Getting Analytical -The Trajectory of WoW Classic

With the initial fervor settling to a calmer level, I think now is a good time to revisit the idea of World of Warcraft Classic.

Classic has gone through most of what was predicted post-launch – the playerbase has been reduced through natural attrition to a point where nearly all servers were already to a single layer, with only around 2-3 servers per region having queues with the compression to one layer that came with last week’s rollout of Classic Phase 2.

Activision-Blizzard’s Q3-2019 earnings called the subscriber jump for the quarter the single largest in the game’s history, and as the quarter included no major retail patch, there is no way to read that as anything other than Classic. As I predicted, the company is very hesitant to provide meaningful metrics that show breakdowns by title, lumping them together – a topic we’ll revisit momentarily.

The launch window was also unpredictable, at times – many servers escaped login queues much sooner than I expected, and many of my friends and guildies who were most obsessed with the idea of Classic leading into the launch have since returned to playing the live game, or have taken our lull post-Ahead of the Curve to play other games outside of the Blizzard ecosystem. While many of us (myself included) predicted that there would be a panel with more details of the phased rollouts for Classic at Blizzcon, there was instead just the confirmation of Phase 2, and two measly questions during the Q&A on Saturday – will you add a toggle for the WoD-era HD character models (no) and will you consider adding expansions to Classic (thinking about it, no new information).

There are signs around that for many, the sheen of curiosity has worn off. This year’s Blizzcon also had a WoW Classic demo area, this year being for 5-player parties to tackle a Dire Maul tribute run. These have traditionally been popular – hell, last year I waited in line to join 4 strangers to run a BfA +5 keystone – but this year, the vast majority of the lineups were for Shadowlands. I wouldn’t be foolish enough to attribute that fully to Classic losing steam – of course, a dungeon that attendees of the show have likely completed either in original Vanilla, the years after, or in the week or two leading up to Blizzcon when it was pushed live in Classic would just simply not hold the same appeal as the new shiny expansion – even for those less than enamored with the current state of retail.

In truth, I think the way forward is going to be fascinating to watch unfold. Blizzard is clearly biding their time with Classic – no reason to rush content, but at the same time, many people have completed their leveling journey and either given up or moved to the meager amount of endgame content available, and for the (likely higher!) number of people still leveling, well, having Blackwing Lair added to the game does not fundamentally alter their gameplay in any way. Undoubtedly, Blizzard is going to use Shadowlands (and the remaining BfA time) as their gauge for releasing the future Classic phases.

This speaks to something that I know many Classic zealots do not want to hear – Retail is, for all of it’s flaws and current warts, still the “main” game for Blizzard.

It would be one thing if Blizzard ran the games as separate entities, but they most certainly do not – and this is a conscious choice on the part of Blizzard. One team, two games. One launcher option encompassing Live Retail, Live Class, PTR Retail, and potential beta tests. One subscription sold as “World of Warcraft – also, access to Classic!”

It is the reason that I think that any calls for Blizzard to further develop Classic are grounded in a misread of the situation. There is an obvious groundwork laid for this idea in Old School Runescape – however, that model, while it works well for that particular game, is also rooted in the particulars of that situation. I have seen people speculate about what an expansion developed just for WoW Classic would look like or play like, with a list of particulars that people would like to see. Content-only expansions with no new level caps, retaining the existing ability balance and raid sizes, and focusing on keeping the vanilla “flavor” – admittedly, while I think the idea is an interesting one that I could get behind, I also don’t think Blizzard is going to commit development resources to that.

Why not? Well, I’d first point to the way in which the game of Classic is made and maintained. There is a separate team that works primarily on that game, but not really a design team of any real sort. Ion Hazzikostas leads that effort just as he does the live game. Dedicating more designers to Classic sort of defeats the purpose of the game in the first place – a low-cost effort to recapture lost players. Secondly, and the point I am going to focus on more, is the way in which Blizzard perceives these efforts. Classic, to Blizzard, is a gateway into Live – not the other way around. They sell the subscription as a Live one, with the Classic access being a fun little bonus. Now, the thing many will say is “well, if Classic is more successful, shouldn’t it be the main game?” To that, I would suggest a few things – sure, put your investments in the one returning the most, however, here’s the catch – we don’t know that for sure. It is safe to assume that in August, Classic was probably winning, and likely in September too. However, we simply don’t know that “the majority” of players are subscribed for solely one over the other, and any attempt at categorizing such is largely going to be rooted in one’s own bias.

I don’t doubt that Classic is likely going to maintain more played hours for a portion of the game’s population, but at least from the perspective of the players immediately around me, there are only a few types:

1. Played retail until Classic, went hard on Classic for a few weeks, burned out, returned to retail.
2. Came back (or into the WoW ecosystem) for Classic, played until they burned out, left again.
3. Left retail for Classic, has stayed there so far (this is about 15% of my guild’s raiders right now).
4. Came back (or into WoW) for Classic, stayed.
5. Plays both with a balance of hours into each.

Now, the problem with analyzing any of these situations is that we just don’t have enough data (the plural of anecdote is not data) – and Blizzard is inclined to keep it that way. As much as I would prefer that retail be the better-subscribed game, we just don’t know if it is – or isn’t. However, I would argue that there is an issue that would have likely hit Classic harder than Retail: The Blitzchung Incident. Classic seemingly has a higher percentage of people who dislike Blizzard as an organization, and were more likely as a result to boycott them in the wake of the Blitzchung banning and keep to it. This isn’t to suggest that hating Blizzard already was a prerequisite to a boycott (quite the opposite, really) but these types of people likely had less investment into the Blizzard platform. Most retail players I know own most or all of Blizzard’s games and have sunk costs into cash shop items for WoW, booster packs and card collections in Hearthstone, or lootboxes in Overwatch, and would be disinclined from opting into a protest that would require forfeiting that investment. A large portion of the Classic audience doesn’t have that same degree of attachment to modern Blizzard, and so the initial response and reaction against Blizzard is more likely to have stuck for portions of this audience.

However, the problem again is simply stated: we don’t have any insight into it outside of broad statements from Blizzard in analyst calls. One thing that was pointed out in a few pieces I read that is rather interesting is that a quick look at the financial data reported by the company reveals a lack of strong MAU growth. Q3-2019, Classic’s launch quarter, showed an MAU count for Blizzard across all titles of 33 million. This is a lot, right? Well, yes – but only one million more than Q1 or Q2 of 2019, 2 million less than Q4-2018, and a whipping 4 million less than Q3-2018. While I’d like to say that BfA’s launch in Q3-2018 did lead to a higher engagement level, I don’t have any way to substantiate that claim. Likewise, I can’t say with any certainty that Classic “only” drove 1 million subscribers, since the data is obfuscated by being reported across the whole of Blizzard franchises. Shrinkage in Overwatch, Hearthstone, Starcraft, or Diablo could all have fed into this number just as much – and any of those could be hiding the true growth spurred by Classic.

What we can say safely is this – Classic moved the needle either way, with a claimed record number of subscriptions added over a single quarter and a net increase to MAUs of 1 million. How that relates to retail or the hours spent in each is unknown. Based on that, we can take one of two paths: either Blizzard is moving ahead solely with truly new content in retail because that is where the numbers are, or because that is what Blizzard wants to do.

Certainly, given the popularity of the “no changes” movement around the start of 2019, I would struggle to imagine that many would be warmly receptive of new, changing content for Classic. As much as I would like to avoid the label I am about to put on this community, it cannot be avoided – Classic players are rather temperamental about the things they want and are purists for the experience being maintained. New content would brush against that expectation and meet with friction, of this I am sure. Hell, as I speculated near launch, even rolling out the expansions as-is would be contentious from every perspective – maintaining Vanilla, delivering a satisfying TBC or WotLK experience, managing playerbase migrations and fragmentation – all of it would be vastly more difficult to solve compared to what one might imagine.

Most Classic players I’ve met or interacted with are quietly enjoying Classic or sharing fun little stories about the game – which is awesome. The tribalist bent I experienced from a fair number of Classic communities has mostly given way – there is still a sort of sneering superiority among a smaller segment of them, but overall I think that the throes of Classic’s rebirth have ended.

Classic is, for better or worse, a part of the WoW community at large now. Blizzard addresses this by combining them in all ways – no special Blizzcon panels this year, lumped in with the WoW Q&A for the contemporary game, and sharing a single demo area with a quiet, barely-used corner for those wanting to play Dire Maul with a face-to-face party miles away from home. What I find interesting is how little fanfare it seems to have faded with. Most bloggers I follow that talk about Classic either stopped abruptly with the HK fiasco, stopped once they got bored, hit a stopping point and discussed it in an engaging way, or continue to play at a slow pace and share great tales of what they are enjoying in the game. Streaming Classic seems to have given way to just playing for most, and the content creators like Asmongold that staked their careers to Classic are reaching a point where the game isn’t engaging for that kind of content (literally as I was writing this, Asmongold rage-quit a Classic stream and tweeted that he’s starting to hit a point where the game isn’t quite engaging for that purpose).

Looking ahead, I think there are a myriad of different options for Classic on the horizon, and which one ends up being reality depends more or less solely on how Blizzard interprets the data they are privy to. The most likely case, to my mind? The game continues on with the phased rollout, while plans for a TBC Classic are codified and perhaps announced at Blizzcon 2020. The problems I mentioned in my prior post are solvable with enough elbow grease – and if a strong migration plan is put into place, Blizzard could feasibly maintain Classic as a sort of multi-winged WoW museum – moving to allow players to enjoy whatever flavor of the game they most enjoyed. The immediate future is likely to see slow phase rollouts to fill gaps in the contemporary game’s release calendar, no matter how much that may irritate the Classic faithful – Blizzard has made clear that their loyalties lie with retail and Classic remains largely a concession, a bolted-on value-add that requires minimal additional work.

Is Blizzard likely to stop with Vanilla? I doubt it. Will Blizzard release bespoke content for Classic that never originally existed? I strongly doubt it – the sustained audience growth that would necessitate that just isn’t there as far as we can tell from the outside, and I will admit that while a portion of that is based on my bias as a retail player, there is enough of a trajectory to the data like queue times and active players to bear that out. Will Blizzard stop supporting retail? Now that is a fever dream from an anti-current game zealot. Like it or not, the simple fact remains that WoW launches are one of the only consistent business levers Blizzard has to move the needle – even if we assume that not all of the purchasers play, a WoW expansion sells through a lot of units, consistently 3 million plus on opening week, with each box contributing a not-insignificant amount of revenue. Even if Shadowlands is a resounding flop, worse than BfA, it will still generate gross box sales of nearly $120 million assuming those 3 million all buy the cheapest version of the game, plus the subscription revenue for any of those who decide to reactivate to return alongside their box purchase. I think that it is perfectly fine to hate the current state of the game (while I don’t hate it, I’m not a big fan) but to suggest that time spent on its development is wasted is, frankly, delusional. It sells, and even if you think it is a turd in a box, Blizzard does a great job of marketing and selling it.

But it is safe to say, nearly 3 full months past launch, that Classic has been what it was expected to be – a huge success with no preamble or explanation needed, and undoubtedly a strong performer financially for the company. What lies ahead remains more interesting, and I suspect that Vanilla will gain a TBC swirl, and that in 10 years, making an ice cream metaphor here will be a torturous prospect.

3 thoughts on “Getting Analytical -The Trajectory of WoW Classic

  1. Very good post, I just feel you left out a demographic that I feel part of 😉

    I only started Classic (well not 100%, but you know what I mean, with an active WoW sub I would of course have checked it out, but I had no plans and wasn’t very hyped) because of the prospect of playing with friends. We had a 5man group planned, then we were a tank down, so I stepped up. Then we got a replacement, who we lost at 27 due to bad internet problems and then burnout/lost enjoyment. Then a replacement… and then we lost another one at 43ish, this time because of a better reason than “meh”. So yeah, I’m not logging in much, but I would be if my main reason for coming there in the first place would still be there – and I can’t imagine there’s not a huge group of people who got pulled in and then left because their “come join us” friends were the ones who stopped playing.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for the comment! It’s a good point worth analyzing on its own, which I kind of lumped in with the groups I described but should be broken out to describe the social dynamic and its effect on player retention. Classic definitely is better with friends, and if you go in with a group and they start to drop, the game loses a lot of “stickiness.” I imagine things like players suddenly dropping due to the boycott or other issues, while not remarkable on their own, almost certainly had a knock-on effect that hit groups of friends.

      I’ve never cared much for the ATVI financials because it just isn’t where I care to analyze my games from, but on the other hand, I think the Q4-2019 data (with HK fiasco, Blizzcon bump, and phase 2) are likely going to be bellwethers for how the future of Classic is defined – and I think a lot of social groups disintegrating and/or reforming are going to be a part of analyzing that from the actual game side.

      Like

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