Blizzard fans are rejoicing after some comments at Gamescom that indicate that Warcraft 4 could be on the table as a new RTS venture once Blizzard wraps up Starcraft 2 with its second expansion this year. So says Legacy of the Void producer Tim Morten:
“It’s very rewarding for us to hear that there’s demand out there for more RTS content in the Warcraft universe so once we’re done with Void I think we’ll get together as a team and talk about what would inspire us to work on next. There’s no question, though, that we’ll consider Warcraft, StarCraft, or even new ideas. Anything is possible.”
Here’s the straightforward way of looking at this. Blizzard has an RTS team that has been working on Starcraft 2 for eons. That’s about to be over, so they’ll move on to their next big RTS, which could potentially be Warcraft 4. Simple as that, right?
It could be, but I doubt the plausibility of Blizzard continuing to make big new RTS games indefinitely. To understand why, we have to take a look at their other revenue streams.
World of Warcraft – The MMO has seen a sharp drop in subscribers, but with 5.6M still on board, that’s still a significant amount of revenue coming in. Certainly the most for any one Blizzard or Activision title, I have to imagine.
Diablo 3 – The game recently just surpassed 30M copies sold to become one of the best-selling games of all time. While Diablo 2 only got one expansion, Diablo 3 is almost certain to have another one on the horizon as a top priority with those kinds of sales.
Hearthstone – Superdata recently put Hearthstone’s revenue at $20M a month, probably only a third or a quarter of what Warcraft makes, but a significant sum all the same. Microtransaction-based card packs have worked wonders in the desktop and mobile versions.
Heroes of the Storm – It’s no League of Legends yet, but it’s still raking in cash due to microtransactions, particularly in Asia where such things are all the rage. Blizzard is dumping a ton of manpower into continuing to grow the game.
Overwatch – Little is known for sure about Overwatch’s exact model yet, but it’s likely to be free-to-play with microtransactions as well, and as Blizzard’s first new IP in eons, they’re promoting the living hell out of it.
So that leaves Starcraft 2 and its two expansions. Official sales data on Starcraft 2 has been hard to come by in recent years. In 2010, it sold a million copies on day one, and by December of that year it has sold 4.5 million copies. Heart of the Swarm, the expansion, sold 1.1M copies in 48 hours after launch.
But since then, it’s been nearly impossible to find official figures for sales of Starcraft 2 or the expansion. It’s not something Blizzard trots out during their quarterly reports as a bragging point like they do with Diablo. This isn’t to say that Starcraft 2 is some big failure, but I have to believe that Starcraft, and with it possible future RTS games, rank quite low on Blizzard’s priority list.
They’re not selling like hotcakes in recent years because the genre is more than a little out of favor. Gamers have instead turned to MOBAs, a genre which ironically spawned from Starcraft mods, and even Blizzard has embraced that trend. While there are a few RTS games here and there (and at least one high-profile one coming with Halo Wars 2) it’s not a genre all that many are clamoring for anymore.
And really, that’s fine by publishers like Blizzard and Activision, because RTS games are really, really hard to monetize in the ways we see so commonly practiced in the market today. There aren’t subscription RTSs, and they don’t lend themselves to cheap DLC, rather they wait for long periods to put out larger expansions. And most importantly, there are almost no ways to effectively insert microtransactions into a game like Starcraft (or a potential Warcraft 4). Units can’t be sold separately, and even cosmetic additions really can’t be all that much more than color changes, as it would mess with the aesthetics and flow of the game too much. While Heroes of the Storm has the ability to sell a skin to make a Ghost look like she’s in a roller derby, that kind of thing would never, ever work in Starcraft itself for a multitude of reasons.
The lack of microtransactions can work when you’re a brute force sales behemoth like Diablo, but we know Starcraft hasn’t put up those numbers, and a new Warcraft RTS isn’t likely to either. Rather, it would have to rely on a very old model and the interest of players in a very old genre. Not to say the game won’t be high quality, but I have to wonder how high something like this would be on Blizzard’s priority list. From their current roster, it just feels like every other series would take precedence over it, for one reason or another, and the team’s energy could be better used other places.
If Warcraft 4 is made, it seems like it would be one of those long, long gestating Blizzard projects that we’ll be lucky to see in the next decade. A fully-functional RTS any sooner would indeed be something of a miracle, given the current climate both at Blizzard and the gaming industry as a whole.