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Apathy Sets In

Jason Winter Posted:
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Doomsaying in MMOs is almost as old as MMOs themselves. When researching an article about “WoW killers” a couple years back, I found a forum post from someone claiming Dungeons & Dragons Online could be the game that does the deed – from a month before WoW launched. I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if we one day found a new translation of the Book of Revelation that recasts them as the Four Horsemen of the WoW-pocalypse “and you shall know them as Guild Wars 2, Age of Conan, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and 'Filthy Casuals.'”

WoW will die someday; after all, the sun will burn itself out in about 10 billion years, and by then Blizzard might have put out some new content. But I'm increasingly of the opinion that the “death” – or perhaps, more accurately, “decline into irrelevance” – of an MMO is less about “big” events like a competitor launching or some grand blunder by the developers, and more related to a slow attrition of players over time. Going out with a whimper, not a bang, as it were.

For most of last year, it was hard to keep up a positive outlook on Guild Wars 2, but not impossible. The severe content drought, which I touched upon a little while ago, seemed sure to capsize the game, but the financial reports didn't reflect that. On some level, maybe I can understand that; discontented as we were about a lack of content, we at least had Heart of Thorns to look forward to and to talk about, and optimism springs eternal. Promises of what was to come were enough to keep us engaged and talking about the game, and even if we weren't playing quite as much, we were all planning to come back when the expansion hit.

This year things feel... different. I'm not going to rehash everything that's happened, or hasn't happened. Nor am I going to angrily declare, “Guild Wars 2 is dying!” In fact, I'm not going to do anything angry. This year, it seems more like the emotion a lot of people have around GW2 isn't anger or discontent, but plain, simple apathy. We just don't care enough to get angry any more.

This Reddit thread, currently sitting at over 600 comments, pretty well sums up my feelings about Guild Wars 2 right now, and it's mirrored in my Raptr-tracked playtime. Over the past month, I've only logged 20 hours in the game, including just twice in the last week, for an hour each time. Sure, Overwatch has had something to do with that, but I've pretty regularly maintained solid GW2 playtime even when another game has taken hold of me in the past because I still wanted to play and I found the time. That's not been the case for the last month, even with alts to level and a legendary to build (which I could be done with if not for that Gift of Battle change...).

It happens, of course, that you have times when you don't feel like playing your “favorite” MMO. You drift away for a month, two months, three months, and come back when the new stuff arrives. That's what I'll do, whenever Living Story Season 3 finally launches, which might not be for another three months, if that hastily removed Italian interview was correct.

But some people surely won't. With nothing as “huge” as an expansion to look forward to, they've stopped paying attention to Guild Wars 2's various outlets and might never come back.

On June 3, I did my semi-regular sweep of gaming Twitter accounts to record and track their followers. On that date, the GW2 Twitter had 316,898 followers. As I wrote this on Friday, it had 316,683. As I do my final edits on Sunday, it stands at 316,832, a bump that's undoubtedly thanks to Saturday's Pro League Finals. Still, the game lost over 200 followers in three weeks and is down overall from where it stood on the third.

No, Twitter followers aren't the be-all and end-all of how popular a game is, and 200 users out of nearly 317,000 isn't disastrous, but I've been tracking numbers like this for five years, and it's very, very rare for a game, even an older game, to lose followers. (To take a couple of random comparisons, EverQuest is +29 and The Lord of the Rings Online is +33 over that same time period.) Those 200 people who stopped following Guild Wars 2 and aren't likely to come back when new content launches. They just don't care any more. They've already checked out.

While typically quieter, I think a steady decline like this is more significant than the bustle that usually arrives when a company makes a big mistake that everyone pounces on. Last year, when Duelyst declared it was going to go free-to-play, after promising the opposite to its Kickstarter backers, there was significant outrage. Yet only 3% of players took Counterplay Games up on its offer for a refund, according to this interview. When H1Z1 offered refunds for players raging about the status of airdrops, John Smedley said that fewer than 1% of players did so.

Speaking of Smedley... we all still like to think that games will flame out after such an easily pinpointed blunder as Star Wars: Galaxies' New Game Experience (with a shout-out to the Combat Upgrade), but it hardly ever works like that. Instead, it's usually more of a slow death, one that isn't noticed or reported on until the game shuts down its servers, sometimes accompanied by more than a few, “That game was still running?” comments.

Which doesn't mean that I think Guild Wars 2 is destined to be forgotten anytime soon, to have its player base whittled away to literally nothing over the next year or two. Taken in a vacuum, those 200 Twitter “leavers” aren't going to have any significant impact on the future of Guild Wars 2 – and more importantly for ArenaNet and NCSoft, its revenue. The second quarter of 2016 ends on June 30, so we're about six weeks out from seeing the updated financials. Considering how things didn't fall off a cliff in Q1, I'd imagine we might see, at worst, something like what we saw in the six quarters leading up to Heart of Thorns, all of which were in the vicinity of 20 billion KRW. GW2 survived with those kind of numbers for a year and a half, and it'll survive with them again, at least in the short term, especially since it doesn't rely on monthly subscription fees to bring in a profit.

But over the long run, a few hundred people here and a few hundred people there add up. No, I'm not going to treat this as a call for action by ArenaNet or for players to poke them on Twitter, forums, or Reddit. Last year, I had the energy to do that, the drive and will to keep playing Guild Wars 2, even through the dry periods. This year, I just don't care enough to put the effort forth.

I don't know what's coming, or when, and even if Living Story 3 is great, I'll wonder if it's the last good-sized chunk of content we'll see for another 10 months or so. There's just no confidence any more, no visible reason to push through the bad times and hope for the good. I've got better things to put my energies toward these days. And it seems like I'm not the only one.


Jason Winter