It’s been a little while, hasn’t it, friends? In the time since I last penned WoW Factor (which missed an installment purely due to transit strangeness – the only time I’ve ever missed a column, I do apologize), some stuff has happened. Like what? Oh, nothing major, just World of Warcraft completely losing its sub jump from the beginning of the expansion. Three million players, gone. And while you can feel free to giggle under your breath at those who take this as a sign that the game is dying (7 million subscribers is not exactly a low number), it also does put the game at subscriber numbers below what it had back before The Burning Crusade.
The game isn’t dying. But a 30% loss of subscribers tells a story where it is more than a little sick. Amidst speculation that 6.2 is the game’s last major content patch, there’s reason to believe that something should be done, that things need to change, that the center cannot hold.
Community manager Bashiok pointed out on the forums, quite rightly, that there’s rarely a single silver bullet issue that causes these things. In this case, I think there’s a whole magazine of bullets.
Alex Ziebart is kind of a big deal for the World of Warcraft community, what with the Blizzard Watch thing. He tweeted something the other day that I’ve thought about more than once: namely, that removing tier sets from LFR didn’t convince him to move up to normal raiding; it convinced him to drop that part of the game altogether. And intentionally or not, I think that hits on one of the biggest things that the current crop of WoW designers do not seem to get.
We talk a lot about carrots and sticks in game design, with carrots being the things you want and sticks being what you don’t. Rewards like new gear, new cosmetics, whatever – those are the carrots that get you to try content. Ever since the end of Wrath of the Lich King, though, WoW has been making it harder and harder to get those carrots, with the idea being that by moving the carrot just a little further ahead people will jump into more challenging arenas.
I have no doubt it works for some people, but they seem to be the minority. More often, the reason people are going to a certain place for a carrot is that this is how much effort the carrot is worth to them. When Cataclysm simultaneously dropped the idea of buyable tier sets for tokens and made Heroic dungeons much harder, a huge number of players didn’t decide that this was the point to step up to raiding. They just… didn’t go raiding and didn’t get those sets. They opted out.
You can say that better gear should be harder to get all you want, but the fact is that most people stop their content consumption at a certain point not because they’re unaware of better carrots. When I was raiding in Wrath of the Lich King, I was well aware that I had high enough DPS to do the next tier up. I declined because the rewards were not worth the hassle of organizing 24 other people and eating up more of my time with that nonsense.
Moving the prize is not a way to get people to move up; it’s a way to get them to decide the prize is no longer worth it. That leads to a further problem: There’s a whole faction of players who feel that the game just doesn’t have any content for them any longer. As more resources drop back into this very specific endgame niche, people who aren’t already in there have less reason to play. This is something I alluded to when it comes to Mythic dungeons and Timewalking: These are updates I like in theory, but in practice it seems like what I said I wanted (new dungeons) was heard as something completely different (more challenging modes for existing dungeons).
The point is that there’s a serious content dearth for a vast number of players; the only people who really have enough content are the people who want to raid every raid difficulty religiously, and I imagine even they’re getting a bit sick of it at this point. That’s several bullets right there, but there’s another big one: randomness
No character gets any new abilities from level 90 to 100. Instead, what we get are perks, passive abilities that unlock as we level and will all be unlocked by the time we reach the cap. But the order we get them will be random! Isn’t that exciting?
Random loot, at this point, strikes me as an idea we should have gotten away from an eternity ago. You can point to the positives that randomness has, and I agree with several of them, but as time goes by it’s increasingly doing more harm than good. This expansion doubles down on it in so many places that it can only appropriately be expressed via scientific notation. You have random rolls for whether or not you get gear, then you get random chance of a random enhancement, and then you get to roll again to see whether you can equip it or not!
All right, that’s a lie, but still.
The idea with all of this was to remove the need to reforge and re-gem and re-enchant constantly, but it’s been replaced with random hope and no player control. The bonus roll system is one of the most screamingly terrible ideas to come out of the game in the past few years, and this expansion is utterly in love with all of that randomness. Sure, the chance element produces a nice upswing when something good happens, but it also provides no counterweight for something bad happening. It’s just a series of numbers being fired off blindly.
Combine that with chore-like features like Garrisons, which simultaneously kneecap crafting and shackle players to content they may or may not enjoy (it’s optional… as long as you don’t want to go to Tanaan), and oft-stated issues like a sense of Orc burnout… there are a lot of problems with WoW right now. Almost all of them have been explained in detail many times before. Almost all of them are now coming home to roost, if you will.
Losing a third of a game’s subscribers in three months means that something is rotten in the state of Denmark. Something important has been overlooked. And I look at the people who are still there, and I see a lot of people who remain in place because this is the game they play with family and friends and co-workers and the like. I see fans who are there because they still love the game even as it keeps running itself into the ground. I see a playerbase that, by and large, is not happy with the state of the game – not little things like precise class numbers, but huge elements like the game selling an expensive flying mount – for an expansion that allows no flight – right after the announcement of that sub drop.
My hope – always – is that the people who make this game are looking at this as a lesson to be learned, one that cost three million players.
Feedback, as always, is welcome in the comments down below or by mail to email@example.com. Next week, I want to ask what can be done about this and what I hope (and fear) from this year’s big announcements.