WoW Factor: Does World of Warcraft have a plan?

Nothing else has worked.

One of the recurring jokes I use in this column’s comment section is the statement that it’d just be sad to think that fans are thinking more about the future of World of Warcraft than the developers are. It’s a joke only in the broadest sense of the term, not really meant to make you laugh so much as sigh sadly and smirk as you move on with your day. “Ha, good point, there really doesn’t seem to be much of an overarching plan.”

Unfortunately, the more you think about the joke, the more depressing it gets. I actually started thinking about the joke, and the upsetting part is that when you seriously start looking at the game over the past six years or so… well, it sounds plausible.

See, it’s not that I know the developers don’t have a plan. If I knew that, not only would I probably be guilty of some sort of high-end corporate espionage, but I also wouldn’t be speculating about this. But the key element here isn’t that it’s clear we don’t have an overarching plan – it’s that a long stretch of the game would look identical if there weren’t one.

One of the things that I like to state on matters like this – repeatedly, if possible – is the simple fact that I do not claim to be particularly smart. It seems self-evident to me that anything I can decipher on my own as an idle observer after the fact can be seen ahead of time by people who are paid far more than I am to work on a multimillion-dollar game played by people all over the world. That just seems reasonable, doesn’t it?

In other words, anything I can see with hindsight is something that must have been equally obvious during planning, or at least must have been considered and brought up. You might not be able to figure out what the long-term effects of a given change will be, no, but if you’re planning ahead, you would definitely realize some of these issues ahead of time.

And therein lies the issue. Because… well, let’s start with artifacts.

This is good planning. We know what we're doing here.

If we believe that Blizzard’s developers have a plan that stretches just to the next expansion, we have to also believe that it redesigned every single spec to balance around artifacts with full knowledge that it was going to also just delete them altogether. More to the point, the redesign was given exactly one thing that would carry over into the next talent revision; every other cool effect of the artifacts was designed, tuned, and put into the world with absolute certainty that it would then be deleted remorselessly.

We also have to believe that Mythic dungeons were a plan for the game when Warlords of Draenor launched. We have to believe that this was a feature always planned for the next expansion at the very least, and most likely a plan for the expansion that also involved re-introducing Valor points and item upgrades despite these systems having been advertised as being gone for WoD. Oh, and let’s not forget that the item squish of WoD was planned and executed with the knowledge that the very next expansion would create the same problem.

And that’s not even counting the story! This also means that while Vol’jin was planned to die in the next expansion, there was no plan to actually do anything with him during the one expansion in which he got to be Warchief. There was also no plan to get any new characterization for Varian, who was also planned to die, nor to actually build up Anduin at all. Past a certain point it becomes a game in its own right of picking out what decision was planned in advance but not foreshadowed or built up at all.

My point here, as mentioned, is not to prove that there isn’t a plan. My point is that this really seems as if it would look the same if there were no plan whatsoever past the next content update, and most of the planning is being done with a relatively short turnaround time. If there is a plan, it looks like no plan whatsoever.

Of course, the obvious question is whether or not it matters. If the developers aren’t planning out a multi-year flow chart, is that such a bad thing? And the answer is no… except when it comes to execution, results, and longevity.

If you overlook the many ways it's an awful plan, it's a fine plan.

You know how people get endlessly annoyed that with every single expansion past Wrath of the Lich King, you have to completely relearn how to play your spec? That happens when you don’t have any overarching plan for what a given spec is supposed to be or what identity it should be holding on to. It’s how you get a new kind of resource for every Paladin, then that gets removed for all but one spec, then it gets reworked for that spec too. There’s no thought given to how this is going to work in the future or whether or not this is a defining element of the spec, just “we use Holy Power now, wait, only one of you does, never mind.”

It means that stuff is just getting flung together to address the most recent complaints because larger structural issues require slow and long-term work to fix and we don’t plan ahead like that. It means that there’s no sense of a story heading anywhere because you just have a collection of events that can’t foreshadow the next twist because it hasn’t been figured out yet.

And it ultimately makes a very shallow game that’s prone to changing on a dime without any real thought given to the long-term consequences of those changes. Some of those changes will be good, of course; that’s just the law of averages. But if there’s no actual plan, then none of those changes can really be discussed or speculated about or anything. They just roll out, things just happen, and players are left to react and hope.

I really don’t think that’s how things are happening at Blizzard because… well, that’d be absurd. But the reality is that even if there is a long-term plan in place behind the scenes, it sure looks like it would look if there weren’t one. The difference between the plan and unplanned noise isn’t appreciable.

That’s kind of dismal to think about. It feels, at least to me, like it wasn’t the case for a good long stretch of the game’s development, but at some point it became easier to plan just one patch ahead. Maybe it has something to do with the multiple changes to staffing, maybe it has something to do with shifting corporate priorities, maybe lots of things. Whatever the reason, the result is that it really does feel now like there isn’t a plan guiding the decisions being made.

When the subscription numbers were still riding high post-Wrath, of course, that wasn’t a big deal. But as we enter the waning portion of what feels like the fourth expansion not actually planned out and we look at the subscriber numbers… well, you don’t need me to draw a map of the results.

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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