Friday, October 21, 2011

Blizzard's Panda Gambit

The major announcements of Blizzcon 2011 are in the books, and I made enough predictions over the course of four separate prediction posts that I was practically guaranteed to get some of the calls right by sheer force of numbers.  The reception amongst people who blog about how they are either no longer satisfied with - or indeed no longer playing - WoW has been predictably bad, though I will admit to a bit of surprise that this seems to have comprised almost my entire blogroll. 

Personally, perhaps because my expectations were so low, I am surprised by how much stuff the game is getting in the next expansion.  I'm even considering the year-long subscription deal, even though I hate long term subscriptions. 

Expansion basics
As I wrote in August when news of the trademark broke, in hindsight a new continent with five levels and neutral playable Pandaren were the obvious call - a return to the pre-Cataclysm formula.  I did not think we would see a new class in general, or the Brewmaster in particular due to the alcohol question, and I would have said that I did not expect a fifth tanking class if I had not already dismissed a new class.  Wrong on all counts (albeit with the Brewmaster as a spec of monks). 

While most melee DPS in WoW have some passive self-healing, a true melee-based healer is a niche that most other MMO's have and WoW does not.  Assuming they don't chicken out on the "no auto-attack" plan, a DDO-style martial arts class will fill a previously unoccupied melee DPS niche.  I still don't know what they're thinking about the tank tree, and they may not either, other than wanting the new shiny to be able to queue as tank to help queue times. 

Overall, this was precisely what people should have expected, other than people who are offended because they feel that the fictional pandas Blizzard created are inappropriate for the fictional world that Blizzard created and owns.  Personally, I see no reason to take the lore more seriously than its owners do.   

New features
What I really wasn't expecting was a number of new features.

Back in January, Tobold suggested the new expansion would have public quests, while my tongue-in-cheek response (and followup explanation) was that I thought WoW's dungeon finder could fill the niche for unscheduled group content.  Turns out we were both half right/wrong - the new PVE "Scenarios" will be set in world locations (similar to LOTRO skirmishes) but will be non-public and filled using the dungeon finder mechanic (and tuned to allow non-holy trinity groups to complete them). 

The Crab hinted at a talent revamp, and I correctly guessed that some key abilities would be automatically granted based on spec, but I didn't see the complete removal of trees coming.  Realistically, I think there will still be optimal specs in the new "six talent points at level 90" system, but I won't miss having to pick between interesting abilities and passive DPS. 

And then we have the Pokemon pet battle system.  This was a total surprise to me, and it is almost certain to be a huge hit.  Other games have tried stuff like this - notably EQ2's arena pets from 2005 - but layering this system on top of the existing minipets, when so many of us already have 50-150 of them, was a brilliant move.  The gameplay would have to be truly terrible for this to be anything short of massively popular. 

The Diablo III deal
And then, we have the curious package deal - players who commit to a one year subscription to WoW get a free copy of Diablo III and access to the Pandaria beta (and a mount, if you care about these things).

The downside is immediately obvious - Blizzard must be really nervous about retention over the next year.  Between SWTOR, possibly GW2, and the always slow end-of-expansion lull (at the end of an already poorly-received expansion, and with Pandaria possibly not even launching during the one year window), one can see why.  Viewed purely as a Veteran reward for a one-year WoW sub, this is probably a bad deal.

Then again, consider the cost.  One year of game time at the six-month subscription rate costs $156.  (Blizzard will allow single month and even game time card plans, but there's no reason not to take the best multi-month rate once you've already committed not to cancel.) 

Diablo III will MSRP for $60, and will sell well enough that you will have to pay that price if you want to play the game before 2014.  I'm not even that excited about DIII, but I'm sure I'll want to see the story at least once since I did love DII back in the day.  If you are going to buy DIII anyway, this deal is effectively one year of WoW, plus access to the Pandaria beta if you're so inclined, for $96, or $8/month with your paid DIII pre-order.

(Two bonuses for Blizzard - this effectively wipes out the secondary market for Pandaria beta keys, and it puts a lot of DIII pre-orders directly into their hands as digital presales, eliminating the retail middleman.)   

I do not currently have a WoW subscription, my last paid time expired in July, I don't know when I would next resubscribe at the normal rate, and I would very likely spend less than $96 on WoW subscription time between now and next October.  However, the way in which I would "save" that money is by not logging in when I wouldn't mind to visit Azeroth for a weekend, world event, or even a single evening, because I don't think I will extract $15 worth of value out of paying for a one month subscription.   At $8/month, WoW becomes a game I can log into whenever I feel like doing so, alongside multiple other non-subscription games where I do just that.

I'm not 100% sold because I doubt that Pandaria will arrive with much, if any, time to spare out of the year, but the deal is tempting enough that I'm definitely considering it. 

The WoW Outlook
Like many others, I'm not entirely satisfied with Cataclysm.  Blizzard did what people accuse them of not doing - they tried to do something genuinely different by spending much of their effort overhauling massive amounts of content - but the results did not work out that well.   In that context, I entered Blizzcon with unusually low expectations, and came out pleasantly surprised. 

Might I be underestimating the popular distaste for the Pandas?  Perhaps.  Might they fail to execute their ambitious plans, including yet another gutting and overhauling of the talent system?  Absolutely.  Are they likely to take until next fall, or even the holidays, developing an expansion that the game desperately needs before next summer?  Most likely. 

With all of those caveats, what they say they would like to do over the next year is for the most part what I want them to do over the next year.  Regardless of the outcome, my outlook for Blizzard is much more positive coming out of Blizzcon than it was going in - where this writer is concerned, Blizzard's Panda Gambit is a success. 


Azuriel said...

My theory on the bad Panda reaction is that so many people were dissatisfied with the underlying WoW experience that Pandas simply provided an obvious "jump the shark" moment that 40+ minute DPS queues for 2+ hour heroic wipefests in early Cataclysm did not.

As you mention, Pandas aside, there were some exciting things going on. However, I'm pretending none of it will actually occur until it goes Live on the servers because Path of the Titans, Abyssal Maw, etc, all sounded cool too.

By the way, the leaked release slate said MoP should be out in Q2 2012, i.e. the summer release you agree it needs. The zones look mostly done, and I predict the beta out 1-2 months after D3.

Fidjit said...

I look at the pokemon pet battle system and think of one thing:

The pet store.

Blizzard has already been getting players used to buying pets for real cash, and even then trading them in-game. With that as a foundation this new system is absolutely ripe for microtransactions, and I suspect it's one of the primary motivators for Blizzard. They're going to make a killing off selling unique pet skins for 10 bucks a pop.

It really falls in that sweet spot for them. Something that players already accept and that Blizzard can at least argue doesn't affect the "core game" (whatever that is anymore).

Bhagpuss said...

When WoW goes F2P I will revisit my old characters. In the unlikely event I feel like having a wander around before then I'll use the free-to-20 endless trial. The 12 month deal is meaningless to someone who only found three months' worth of interest in the game in the first place.

Pandas I just don't get. We have them in EQ2 as an NPC race and I don't much like them there. I don't find real-life pandas especially cute or interesting either. I can think of literally dozens of animals I'd prefer to play or see used as NPCs.

From a non-player's perspective, the whole announcement looks like the clearest possible path to maximizing both account retention and cash shop revenue. Both the pandas and the pet battle system speak to a deliberate intent to focus on the lower age-bracket of the WoW demographic. Even the Brewmaster fits that, really.

In the MMO blogosphere we all talk about WoW's competition being the other AAA MMOs but I wouldn't be at all surprised if, from the Blizzard account department's point of view an equally significant aspect of competition is the likes of Club Penguin.

Indy said...

Indeed, why should we take Blizzard's lore more seriously then they do? I think I've been coming to the same conclusion over time. That's probably why I've been spending more and more time in LOTRO and less in WoW, and I may be cancelling the WoW sub.

kaozz said...

I'm pretty happy with what I've seen so far. Interesting things that will add more flavor and a slightly different direction to things. The new race isn't anymore silly than walking talking cows ;)

Kring said...

> I'm not 100% sold because I doubt that Pandaria will
> arrive with much, if any, time to spare out of the year

Don't worry, the next year of WoW sub will be for the first D3 add-on. We can even expect them to split D3 into multiple parts, as they did with SC2, because they have to give away less for "free".