Coming in patch 4.2
World of Warcraft has always been a fluid game. The WoW that currently inhabits the live servers is not the WoW that shipped in 2004, nor is it the WoW that existed the day Burning Crusade or Wrath of the Lich King launched. The basic gameplay is largely the same, in that the player gains XP by completing quests and killing mobs, but even those mechanics have changed and been refined over the game’s six year life-span. Entire features have been integrated or deleted. Character abilities and combat formulae only vaguely resemble what they were in the days of Molten Core. If Blizzard’s development philosophy can be distilled down to one observation, it is that Blizzard is not afraid to change the game, and will do so when it believes that change is best for the game. (Whether the players think a change is for the better is a different issue, but we’ll get to that.)

So I do not think I am breaking new ground when I say that the current WoW, the game according to Cataclysm, is not the same game that we played back in the Vanilla days. As the game has changed, so too has the WoW community. The causal relationship between these two aspects (design and community) has been the topic of much discussion for the past year or so in the WoW blogoverse and tweetosphere. In the wake of Wrath and the LFG tool, much digital ink has been spilled in the documentation of the change in the WoW community. Most analysts blame the change in the community on the change in design direction. Some have said that Blizzard, because it controls the mechanics of WoW, is directly and solely responsible for the change in the community, and that the community is blameless because it cannot but react to the changes in the game.

I do not agree with that interpretation, nor do I agree with the converse. I perceive the relationship between design and community to be much more complex, such that a simple model of cause and effect is insufficient to describe it.

I do not want to lean on anecdotal evidence about what things were like back in Vanilla and BC, because anecdotal proof, while very persuasive, is not a valid basis for extrapolating the character of the WoW community. Rather I will try to stick to facts and draw logical conclusions.

During Vanilla and BC, the servers were more or less isolated from one another. The PVP Battlegroups existed, which did allow for cross-server PVP, but the majority of player activity: leveling, instances, and raiding, were server-side only. In order to form a group for an instance, the players had to form one manually by spamming a “Looking For More” message in chat, or later by placing their names in a rudimentary LFG channel, which basically just advertised to other people that they were open to run an instance. If, in an instance, a player trolled, ninja’d loot, or otherwise disrespected the other players, that player could develop a reputation on the server, which might impede his or her ability to get into other instance groups. Actions, therefore, potentially impacted a player’s reputation server wide, for good or for ill. (I do not, of course, imply that trolling did not exist, or that people never got away with trolling. Rather I am saying that the possibility of repercussions for conduct was greater than it is now.)

One of the other facets of WoW gameplay during the Vanilla days was the prevalence of group quests. As a player progressed through a leveling zone, that player was sure to encounter at least half a dozen quests that required more than one player to complete. Some might need two or three, others might need a full group of five. These quests forced player interaction and spontaneous grouping, and provided a teaching experience to prepare the player for instance group dynamics.

Now we turn to the changes in design philosophy begun in Wrath and perfected in Cataclysm. Group quests (aside from the Ring of Blood type arena chain) are almost completely removed. The leveling process in zones has become extremely linear, sending the player down a predetermined path that forwards the story of the zone. The leveling zones now resemble a single player game more than a multiplayer game. The experience is akin to God of War or Bayonetta, in which the player runs down a corridor, meets a locked door, and fights a series of enemies to unlock that door. The game has almost completely abandoned the Everquest model of “go out into the open world and kill stuff.”

With the implementation of the Dungeon Finder, the server’s PVE community lost its isolation from the rest of the player base. Now one’s instance party members can be from any server, and one may never see them again after the completion of the dungeon. The actions of a player do not attach to that player after the instance is finished. If a player ninjas or otherwise acts inappropriate, there is very little possibility that those actions will affect that player’s reputation, and such actions will never permanently impinge on that player’s ability to queue in the Dungeon Finder. The tool, in effect, grants full anonymity and full exoneration to all participants for the duration of the dungeon.

Dungeons may likewise be considered something of a single player affair. A player may queue in the Dungeon Finder, perform in the instance without interacting with the other players, and leave at once when the run is complete. From the perspective of a solo queue player in the dungeon, the four other players are equivalent to bots or henchmen, akin to the party members one acquires in Mass Effect: necessary due to game balance but not under the direct control of the main player. A couple of bloggers have talked about Blizzard implementing bots in instances, so that solo players can run them without having to deal with other players. I submit that such a thing has already happened, save that rather than use AI programming, the bots are controlled by other solo players.

The only activity that still necessitates direct social interaction is raiding, which requires a player to go through the old fashioned song and dance of trawling for players in Trade chat or setting up a guild run. Raiding in Cataclysm does not materially demand greater individual skill than heroics, but does demand greater coordination among the group, because synchronizing the actions of ten or twenty-five people is more complex than doing so with five.

In the era of Cataclysm, WoW’s gameplay, outside of PVP and raiding, is comparable to The Bioware Game. The single player goes through a linear storyline, assisted by a party of NPCs when necessary, and sometimes does sidequest dungeons to collect loot. Even the crafting and auction house aspects are largely single player activities. Players with trade skills may as well be vendors that you have to track down and who charge varying prices based on your stock of raw materials.

So what do we make of this change in game design? Is it the product of greed? Is it a slow but methodical erosion of MMO gameplay in order to attract as large a player-base as possible? Is it detrimental to the game and to the genre as a whole? Can we blame Blizzard for doing this to the game?

The answer to all of those questions is No, but because I have spent so many words laying the groundwork, the actual argument will have to wait until next time.