The Not So Silent Partner – The New Age of WoW, part 2

One of the reasons I try to avoid dividing my posts into multiple parts is because I always find it difficult to get my train of thought back on the rails and out of the station. When I first write about a topic, the idea is fresh and the words flow easily because my mind is hard at work organizing and refining my thoughts. When I stop and then try to begin again, the initial novelty of the topic is gone, the necessity of continuing the general theme curtails creativity, and my grasp on my Muse is much more tenuous. I feel obligated to supply the follow-up post, and obligation does not breed quality writing.

So it is with much drudgery and hand-wringing that I return to the topic of World of Warcraft and the question of the causation. In the first post I laid the groundwork by articulating the changes in WoW’s game design, and how those changes can have an effect on the WoW community. I left off my hypotheses as to the cause of these changes, both because I thought the post was running long and because I had not yet developed a satisfactory answer.

The difficulty is that, upon reflection, the interrelation between game design and community is very complex, and complexity does not lend itself to simple analysis and axiomatic declaration. The argument proposed by a fair portion of the community is, “Blizzard (and/or Activision) cares only about profits. They eschew appeasing their longtime supporters in favor of dumbing down the game in order to bring in as many players as possible to generate subscription fees.” I concede that this characterization walks a very fine line, and is about two steps to the right of a strawman argument, but a cursory search of the official forums and WoW Insider comments should provide enough evidence to show that I am not misrepresenting the argument. That is in fact what players think.

The biggest problem I have with this claim is how much it simplifies the issue. It assigns one trait to Activision Blizzard (greed), implies that the game design in 2005 was superior, and that the game design today, by virtue of appealing to a wider market, is objectively damaging to the game. In essence, the argument attempts to couch the opinion, “It’s different and I don’t like it,” in the trappings of a factual conclusion.

My observations, on the other hand, are informed by logic rather than self-serving emotion, but a side effect of complexity is the inability to distill my conclusion into a simple sentence.

First, we must do away with the concept of “good” game design versus “bad” game design as it applies to WoW. I agree that if a game is riddled with bugs, has a control scheme that renders it nearly unplayable, and uses mechanics that are obtuse to the point of interfering with gameplay, one can say it is “bad game design.” But that is not what most people are referring to when they use the term for WoW. In a discussion about WoW game design, the central points are usually 1) difficulty, 2) heroic dungeon and raid design philosophy, 3) player interaction and social activity, and 4) balance and parity between classes. Of course there are debates about mechanics and whether ability X should have Y effect, but the vast majority of forum complaints center around one of those four facets. And yet, all four are extremely subjective topics. Personal taste determines whether you prefer the current raid philosophy over the Vanilla raid philosophy; and whether you prefer the BC era closed server PVE community versus the current cross-server dungeons and focus on guild interaction. It is impossible to quantify whether one is “better” than the other, therefore one cannot argue that Blizzard is “ruining WoW” by implementing changes. The design philosophy in Vanilla was the not the Ur-philosophy of MMO design.

In fact, most of the changes that have occurred in the last six years have been in response to player feedback. In the original beta, players did not like that there was a penalty for playing for long periods (the “anti-rested” effect), so Blizzard eliminated it. One of the premiere alterations to the MMO formula at launch was that quests continued all the way to max level, rather than disappearing early on in favor of mindless grinding (a la Everquest); this breakthrough came directly from player feedback. Blizzard reduced the raid size in BC from 40 to 10/25 because a significant number of players complained that 40 was too many. Likewise in Wrath Blizzard implemented scaling 10/25 man raids when BC players complained that their guild could not cope with the transition from 10 man Kara into 25 man Gruul and Magtheridon. In later Wrath Blizzard created heroic raid difficulty in order to appease the hardcore raid crowd that wanted a challenge. From the beginning through two expansions players bemoaned the existence of group quests in leveling zones, and many players chose to skip them rather than try to create a group; so when Cataclysm launched group quests were nowhere to be found. Players begged for cross-server dungeons and a more robust instance queue system, and Blizzard delivered the Dungeon Finder. Even now players are clamoring for a cross-server Raid Finder, which would only further diminish the separation between the servers and the insular server community.

To claim that Blizzard does not listen to its players, and that they develop and change the game based on their own whims, is so patently false as to be laughable.

Even when they do make design decisions that are not directly influenced by player feedback, they still do so with an eye to provide more for the players. One of Blizzards design goals, (one that I suspect has been a cornerstone of their philosophy since day one), is to make a game that appeals to as many people as possible, provides as much content as possible to players, and can be enjoyed in a wide variety of ways. At the end of BC, Blizzard found that an incredibly small number of players ever set foot in Sunwell Plateau, and similarly at the end of Vanilla very few guilds made it into the original Naxxramas. Therefore in Wrath they tuned raid difficulty down, and brought Naxx back, as a way to let a larger proportion of their player base experience raiding. They implemented the badge/emblem system so that players could obtain gear outside of raiding and jump into the current raiding tier without farming the previous tier. They spread essential buffs and abilities around to multiple classes so that players would not lose raid spots just because of a choice they made during character creation. The oft-quoted mantra “bring the player, not the class,” is the perfect distillation of Blizzard’s design philosophy in the wake of BC: if a player wants to experience X, he or she should be able to do so.

WoW has changed since December 2004, of that there can be no doubt. But the reasons for its changes are not so simple as “corporate greed” and “to attract the facebook crowd.” Change has come about by way of the complex interaction of player desires/feedback and Blizzard’s over-arching design philosophy.

Once again, this has run extremely long, and I have yet to even touch on the changes in the WoW community and how the community has responded and adapted to design changes. I guess now there’s going to be a part 3. We’ll see if I can get it published in less than a week.

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