Blizzard Releases Pandas into the World of Warcraft
The Mists of Pandaria, the fourth expansion for Blizzard’s flagship game, the World of Warcraft, is set to go live tomorrow and while the Asian-theme of the game is intended to help garner interest in China, where around half of the game’s subscribers reside in the face of a decline in active subscriptions.
Mists of Pandaria will introduce a new continent for players to explore, inhabited by pandas skilled in martial arts known as Pandarens, while also introducing a new Monk class for players who will also use hand-to-hand combat instead of weaponry. Several changes to WoW’s core gameplay will be implemented as well, including 5 new levels, a battle system for player’s pets similar to Pokemon, additional factions, and a new farming system. However, the new Pandaren race has been met with some controversy due to its reliance on seemingly racist tropes, a charge that has been leveled at the game before for its depiction of pygmys, as well as its portrayal of the “good” faction, the Alliance, as being mostly Caucasian. But, despite the lack of a press release from Blizzard stating their intentions, its clear that the company hopes that the new Asian-themed content will help entice gamers from that area of the world rather than use these tropes as a means of satirization or mockery.
Blizzard’s decision to use this content is seen as a response to the company’s increasing difficulties in maintaining its subscription base by pandering to Asian audiences and increase its subscription rates in China and other Asian nations. Last month, Blizzard reported that the number of subscribers to the world’s largest pay-to-play MMORPG has been in decline, having reached 9 million subscribers from 2010′s reported number of 12 million subscribers. The reasons behind the decline are an increase in competition from the growing number of free-to-play MMOs currently available, many of which boast similar play-styles and content to WoW, such as Runescape, but only lack the notoriety that comes with the the world’s largest MMO. Even a large number of subscription-based games, such as Bioware’s Star Wars: The Old Republic, are set to become mostly free-to-play in response to the evolving market. Additionally, WoW’s last expansion, Cataclysm, was seen as divisive among many of the title’s fans, as its modifications were geared more towards to hardcore players and left many casual gamers feeling left out, and is considered to have contributed to its recent decline.
As a result, Blizzard has attempted various strategies as of late to help improve their falling figures, including the addition of a free-to-play section in the early areas of the game, and releasing Diablo III to gamers for free on the condition that they commit to 12 months of WoW. But both of these moves have been met with little success in bringing in new gamers into the fold, and are seen as more of a stopgap against present gamers from defecting to other titles. Thus, the move to create Pandaria is seen by market analysts as a way for Blizzard to broaden its global appeal as Asian internet penetration continues to rise, with China topping 500 million active internet users this year.
Whether the game’s content will allure gamers from this region rather than offend is yet to be seen, but it’s clear from Blizzard’s exhaustive marketing of the game that the continued success of WoW hinges on how well this expansion is recieved. If subscriptions continue to fall, it could mark the end of the subscription based model for MMOs as we know it.