Blizzard's genre-defining MMO has always struggled to reconcile its two heritages - the social, progression-heavy virtual worlds MMO's like Everquest and the accessible online gameplay of Blizzard's own Diablo II. The trade-offs needed to allow these demographics to co-exist are no longer scaling well in an increasingly crowded marketplace, but I'm not yet convinced that willingness to change alone will prompt a longer-lasting solution.
Three major focuses from the last five years of WoW that are now out of favor:
- Blizzard is touting that Warlords will feature few if any daily quests at max level. Pandaria featured a heavy push on daily quests - Blizzard stated that a third of the quests in 5.0 were level 90 dailies so that players would be offered a variety of dailies in rotation. Also worth noting, Blizzard probably wasn't the first to stick a daily progress limit on repeatable quests back in Burning Crusade, but they certainly helped popularize the format.
- Cataclysm devoted a massive level of effort to replacing low level content, in the process removing more content from WoW than most MMO's ever produce. In revisiting Draenor, Blizzard is making the entirety of level 1-90 optional instead of repeating the probably futile effort to update the content. They are also preserving the current incarnation of Outland (possibly through the Caverns of Time, which I had thought might be a good idea back in 2011).
- Wrath introduced the dungeon finder and near single-handedly made it a mandatory feature for all MMO's to have an automated system that puts players in a group that will defeat the content quickly and painlessly. Blizzard is now saying that they want random groups feel like your last resort. This would be a much bigger deal except that I doubt they will follow through.
- (Two other reversals that aren't as relevant to my theme: Re-forging items? Gone, along with some of the stats that made this system necessary (especially hit rating, which was hard-capped for casters. Also, as Nils notes, the entirety of Pandaria will be optional, though seeing Pandas in Draenor presumably will not.)
The coalition of the smaller but more stable demographic of social MMORPG players and the siginificantly larger but less committed masses of more independent online game players held in WoW's prime from 2005-2007. Today, Blizzard faces much more competition for the online instant action crowd (both from other MMORPG's, and from action-RPG's and MOBA's that cut out the persistent world for even faster access). At the same time, when you have 90-100 levels and over a dozen tiers of raid content it becomes harder and harder to retain critical mass amongst the progression MMORPG players.
Personally, while I expect to return to WoW frequently, I suspect I will spend more total hours in Hearthstone and the Blizzard MOBA Heroes of the Storm (which was by some accounts the surprise hit of the show). Moreover, when I do visit WoW, I expect to continue to focus on more accessible minigames like pet battles and the new and bigger version of the Pandaren Farm in garrisons. (Aside: The Garrisons are being widely called "player housing", but Blizzard also stated that they don't want to make systems - such as the farm - from previous expansions mandatory. Wonder how they're going to deal with this in three years.)
I suggest it's no accident that Blizzard is focusing on these areas. It would be really interesting to know whether the version of Titan that got killed this year was guilty of the offense of being an MMORPG in an era in which that's no longer where the money is.