When Seattle-based ArenaNet first released Guild Wars (sometimes called Guild Wars Prophecies) to the market in late April of 2005, World of Warcraft was still in its infancy. Already wildly successful with around 2 million subscribers, it was not yet the juggernaut it would become; the Burning Crusade expansion was still six months from being announced! In fact, most of the original Guild Wars content was released well before WOW’s first expansion in January of 2007. Diehard Guild Wars fans will say these facts are irrelevant and even Guild Launch’s own data suggests less correlation between the two games than others in the roleplaying genres. But whatever serendipity ArenaNet enjoyed by avoiding Blizzard’s wrecking ball the first time around, it will have no such luck with Guild Wars 2. Following up on the previously announced September 25 launch date for Mists of Pandaria, a post on the official WOW forums has announced that the pre-expansion 5.0 patch, with all its system changes and overhauls, will release on August 28th, the same day GW2 hits the shelves.
As the MMO community collectively hems and haws over the announcement, the relative merits of each game, the notion of WOW-killers and the long-term prospects of subscriptions versus micro-transactions in the marketplace, I thought I would take a look at the history of release dates, particularly relating to World of Warcraft and its competition. While some claim that the dates are coincidence, the pattern borne out over almost a decade suggests otherwise.
Before anything could be a WOW killer, someone had to be an Everquest killer. Affectionately dubbed “Evercrack”, the original EQ dominated the marketplace from 1999 to 2004, achieving subscription numbers that were inconceivable at that time, exceeding a half million and consistently doubling Ultima Online, the leading competition. World of Warcraft would even share its release month with Everquest II, an anticipated but ultimately ill-advised sequel to its dominant predecessor.
As most people know, World of Warcraft launched well and didn’t look back, lapping the field multiple times over. By 2006, both Everquest games and Ultima had seen major declines, leaving only Final Fantasy XI with a half-million subs to threaten the six million then playing WOW. Blizzard continually refined their new cash cow, releasing 11 major content patches and scores of bug fixes and quality of life improvements during the lifespan of the original game. With the launch of The Burning Crusade expansion in 2007, WOW eclipsed 8 million subscribers, on the way to a staggering zenith of 12 million subscribers by the launch of their next expansion.
Success, as they say, breeds contempt. It also breeds competition. As World of Warcraft exponentially expanded Blizzard’s coffers, it also opened wide the eyes of other developers and speculators to the previously untapped MMO market. In a lull between WOW expansions, Funcom’s Age of Conan launched with a reported base of 700,000, but failed to sustain it. The fanbase surrounding the release of EA/Mythic’s Warhammer Online whipped themselves into such a ‘WOW-killing’ frenzy that then-General Manager Mark Jacobs came out and conceded that they were playing for second, which they achieved, if briefly, in the fall of 2008.
Is this where the story actually begins? Amidst all the hype surrounding the launch of Warhammer Online, Blizzard announced the release date for the Wrath of the Lich King expansion just three days before Warhammer’s launch. The date for WOTLK also landed within a month of the first expansion to Lord of the Rings Online. At what appeared to be the height of their popularity, had Blizzard suddenly gotten paranoid?
In one of the more interestingly obvious moves, the American release date for the popular South Korean MMO, Aion, was set for September 22, 2009. A re-release of classic WOW’s “Onyxia” raid magically appeared on that day as part of a 5th Anniversary celebration that, theoretically, should have been months away. The release of the Icecrown raid patch landed on top of yet another LOTRO expansion in December 2009.
At this point, a pattern has definitely formed, but the intervening years failed to produce noteworthy releases worthy of raising Blizzard’s apparent competitive paranoia. In my research, I’ve failed to find any activity that coincides with the March 2011 release of Trion Worlds’ RIFT, though many commenters suggest there was one. The Cataclysm expansion was still just four month’s old, but perhaps the revamped troll dungeons that comprised the 4.1 patch in late April are close enough? The last release date trolling (see what I did there?) prior to now came in late 2011 when Blizzard seemed to be holding back the final Cataclysm raid and the Deathwing encounter in anticipation of Star Wars: The Old Republic. For their part, EA CEO John Riccitiello confessed to keeping the release window underwraps for this very reason. Sure enough, the once-promising Star Wars MMO released to the public while the WOW faithful were wrestling with the last major content patch of the Cataclysm expansion.
And eight months later, here we are again. As I’ve been writing this, Funcom’s latest MMO, The Secret World, has also announced a major content release for August 28th, bringing them into the fray on perhaps the busiest day in the history of MMOs. Another LOTRO expansion waits in the wings for release the following week (shameless plug: you can win a copy of Riders of Rohan here), its release seemingly heralding a new WOW expansion as much as any other proof uncovered here.
So what do you think? Do you see the pattern here or just a guy with a pointy, tinfoil hat and too much time on his hands? If there is intent here, do you think Blizzard is right or wrong, smart or stupid to proceed this way? I’m interested in your thoughts, so please leave a comment below. Thanks for reading and being a part of the Guild Launch community.
- Thomas (follow me @sirthomasx on Twitter!)