WoW Factor: Does Blizzard even know what it wants World of Warcraft to be now?

    
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WoW Factor: Does Blizzard even know what it wants World of Warcraft to be now?

Let’s start by pre-empting someone who feels very clever. Yes, I hear you muttering “profitable” as an answer. That isn’t accurate; that’s answering what the powers that be want World of Warcraft to do. I’m asking if they know what they want WoW to actually be. The two questions feel related, but they’re actually very different from one another because you can keep one happening for quite some time without ever actually answering the other question.

A long time back, I pondered whether there really is any kind of plan for WoW on a whole, not because I assume there isn’t one but because it looks really similar to no plan even if there actually is one. But that feels relevant to discuss at the moment simply because I feel a fair bit more confident in saying that there isn’t actually a plan in place about what the people making WoW want the game to be, from the top down.

Asking the question of what an MMO is supposed to be is, well, complex. It involves asking and answering a lot of questions all at once. Who is the target audience? What is an average play session supposed to look like? What is the gameplay focus? Who is supposed to get most of the rewards? What is all this content designed to do? What sort of behavior are we trying to encourage? There are a whole lot of concurrent questions, and they’re usually not the sort that all gets answered at once.

Instead, what usually happens is that the game’s design is informed by a very specific set of assumptions about what the game is supposed to be. As pain points show up in development, you start refining based on that original answer and thus narrowing the answer to some of those questions, sometimes learning that the game you made is actually serving a wider audience than you planned. You iterate and you keep a target in mind.

For an obvious example, we can just log in to WoW Classic.

The fanboy mines are harder to work all the time.

Nobody at this point likely needs to be told that the original WoW was meant to be what Dan Olson once called “the friendlier version of EverQuest.” It’s evident in literally every part of the game’s design. I’ve talked before about how the game’s big success was in many ways something of an accident, that it was made with things like largely solo questing in place to facilitate leveling into raids only for a lot of players to turn out to generally like that aspect of the game.

Honestly, it feels like the game’s first two expansions were generally still made with a coherent idea of what the game was supposed to be, and even Cataclysm to a lesser extent still seems to have a general wider idea of What We Want The Game To Be. Pinpointing the exact moment when the answer seemed to slip away is hard to do, but there is a philosophical shift, and I think in the broadest terms it’s easy to understand as the point when the game’s developers started treating every complaint as a problem to be solved.

But let’s not get bogged down in history. Let’s restate the question. What do the designers and the directors and producers in charge of WoW want the game to be right now? What sort of answers can we suss out from actual design?

It can’t be that the designers want this to be a casual-friendly game. Your options for content players just queue for are woefully underserved, with the queue options for raids and dungeons being basically automatic so long as you put in a minimum of effort. You have no ability to actually plan for upgrades, instead having to rely on random loot and a reduced amount of that in the next expansion. The designers clearly want you to be locked into a raiding or M+ cycle of social dependency with a group of other players.

It also can’t be that the designers want this to be a hardcore-only game. The flattening of ability choices to allow you literally swapping your talents moments before entering a dungeon removes character planning from the equation. I’ve written before about how the game’s lack of on-ramps for players makes the game actively hostile to recruiting for the top end, helped not one whit by more casual players seeing the hardcore players as actively harmful to the game as a whole. And that’s without talking about the apparent caustic dismissal Blizzard reserves for people who put in the theorycrafting time.

So… who’s left? Whom is all this actually for?

Who benefits?

My guess, from evidence, is one I implied back in the start. I’m not sure that anyone has a clear idea of what the game is supposed to be so much as a clear picture of what it’s not supposed to be. It’s not supposed to be hard to level. It’s not supposed to let players not in consistent group get the best gear. It’s not supposed to be something you can walk away from. It’s not supposed to include “irrelevant” systems like housing.

But if you don’t have a clear picture of what the game is actually supposed to be, how can you really say something is irrelevant? If you don’t know what you want to be, nothing is frivolous because everything is.

The reason it’s hard to pinpoint an exact date for this changeover is that what this implies is a steady design slide, and that kind of does line up with history. In the earliest days of the game, you had designers and directors and producers who had clear pictures of what the game was supposed to be. You may not agree with all those pictures (I sure don’t, and several of them seem to have moved on when it was clear that the playerbase generally did not), but the picture and intent was there.

As time moved forward, though… people moved on, and Blizzard promoted the people who were very good at finding ways to execute a specific vision without necessarily having much of a vision. And over time, it wound up with a leadership staff composed of people who want the game to solve only whatever players are upset about right now and remove pain points instead of accepting that some bits of frustration are there because, well, they’re core to the actual experience in a tangible way.

Except that’s only true if you have a clear picture of what you want the game to be, isn’t it?

If you have a coherent picture of what the world should be and how the game should play, then even if some things cause a bit of pain, there’s a reason for them. Sure, it might be frustrating to have to take a trip every time you want to respec, or to deal with an extra weapon slot for your ranged weapon or throwing weapon, or to fuss with dual spec, or whatever. But if you have an overarching picture of the game that relies upon these things, then these aren’t problems to be removed. You perhaps need to improve their handling, but the experience is core.

If you don’t have that? Well… then these are just problems. And problems should be eliminated. And you can keep doing that, chipping away piece by piece, never really asking what you want the game to be, until it’s no longer obvious to anyone – including your design team – anymore.

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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Armsman

Blizzard has always know what they wanted it to be since they launched it:

Insanely profitable.

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ante b

The game has evolved into a cacophony of system modules slapped together in Frankenstein manner.
The fun is gone being replaced by mind numbing chore type activities and time gated content.
I get it,its a treadmill , but can it be a fun one ?

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Strixxx

As someone who didnt even experience vanilla am looking forward to naxx release more than shadowlands.

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texyFX

as identity crisis is a postmodern feature, every indidual is exposed to. social evolution is a determined aspect in every society, defining (value and use of) every product (human beings r also products of any given society).
we all r forced to evolve (btw evolution has a negative aspect too: stagnancy) simply by laws of nature, and r conditioned by society to adapt a specific career path inside the production conditions (its Produkionsbedingungen in Das Kapital, Marx).
but with technological advance these production conditions change the value of any given career path and by that the self-understanding of every human being.

in a society of constant evolution no other identity than a progressive mentality is save from identity crisis, as the former adapted values became devalued by the latest advance in evolution.
before the world wars jobs (aka career paths) were a lifetime obligation, any individual was raised to become their determined (professional) identity for the rest of their life. but the rapid technological evolution since replaced many jobs via automation, rationalisation etc. and forced individuals to adapt the new self-understanding of social evolution – the velocity (and therefore pressure) of class warfare increased relative to technological evolution. with the result of a new society wide syndrome identified as identity crisis.

identity crisis means old values no longer sell (/hold true) on societies markets, so the individual is forced to a constant progression, to permanently re-invent itself.

as games, also MMOs r (as every art and product) a reflection of any contempary condition of society, they tend to re-invent themselves. the casualisation of WoW is a surpreme example for this process: to hold their market position, WoW had not simply adapt to the ever changing taste of their user-base, but to appeal to a more broad audience.
in result, the classic formula was intensely iterated over this constant process: Achievements in WTOLK for example, loot badges, LFR (saved WoW :D) etc. into current Retail status quo.

but the identity crisis was there from the beginning as a part of the genre.
MMORPGs per se rnt just RPGs, the defining criteria is Massively Multiplayer in RPG form. replayability was invented in MMOs, as lvl caps were a detriment to user engagement. so the RNG factor had to “fix” the user into constant engagement. to run any dungeon over and over again for BIS, to dominate the rankings etc.
progress may the defining concept of RPGs, but randomized loot came later, after MMRPGs invented this (at the time) fresh gameplay loop.

so in short (sry, but my leisure time is over) i disagree in almost any criteria, which isnt paradox to my elaboration of the new social norm identity crisis, but verifying.
WoW evolved permanently, constantly tried to appeal to a very diverse user base and to re-invent itself without compromising its core values (which is quite an art per se).
those core values r quite simple and yet complex to design in gameplay: social and progression.

WoW has never had so many opportunities to engage in social activities, it has never been easier to join/form groups in any content scenario (or to complete content solo, which still is social, although in a weird way).
i could write many (in-depth) essays ( i wont as i still have a quantum literature to succed for the next years) on the evolution of WoWs narrative design, and some more on its systems: its l art pour l art, progression for not simply the sake of progression, but satisfaction, cuz art is not done for the art, but for humans and society.
i still think the greatest accomplishment for any game designer is the positive reception of their clientele, aka fun.

WoW 16 years later still is fun, isnt it?

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Bruno Brito

WoW 16 years later still is fun, isnt it?

Debatable. A lot of the playerbase can be described as addicted.

jimthomasUS
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jimthomasUS

Shadowlands is launching pretty soon and right now there’s a pre-launch event in Northrend, the epicenter of WoW’s best expansion.

Every 20 minutes a boss spawns somewhere in the zone. This info is available on Wowhead.

A swarm of players riding their best mounts and wearing their best transmogs descend on these mobs. Pumpkin heads are thrown. Fireworks are set off. Chat is a flurry of the clever and the dumb.

There’s a minute or two of combat. Spell and melee effects. Noise and clatter. The mob dies and 50 players rush in to claim their shinies.

That’s an mmorpg. That is what WoW is now and that is what the devs, math majors now instead of lightning in a bottle geniuses 15 years ago, have created. It is a real community bursting with talented people who have made it their home.

Alyn
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Alyn

“the experience is core”

Yes, the experience is the foundation upon which any mmo should be built. I have discussed WoW’s decline infinitum, it seems for at least the past 6 or 7 years either here, or in my chat channels with other gamers or my former guildmates. I shall not repeat myself. This is not the game I logged into back in November 2004. Maybe with so many staffing changes and the attitude that game is alright and all we need do is correct errors or other issues that gamers don’t enjoy will just make it “all new again”. No, I dare say this has never been the way to handle this games’ aging process at all.

I have mostly walked away only playing once or twice a week with what the content is currently. I haven’t ordered the new content nor shall I for quite some time, if ever. I have spent a fair amount of time in Classic. It really didn’t complete that inner feeling I suppose I was looking for. Thus, for me, “you can’t return home again” fits for me. Of what I mean here is the time I spent was time i spent in that moment and won’t ever be the same now.

I suppose we’ll continue discussing all that WoW was, what it is, and maybe what it could be in the future. However, for me it’s all truly a mute point-

Jokerchyld
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Jokerchyld

But to be fair, what MMO is what it was like when it first released? As an online game it will change and evolve based on its nature of never ending. Where I think WoW went left, was in its attempts of borrowed power without a core replacement. While each expansion is its own fun, they dont feel connected as they did when WoW started.

To put it simply the game today feels like an Arcade RPG you jump into to do stuff to get stuff. Where the original (Classic) feels like an actual online RPG that you got to play with others.

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Ravven

The question of having an overall vision for the game is an interesting one. When you compare two of the top MMOs today, Warcraft and FFXIV, the differences are clear in that FFXIV has an extremely crystal-clear vision of the overall arc of the game, what they want it to be, and who their players are. They adapt and change to address weaknesses while still maintaining that overall vision. Also, the people in charge are extremely passionate about the game. They manage to cater for all types of players, from the hardcore raiders to people who just like to level, to people who only want to craft. Arguably the pvp element is pretty weak, but the rest of the game is pretty strong. They’ve done this while maintaining a very strong story arc – Shadowbringers had the best story, writing and acting that I’ve ever experienced in an MMO. I don’t get a strong feeling about what Warcraft actually wants to be…other than (obviously) profitable.

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styopa

“the people in charge are extremely passionate about the game”

The 10 words that Blizzard somehow lost track of – IMO – after WotLK. I don’t know if it was a single strong personality that left, or a critical mass of passionate people replaced by “I’ve always wanted to have Blizzard on my resume” coders who may be just as highly skilled as the previous teams but just don’t have any fire for THE GAME, but something changed around then.

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Knecht_Rootrecht

Back during the Cataclysm and Mists of Pandaria expansions. The talk was all about making the game more accessible as well as delivering more content faster. Yearly expansions were an idea that was floating around during that time. In pursuit of this goal a lot of things were streamlined. Which meant complex and difficult to balance mechanics, removed and simplified in order to deliver content faster and more accessible.

It led to rushed updates and content, while not delivering them much faster. Because the expansions were planned out in anticipiation of yearly expansions the content ran out after about one year after the release which lead to long droughts at the end of expansions while the next ones were far from ready.

I don’t think even the developers know anymore what they really want. Activision wants profits, the original devs all left long ago. I think the current approach is just throwing stuff against the wall to see what sticks. The entire process is not sustainable as huge amounts of content is developed which becomes immediately obsolete with the next expansion while the playerbase is only rushing to the latest bits.

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Bannex

This is what you get when you’re trying to develop a game that has ‘a little bit for everybody.’

Yangers
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Kickstarter Donor
Yangers

Is that a bad thing though?

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Sorenthaz

Not necessarily but it’s hard to not get to a point where you can’t keep catering to all of them and have to make sacrifices.

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Bannex

Im not saying it’s good or bad. Just making an observation.

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cursedseishi

I still like to think that World of Warcraft also just wasn’t meant to keep ‘going’ like it is. That part of the intent with the story was leading towards some grand lead-in to the next big ‘Warcraft’ game. But as things went on and on, Acti-Blizz decided why waste the money developing ‘Warcraft 4’ when they already have ‘Starcraft 2’ flopping about, and instead just kept churning out new expansions…

I liked to say the current ‘run’ for World of Warcraft was to end short of us fighting or fending off Sargeras and his forces (like in Legion)–and allow that to be the grand introduction of Warcraft 4. Because realistically, the scaling starts to buckle when the MCs reach a point where they can easily fight off gods and yet some edge-lord banshee still orders and bosses us around.

I mean, ‘Legion’ and ‘Battle for Azerite’ both feel like they should have been separate from the MMO as a whole to an extent. How much better would Sylvanas’s heel-twister have been if we were actually given some proper fleshing out of things without the burden of sticking it to some ‘Adventurer’ character following her like a puppy dog. Let us actually play through that whole thing as a ‘Forsaken’ Campaign in the RTS.
Beating back and sealing Sargeras should have been the ‘Mount Hyjal’ moment of Warcraft 4. With the disparate sides of the Alliance and Horde struggling with the Legion’s advances as the threat looms ever nearer building up to that moment. The whole ‘artifact’ thing could have stuck around then–serving as the sort of side-development you see in Starcraft 2 that gets sacrificed at the end (and avoiding the whole Legion-BfA unbalancing that followed with it). Let Sylvanas be the last to throw hers aside in the big fancy cut-scene for it… only to find the first drop of Azerite as it bleeds out!
Then expansion time, Battle for Azerite. Don’t need the blatant mustache-twirling since she doesn’t need to play it up for a bunch of content-starved impatient feet-stompers just wanting to know when the next raid drops. Give the poor writers a chance to actually sit down AND WRITE out things and bounce them around some more.

Because at the moment? I think the bigwigs for Acti-Blizz just want World of Warcraft to be their Call of Duty of MMOs. Who cares what its about, so long as we get a release every year or two. And I think that might be why so much of the expansions turn into ‘well why did people not like THIS one then?’ rather than an actual bit of evolution (as well as massive content droughts).
It’s certainly possible to release expansions every 2 years (FF14 is proof of that), but there is a clear difference in cadence and handling between them.

Let the RTS be where you want the (really) big world stuff and trashy red vs blue smashy smashy crap be. Divorce the player character ‘Adventurers’ from said RvsB shenaniganry, and focus the MMO on exploring other aspects. I dunno… some of my favorite stuff in WoW was learning more of the world through playing and experiencing aspects of it. We got intergalactic Goat God-loving Techno-Paladins, let us go off the map. Lets get multi-versal and into some really weird strange. Have Norzdomu send us back to some fragment of the Thousands year war that split off the main loop and is starting to get really bad so we have to go in and take it out! Lets go kick in the door on Eredar and see how the Legion likes being the ones ‘Burning Crusaded’ for a change.