WoW Factor: What would it take for big changes in World of Warcraft?

    
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Nothing else has worked.

The last time I wrote an installment of this column, it was in specific response to an interview that contained no small number of tone-deaf and kind of community-enraging statements, the sort of thing that doesn’t really seem like a good idea. Today, as I’m writing, we’re just on the edge of another interview, containing no small number of tone-deaf and kind of community-enraging statements yet again. Folks, I am tired.

But I’m not actually here to talk about that interview directly. It’s more complex than that. While the interview has a number of bad statements that I could pick apart (really, you want everyone to bring their own unique things to the table? You think you nailed that one?), I’d rather tackle the community discontent in a more substantive way. There’s a definite discontent with World of Warcraft right now, to the point that I’d say if you’re happy with the state of the game and the current expansion, you are somewhat in the minority.

So if that many players are unhappy with the state of the retail version of the game, why does it keep happening? What would it take for big changes to happen for WoW?

Spoiler warning: The answer is both really simple and kind of depressing. What it takes is money, or more specifically the lack of same, to at least get the ball rolling.

It’s no secret that Blizzard as a company has been bleeding active players steadily over the past few years. We’ve even been tracking that, and as the company does its best job to hide and fluff the numbers, it’s clear that the past three years have seen a steady playerbase falloff. If you need proof that WoW’s design philosophy has been hurting player retention, well… you don’t actually have it there because the numbers are heavily obfuscated, but these sure are data points to support that hypothesis.

But it’s also no secret that the company has been making money through its two-pronged strategy of “charging people more for less” and “axing employees who cost money.” And that’s what matters most (to the suits) (in the short-term). On paper, the game is still making profits, and so there’s little incentive to get rid of the people who are ostensibly in charge of the game while it’s making money and in fact bringing in more money per person!

You might say that this is kind of ridiculous and a clear obfuscation of what’s going on in favor of arbitrary metrics cooked to make things look better than they are. To that, I say: Welcome to investor reports.

Sad arbiter, not in snow

So the short version of what needs to happen in order for substantial changes is that Blizzard needs to undergo a substantial enough downturn in revenue that the current leadership no longer looks like it’s the right set of people to steer the ship. But there’s a problem there, too, and that comes down to the people who are likely to be promoted into the position even if the current leadership exits.

Let’s take Ion Hazzikostas as an obvious example. Many of the things that are seen as the design woes of modern WoW (a marked focus on progression and random loot, borrowed power systems, extreme randomness, player grind mechanics) are at least a partial if not direct result of Hazzikostas being in charge. You could write plenty on the man’s apparent design philosophy, what he considers fun, and what influence that has on the game’s overall design priorities.

It’s easy to look at Hazzikostas and see him as the head of the snake, so to speak. I’ve seen a number of people unhappy with the current state of the game do exactly that and suggest that moving him to some other project would be the big shot in the arm that WoW needs, and believe me, I understand it. It’s no secret that I am not a fan of his apparent design philosophy.

Quick check, though: Why would you assume that the next person to take his job would be any better at it?

I completely get the idea that maybe you see him as the heart of the problem and that’s defensible. The buck stops there, and he’s the one who signs off on decisions and narrative directions; that’s all a fine way to frame things. But the people who work directly under him and bring him decisions to sign off on are not trying desperately to design some sort of lateral progression paradise with housing and robust customization and deterministic loot and, oh, let’s say playable robots. You know, to entice me specifically.

If he left the team, the odds are good his replacement would not want to turn the clock back to Wrath of the Lich King. It’s more likely that it’d be a continuation of the current philosophy, just with someone different at the helm.

zzooooombie

Right now, WoW makes a lot of money for Blizzard. It’s definitely no longer seeing the kind of player numbers it did at the height of its popularity, but this is not a money-losing venture for Blizzard, especially since WoW Classic is continuing to overperform. And while I have no doubt that the studio would really like to have back the player numbers the retail game once had, all of that is secondary to the money that’s coming in.

Besides, even if you could get back those numbers, would that actually change all that much? The numbers tell you less than the profit margins, and those seem to be doing fine. Sure, you can point to all sorts of metrics where the game is doing worse, and you can note that this is building a house of cards wherein it doesn’t take a whole lot to make the whole thing collapse, but none of these facts are actually novel or unknown to the people making the game.

I think that alone should be a sobering thought. These systems that get so much loathing, like borrowed power, are genuinely what the designers seem to believe players want and the best way to give people a fun experience in the game. If you’re anything like me that’s kind of skin-crawling because it means either that none of the volumes of feedback about disliking these systems reaches the ears of those making decisions… or it reaches them and they’re just sure it’s wrong.

If profits suddenly tanked, of course, there would almost certainly be some major changes. But the big problem with “some changes” is that there’s no sure-fire way to be sure what those changes might be. They might make things better or they might just keep going down the exact same road as the game’s current design ethos, just with a different name on the top.

So what would it take for some major changes in WoW? A major financial hit. But what would it take for those changes to ripple into the actual design philosophy? A much more involved purge and revamping of the current development structure, one that would be resisted at every level and seems unlikely to happen any time soon.

I told you it was kind of depressing.

As one last aside, if you’d like to come into the comments and say that actually you are happy with the current state of the game any you like everything about it, congratulations! You must be having a grand old time. How’s your friend list looking these days? I hope it feels robust.

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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