WoW Factor: A three million loss lesson

    
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Wrong Horde!

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.

I like designing new outfits for my characters, but it should not make up this much of my playtime.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!

Ready to fly, not that you can.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 eliot@massivelyop.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.

War never changes, but World of Warcraft does, with a decade of history and a huge footprint in the MMORPG industry. Join Eliot Lefebvre each week for a new installment of WoW Factor as he examines the enormous MMO, how it interacts with the larger world of online gaming, and what’s new in the worlds of Azeroth and Draenor.
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DrowNoble
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DrowNoble

carson63000 stormcrowe77 Well the point was Blizzard tends to ignore what many people want.  The lore nerds get upset when the lore makes less and less sense.  PvPers are upset with how they are handling Arenas and Battlegrounds.  Crafters are, quite frankly, getting the finger from Blizzard.

So it’s not like Blizzard is annoying a single group, they are doing things that are annoying multiple types of players.  Hence why their subs are tanking.

carson63000
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carson63000

stormcrowe77 I love the way you fling around stuff like “deliberately ignored massive player complaint about the direction of the game” as if there was one direction that all the players wanted it to go.

Newsflash: if they’d done what YOU want (whatever that is), they probably would have pissed off a DIFFERENT three million people.

stormcrowe77
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stormcrowe77

It would only have been a “lesson” (as per the title of your article) if Blizz had chosen to learn from it, but – as usual – they continued on with their stubborn, ego-driven, bloody-minded mentality and so now here they are at the end of 2015 with less than 5 million sub (we’ll never know exactly how low the numbers drop because they suddenly decided to refuse the release sub numbers anymore).
They haven’t ‘overlooked’ anything so much as deliberately ignored massive player complaint about the direction of the game they once loved.

Private servers – most notably the more polished ones like Nostalrius (Vanilla), Dalaran-WoW (WotLK) and Atlantiss (Cata) are thriving and providing all that veteran WoW players loved about the game, back when it was an MMORPG to be reckoned with. I’d go so far as to say they’re the very reason Blizz is hemorrhaging subs.

Techbot Alpha
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Techbot Alpha

This man, he speaks (writes) sense.
The reason I played so much of the City of Heroes content was because it was FUN. Not because it dropped me a slightly shinier sword of +X shininess. I’ve really grown sick and tired of the ‘your appearance is tied to your equipment’ shit that WoW and its various offspring clones have seemingly spread across the entire MMO field with about ten tractors, and the same with the rotational, meaningless combat that feels as solid and satisfying as hitting mobs with a bamboo stick.
I know I seem to reference CoH in every other post I make, but there’s a goddamn reason for that. There has, so far, been NO other game that offered what it did. And that makes me sad and pissed off in equal measure. I can only hope that one or both of the successor projects finally lights a new torch to be held aloft in due time…

progshine
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progshine

Amazing article Eliot!!

muneravenmn
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muneravenmn

Good heavens.  Somebody go sit on the WoW devs and hold them still while this is read aloud to them.  Fifty times.  Great article.

McTruber
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McTruber

This gets the McTruber Seal of Approval.

MattMarchio
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MattMarchio

The reason I have heard for people leaving the most (including why I left) was that the expansions were just more of the same.  Your current gear is always made worthless by common greens that drop off of trash, therefore all that work you put into it is completely made worthless.  That and PvP always gets worse with every patch.  Content is made for casual gamers, while all the non-casuals rarely have anything to do but roam around capital cities after the 1 – 2 weeks it takes to clear all the new content.

daikatan4
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daikatan4

I would like to know where the 3M subs went to. GTA V online, GW2 perhaps …

carson63000
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carson63000

Werewolf Finds Dragon You should definitely submit that screed to your school newspaper.