Are Blizzard the new Microsoft? Is Warcraft the new Windows?
The MMOG (Massively Multiplayer Online Games) market is an interesting one. Unlike most other forms of media, MMOGs are a service rather than a consumable product.
A normal game has a very predictable life-cycle: development, launch, patching, possible expansions and finally product retirement. Most software follows the same pattern. You buy a game, or piece of software, you expect to get some use out of it, and ultimately expect to buy the next latest-and-greatest version of it in a few years.
In fact, it’s the life-cycle for almost everything on this planet that’s consumed… except for the service industry.
The service industry is the ‘golden egg’ of modern civilisation. It’s the defining trait that splits a secondary industry from a tertiary industry. It’s the difference between selling someone the materials to make a house, and being the person that maintains the house, keeping it shiny and new, and adding new features as they become available.
Now, the service industry isn’t new. It popped up sometime after the industrial revolution when someone realised that there’s an awful lot of money to be made in monthly retainers. Rather than giving a man fish, rent him a fishing pole at a reasonable price — there’s a lot more money to be made in the long run.
Not only is there more money to be made but loyalty is also instilled. If it comes to the stage where you finally have to upgrade your house, you’re almost certainly going to stick with the guys that have looked after your house for all those years. Heck, your house might have weird, proprietary additions — like a custom waste disposal, or a funky-shaped swimming pool – that only these guys know how to maintain. They might not be cheap; but at least they get the job done… ish!
This brings me neatly onto Microsoft and Windows. Originally Windows was just another consumable software package. There were other competing operating systems, but in 1981 Microsoft secured a deal for its PC-DOS to be bundled with the new IBM PC. You know the rest of the story — the IBM PC shook the world, and Microsoft was along for the ride.
The sheer scale of the success of the IBM PC was unprecedented, and to capitalise on it, Windows was released in 1985 as a graphical addition to the already-predominant MS DOS. By 1990, Windows 3.1 was released, and Microsoft’s monopoly of the PC industry had begun. Windows 95 saw the release of Internet Explorer, and the beginning of a monopoly on the Internet browser market.
Scroll forward a few years to 2006 and Microsoft Windows is being used by 97% of all Internet users. That, if you weren’t quite sure yet, is a monopoly. That’s a 97% market share after 20 years of Windows releases. Every release confirmed its stranglehold on the industry. Every release tied its users further and further into the sweet embrace of Microsoft Windows. That’s the service industry — the soft, comfortable pair of shoes that you just can’t get rid of. It’s not a great pair, but damnit, they fit nicely and keep your feet kinda warm.
The problem is, monopolies are outlawed because they are ultimately very bad news for the consumer. A monopoly without suitable competition,can rest on its laurels and practically eliminate all technological progress. Occasionally a competitor will emerge, bringing a new, exciting development to the table — the incumbent simply buys them out, or copies the functionality. Innovation all but dries up; there’s no risk from outside to spur the market tyrants onwards. Your subscribers aren’t going anywhere. They have no where to go.
Which brings me neatly onto World of Warcraft. Will it ever lose its crown? Can it ever lose its crown?
As of April 2008, WoW had a 62% market share. Not quite as immense as Windows’ 97%, but remmeber that Blizzard have only been on the MMOG scene for 4 years. All of the original MMORPG developers — SOE, Turbine, Mythic and NCSoft — have had years of experience and can still only scrape a tiny, few-percent share of the market from Blizzard.
At 12 million subscribers, Blizzard have obviously done something right. They would have to do something monumentously wrong to lose the grip they now have on the MMOG industry. Their subscriber base positively salivates for each and every content patch that they unveil. WoW is the most played, and probably the most universally-adored (or hated!) game in the world.
It’s this kind of blind-faith in Blizzard and their total monopoly that has me very worried indeed for the future of the Massively Multiplayer market. WoW was hardly an innovation over the existing MMOG titles; it did not bring anything new to the table, but what it did bring to the table it did well. It is polished, and well-cared for. It has a fantastic community of devout, zealous followers and fans.
I am worried, then, that with Blizzard’s next-gen MMO they will fail to innovate the market sufficiently. I’m worried that they’ll play it safe and bring out another game which is evolutionary, rather than revolutionary. Surely they will look at Microsoft — a company that has learnt that revolutionary leaps in technology are notoriously hard to support — and take the boring route out.
Blizzard now have the resources — both money, and the developers — to create something that’s truly awesome. If they slam the brakes on and squeeze out the gaming equivalent of Windows ME I will be stupendously disappointed.
But being a WoW player myself, a woefully addicted and dedicated player, I’ll be hanging around until World of Warcraft XP is released anyway.
If you are interested in more MMORPG-related articles, you might like to read my ‘Life as a guild leader‘ blog.
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