With subs turning down and a new movie on the way, is it time to see a new Warcraft RTS title? Will it ever be time again?
Back in 2002, Blizzard Entertainment released Warcraft III. The fallout from that game would lead to a huge growth in the MMORPG field, the creation of MOBAs as a genre, and arguably a major revitalization of RTS games in general. The game had an impact, in other words.
It had an impact on me, certainly; I was a broke college student who could not afford a PC able to realistically play it, so I would scavenger for time with my roommate's PC to happily plow away at the campaign. We shared jokes and achievements in the game. When I finally got a better PC, I grabbed the game first thing, and our dorm room would feature many a night of us going back and forth, sometimes teamed up against the world, sometimes us on opposite ends, and sometimes both of us just coincidentally playing the game at the same time.
But that was nearly 15 years ago, and time has marched on. Specifically, it's marched on to World of Warcraft. But there are lots of signs pointing to the possibility that it might be time to ditch that prefix and release another real-time strategy game of orcs, humans, and the art of harvesting lumber. Warcraft IV, if you will.
Two big elements have kept Warcraft IV from happening: Starcraft 2 and World of Warcraft. The former has been receiving more or less all of Blizzard's RTS resources to build a bigger and better RTS than Warcraft III could have ever dreamed of being, and the latter poses a big roadblock to any new games in Azeroth or accompanying environs.
Let's start with the second point first: as long as we're going to have World of Warcraft expansions, any storyline in a single-player Warcraft game is going to run smack into those in about two minutes. There's certainly still space for things to happen, of course - we have plenty of stories that take place off-screen between expansions - but a game like Warcraft IV would almost inevitably be would have to be a big war. We already know how the wars in the game played out, and it seems weird to think that our characters would sit one out in the present game. Either way you set it up, it's going to have trouble integrating itself.
Meanwhile, Blizzard has been focusing pretty heavily upon Starcraft 2 in the RTS arena over the past few years. What's interesting about that is that Starcraft 2 abandons a large number of the elements that made Warcraft III so iconic -- gone are hero units, most of the quests, and some of the armor/damage interdependency that made its predecessor work. That's not to say that Starcraft 2 is a bad game by any means; it's just a very different experience, and it doesn't build off its predecessor in the same way that previous Blizzard RTS games built off of one another.
Still, things have changed. The main sequence of Starcraft 2 stand-alone expansions is done with; we'll still get a few mission packs here and there, but the game itself is finished. And then there's World of Warcraft, which is steadily waving farewell to its market dominance over MMOs in general. While there's still plenty of audience for MMORPGs, WoW has shrunk from its heights of nearly 12 million subscribers to a hair under 6 million, with the company announcing that it will no longer announce subscriber numbers.
And that's without noting the fact that there is a movie premiering in the not-too-distant future; critical reviews have been sharply negative, but that doesn't mean the film isn't going to be a success or popular (only time will tell that). It could be argued that this is the perfect time to release a single-player title to capitalize on interest, catching players who might eschew the demands of an online-only title.
But there's been no word of one. And perhaps that's for very good reason.
Even though World of Warcraft's subscriptions are falling, the game still makes money. It has made money quite consistently for some time. The stated reason for no further subscription numbers was simply a matter of not disguising that -- if fewer people are paying more money and the net profits are stable, there's no reason to harp on the subscriber numbers. Investors care about money brought in, first and foremost.
And make no mistake, World of Warcraft is part of a core part of Blizzard's overall business plan. Even though its fortunes are diminishing, the game has been part of a major sea change at Blizzard. While the company's games were always supportive of online play, its last three major stand-alone releases - Hearthstone, Heroes of the Storm, and Overwatch - have all been online-only affairs that emphasize interacting with other players and feature next to no actual in-game story.
This is a noteworthy change. Part of what sold people on Warcraft III was the fact that it was a complete story -- that even if you never played a single online match you could still get a full sense of the game. You could even use quick-play maps to make your own challenges, taking on computer-controlled enemies in endless additional scenarios or playing fan-created campaigns.
Blizzard is clearly more interested, at this point, in creating online experiences that can be monetized. Which is an understandable shift, but it also means that games which don't support that find themselves a bit less appealing to the powers that be. And that's pretty difficult to do with an RTS without creeping into unfair territory; no one's going to play a game in which your opponent has access to better units, or even units that feel better.
This is on top of the fact that the competitive RTS scene is much like the competitive fighting game scene -- it still exists, but it's no longer the powerhouse it once was. Part of what led to Starcraft's immense popularity as a competitive game (especially in Korea) was the fact that one copy could easily be installed on multiple machines in a PC gaming cafe; in other words, everyone could play it. That's not the case with Starcraft 2, and the result has been that its competitive scene has struggled to really get rolling. These days, the scene that used to center around RTS play has moved on to focus on MOBAs, which (ironically) were birthed from a Warcraft III map modification.
In many ways, the environment would make Warcraft IV a harder sell. It's not an easy free-to-play sell or a buy-to-play sell, and it's catering to a scene that's moved on in many ways both big and small. There are essays to be written about how Warcraft III's map editor created genres, while Starcraft 2's more powerful editor has really just been used to recreate existing genres... but that's a very different piece. The point is that it doesn't exactly spark eagerness.
Of course, the obvious response is that it would be silly to let the Warcraft IP do nothing; World of Warcraft is suffering diminishing returns, and it's old enough that it can only bring so many people into the game at that point.
Except...that argument relies entirely upon the assumption that age is the primary element that's lowering WoW's subscription numbers. Which is certainly a theory, but we're also looking at those numbers after an expansion that was panned for its structure at the level cap and a content-light patch series. The live game has been unpatched for nearly a year, compared to the better pacing in earlier years. The game has also changed its endgame philosophy significantly since the game was at its subscriber height.
Assuming that WoW's fortunes are declining due to its age requires also assuming that all of the other facts that are going into that decline aren't really that important in the long run -- something that seems a bit inadvisable. It's far more reasonable to assume that while the game isn't getting younger, it's also remarkably good at reducing the barrier to entry for new players. Players can speed through the early levels now, and a free copy of the game is being given away at select theaters for anyone who chooses to go see the movie.
Online games in general and MMOs in particular have a long tail; there's certainly no talk about League of Legends being "too old" to attract players. Many have said before that WoW's biggest failing at the moment isn't age, but its misunderstanding of its core audience and decisions that alienate players once they hit the level cap. While correcting that is difficult, it's also much cheaper to do that than to spend the time and money to develop a new RTS game in the universe. Which also carries other problems along with it.
Despite all of this, I think it's a fair thing to say that some sort of Warcraft IV is not just possible, but even likely. But I don't think now is the time for it.
As it stands, Blizzard has just launched a rather ambitious title (Overwatch) and has very recently wrapped up the active expansion development for another (Starcraft 2). That means that the company is in the middle of shifting. There's time to decide where the programmers are going next, what the next priorities are, and more importantly, what sort of game models work better or worse than others.
I have little doubt that World of Warcraft will continue for the next several years with new expansions. But if we're going to hear about Warcraft IV, it's going to be a few years down the line, and it may very well not resemble the games that we have grown accustomed to. Quite possibly it will be a half-step between Heroes of the Storm and Overwatch as well as Warcraft III, with an emphasis on individual leaders and customized armies for a small array of personalities. No continuity, just leading well-known figures from lore in battles against one another, with a buy-to-play model alongside reasonable skin costs.
Of course, that's only a hop and a skip away from what the designers have already done with Hearthstone. So perhaps, at the end of the day, that's the simple reason why we haven't gotten Warcraft IV. The world of Azeroth has plenty of stuff to mine out... but none of it needs to be deployed in the middle of an RTS. That lore can be used in more straightforward fashions that produce bigger revenue gains while the MMORPG continues along in the background.
Either that or we'll be hearing about it at the next BlizzCon. You never know.