Friday, February 13, 2009

Transitioning WoW to Retention Mode

Jeff Kaplan, a.k.a. Tigole, one of the most senior developers of WoW, is leaving the team to move to Blizzard's Mystery Fourth Project (an unannounced MMORPG that will be a new franchise).

The move makes a certain amount of sense. Starcraft II will probably make it out the door in 2009, we're likely to see a WoW expansion and DIII in 2010 (no way Blizzard gets 3 content patches and another WoW expansion out this year), and that would leave 2011 wide open for the Mystery Fourth Project. This is the window of time in which bringing their best people on board the MFP team can help it be ready to go in two years. However, I think there's more to this story than the farewell post lets on.

How will this impact WoW?
In terms of impact on WoW, based on the timing, I suspect that most of the big picture, ground level work that would actually land on Tigole's desk for the rest of the three planned patches of the Wrath era is done.

With all the information on patch 3.1 that's being released, it could hit the PTR's any minute now, so it's beyond the point where senior designers are messing around with it. While the debuggers and balance testers are hacking away at 3.1, the zone designers, coders, etc have presumably move on to building the stuff that was already outlined for patch 3.2. That means that Tigole has presumably been free to work on making the outline for 3.3. Having him move midway through that process would be unduly disruptive, and thus my theory that it's actually, for the most part, finished.

WoW is kind of at the end of a story arc. As Fedaykin and I were discussing in the comments yesterday, TBC and Wrath had villians that needed no introduction. Illidan and Arthas were marquis characters from Warcraft III and we didn't need a big buildup to prepare the community for trekking up to the frozen north to fight some guy who hasn't bothered us for four years. They showed up at our doorsteps one patch day and that was enough. Whatever we face going forward, it's going to be much less prominent in the WoW lore. (I'm now speculating that the mystery 3.2 patch, which Blizzard refused to discuss in detail, sets up the foe for the next expansion, perhaps somehow related to the war of the dragonflights.) This might be the kind of time for someone more senior like Tigole to step aside and let the new kids run the next major arc.

The business side of things
Though I'm sure that there is some country somewhere in the world where WoW has yet to launch that could add some new market share, I suspect that WoW's biggest potential market in the years ahead is among FORMER WoW players. When Blizzard launches the latest bi-annual megapatch, they want to be absolutely sure that there's something for everyone, with a special focus on features that would make former players think that things that used to annoy them have improved. To that end, we're seeing development focus more on features the fans want, like dual specs and ingame outfit switchers and swimming ground mounts.

Speaking of the patch cycle, we also have some unusually candid discussion of the game's development schedule. I've previously called this the "800 lb content gorilla" in the room that Blizzard previously hasn't liked to mention, so that represents a real shift. Blizzard appears to be officially saying that the small, relatively frequent (every month or two) patches of the game's early years were possible because they had stuff that they had started but not finished in time for launch. (Clearly, this didn't hurt them in the way that it has hurt more recent games, because they were still the best on the market at the time.) The six months per patch of the TBC era is, Blizzard claims, the rate at which they can generate completely new content.

Part of this may be a matter of deliberately trying to downplay/lower expectations in the face of a community that has been beginning to grumble about the (short) length of the current expansion. On the other hand, this whole process may also mark a shift to a more regimented patch/expansion cycle. Patch a total of three times, every 5-6 months, launch the next expansion at the end of the fourth window, rinse and repeat as long as people are willing to pay.

That's not necessarily a bad thing for players, or, for that matter, for competing games trying to figure out when to launch (hint: I wouldn't pick two months before the next WoW expansion if I were you). It does mean that players are going to either need to make their own fun in-game with their friends (e.g. guild social events) or be prepared to spend some of their gaming time in other games. The latter is fine by me - there are a fair number of other games on the market these days - and it's probably fine by Blizzard. They literally can't create content fast enough to retain everyone, and they're still going to make a fair chunk of cash off people who are subscribed for a few months after each content patch.

Looking back, this seemingly minor announcement may be a bigger milestone in the life of WoW than Blizzard would like to admit in public. If I'm right, well, it's probably bad news for those of you who would like the game to be something different than what it is today (such as something that it was in years past). For those of us who are happy with the game as it is, perhaps with the occasional vacation to other far-off lands of adventure, more of the same is not necessarily a bad thing.


DeftyJames said...

"WoW is kind of at the end of a story arc. As Fedaykin and I were discussing in the comments yesterday, TBC and Wrath had villians that needed no introduction."

That's an insight that I failed to grasp. In fact, it has lead me to understand exactly the issues that I have with WoW and why, for example, I didn't find LOTRO any more appealing when I tried it.

I claimed yesterday that I thought that WoW had no bones and now I see that's untrue; it's bones are in its *lore*.

What I see is that subconsciously I have been looking at MMOs through the lens of the old pen and paper RPGs. While their class structure was basically fixed, the lore was in a constant state of development. Rule updates were very infrequent, and even when they happened they were optional. This situation is the inverse of WoW, where the lore is basically fixed and the class structure is what is in the constant state of development.

It's very interesting. This post has given me a great deal to think about.

Green Armadillo said...

@DJ: It's funny you mention the pen and paper class structure - if I'm in a bookstore and I decide to skim the rulebook for an RPG, the first thing I page through it for is the class section. The abilities that are given to player characters define what the game is actually about. Is the character sheet loaded down with special abilities for use in combat, or creative ways to avoid conflict? These are, as you say, the "bones" of the setting on which the story will be built. Maybe your game master will choose to use a hack and slash setting to tell a story of diplomatic intrigue, but often you'd be better off using a ruleset that focuses on that type of gameplay.

When I'm checking out a new MMORPG, I make a similar beeline for the class abilities list, but I'm looking for slightly different reasons. I already know, in at least broad terms, what the the game is about. I'm going to be doing some form of solo DPS to adventure in a world built around lore (which I may know - WoW and LOTRO - or have no knowledge of - EQ). The class abilities flesh out the specifics rather than the big picture (e.g. what role do I take when I team up with other players). Perhaps that's why I'm more okay with having those abilities tweaked from patch to patch (and now perhaps as often as every trip to town).

Anonymous said...

It's funny that I haven't really heard anyone discuss this subject before, but I agree that what I look at most when it comes to MMOs, etc., are the classes. Basically, does the game offer one or more character classes that I think would be a lot of fun to play?

I actually think WAR did poorly in this regard. My highest character was a (fire mage, forgot name), which is a cross between a WoW fire Mage and a WoW Warlock. Pet classes seem really lame in WAR. A melee class that only uses polearms and can only have one kind of pet? That seemed years behind what WoW offered at launch.

Same with LOTRO - no classes sounded really cool to me. I played a free trial for maybe 20 minutes. Conan did a lot better on this front.

The funny thing to me is that WoW seems to offer a lot of classes that we already know from other areas of fantasy, and only a few that are innovative. Warriors, Paladins, Rogues, Mages, Priests...those are all pretty much archetypal character classes. Hunters are basically D&D Rangers, with a focus on ranged weapons and pets (both of which are already inherent to the Ranger class). Druids and Warlocks are fairly creative interpretations of existing ideas. Imho Shaman and DK are the most origninal classes, and if I understand the history of the Shaman correctly, they are the two most recently developed classes.

Lore is good, art is important, but the classes make or break the game for me.


Fish said...

Is it too much to hope for a Deathwing appearance in the next expansion? I'm not a raider by any stretch but an encounter or 2 involving him would be EPIC.

That new blizzard MMO is going to have to be pretty amazing if SWTOR lives up to its potential

Green Armadillo said...

@Fed: WoW classes do tend to be archetypal, but they also have a lot of spec diversity compared to other MMO's. In the post-WoW era, everyone gets some method to do enough DPS to solo or do some low level of DPS when there are already enough tanks/healers/etc in the group. It's much much less common to have classes that can be competitive at two or even all three of the holy trinity class roles. Even within a pure DPS class, you can see huge variation in the way the class is played depending on what spec they are using - take Locks, who can focus on DOT's, pets, or nuking, almost like three separate DPS classes.

@Fish: Deathwing was on my list of predictions for a major clash of the Dragonflights, and I think he would be a good fit for the next expansion. I think that going with an underwater Maelstrom expansion might seem too derivative of the current stuff, and I'm not sure that either Deathwing alone or the Emerald Nightmare alone would be enough to sell an expansion. (Then again, perhaps the nightmare, and the Infinite Dragonflight, actually ARE working for Deathwing already?)