If Blizzard Just Delayed Its Next MMO, So Be It

Blizzard just gave its upcoming MMO the three-fingered salute.

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A screenshot from Blizzard's upcoming digital collectible card game, Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft.

VentureBeat reports that Blizzard just hit the reset button on its long-rumored World of Warcraft followup, an unannounced MMO codenamed “Project Titan” according to a Blizzard product timeline that leaked back in 2010. And as resets go, this one sounds more like a three-fingered salute: Blizzard apparently pared a team of 100 developers down to a “core” 30, repurposing the other 70 to work on different projects. VB’s source says the reduced Titan team will “start over” on the game, and that we shouldn’t look for it until 2016 or later. Gamasutra says its own source within Blizzard independently confirmed the VB report.

In fact Blizzard itself confirmed the story, telling VB after the original story broke:

We’ve always had a highly iterative development process, and the unannounced MMO is no exception. We’ve come to a point where we need to make some large design and technology changes to the game. We’re using this opportunity to shift some of our resources to assist with other projects while the core team adapts our technology and tools to accommodate these new changes. Note that we haven’t announced any dates for the MMO.

No one knows what Titan is, only that Blizzard had repeatedly confirmed it was working on something essentially MMO-like, occasionally clothing that something in grandiose terms, at one point boasting to VB, “We have taken some of our most experienced developers and put them on [Titan]. We believe we have a dream team. These are the people who made World of Warcraft a success. We are going to blow people’s minds.”

On the leaked release slate, Titan was listed as arriving by the end of 2013, where its timing might have helped offset presumed revenue attrition from WoW‘s ongoing decline. As I noted earlier this month, WoW lost 14% of its subscriber base from January through March, or about 1.3 million players (a “majority” of those declines are from players in the East, says Blizzard), leaving the game with about eight million subs. That’s a 25% slide from WoW‘s peak of 12 million in 2010. You’d expect that sort of decline considering the game launched back in 2004, but what’s important to remember is that it’s been occurring despite Blizzard’s attempts to rally players with WoW‘s third and fourth expansions, released in December 2010 and September 2012, respectively.

According to Activision Blizzard’s quarterly reports over the past few years, the company’s been generating around $1 billion in annual revenue from “subscription, licensing and other revenues” comprising WoW subs, Call of Duty “Elite” memberships, licensing royalties, downloadable content and other miscellany. The last report, just issued for the first three months of 2013, shows the company’s revenues actually increasing, despite those WoW subscription declines.

Did Blizzard need to release Titan in late 2013? According to its balance sheets, probably not. While the overall subscriber trend for WoW has been downward, the game does brisk business when Blizzard releases new content and lapsed players return, however briefly, to wolf it down. If anything, Blizzard’s subscription downturn has more to do with the infrequency of major WoW content releases, something Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick told investors the company plans to remedy: “To address this, we’re working to release new content more frequently to keep our players engaged longer and make it easier for lapsed players to come back into the game. We believe in the long-term value of this franchise and will continue to commit substantial resources to World of Warcraft.”

That approach — generating more for the sake of more — can have a pesky flip side. Blizzard has a reputation for taking whatever time it needs to perfect its products. StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty was announced in May 2007, though development actually began on that game back in 2003, and it didn’t arrive until July 2010. StarCraft II‘s first expansion, Heart of the Swarm, was due in late 2011 (according to the leaked product slate) but didn’t arrive until March of this year, nearly three years on. And take Diablo III: development began in 2001, the game was announced in 2008 and wasn’t finally released until May 2012. Say what you will of the games themselves — some critics find Blizzard’s work creatively…unadventurous — this is a company that approaches what it does with a kind of fastidiousness that’s laser-focused on creating the most broadly consumable products around.

So delaying Project Titan, or whatever it’s called these days, may well be for the best if it turns out the company was headed down a blind alley. We may never know if that’s what happened, of course. Maybe Titan was the best thing Blizzard’s yet done but someone in the decision-making chain didn’t get it, got nervous and torpedoed the ship. Sometimes that happens, too.

It’ll be an interesting next couple of years, that’s for sure. As MMOs go, the only potentially serious challenger to WoW has been Guild Wars 2, released last year to critical accolades (among them, my own) that WoW hasn’t enjoyed in ages. No one save publisher NCSoft knows how many subscribers Guild Wars 2 has, but the free-to-play game’s sold well over three million copies since launching last August. This year we’ll see The Elder Scrolls Online, which has the potential to be huge, based on all the interest in Bethesda’s mega-popular fantasy roleplaying series and that it’s been helmed by Matt Firor, one of the founding designers of Dark Age of Camelot (a critical darling itself and reasonably successful during the pre-WoW era). The only thing working against The Elder Scrolls Online is the potential exhaustion of the high (as in lots of magic), generally medieval fantasy setting — does the world want another Tolkien-inspired MMO? We’ll find out later this year.

Probably less of a threat, given license exhaustion, there’s Cryptic Studios’ (City of Heroes/Villains, Champions Online, Star Trek Online) new D&D thing, Neverwinter, currently running in open beta. Also, Trion Worlds’ SyFy TV series tie-in, Defiance, which pushed past one million registered accounts a few weeks ago and could do sustained business for years given (a) it’s free-to-play, (b) runs on PCs and consoles, and (c) the source material — the show itself — seems to be doing well with critics: SyFy picked it up for a 13-episode second season shortly after its debut. And sneaking back onto the radar after a dismal debut, Final Fantasy XIV will reemerge from its self-imposed chrysalis, supposedly all new, to pit its 800-pound gorilla fantasy IP against the concerns of many, fans included, that Square Enix no longer has that special something.