One of the metrics people were using for analyzing the difficulty of T13 content was that by Christmas, only 175k characters had downed Madness of Deathwing on normal difficulty, which is only 4% of the total level 85 population. What I found interesting about that particular metric, was it gave me something that I didn't feel like putting in the effort to find on my own. The total number of level capped characters in World of Warcraft. There's a hair under 4.4 million level capped characters.
This is interesting. We all know that there's 10 million active accounts in World of Warcraft right now. It's something that they slap onto every single advertisement for the game. That means, that if we make the patently false assumptions that no one has a level capped alt, and that no one with a level 85 character has let their subscription lapse, then we wind up with the figure that 56% of paying players have not hit level 85 yet, and that's the absolute lowest percentage it can be. Even by the most conservative estimates, if you've hit level 85 in World of Warcraft, you're in the minority. In reality, the percentages are more skewed.
Two and a half million net players have quit since the release of T9. Two million alone in the last year of Cataclysm content. Some of those were players who made it to level 85 and quit playing. Those players were listed in the 96% of players who hadn't downed DW, and as such, are listed in the 4.4 million. This means that the percentage of endgame accounts is actually smaller than the 44% posited in the most conservative estimate.
Further complicating the issue is the matter of alts. How many people do you know who have another character at level 85? Or two? I have five, there's another player in my guild who has ten, and I know a couple people on the server who have 15+. Of my five level 85 characters, I only raid seriously on two of them. Those other three get lumped in as casual players incapable of raiding without help from papa Blizz. If you assume that half of the players who make it to level 85 also have one alt at level 85, then suddenly the percentage of players in endgame content plummets to 29%. That's lower than the President's approval rating. Over 70% of the players who pay for this game never make it to level cap. Now, because my brain makes jumps like Bob Beamon at times, I was reminded of somewhere else I saw 70% in relation to WoW demographics.
In the 2009 4th Quarter shareholder's conference call Mike Morhaime, President of Blizzard, cited that their internal numbers showed that 70% of new players to WoW quit before they reach level ten. Any guild master will tell you that retention's a bitch. Hell, Bioware could tell you that after they lost 15% of SWTOR's playerbase after the first month. By taking all the numbers we've seen here, we can see the force of attrition at work here. For every player that quits the game, Blizzard's gotta sort through 2.3 new players to replace them. For every level capped player that quits, the number of new bodies that have to be hewn through is probably closer to 5.3.
Attracting new players to replace those lost to attrition becomes increasingly difficult as the game ages. Not only are there new competitors out there which have the advantage of having learned from the mistakes made during WoW, but the barrier to entry becomes higher and higher. At Cataclysm release, it was over a $100 investment in boxes alone to break into the game from the start and make it to level 85, not including subscription fees. That's a lot of money to sink into a game, and keep in mind that for every dungeon buddy, arena partner, or raider, that has quit your guild in the past year, Blizzard needs five people to replace them. That $100 becomes a pretty steep price.
This explains the idea behind investing the bulk of the expansion into revisiting the leveling content. In the back half of Wrath, the retention rate on players dropped low enough that the attrition rate caught up, and they went through 18 months of no real growth. Looking at this, they decided that rather than attacking the attrition rate of established clients, they would try to increase the recruitment rate of new players by making the early leveling content more attractive. The more cynical side of me thinks that they were hoping to keep people interested in the game long enough to build enough baggage in the game that they'd not quit when they hit the dearth of endgame content. The more optimistic side of me thinks the cynical side of me is a jerk.
This idea, to mortgage the endgame in favor of the leveling game, was a rather spectacular failure. WoW lost 1/6th of its player base in less than a year, after six years of nearly uninterrupted growth.
So the question is "why?" When you don't put resources into the endgame, the game ends. It sounds like a tautology, but it's not. By creating content for the endgame that is properly farmable, interesting, and challenging enough to hold a player for an extended period, then it's easier to retain a max level player, rather than telling them to just roll an alt and start over. By revamping older content, especially to the degree they did in Cataclysm, they're wasting resources, for several reasons.
1: There's already content there. They're replacing content that they already spent resources on creating, and gained nothing in terms of additions to the game. The players spend the same amount of time in Northshire as they did before. The fact that the Orcs are burning our vineyard down doesn't really make a big difference.
2: New players don't know any better. If anything, revamping the old world just makes the newer content less engaging when you reach it. I know it's a pain leveling alts through some of that stuff, and the new content was a godsend for those of us who couldn't stomach the idea of having to choose between Winterspring or Silithus again. But when I was leveling Dämmer, Eastern Plaguelands was the shit. I murdered Scourge with gusto. Then I got to Hellfire Peninsula, I flew through the Dark Portal, and witnessed Fel Reapers striding the wastes, shaking the ground with their steps, and casually crushing curious players who wandered too close. Then I got to Northrend, and I surfed a harpoon across a gaping canyon after gunning down a plethora of super vikings riding primordial dragons. The bar was constantly being raised, and kept me engaged the entire time. Granted, when I went back to Azeroth to level my warrior, I had a new perspective, and found it painful to level, but that's what heirlooms are for. The revamp screwed up the perspective of new players.
3: It's too much to put on one plate. I'm a firm proponent of getting it done right, rather than rushing it out the door. However, with Blizzard's glacial working pace, there comes the side effect of leaving players in the same raid instance for a year, or whole projects simply sublimating into vapor. So there's a caveat that needs to be attached to it: Don't promise what you can't realistically deliver. Cataclysm was a very ambitious idea for an expansion, one that Tom Chilton's crew did not do justice to, at all. On the EK/Kalimdor revamp, there's a ton a places where they simply repeated the exact same thing that happened in the zone before hand. Elywnn forest is just tragic. I'm still trying to hook Romeo and Juliet up? Didn't I fix that years ago? Other things that I harped on in previous posts, like the horrible treatment the Worgen get when they leave Gilneas, speak to unfinished content that was rushed out the door to meet a deadline. Even worse, the endgame content, the stuff that the expansion is built around, also felt the sting of over extension. When Wrath launched, Ulduar was already deep in development. When Cataclysm launched, they had nothing set on T12 content beyond the broadest ideas. Hence why Ulduar was a 14 boss masterpiece, and T12 was a 7 boss abortion that had an entire second instance, The Abyssal Maw, cut from development, leaving half an instance with an over-bloated loot table created due to trying to squeeze 14 bosses worth of loot into a 7 boss bag. Because of the crunch applied to T12, T13 suffered, becoming the Deja Vu Tier, where you're pretty sure you've killed every boss in the instance before, because they're all recolors of previous bosses, not even reskins, with the sole exception being the tendons on Spine, and Deathwing's head and limbs on Madness.
The lesson to take from Cataclysm is this: Don't waste resources "revamping" old content. As much as it pains the lore geek in me to say this, don't ever revamp any non level cap content again. No Outland revamp, no Northrend revamp, nothing. Sure, you can add zones for level capped content to the continents, sure. But don't try to make the new player experience amazing, because new players won't know the difference, and the players who will notice the difference, the current players, will notice that the revamp is coming at the expense of new content for them.
Chalk Cataclysm up as a learning mistake. You screwed up, lost two million subscribers that probably won't come back. As far as mistakes go, it's a big one, but not a lethal one. The time you spend trying to reduce the churn in the lower echelons of the player base is time wasted, and it allows attrition to take its toll.