WoW Factor: World of Warcraft’s content problems aren’t about quantity

Looking closer.

So recently, we asked about what World of Warcraft could do to draw back players that it had lost. To be clear, that’s a lot of players. The game has lost more players than most MMOs ever get. Inevitably, when we discuss this topic, someone will reply with something to the effect of, “I don’t see what casual players are complaining about, there’s more casual content in the game than ever!” I think this reaction demonstrates a serious misunderstanding about how video games, reward structures, and incentives work – so much that sometimes I wonder whether it’s satire.

Yes, if you lay it out end-to-end, you could make a case that WoW has a lot of casual content. But that is kind of a ridiculous metric because that’s not how anyone engages in anything. It’d be like buying a video game because it promises you the largest possible number of boss fights and then acting like Shadow of the Colossus is lacking since it has only a dozen such fights despite those being the entire point of the game. So let’s talk about this casual content, and before we do that, let’s puncture a lie – because it’s really not “casual” content we’re talking about anyway.

I’ve talked before about how “casual” as a term is basically meaningless at this point, and I honestly feel that allowing a very specific segment of WoW’s community to frame it as if this is “hardcore vs. casual” debate is in and of itself a deflection of real issues. What we are really talking about is whether WoW should be a game with rigid social hierarchy and aggressive social dependency or one that’s open to all players to enjoy on their own terms… and if you belong to a reasonably sized guild, you are probably completely unaware of the difference.

Seriously, if your guild is sizable enough to regularly do Heroic raid runs – much less Mythic – you probably have enough people on that throwing together four other people to do a Mythic+ dungeon is the work of a few minutes at most. This means that you have little realistic idea what the gameplay is like outside of that bubble. You are doubtlessly aware of the broad strokes, but you do not actually have the experience of not having a group with some reliability and thus are not really clear on how aggressive the social dependency of the game really is.

Or, to put it more simply, you might think, “I’m pretty casual; I only play an hour or two most nights.” But you’re only playing an hour or two every night with most of the social dependency already handled. If you didn’t have that group or that group collapsed? Suddenly that hour of play time may not even be enough to get a single Mythic+ run started, much less completed.

And that, in and of itself, plays into the hands of the enfranchised. By framing it as “casual vs. hardcore” vs. the aforementioned split, it allows the framer to argue past the point. “I’m pretty casual and I can still do all this stuff; therefore, there’s no problem.”

But even if you ignore all of that – and we shouldn’t – there’s also the fact that WoW does not actually have a lot of casual content unless you are already happy with that social dependency split. Unless you accept the state of the game as somehow desirable, the content in the game that does not require social dependency is pretty much irrelevant.

Why? Because it’s pointless. And rather than poke at obvious whipping boys like Island Expeditions or Torghast, I’m going to look at a much more reasonable bit of content that is utterly pointless: Heroic Dungeons.

Sure, all of the dungeons you’re going to have in the game for a Heroic run are likely added at the start of the expansion and never expanded upon, but that’s secondary to the fact that Heroic Dungeons are pointless. They drop gear… randomly, and it’s almost immediately outclassed, even by the open world. You aren’t working toward anything. In modern WoW, you don’t get much out of the dungeon beyond saying, “Well, I completed it.” So… why are you doing it?

At this point, Heroic Dungeons exist to have a content level that’s theoretically higher than normal, but they serve no actual function in the gameloop. They’re content that’s there, but the reality is that the game’s meta is built around WoW’s competitive dungeon speedruns. And if you’ve followed my work over the years, you’ll know that I love speedrunning,┬ábut it shouldn’t be the only way to engage with a game. Especially not when, again, it’s gated by aggressive social dependency.

This means that it does not actually matter how many Heroic Dungeons there are in the game at any given time. It could be eight. It could be 20. The number is irrelevant because the content is irrelevant. If you aren’t working toward something, if you don’t have a reward waiting for you, what is the point? Especially in a game that is entirely built upon that sense of increasing power?

“Oh, stop being greedy, this is supposed to be about having fun!” Well, you already know that’s a lie. After all, if it were just about having fun, why would you care if Mythic+ awarded no more or better gear than Heroics? Aren’t you having fun with those runs? Wasn’t that the point?

Video games are about having fun. Getting rewards is fun. Making progress is fun. It’s not a “one or the other” situation; it’s both. And no matter what those served by the current aggressive social dependency believe, so long as the content not being gated behind that dependency is basically a dead end in terms of reward, it doesn’t matter how much of it there might be. You could bring back every forgotten bit of casual content and make it all soloable and it wouldn’t matter in the least if it all rewarded quest greens.

And that’s neglecting the even more important fact: A lot of what inevitably gets listed as “casual content” is basically “stuff you could do when you’re bored.” Yes, there are old raids you can run through solo for appearances. But that’s not content; that’s putting a few minutes into hitting a slot machine and seeing what comes out. By that same logic, an empty room is casual content because you can sit in there and imagine all sorts of stuff. A deck of playing cards and a hat is casual content because you can throw the cards into the hat.

You could make a game out of it! See how many cards you can get into the hat in a row. Then, try to beat that record!

WoW’s fundamental problem is actually pretty simple to understand. It wants to maintain a hierarchical approach of social dependency despite initially becoming wildly popular on the back of lightening that dependency up as players perceived it. It has steadily backslid on the things that it did well… and in the process it’s lost a truly absurd number of players. And it tracks with why its most adamant modern supporters continue to insist that nothing is wrong and that the real problems are being caused by people pointing out that there’s a problem.

After all, they’ve got the social dependency sorted. They get to be the Haves lording it over the Have Nots, and they get to frame the problem as “what do you mean there’s nothing to do, look at this list of things you can do” as if that serves as a meaningful rejoinder. And then the number of players keeps going down, and they have to pretend that this is somehow inevitable (it’s not) or something that Blizzard cannot meaningfully address (it can).

It is, in a word, tedious. But worse, it’s slowly bleeding the game.

War never changes, but World of Warcraft does, with almost two decades 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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