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World of Warcraft Column: What is a “WoW Killer?”

By Joseph Sanicky on January 16, 2012

Last week’s article caused quite a stir in the comments section and many of you derided the piece as either a roundabout method of talking about SWTOR or just a bit of bait for the community to start fighting the good fight.  While many of your comments and opinions were a bit depressing to me (as this is an editorial, i.e. an opinion piece, and the content of each article is subject to me and me alone) I am glad with the discussion that sprouted around the last WoW Factor, explicitly in the talk about what constitutes a “WoW Killer.”  So this week I’m going to display my outline and framework for what this mythical being must be to fulfil all of our speculation.

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First and foremost the groundwork must be laid down to understand the term in and of itself.  When the phrase “WoW Killer” is used I’m sure most of us assume it means a game will launch that effectively destroys the World of Warcraft as we all know it.  However the demise of an MMO can be attributed to a variety of factors including: subscription count, marketing, patch content and schedules, community, basic game design decisions, and more. Furthermore the idea that this “WoW killer” will literally kill WoW needs to be abolished in the minds of players everywhere.  Quite frankly there are plenty of just plain bad MMOs out there that have enough players playing them to sustain the developers and keep the game going, thus the chances of the largest MMO in history dying a quick and timely death for any reason other than Blizzard pulling the plug is basically null and void.  This is the most important fact to realize when anteing up to the theoretical WoW killer discussion table.

Beyond WoW’s lack of an imminent death there are plenty of other factors to consider purely on a commercial level.  What amount of atrophy is necessary to judge WoW as being dead to rights?  Does a certain minimum threshold of subscribers have to be reached?  Would going free-to-play mean the game has run its course?  What if a western MMO overtakes WoW’s subscriber numbers in the West but overall Azeroth still has the lead on a Global Level?  Or does a game have to undeniably steal subscribers to gain the title of “WoW killer?”  Would that definition even be sustainable considering the nature of MMO players and the way subscriptions work?  Or does a company’s stock determine the success of their MMO and thus the company with the most valuable stock gains the title of MMO king?  What if, over a period of years, enough excellent and sustainable MMOs emerge that they collectively reduce WoW to a shadow of its former self?  Is it even a “WoW killer” at that point or do we chalk up the demise of a giant to the abrasive assault of time?

And boy, that was a lot of questions.


I don’t envy whoever it is that writes the dictionary…poor bastards!

Before anyone gets all uppity about trying to answer any of those questions I beg you all to realize that the above paragraph was an exercise in the tedium of defining a term.  It is my humble opinion that definitions are by and large exceedingly difficult to both formulate, substantiate, and defend on a comprehensive scale and thus coming to an end-all, be-all definition of this imagined term is basically impossible as there is no professional consensus-making entity available to affirm its validity. 

Lucky enough for us I’ve already noted how WoW won’t die in the typical sense (look at the original Everquest as an example, they just released their 18th expansion last November!) for Zeus knows how long so we don’t really need to worry about that happening, all we have to decide on is what form of disinterest the known MMO player-base must attribute to the game before it is effectively out of the spotlight.  This number doesn’t have to be empirically correct or founded in any particular school of thought though, in fact it can be completely arbitrary!  For arguments sake let us say that at this time in two years WoW has a paltry 3 million subscribers and that the rest of the movers and shakers in the industry collectively have 12 million active and concurrent players and/or subscribers.  That’s right, I’m combining Guild Wars 2, Rift, SWTOR, TERA, The Secret World, Archeage, Warhammer 40K: Dark Millennium,  League of Legends,  Titan, and any other triple-A MMO together in this thought experiment.  (Aside: I don’t care what anybody says, League of Legends requires MMO-level time commitments to get anywhere and it has over one-million concurrent, unique players every day…so I’m counting them.)  Moreover ignore the fact that a single player can play multiple games at once or even subscribe to two games simultaneously: in this hypothetical world those combined 13 million subscribers/players are all unique users.

Now the stage is set for us, as a community of MMO players, to confidently state that World of Warcraft has officially left the limelight.  Sure plenty of people still play it and sure Blizzard’s newest MMO probably has a large chunk of those numbers under its belt, possibly even most of them, but the point is we all should agree that with those numbers WoW has officially been “killed,” right?  In the small scope of the triple-A market it contains a mere fifth of the player base and in the large scale free-to-play and Poseidon-knows-what-else-future MMO market it probably has a much, much smaller stake.  Azeroth is deader than a raccoon on the side of the road at 2am after having an encounter of a rather unfortunate nature with a semi-truck.


As far as road-kill goes, WoW is doing pretty good in the hypothetical winter of 2014.

That would be it folks.  It will take a concentrated effort by the entire industry to destroy World of Warcraft and thus our endeared term “WoW killer” must face the executioners block.  There won’t be some single fantastical MMO to end all MMOs that decommissions the giant drooling man-child that we know and love, it just won’t happen!  I think it may be more accurate to use terms such as “WoW Old Folks Home” and “twilight years of WoW’s retirement and eventual abandonment by its nuclear family at the hands of dementia” to describe the game’s hypothetical decline; it just seems more apt.  No matter what list of qualities and traits any of us spew out onto a nice bulleted form no game will fit the mould well enough and arrive at the right time to create the perfect storm necessary to single-handedly slay WoW.  Feel free to comprise a list of attributes a game must have to accomplish this if you feel like it in the comments, start with genre and continue down through setting, gameplay type and specifics, all the details your heart desires, and we can all jokingly comment on how this game or the other fits the bill and will accomplish what will not happen.

It won’t change the fact that the term “WoW killer” is unmistakably inaccurate and irreconcilable within today’s MMO market.  The term itself embodies an ideal product in a time period and market environment where it simply cannot be produced, and that World of Warcraft is a rather large anomaly within the genre concerning its commercial success.  If one of you came to my house and held a wand to my head though, I’d wager on the above to be the most accurate definition of the term that I could produce.

Which is ironic because I mentioned above how defining the term would be utter sacrilege given the circumstances…thank Hades I used reductionist terminology then!

Start talking about “WoW Killers” and you might be on to something though…

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