All right. Yes, I know that World of Warcraft is finally releasing its first major patch for Shadowlands on June 29th. That’s a thing to talk about. That should be a big deal. But I’m sorry, that somehow managed to be dwarfed this week by the fact that the developers made a hash out of my own usual rules about not discussing WoW and Final Fantasy XIV in the same breath by sending out a survey asking whether WoW players are likely to play Endwalker.
As I have already said before, this makes me laugh so hard that breathing is difficult.
Now, while that’s good for a pithy two-line comment and certainly has its appeal, there’s actually a fair bit more to say in this particular context. So while I certainly could just post that Tidus laughter clip from Final Fantasy X over and over to fill out the requisite content length, I’ve decided not to do that both because there’s stuff to talk about and Bree said that I wasn’t allowed to do that. So let’s talk about why this is unusual… and why I’d like to hope it has an impact but I severely doubt it will.
However, to start things off, let me get this out of my system.
Ahh, that feels nice. Where were we? Oh, right, the survey.
Here’s the important thing to note, first and foremost: This is actually not an unusual thing for most companies. Asking about competitors is pretty much standard business operations. It gives you an idea of how much your existing audience is planning to stick around through other major releases and lets you kind of poll your audience to see whether things are going well or not.
What is unusual is that Blizzard doing this. That’s because Blizzard has, for a very long time, given the appearance that it believes that the MMO industry consists chiefly of itself and then a large number of also-rans. And, well… that’s not working any longer.
There’s a great article from Chris Sims about what he calls “the problem” when it comes to Marvel Comics and DC Comics, basically premised on the idea that for a very long time DC Comics had a very solid model. Either it bought out its rivals or just crushed them in sales. The resurgence of Marvel changed everything, as the company had a rival that couldn’t be treated either way.
WoW has, for a very long time, occupied a similar place. It consistently had so many subscribers that it could just outmass its opposition into irrelevance, and when the studio actually needed to bother paying attention to a rival, it could do so first and foremost by just adapting whatever was going to make that game unique. Couple that with a few years when everyone was trying to just be WoW again (and see my article about trend-chasing for why that doesn’t work) and it was easy for Blizzard to get used to the idea that, well… there are no other games.
Obviously, the field is not just WoW and FFXIV. But FFXIV has specifically taken aim at a lot of the same things that WoW has traditionally done well. I’ve argued before that spiritually, a lot of what makes FFXIV good is that it fundamentally serves as a sequel to Wrath of the Lich King that didn’t start backsliding into exclusionary gatekeeping with Cataclysm, and while the comparison isn’t 1:1, it’s a useful starting point for understanding why this game has popped on Blizzard’s radar.
All of this is unusual for Blizzard because it means that for the first time, someone is scared enough that another game is eating into what Blizzard has traditionally done best. It’s not that the survey would be bizarre coming from anyone else because it wouldn’t; the key takeaway here is that the survey appears to recognize a notable discontent within Blizzard’s core audience.
Unfortunately, there are two big hurdles to really having this survey do anything. The first is time, and the second is willingness.
I’ve talked at length about the problems that WoW has at this point, and I’ve been accused on more than one occasion of being a fan of one game being forced to write about both of them. This would be what the girls call “a lie.” I love WoW. I have loved this game since it launched. And this is one of the many reasons I have basically made it personal policy to not talk about FFXIV and WoW at the same time: because I don’t need to mention the former to point out all of the things the latter is doing wrong.
The lack of content for players who aren’t pushing M+ or high-end raiding. The discarded systems. The lack of meaningful crafting. The lack of non-apocalyptic storytelling. The inconsistent writing. The poor character development. The lack of deterministic gear. The borrowed power. I could go on, but that’s just a quick top-level summary, and I’m still missing things that are worth bringing up.
Here’s the thing: WoW cannot fix those problems before Endwalker. I mean that in a very literal sense. There is not enough time left for development to fix all of that even if the team is already knuckling down hard on patch 9.2: Make It Like Eorzea. At best we’re talking about next-expansion stuff, which is going to put a damper on any changes being made.
But the other problem is willingness. In order to accept a lot of the things that are drawing people to FFXIV over WoW at the moment, the current design team has to start with a very simple premise that the way the game has developed over the past several years has been wrong and is actively driving people away from enjoying and playing the game.
Now, if you watch any amount of content from the FFXIV developers, you know that saying “we made a mistake” is kind of a consistent refrain. Not that the developers are constantly screwing up, but just that there’s clearly a culture and structure in place where admitting to mistakes and trying to correct them is seen as not just realistic but normal. I’ve lost track of how many times Naoki Yoshida has apologized and taken responsibility for something players didn’t like, sometimes even things that neither he nor anyone else could have actually controlled.
But what’s the refrain been from Blizzard for years now? “You think you want it, but you don’t.” “Just keep playing.” “No, you’ll see once we hit launch, it’ll be good.” “You don’t understand, we need borrowed power in the game.” “Just accept what we told you, you’re playing it wrong.” “The real problem isn’t what you say is the problem, it’s this other issue.”
Players have been asking for a lot of this stuff for ages. I just said a few paragraphs ago that one of the reasons I avoid comparing the two is that it’s entirely possible to discuss WoW’s issues in-depth without having to point to some other game that’s doing all of this right. And it’s hard for me to believe that after all this time and all this asking, Blizzard is suddenly going to take this sign that people are upset and sit up and actually change course.
I’d love to be wrong, though. I’d be lying to say I’m hopeful. But I’d love to be proven wrong.