The Future of WoW, Part I: Blizzard’s Blue Ocean

With the advent of a major patch, and the announcement of more streamlined features in the WoW interface, people cannot help but wonder and worry about the “dumbing down” of the game of itself.  Certainly, this sort of thinking amongst so-called “hardcore” players is not limited to the massively successful MMORPG, but in the video game world in general.

Nintendo, for instance, with their paradigm-shifting Wii and its massive success in the console market, is another example of similar sentiments of oversimplification of a medium supposedly rife with “true games” or “true mmorpg experiences.”

Yet somewhere, in the boardrooms of these multi-million dollar corporations, its executives have crooked smirks like Kira from Death Note, knowing very well what’s going on in the industry and with their own products.

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In business and marketing, the Blue Ocean concept is one that, when understood and capitalized upon, often leads to corporate financial success.  Nintendo found this with their Wii, Blizzard found this with World of Warcraft.  After the break, we will take a look at the MMORPG market’s Blue Ocean, and what this means to the possible future of WoW.

Blue Ocean: What is it?

The Blue Ocean is a concept coined by W. Chan kim and Renée Mauborgne.  It describes a marketing strategy in which financial success can be found in reaching out to an untouched, non-targetted audience than an established one.  This untouched market space, coined as the Blue Ocean, when tapped by a single company, can provide more success than competing with other companies over a shared target audience, noted as the Red Ocean.

This quantitated Red Ocean has a defined population, one over which rival companies fight and compete for a finite portion of potential profits.  This results in a zero-sum situation, where one company’s gain comes at the cost of another company’s loss.

However, the Blue Ocean market consists of a vaguely defined audience with an unknown population.  This demographic is difficult to quantify due to their latent demand for the company’s product.  The defining principle here is that once the product is marketed and sold, the demand will rise exponentially.

Taking a look at Nintendo’s success with the Wii, the blue ocean can be found by observing the spectrum of video game genres ranging from the most simple to the most complex.  Consider the following spectrum proposed by Sean Malstrom in his article, Birdmen and the Casual Fallacy;

TOP (most complex)

Tactical RPG/Strategy- Fire Emblem, Final Fantasy Tactics, Master of Orion, Command and Conquer, Warcraft, MMORPGs
Epic RPG-
(‘epic’ meaning very story based) Later Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest games, Ultima, practically most JRPGs
Tactical Shooter-
Ghost Recon, SOCOM, Counter-Strike
First Person Shooter-
Halo, Unreal Tournament, Call of Duty
Third Person Shooter-
Gears of War, Grand Theft Auto 3, Resident Evil
3D Action Adventure-
Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Eternal Darkness
3D Platformer- Super Mario 64, Super Mario Galaxy, Rayman 2
Basic RPG-
Early Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. (Likely) Dragon Quest IX
Action Adventure-
Legend of Zelda, Metroid
Adventure-
King’s Quest, Monkey Island
2D Platformer-
Super Mario Brothers, Sonic the Hedgehog
Mini-Games / Arcade Style-
Wii Play, Centipede, Galaga, Pac-Man
Puzzle-
Tetris, Dr. Mario
Non-Fiction Game-
Wii Sports, Wii Fit, Brain Age, Nintendogs, cookbook software, how to learn English, etc. Flight Simulator, Sims

BOTTOM (least complex)

Looking back to the 90’s era of the original NES onwards to today, notice how games have evolved from Tetris and Super Mario to the fast-paced, tactical shooters and strategy games of today, such as Halo and Final Fantasy.

Over time, more Halos and Final Fantasies were develloped and released compared to Tetris and the like, to the point where high definition graphics defined the “pinnacle” of the gaming experience.  The audience for the lower tier games remained existent, but no games were released targetting them exclusively.

Until Wii Sports.

Nintendo capitalized on this Blue Ocean of ignored non-gamers of the video game market by releasing less complex games, and releasing them on novel and innovative platforms.

Blizzard’s Blue Ocean

The computer gaming industry on the other hand, did not suffer from the same gaming evolution that the console market did.  Rather, due to its competition with the console market, lost many of its users to the Xbox and Playstation, which provided a more more complex gaming experience.

It is not surprising then, that the most successful successful games during this time targetted those who had yet to leave the desktop gaming platform, and consisted of those who played the low-tier, top-selling games such as Peggle and the Sims.

Blizzard, at the time, had been already established as a top quality game publisher thanks to the massive success of the Starcraft, Warcraft, and Diablo franchises.  Much like Nintendo, they also used a Blue Ocean strategy targetting this demographic of non-gamers and casual gamers who had not entered the complex genre of MMORPG’s.

By following their principles of innovative design, they streamlined the MMORPG genre by making the game more accessible and less complex, resulting in immediate success.

Thus, it is easy to believe that the game is catered to the casual player.  Indeed, the casual player does make up a large portion of the target audience in this Blue Ocean strategy.  But casual players are not the only demographic being targetted here.

Casual players fall into the broader group non-players, which include novices and returning players as well.  Recall stories you’ve heard from friends online about how they gave up playing WoW, only to return for the release of each expansion.  Thanks to the innovative steps that Blizzard took when developing TBC and WotLK, the streamline appeal of Warcraft drew many players back to WoW from either other MMO’s, or not playing at all.

Disruption: Blue Oceans in Progress

The phenomena of Wii and WoW’s successes lies in the fact that this is merely the beginning phase of a grander scheme (cue Kira and his hilarious fansub moment).  The end result that Nintendo and Blizzard wish to achieve is disruption.  By targeting the untapped masses with simplified and streamlined products, these companies have the opportunity to branch out from their initial products and release progressively more complex products targetted at the same audience.

Disruption, then, is to use Blue Ocean success to gradually invade the Red Ocean.

Let’s jump back to Nintendo, but not on the Wii, but the DS.  At first, the DS was heralded as merely a novelty, and that it would become a flop.  By releasing low-tiered games such as Brain Age and Nintendogs, the DS attracted the Blue Ocean of non-gamers in the portable gaming market. 

But they did not stop there.  By releasing slightly higher tier games such as Mario Kart and Animal Crossing: Wild World, a good portion of non-gamers and returning gamers jumped up in tier and responded positively to these releases.

Unlike the current state of the Wii, third party publishers rode the wave of tier progression and released more complicated games such as RPG’s (hence the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest remakes), all met with success.  All the while, the PSP and its upper-tier marketing strategy was met with moderate success, but diminished relative to the DS.  As soon as DS encroached on the upper tier with third party support, the PSP faltered.

Thus, the grounds for success of the DS lies in the experience it provides through the software, which is released in tiers.  For Blizzard to experience the same success, they must follow suit with their games.

Hrmm…Blizzard…Warcraft…Tiers.  Are you thinking what I’m thinking?

Come back for Part II on Monday: “The Future of WoW part II: Krizzlybear’s Streamlined Endgame Theory

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6 thoughts on “The Future of WoW, Part I: Blizzard’s Blue Ocean

  1. great post…

    it’s basically what i always say to people who think that Blizzard is alienating their “core audience”, and that when all the hardcore raiders quit in disgust (which they won’t, but that another argument) Blizzard is going to have a small number of subscribers left.

    WoW became so popular by bringing non-mmorpg gamers, or even non-gamers, into the market. That is their core audience, not the hardcore…

  2. “Adventure- King’s Quest, Monkey Island

    I loved those games back in the day… and became seriously disappointed when that genre seemed to dry up. I was flailing about, lost in the sea, looking for games that weren’t shooters or overly tactical.

    Then … a beacon of light.

    And here I am! ;P

  3. I’m fascinated and I’d love to know where you’re going with this.

    And how I wish that the Wii would sneak back toward the Red Ocean! If it doesn’t do so soon I’m going to have to sell mine out of sheer disinterest in fitness-related-gaming.

  4. Pingback: The Future of WoW, Part II: The Streamlined Endgame « Frost is the New Black

  5. Great article, looking forward to reading Part II.

    I don’t think the early adopters of WoW (the hardcore, original target audience of gamers) believe that they are the target audience anymore.

    Perhaps that’s why there’s so much hostility on the Blizzard forums from players who complain that each new patch is “too easy”. They feel betrayed and feel that they were responsible for getting the game off its feet.

    When you think of how many MMOs have floundered after the initial launch buzz, well I think the early WoW community do deserve some recognition.

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