That means the next expansion is due in February-March 2012.
A game company doesn’t completely reverse its method of operation on a whim, it smells the blood in the air and makes drastic changes to the core mechanics. It’s done this every major expansion, adding to the core combat of the game while completely ignoring the communal aspect from the start. Every game that has had success since has seen this as a tremendous weakness and has fought to combat it. I think we’ve reached a point where we can honestly say that Blizzard killed WoW.
EDIT: I wanted to add a bit more about raiding. A particular website keeps track of WoW raid boss kills, world of logs. In the past expansion, 12,000 kills were recorded for the Lich King – the final boss. The tier before that had maybe 20,000 kills. Think about those numbers. With an average of 20 players per attempt, that’s less than 250,000 people, excluding those who did it multiple times, who saw the final encounter. Best case, 2% of the player base. Even the current content has only upped it to 4%. How sad of a state it is that such a tiny percentage is the target market.