Monday, November 11, 2013

What is Blizzard's Direction?

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery than WoW's newly announced expansion is a remarkable condemnation of what has come before.  On paper, being willing to re-evaluate anything and everything is commendable.  The problem is that smart people implemented the things that Blizzard spent the weekend backpedaling from, and they did these things for a reason

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.) 
For people who play the game for accessible gameplay, having to slog through 90 levels to get to their friends is unacceptable, and there is an expectation that the game will provide something to do - dailies and random dungeon groups - once you do get to level cap.  For people who play with an eye towards progression with their friends, however, constantly wiping progress (both the levels, and the gear resets every 6-12 months - a sacred cow that's not on the table at the moment) undermines the point of the game, while all of the intentionally non-challenging dailies become a chore. 

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. 

1 comment:

marcleoseguin.com said...

From a design perspective, it seems like baby and bathwater are being thrown out. I wrote something similar to this recently. I wonder from GC's perspective, who's been a the helm for a while now, how it feels to have such significant portions removed over the years. Artistically the game is similar to launch but mechanically, and arguably the soul of the game, is practically unrecognizable today from launch.

Like you, I think that given Titan's work team (vanilla + BC devs), the ROI calculation no longer made sense. Remember now, while Blizzard are the devs, Bobby K holds the cash.