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The Free Zone: Thinking The Once Virtually Unthinkable

Column By Richard Aihoshi on June 04, 2013

Among the numerous MMOG news stories and announcements that have come out since my previous column, the one I found most intriguing had relatively little in the way of actual information. Indeed, it was about a project that, despite probably being under way for a few years now, remains veiled in secrecy, known only by its code name. Of course, I'm talking about Blizzard's still to be officially announced Titan.

Last week, citing only an unnamed “source familiar with the matter”, VentureBeat published a report that said three main things – the game is being “reset”, 70 members of what was a 100-person development team have been reassigned, and the release date will be in 2016 at the earliest. Blizzard confirmed some of this, stating that “we need to make some large design and technology changes” and admitting to shifting some “resources” to other projects. 

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As pretty much anyone would expect, the speculation as to what more might be unsaid started almost instantly. Here on MMORPG.com, our own Michael Bitton wondered if the reason might be to make Titan more sandbox-like in order to follow the way the industry and market are leaning. Obviously, doing so would involve shifting away from the theme park style popularized by World of Warcraft.

He could be right on the money. Let's remember that WoW will mark its ninth anniversary later this year. Given that it was essentially an instant huge success back in 2004, how long do you think it was before Blizzard started to work on another MMOG? Speculation about Titan first surfaced around 2007. At that time or even a couple of years later, there's little if any reason to think the team wasn't designing another theme park.

But... what if the studio has decided to rejig the game in order to stay with a different market trend, one that has already reshaped the MMOG landscape around the world? Yes, I'm talking about a possibility that was unthinkable a handful of years ago, but may no longer be now in 2013. Is there a chance that Titan is being changed so it will or at least can be free to play?  

Early last month, Activision admitted that WoW had lost about 1.5 million subscribers during Q1, the majority of whom were in the Far East. While it still has 8 million, even if this number holds through to the end of the year, the company won't rank as 2013's top global MMOG publisher as measured by revenue. That position will probably go to Chinese giant Tencent. Second isn't exactly certain either, not with the likes of Nexon squarely in the mix. And what revenue model do both these companies use?

Like it or not, the key to global MMOG leadership is China, where WoW is declining significantly in a country that is continuing to grow rapidly. It seems as if Tencent will rank number 1 in 2013 by virtue of being huge in its home country despite remaining almost unknown in North America and Western Europe. As I've stated before, this looked like it would happen even if WoW's numbers had held steady. If you think Activision's top executives are happy or even content because their title still has the most subscribers, would you like to buy a very nice bridge in Brooklyn?

I've been saying for a while now that I think WoW will eventually go F2P in at least some areas of the world. Would this be enough to let Activision climb back atop the publisher heap? Perhaps, but it's far from certain. Furthermore, even if it is, would the company be able to hold the top position until Titan launches. Plus what would happen if it comes out as a subscription offering after two or three more years of F2P increasing its lead in global market share?

In addition, shifting toward more of a sandbox style and going F2P aren't mutually exclusive. If each of these is a way to capitalize on a different market trend, one can certainly argue for doing both. That said, if I had to imagine myself a global MMOG publisher and then prioritize one from this assumed point of view, I wouldn't have to spend a long time deliberating.

If your knee-jerk reaction to this column is “It will never happen in a million years”, you're entitled to your opinion, and I certainly don't expect anything I've said to change your mind. Frankly, I'm not completely convinced it will happen. However, there's a big difference between something being impossible and wishing it were.  It seems safe to say WoW is past its prime, and that its revenue will continue to drop, likely to hundreds of millions of dollars below its peak by the time Titan launches. To replace all this money, the latter will have to be a huge success. Activision realizes F2P holds more than half the world market now and is gaining more share every year. Is it crazy to think the company might have opted to compete in more than just the smaller and shrinking subscription segment? 


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The Free Zone
Richard Aihoshi has been writing about MMOGs since the mid-1990s, always with a global perspective. As a result, he has observed the emergence and growth of the free to play business model from its early days in both hemispheres.

He is the former Editor of RPG Vault and his column, focusing on free to play MMOs, appears on MMORPG.com every Monday.
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