It would be an understatement to say that publishers spend a great deal of time juggling release dates, trying to maximize profitability and avoid direct competition. When a company has just two or three major releases in a year that soon pass out of the public eye, there's little reason to worry about one game sabotaging the other. But Blizzard is faced with a very unique problem, stemming from the ongoing success of World of Warcraft.
You see, Blizzard's hordes of loyal WoW fans are also salivating over the launch of the long-awaited Diablo 3, meaning a dip in Azeroth's population is almost a certainty. While some might see that as bad news, Blizzard's choosing to look on the bright side: if anyone's going to steal their business, it might as well be them.
It's a unique problem, since the average lifespan of most games is at most a year or two. Other PC games and MMOs have far more staying power, but never reach the size of WoW's 12-million subcribers. So while Blizzard didn't have as much to worry about with their release of StarCraft 2- since that was a distinctly different genre of game - Diablo 3 is a different story.
Another juggernaut in the dungeon-crawler RPG space, Diablo 3 is likely one of the few games that brought Blizzard to the attention of many current fans, so the impending launch is a major milestone.
What does that mean for Diablo 3's impact on World of Warcraft? It's unlikely that WoW will suffer any serious hits, since Cataclysm succeeded in getting fans addicted all over again, but Blizzard isn't holding onto any illusions either. With their super-secret MMO Titan still being developed, the unshakable foundation of WoW isn't seeming quite so sturdy.
Blizzard has made it clear that they think Titan will be bigger than WoW, but Blizzard co-founder Frank Pearce sees Diablo 3 as the more immediate threat. Speaking with Gamasutra, Pearce explained that while Titan may change the future of the company in a major way, it would be unwise to underestimate the impact of Diablo:
"I think even a shorter-term concern is whether or not we might see cannibalization of WoW players from Diablo III when we launch it, because it's a similar type of experience. Not exactly similar, but it's that RPG feel...For us, I think it's really important that we recognize that somewhere, sometime it's likely that someone is going to cannibalize World of Warcraft players... So it's better we cannibalize them ourselves than let someone else do that, because if we cannibalize them ourselves, they're still a Blizzard customer"
It's hard to argue with Pearce's logic, since most WoW subscribers are likely to keep their accounts active as they dive headlong into either game, so it's a win-win. And with the rumors of a Diablo 3 console release growing stronger, Blizzard may end up bringing in plenty of new console fans as well.
Blizzard has proven to be anything but greedy, recently stating that they have nothing but hope for The Old Republic and its developer BioWare, as success for a game in the genre is success for the genre itself. Pearce feels the same way about any potential Diablo 3-converts:
"Whether it's a Blizzard game or another great MMO, I think there's plenty of space in the market for great MMOs to share customers... We have players that burn through content in weeks or months that takes us two years to create. There are so many people looking to play these experiences so passionately, so many hours a week, I think there's plenty of space for the industry to grow."
Ever the ambassador for the PC space, Blizzard is once again showing how they've managed to last 20 years in the business. It's obviously impossibly to accurately predict just how many players will be moving from one franchise to another, but it is apparent that Blizzard's next few years will be infinitely more interesting than the past few.
Diablo 3 is currently projected for a 2012 release on the PC and, just maybe, the Xbox 360 and PS3.