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.
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?
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.