Massively Overthinking: What else could Blizzard do to fix World of Warcraft?

How did we get from rule-of-cool to raid-or-die?


Last time in Massively Overthinking, our writers and readers sure did have a lot of good ideas to fix New World that Amazon won’t listen to. Wanna do it again, this time for World of Warcraft?

Look, we all know World of Warcraft has hit the skids. It’s bleeding players. Blizzard itself is bleeding money. You may not like it or want to hear it, and I get it. Same here. But unlike whatever the heck Amazon is doing right now, Blizzard is actually at least putting on a show of listening to advice, for the first time in a very long time. The company famous for “you think you do, but you don’t” has been humbled by your wallet-voting, and now it’s finally doing things you’ve been asking for, like cross-faction play. Maybe it’s open to more. So let’s offer some up: What else, besides what’s already happening, could Blizzard do to fix WoW and make it the king again? What changes or reversions does it need to make it popular with you and the folks you game with?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): As a former WoW player (beta to Cataclysm) whose brother only went back for WoW Classic’s nostalgia, I’m not really sure what Blizzard can do to save the game after all the disappointment it’s accumulated. That being said, I can imagine a few very extreme ideas that could help rebuild the playerbase.

  1. Housing, at least Animal Crossing-style, if not Star Wars Galaxies or RIFT style – that is, something highly customizable but functional. I don’t just mean work benches; I mean furniture to sit in, PvP-flagged areas for player-made tournies, consignment shops with localized prices, that kind of thing. This would match…
  2. Territory control. I am not saying that the game should go full PvP. I am saying that devs should consider creating large maps for player alliances (not just guilds) to fight over. Cooldowns in at least some (if not all) areas would give PvE players not only changing access to content but possibly new towns to populate, maybe even contribute to, like rebuilding walls or donating food to keep NPC armies in tact. The outdoor battlegrounds were fun, but having only two sides on single servers was a huge problem. Player alliances are more mutable. Plus, they can help achieve…
  3. Player-based lore. Blizzard is huge. It hosts a ton of tournaments. Why not tie territory control to game lore? Maybe have a kind of instanced-ladder system to set alliances against each other, and tie the outcomes of various seasons to how things play out, similar to how multiple servers in Asheron’s Call’s events would be tallied together and then tied up to determine how the story arc would move forward.

Together, this would create more customization for players, more gameplay options, larger but more meaningful PvP, and even socialization opportunities, as players could discuss the success of various alliances and its players. That alone could help give RPers more fodder for their storylines, as perhaps their house might suddenly be in enemy territory (still accessible though, just with an antagonistic new regime).

But it won’t happen because WoW largely still looks like a raiding game to those of us who stopped playing it and moved on to greener pastures.

Andy McAdams: Oh, I have many, many strong opinions here. I’ll try to prioritize.

Stop pretending gear is a measure of progression. It’s not, and it hasn’t been for a long time. The increasing reliance on programmatically generated gear like “The Blank of Extreme Blankity Blank” that then comes in equally uninspired flavors like “Titanforged The Blank of Extreme Blankity Blank” (or whatever the label du jour Blizzard has come out to put lipstick on this particular wart) continues to reinforce the idea that gear doesn’t matter. No one cares about the gear, but everyone is obsessed with gearscore/ilvl and sparkly bits on the models. Hell, I can’t even tell you a contemporary legendary weapon because they are so generic and forgettable. Combined with gear that is increasingly BoP, the continual and persistent sidelining of crafted gear — it’s a pointless measure of progression. They just need to stop pretending that gear matters in this game at all, because they have done everything possible to ensure that gear is as forgettable and disposable as possible.

Blizzard needs to decide what kind of game WoW is. Does it want to be a lobby-based dungeon and raid instance game? Then commit. If it cares about the larger world and the virtual space – commit to it. It can’t continue to walk the middle road where it caters to the lobby-based raiders (who are, statistics show, the extreme minority in the game) while half-assing a virtual world that it ignores outside of whatever is current for the latest patch with the latest artificially time-gated content. Casual/non-hardcore players pay the bills for WoW, so if it wants to go big on just the raiders, it needs to acknowledge that is shoving away the majority of the playerbase and plan accordingly. Personally, I don’t believe there’s a market there, and I think WoW would wither, but at least it’d be upfront and honest.

WoW is actually one of the best positioned to make the metaverse a thing, as much as it’s become a marketing buzzword to manipulate funding from VCs who don’t know any better. Blizzard has 20 years of world there to make an honest-to-cthulu metaverse, but it won’t be able to do it if the company doesn’t let go of the idea that raiders are the only people who matter in WoW.

Player/guild housing. Seriously fam, why is this not a thing already? It builds stickiness in the game, creates low-intensity options of play, revitalizes the crafting scene, and opens up the opportunity for a ton of emergent gameplay. The number of /yell s I see in FFXIV for clubs in guild housing is awesome, and it would be awesome to see that in WoW. One of my favorite recent experiences in WoW was the Kirin Tor Bar Crawl (the virtual drunkenness that lead to real-life hangovers). Create the space for more of those kinds of experiences in the game.

More character customizations – there’s no reason not to continue to add this. There should be heaps of options.

Make the faction divide ideological not racial. The Alliance is all about rigidity and control, and the Horde is about radical individualism and being a free spirit. The factions are fun, but make them permeable and allow people to switch, and focus on the ideological differences as opposed to making the faction divide about race. From a DEI perspective, this is really awkward in our current world where WoW creates an environment of forced segregation.

I think that’s a good starting point. :-)

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): World of Warcraft’s problem has been a philosophy problem and attitude problem basically for the last decade. After Wrath, Blizzard responded to all the competition in the MMORPG market not by acknowledging and meeting the broad playerbase it had but by pivoting even further to a hardcore gearscore/raiding subset. Secondary systems, casual content, crafting, and PvP were deprioritized and often tossed out with the next expansion. When the game told those players it didn’t want them or their playstyles, they quite reasonably left for games that did, and Blizzard responded not by recognizing what it had done but by digging in its heels – it didn’t need those quitters anyway! Ten years of this, and Blizzard got away with it only by giving in to demands for Classic and wrecking its economy with legalized RMT, thereby keeping its finances in order even as it bled players. Now it can no longer balance the books that way.

But Activision and Microsoft want to see those MAUs going back up, not continuing their free-fall, so Blizzard needs to focus on acquisition. It can’t just keep flinging a content patch or two to a hungry playerbase. That would keep many of the endgame types who’ve kept it afloat the last decade, who’ve built their friend groups and identities on the game. But it’s lost casuals, builders, socialites, and PvPers, and even the nostalgia crowd is growing tired of Classic. It can try to appeal to people who’ve never played at all – kids and folks from other genres. Or it can try to reacquire WoWfugees, which is a tall order since MMO players tend to have long memories and plenty of virtual homes carved out in the years since. Would you voluntarily become emotionally and financially invested in a game whose studio already proved it would happily ditch you and your playstyle if it could get away with it?

I don’t trust the people leading WoW right now. I would love to see the game turn around for the sake of the genre, but I don’t have a single credible reason to believe that even the changes currently on deck are coming from a place of genuine understanding, that leadership has accepted its mistakes and is forging a new path with a renewed philosophy about how to rebuild the game and more importantly rebuild its playerbase. Even the dialogue around the cross-faction move and the community council fiasco tells me the team, or at least its leadership, is making moves only grudgingly and without self-reflection or apology.

WoW needs a lot. It needs bodies, it needs server balancing, it needs its non-raid systems restored and celebrated, it needs regular expansions, it needs consistency, it needs multiple content patches a year, it needs a team reshuffle, it needs new ideas, it needs constant two-way communication. It doesn’t have any of those things right now. But above all else, to fix WoW, Blizzard needs to fix itself, and I don’t just mean its apparently gross internal culture; I mean its side of the relationship with MMORPG gamers and the MMORPG genre, along with the top-down “the players are always wrong” philosophy that has informed the game’s leadership for the last many years. Announcing an expansion, announcing Wrath Classic, announcing cross-faction, heck even announcing housing? That’d be great and it needs to be done. But none of that cures the internal rot that got the studio here in the first place.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): I will preface this by saying that WoW has never hooked me, and I tried multiple times; I started with Wrath and stopped at Outlands, tried again with Mists, and tried one more time with Cata. It also should go without saying (but I am saying it anyway) that ABK needs to clean house and treat its employees right.

With all of that said, the first thing I would suggest is to be rid of the factional divide entirely. Eliot’s excellent WoW Factor about Blizzard’s grumpy half-measure was enlightening for someone on the outside looking in, and if the lackadaisical implementation of cross-faction stuff brought such cheer, imagine how happy players would be if it were removed wholesale.

The next thing I would suggest is to add more endgame things to do that don’t involve being at the top rungs of raiding. There truly can’t be just raids for things to do at cap. It’s high time to get creative. Or at the least afford options.

Above all else, I think the writing team needs to be refreshed somehow. Maybe have them play other MMORPGs like XIV and ESO to see how to do some story content. Again, I am not coming from a position as a WoW fan, but the overall story beats I am familiar with appear so disjointed and unhinged, without any clear plan or end goal, just a constant crescendo of threat size without any real motivation. To put it another way with regards to WoW stories: Try thinking small, maybe.

Colin Henry (@ChaosConstant): What could make WoW king again? Nothing. It hasn’t deserved that title in a long time, if it ever did. It has held that title for a long time out of sheer momentum, and that’s finally catching up to it.

What would it need to do to revive player interest? Well, clearly “more of the same” isn’t cutting it anymore, so it’s time for some fresh ideas. Talk to ex-players, find out why they left and what would bring them back. I’m not even going to list examples because I have no doubt that my fellow writers and the commenters will come up with more than I can. Your focus group is right here, Blizzard! Given that the current leadership has repeatedly shown little to no interest in listening to players, that probably means shaking up the leadership in a big way. This will kill two birds with one stone, given that the problematic leadership was the reason why many players recently quit anyway.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): So here’s the the dirty little secret: There isn’t actually one path to fixing World of Warcraft at this point. There are a lot of them. There are a lot of things the development team can do. It doesn’t require a community council in the first place; it just involves listening to years of feedback and implementing several features that players have been requesting for ages now. I could, no fooling, probably write three or four columns just putting forth different potential expansions that could all be hailed as salvation for the game, all of which follow the same basic principles of listening to feedback and addressing actual pain points with the game’s design.

The problem isn’t that there’s one secret or one trick or one thing or a magic bullet or anything of the sort. The problem is having people in charge who are insistent that they know better than all the feedback they’ve received about the issues the game has. And that’s the hard part to fix. Everything else? Remarkably easy.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): Do we have all day? No? Then I’ll get down to the essentials. WoW needs to get back to more of a spirit of fun, discovery, and a variety of progression types. Successful older expansions (Wrath and Legion especially) should be re-examined for lessons about what really connected with the playerbase and what’s been missing since.

It needs to kill borrowed power systems and commit to side systems that it can grow over time. Older abandoned or neutered systems — glyphs? — should be re-examined and brought back. Classes need more than just more levels — they need new talent rows and skills to match. The story needs to focus down from a “save the world/universe/multiverse” scale to something more relatable and understandable. Cross-faction guilds should definitely happen. Older expansions should be repurposed in some way to encourage current players to go back and do that content for actual rewards. Oh, and it definitely needs some actual housing, but that’s just me spitting into the wind at this point.

Sam Kash (@thesamkash): I’m one of the wild few in the world of MMO gamers that just never played WoW. So I don’t have a lot of things to say specifically that it’d need to improve. However, there are reasons I never played that it could find a way to address.

First and foremost is that the subscription model doesn’t work for me. It’s plain and simple a non-starter.

I know the character models are improving, but I can’t get over how dated the game looks. A lot of folks likely take issue with that. But I just think a game from 15 years ago looks like it, and I don’t like it.

Honestly, if I knew a new game were in the works that somehow allowed cosmetic transfers or some kind of linking between WoW and the new game (similar to the Hall of Monuments in Guild Wars to Guild Wars 2), that would be the most likely means of getting my attention. I just don’t think there is any other reasonable, feasible way I’d ever play WoW.

Tyler Edwards (blog): This is a tricky one. Blizzard has dug itself a pretty deep hole, so it’s going to be pretty hard to win people back, no matter what it does.

I think a lot of people will say the devs need to focus less on dungeons and raids to the exclusion of all else, and there’s some wisdom in that, but I don’t actually think it would be in WoW’s best interests to go too far down that path. By this point, WoW has pretty firmly established itself as The Dungeon and Raid Game, and I don’t think it would be wise to abandon that. It’s what the (remaining) fans expect, and WoW is good at it. Blizzard does genuinely make great instanced content.

What it can do is make instanced content a more approachable and equitable system. It can stop making mythic-only dungeons that exist only to exclude casual players and make lower difficulties rewarding again. There’s nothing wrong with giving the very best players the best rewards, but random heroics don’t need to be the half-abandoned vestigial limb they’ve become. Perhaps Blizzard could also make smaller group sizes possible — maybe use scaling tech to allow for three person dungeons, or five-player raids, or even solo instances.

I’ve been banging on about this since before I started working at MOP, but I do think it may be time to rethink the subscription, as well. It’s an outdated model that the large majority of gamers don’t want to bother with. I don’t think dropping the sub now in the middle of a content drought would do it any favors, but a transition to free- or buy-to-play coupled with a promising expansion launch may well be the best chance for a true renaissance for the game, in my opinion.

There are also some no-brainer fixes that are a long time coming. Drop the miserable Pathfinder grind and just let us use our mounts again, fully abandon the faction conflict, and get rid of the temporary borrowed power mechanics. I do recognize there are some legitimate design challenges borrowed power is meant to solve, but no one likes this solution. There has to be some persistence or nothing feels meaningful.

More than anything, though, Blizzard needs to focus on making the game fun again. I know that’s super vague, but what I mean is that the developers need to remember that not everything in the game needs to be a grind for power. Things can exist simply because they’re cool, not just as a way to test one’s skills or increase your character’s stats. It’s not even so much about specific features as it is about the underlying design philosophy. What’s always made Blizzard games special is its willingness to place the rule of cool first, and somewhere along the line WoW’s developers stopped doing that, at least when it comes to gameplay. Let the game be a game again. Stop worrying about abstract ideals of game design and just build something fun.

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!
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