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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kjempff

Changes and corrections are way too late. WoW can not be fixed. Let it be what it has become, harvest the progression server players for the next 10 years and let it die when it is no longer making money.
You can’t ask the same cooks to create better food, so change has to come from the outside. Maybe, Blizzard can then find back to what they used to do well, copy others ideas and refine them into polished products.

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Khrome

If WoW were to suffer a major financial hit at this point in time, i suspect Blizzard would go apeshit on F2P instead to promote the game and be able to sell more via the cash shop.

Given the tendency of less players = more money that seems to be a more logical development, as this way they remove the spending cap per player and remove a barrier of entry which also seems likely to not generate the revenue that it once used to for the game.

If the game were to do better, they would see this as a sign that content droughts and system-focused, borrowed power expansions are the way to go.

No, the only way WoW improves is if someone inside Blizzard dares to actually improve it, and somehow i don’t see that happening.

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Neowolf2

I think it would take the sale of the IP to another company. This would probably only happen in extremis.

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William Sims Bainbridge

We can imagine a very different kind of limited PvP progression, namely the disintegration and reorganization of the original cultures, in a series of stages that produce interesting chaos. In the Horde, there has long been dynamic tension between Orcs and Trolls. Suppose the Tauren got disgusted with them both and collaborated with the Night Elves who left the alliance to form an Elune-worship culture. Suppose the Dwarves got fed up with the silly Gnomes and allied themselves with the equally technical Blood Elves. The Gnomes might join with the Undead. The Pandarens could re-combine and seize Northrend. Sorry Draenei, global warming is flooding your territory. Oh, and some lost Hobbits just arrived in Stormwind, thinking it was Rivendell.

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texyFX

retail is Elitits Jerks paradise, as Hazzikostas employed many of them. their expertise may excel at encounter and class design, balancing, but wont ever understand any casual mentality.

retail is designed for nerds (SIM YOSELF), with some collectibles for casuals. never in WoWs history boosting was so prominent and omnipresent (addon Global Ignore is account-wide btw).

obv. Elitists/pro gamers cant design game-systems nor satisfying reward structures and not even simple, but fun game-play loops, as their focus is a very niche minority of the game. their perspective is simply to elitist, as the history of sub volumes decline indicates. cuz there is a very causal relation (if not causation) between constant sub drops since Cata and (the responsible) game-systems.

ofc marketing (department) forced some additional monetisation layers. but at least euro-american acceptance for free-to-play monetisation is narrowly limited. although this additional revenue compensated the sub drops, the breaking point is close, cuz the playerbase wont tolerate Neverwinter, BDO etc. monetisation, as they rnt considered userfriendly, but predatory. predatory doesnt fit a company advertising family-and-friends-gameplay…

the solo discharge of Hazzikostas likely wouldnt change much, and even if the whole team would be re-structured focussed on their strengths, any change would require some arrangement time due to development cycle.
but the sooner this changes happens, the more likely is the return of the lost playerbase – as classic proves the demand for the almost forgotten and then within SL misinterpreted highlights of WoW.

a change in design-philosophy is required, which is a change in mind which obviously is NOT THE TABLE.

to skip the psycho-analytical essay on the Elitist mindset, the needed change requires a more lateral, or at least more accessible progression and much more individualisation options up on to housing. (imagine Ion furnishing his personal Shaman Hut in the Barrens with some boar skins?)
but those wont suffice, WoW needs some real innovention to evolve further than borrowed power, x-pac features and collectibles.
something wild, something naughty, something magical…

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SmiteDoctor

I’m not having a bad time, if I get bored I stop and do something else; but then any other game I’ll usually only play for 1 to 2 hours a day as well.

Maybe you all might enjoy WoW if you didn’t treat it like a job, just put what your willing to put into it and move on to something else until you’re ready to come back.

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Bruno Brito

Maybe you all might enjoy WoW if you didn’t treat it like a job, just put what your willing to put into it and move on to something else until you’re ready to come back.

Maybe i want to play WoW doing different things without logging off. It’s sad to pretend this is all the game can be.

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Utakata

I think the biggest thing that needs to change is removing Raiding/Mythics/Rated PvP from the focus of the game, and let those be stand alones instead. Rather direct the attention to the story, questing, daily activities, crafting, non-competitive dungeons, etc…

…you know what every player does everyday. And be rewarded well to make it worth it. This is nothing new from me, I’ve been saying this in varying degrees since Vanilla. >.<

One thing though…

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

…what if they replaced him with Naoki Yoshida though? o.O

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SmiteDoctor

Just because the bleeding edge end game is focused there doesn’t mean you have to be. I just do the quests, Heroic 5s, and Raid Finder; if I get bored I do something else.

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Utakata

That end game edge is not very bleeding though. And more would be more if they didn’t seem to coerce everyone into it.

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SmiteDoctor

Being coerced is a 2 way street though, you can choose not to be coerced like I do.

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Utakata

Err…coercion doesn’t work that way. Also see: Make them an offer they can’t really refuse.

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Kickstarter Donor
Estranged

To boil it down:

I doubt they can recover and once again give that WotLK experience. Games are just like rock bands, they put out their best material when young- full of piss and vinegar. Older rockers are off drugs and interested in soccer practice.

There needs to be a WoW 2, with a different perspective. New blood.

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SmiteDoctor

Activision has been making the same game for 20 years with annual facelifts.

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Kickstarter Donor
Estranged

And the plastic surgery went wrong.

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Lucky Jinx

The original vision is gone if there ever was one. Ion is clueless; the entire dev team is pretty clueless. It’s amazing that WoW has retained its popularity this far, but sooner or later, without proper goals and ways, it will wither. The same old, same old, does not work anymore. One month spikes at expansion launches are not working anymore. How to keep people playing?

– Graphical look of new lands is pretty nice. Keep at that, but also maybe update Azeroth itself. It’s expensive, but works with added content. Add something to finally heal Azeroth to somewhat what it was.

– Abandon “borrowed powers”. Either give something to a class/spec or don’t. Do not lend a hand and then take it away as the next expansion rolls out. This is one of the most dumbest, time-consuming (devs/players) things there is.

– Come up with something that lasts over expansions! Current path only creates more and more tired/frustrated players, who will seek out a new game.

– The fan base is there… Jesus, just grab it and give them a bone! You can keep the hamster wheel, but add something that stretches over expansions and gives those who have been playing for freaking 16 years can be proud of (housing).

WoW has lost all long-term design and only aims for short-term goals. It doesn’t work. May give a bump here and there, but in the long run– nope. Same shit over and over again.

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Kickstarter Donor
Louie

Not going months and months and months without adding anything probably wouldn’t hurt either. I know XIV’s monthly update cadence does a lot to keep me playing it consistently. WoW’s content droughts are pretty silly when another subscription MMO has proven it can pump out content on a consistent basis.

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Kickstarter Donor
Louie

Not sure why I wrote monthly, it’s every 3.5 months. Point still stands though

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Mallus

WoW retains it’s popularity because people have invested 15 years of their lives into it. If not for that it would already be dead…

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Wilhelm Arcturus

The caveat to any doom scenario about WoW is that it is blindingly obvious from how they present the Blizz portfolio at the quarterly financial releases is that WoW is about all that makes them relevant financially right now. Lose that and Bobby the Tick will just feel the need to impose his will on the Azeroth division all the more so. And if you think that leads to a better, more fulfilling WoW experience… well, we’re just going to disagree.

Some people don’t seem to realize that fulfillment of their “burn it all down” wishes leaves them with naught but ashes and regret.

Andy McAdams
Staff
Kickstarter Donor
Loyal Patron
Andy McAdams

The “burn it all down” approach also makes the assumption that what we would get to replace it would be better — which, this is the same company that launched a game called “Best Fiends” on mobile that was the a result of a typo that no one noticed until too late (at least, that’s my take on it)

Better is not a guarantee – that goes double for ATVI