So in April last year, I wrote a whole article about how World of Warcraft’s development team was taking a gigantic misstep when it came to its plan to completely avoid having the dungeon finder in WoW Classic. Some people were angry about that choice, some people were happy that gatekeeping would live on, and some people (me, at least) were just laughing at a terrible decision that was going to be an unforced error made for basically no reason.
And now, to my not-particular-shock, that decision is being reversed very quietly. Which is actually even funnier now.
Now, the outraged people who were enjoying a real nice gated community up until now are still up in arms about this feature being added, and don’t get me wrong, I will have more than a few things to say about that. But I think that first and foremost that it’s important to frame this as what it actually is, and that is a gigantic about-face that puts the lie to a whole lot of prior development claims.
Make no mistake, when Blizzard first announced that Wrath of the Lich King Classic was going to be a thing, the people in charge could not say loudly enough that there would be no dungeon finder. It’s still on the splash page, inaccurate date of addition and all. There is no mention of holding it back until the appropriate patch, which would still have been dumb but would at least minimize the current amount of egg on faces. No, it’s worn like a badge of pride, the idea that Blizzard would be once again going back on #nochanges and would refuse to add this popular Wrath feature because a vocal minority demanded it never get added.
Like, remember Brian Birmingham proudly going on Twitter saying to people “nope, we’re never adding it, sorry you’re mad about it but we’re right”? We all remember when this happened, right?
Of course, we also remember what happened to Brian Birmingham.
If there had actually been a plan to eventually add the dungeon finder, none of that would have been necessary. This was not the plan. It became the plan only now, at best as something the team held in reserve as a “break glass in case of emergency” device and at worst as something that is literally being rushed out in a hurry. My personal thinking is that this was genuinely the result of someone thinking, “If we remove it here, then we can remove it in retail, too, instead of just making it mostly pointless.”
But you also know it’s a bad idea because it’s not going to fix the actual problems.
WoW Classic right now is facing several problems. The first is that it doesn’t really have a clear place to go after this, which I’ve alluded to multiple times; Cataclysm does not seem like a viable next destination, but actually developing more content is also what the developers don’t seem to want to do. The second is that it turns out this is no longer a big drive for people, and a big part of that is… the fact that this community has developed into an elitist gatekeeping space.
As I’ve said before, this doesn’t mean that every single person who is playing the game right now wants to be a gatekeeping snot; it just means that this is the majority. It is self-selecting. This is who has been served, and the developers have further reinforced that at every turn. Horror stories like being kicked out of groups for leveling dungeons for not having BiS Sunwell gear at the expansion launch may not be entirely universal, but they’re common enough that we’ve all heard them.
Oh, sure, there are people who find fun to be had in the margins who in no way subscribe to this philosophy. No player group is a monolith. But the problem with trying to carve out a space when the designers and the majority of players are opposed to you is that you are going to hit roadblocks and boundaries, places where you have nowhere to go. And when you hit that point, some member of your enclave are going to leave… and that’s going to become a larger number over time.
But there’s a third problem as well, and that’s told in the shrinking player numbers. Blizzard has long worked from a playbook for how to bolster its revenue with an ever-shrinking number of players by essentially charging more for the same product. It’s clearly been working for years now as the studio has tried to keep WoW profitable even as it loses players, and let’s not forget that was the entire motivation behind the whole switch from subscribers to MAUs. But it turns out that not only does WoW Classic not really want to play ball with that business model, it’s also actively hostile to new players in the first place.
It makes sense that the developers would include the dungeon finder because the structural incentives that made it a good idea in the first place are still there now. The problem is that there’s not a whole lot of appeal to draw in new players who are dissatisfied with the game.
In our previous article, I argued that Blizzard would have to work overtime in order to draw back players who clocked out as soon as they were told there would be no dungeon finder. That hasn’t changed. Players who weren’t going to play after that are unlikely to suddenly change their minds, especially when they remember that Blizzard was gleeful at treating them and their playstyle with utter contempt up until now when it had no other financial choice. Those who played anyway to get something out of their system like remembering the Death Knight starter rush have already gotten that, so they won’t be back either.
That’s not to say that these structural issues aren’t there and in need of solving; the problem is that this doesn’t solve those problems. WoW Classic very clearly established itself, time and again, as a game where Blizzard was saying both quietly and loudly that this isn’t for you darn casuals. Never mind how meaningless that term is, the point is that we know who we want in our game, and it isn’t you. You remember the game being harder? Here, let us quietly ship an entire new server ruleset to cater to that false sense memory. You disliked something that you want to believe ruined the game because suddenly people didn’t have to cater to you simply because they need a tank and they’ve been looking for one for half an hour and you’re present? It’s gone!
Except that oh, wait, it turns out you can’t actually build a working game with new players coming in that way. It’s almost counterproductive, and it’s apparently running out of steam. But that’s all right, we can just completely reverse course and now all the people who we didn’t want around will come flocking back, right? Everyone who enjoyed Wrath of the Lich King will definitely ignore us saying that we didn’t want most of them around because who doesn’t want to play an old game kinda like how they remember it with an even worse community?
Unfortunately, y’know, we’ve got receipts. Third era of development for WoW, super hype about where this is going.