There was a time that I lived next to a very small mall that’s tucked kind of out-of-the-way in a part of my state. It was already kind of a low-rent location even when I went there in middle school, but as time went by it only got more dead over time. By the time I went back a little after college it looked like a graveyard, full of empty shops and somehow still a Radio Shack. I don’t know why a Radio Shack was still there.
I was going to write a column about 10 things I don’t really like about World of Warcraft, since I had loosely done a series along those lines already, but the reality is that the majority of them come down to the fact that at least for someone like me who has been playing the game since launch, the problem is that World of Warcraft is a dead mall, to borrow the phrase from Folding Ideas. And that might seem a little bit weird, but if you think about it for a while… you start to feel it.
1. Most of the place is empty
The thing about a dead mall is that there are just places in the mall that are… gone. There are no stores there any more. No one goes into that wing of the building because for some reason America decided to build big indoor shopping areas that can’t serve any other purpose, and then when retail moved on, they were just… empty spaces. The lights are still on, and you’re allowed to go there, but there’s nothing to see there except places where something used to be.
If you don’t think that’s the case in WoW, go stop by Dalaran. Which version? It doesn’t matter. It’s the same either way. The lights are on. The vendors are there. And the streets are lined with absolutely nobody because why would anybody be there? You don’t need to hang around.
2. Even the populated places feel empty
“That’s hardly fair to compare an old expansion capital.” And to an extent, yes, it’s right. But you know what? I feel it even in the Dragon Isles. Valdrakken is clearly set up to be a capital hub city, and it’s not empty. I see people walking around. But… not many. The plural of “anecdote” may not be “data,” but I feel like I see fewer people there than I see in supposedly “dead” MMOs, and definitely fewer people than in, say, Lion’s Arch.
Some of that is no doubt the result of server fragmentation and the whole cross-realm thing. Sure. I’ll accept that. But that’s another notch in the dead mall vibe. Even the places that have people don’t have many people.
3. The people still here are in their own groups
Part of the reason why the space feels empty, of course, is that no one talks much… because no one has any need to do so. If you don’t already have a clique, you are out on your own, and that is a lonely place to be. A lot of people diagnose the problem incorrectly, blaming it on things like group finder, but the reality is that the problem is much simpler: The game is structured in such a way that you need a dedicated group of friends to play most of it, and without a new influx of people, the people who are playing already have those groups. They don’t need more people. As in a dead mall, they aren’t going to meet people but to spend time with their existing friends.
4. There’s a general sense of dread
There’s a feeling that’s hard to describe when you know a given retail space is just… not working any longer, but you still enjoy it. But you know it’s dying, and it gives everything you do there a general sense of temporary stays of execution. It’s going to slip away, but you don’t know quite when. Just… that it’s happening.
5. Nostalgia plays a big part
You might think that this is about WoW Classic or something, but not only is WoW Classic a palimpsest for the past (which is not actually nostalgia), it’s not actually what I’m talking about. The point is that no one is arriving any longer. New people just aren’t coming to the game in any substantial numbers at this point, which means that if you’re playing now, it’s at least partially because you played before and you want to recapture that feeling.
6. No one agrees what it’s supposed to be now
Of course, it’s a lot harder to recapture a feeling when you can’t easily establish what that feeling was in the first place. Therein lies part of the problem. The people who are still playing have a hard time agreeing on what the game should be now, other than just that it either isn’t doing it right or that it’s doing everything right but for some reason people don’t seem to be around as much any more. There’s a sense of competition, as if everything one group gets is taking something away from someone else, and there’s no sense of what shape the current thing should be.
7. Other places do what it used to do well
Malls are dying out for a simple reason: What they used to provide people in the form of a central shopping location is now found much more easily. If you want a shopping experience that’s not great but is at least convenient, you have online shopping, and if you want it in person right now, open plazas and big box stores probably have it in a faster format than hiking through a huge mall. Similarly, WoW suffers because a lot of the things it did well for a long time are now done better by other games… and in some cases it’s stopped even doing well at those things.
8. It keeps losing inertia
So why does a dead mall stay open? Well, because it’s just profitable enough to keep the lights on for a handful of retail stores compared to selling the land and razing the complex. Same principle. You know that it’s not being kept around because anyone really wants it specifically. This no longer feels like it’s anyone’s passion project, in no small part because the closest thing to passion in senior leadership is a passion for hawking a single playstyle that MMO players on the whole have largely rejected. But it makes a lot more money than shutting it down would, so it shuffles forward.
9. Leadership seems content to ride out the collapse
I want to cut a fine line here because often it’s hard to really tell if anything can be done for these spaces that are clearly no longer full of life. The moment was there, but it has passed, and now it may be that there’s nothing left but coasting downhill. But in these cases… whether or not something can be done is a secondary question because it seems patently obvious that nothing will be done. The people in charge will simply let everything slowly grind to a halt because they have no particular reason to do otherwise, and there’s no real incentive to change in a substantial fashion.
10. Even the music blows now
All right, maybe that’s a bit harsh, but you know that there’s a point when it just all turns to canned nonsense on a loop. Yes, I am talking about both dead malls and far too much of WoW at this point. I couldn’t even tell you what this expansion’s refresh of the main theme sounds like.