With today’s announcement of EverQuest Next, it is becoming clear that the days of World of Warcraft are coming to an end. Of course this won’t happen any time soon: despite the large drop of subscribers, 7.7 million paying players is still an amazing source of revenue that no other MMO can rival at this point. But WoW’s star is fading.
What the EverQuest presentation made clear is that Warcraft is falling farther and farther behind in terms of gaming technology. This is more than just in terms of flashy graphics – it is about the way we will be playing MMOs in the future. Rift, Guild Wars 2 and Star Wars: TOR where good looking games, but ultimately they were just marginally different from WoW. At the same time, they were not different enough to win over and hold on to Warcraft players for the long run. Even upcoming games like WildStar and Neverwinter don’t seem to shake up the tried and true MMO formula much.
But here comes EverQuest Next. What this game brings to the table promises to be groundbreaking for the MMO genre. Blizzard, sensing that they had to respond, recently pulled their next generation MMO and went back to the drawing board. Not only will Titan see a significant engine overhaul, the entire model of a second subscription-based MMO from Blizzard seems to be off the table.
So what does this have to do with Hearthstone? It’s a diversification of their portfolio. WoW is still going strong, but the subscriber numbers have been trending in the wrong direction since Wrath of the Lich King. Titan will likely be huge on the strength of Blizzard’s storytelling and focus on delivering quality games, but Titan may be facing stiff competition in EQ Next when that game becomes entrenched in the market first.
This is a concern: Blizzard already allowed League of Legends to capture a market that they could have seized. Now they are playing catch-up with Blizzard ALL STARS. They do not want to be playing catch-up in too many genres and with too many properties.
This is where Hearthstone comes in. Hearthstone is far from unique in the Collectible Card Game market, but it’s main competition, Magic: the Gathering, is primarily a tabletop game. MtG Online isn’t as refined and portable as Hearthstone is shaping up to be. Especially for tablets, there is nothing quite like Hearthstone available, and with portable gaming gaining in popularity, Hearthstone could easily become the World of Warcraft for portable gaming.
The fact that Hearthstone is free to play is its biggest asset: people will pick it up out of curiosity, and then start spending. Free to play has established itself as a huge revenue generator: the profits for SWTOR doubled since going free to play. For the app market, in-game micro purchases now make up for 51% of total portable gaming revenue, or ten times the sales of advertising revenue.
World of Warcraft did well, because it learned from the mistakes of MMOs that came before it. StarCraft and Diablo do well, because they are strong properties with an established fan base. Other markets though may be tougher for Blizzard: League of Legends is the 800 pound gorilla in the MOBA genre, and Titan may be too late to the party to become a runaway success.
Meanwhile, Hearthstone is that highly polished product that will come at the right time to the right market with little to no competition. If Hearthstone does well, we can expect Blizzard to develop more games like it (Pet Battles anyone?). After dropping a fair amount of cash recently, the company needs another strong performer. Hearthstone will be that next big thing for Blizzard.