Friday, January 27, 2012

And My City Was Gone

With the announcements that there will be no Blizzcon this year and that there will be a Battle.Net World Championships event to be held in Asia in 2012, it seems that Blizz is suffering from not enough personnel all around.

Okay, that's the face of it, but here's some other theories.

  1. Focusing on Asia when an Asian themed WoW expac is released is a smart way to revive the WoW franchise.  Well, maybe.  Part of this depends on how the Asian population will feel seeing a culture that is an echo of their own in MoP.  If WoW sets a patronizing tone with the Pandaren culture, this whole thing could backfire and be a big release disaster.  The assumption that the pop culture references and snark found in WoW will play the same in Mists of Pandaria can be a very bad one.
  2. Blizzard's focus is now on the Asian market.  Similar to #1, but in this case Blizz is going to develop and market with the Asian market in mind first.  Considering the worldwide appeal of their games, I'm not sure I quite believe this, but I do realize that the Chinese market will eventually dwarf all others.  Still, I'm sure that there are plenty of large overseas markets (hellllooo, Brazil) that don't like being passed over.  We don't know whether the Battle.Net Asian event is going to be located strictly in Asia or whether it is going to move to different cities each year.  Of course, it could be a one-off gimmick, too, but we'll have to wait and see.
  3. Blizzard needs to realign staff to get their releases out the door.  Well, yeah.  They said so themselves in their post on the WoW website.  Still, for people who are wondering why they aren't hiring staff, consider this:  anyone who works in IT/software development will tell you that it takes at least six months before a new hire gets up to speed, and often that can stretch up to a year.  Contractors can fill in a pinch, but unless they are former employees even they will take some time integrating into your business environment.  Therefore, the best method of dealing with this situation is to peel personnel from other, lower priority projects and delay what you can.  Blizzcon, as the lowest priority among the staff, got the axe.
  4. The three releases Blizz wants to work on are in significant trouble.  Although similar to point #3, this is more of a technical issue than a personnel one.  We haven't heard a peep out of Blizz since D3 was delayed, and as time goes on, this silence becomes more and more damning.  From being a week or two away from release to what seems an indefinite hold, the "tweaks" that D3 needed seem to be more major than realized.  If Blizz realigns staff (see #3 above), to deal with these major issues, this will have a ripple effect on the rest of the Blizz development projects.  In that case, Blizzcon as just the lowest priority item got chucked onto the woodpile.  Since Blizz keeps their development timeline so close to their vest, we won't know if there are other slippages in the release schedule at all until you wake up one day and say "hey, what happened to Heart of the Swarm?"
  5. Activision/Blizzard is getting hit hard by SWTOR defections.  It's hard to tell right now given the lack of direct data out there, but judging by my personal experience I believe this is more a factor than some people would care to admit.  I never discuss guild material on the blog, so I'll only say that TOR has had an impact among the WoW players I know, and I'm sure it will have an impact with their quarterly subscription numbers.  If Blizz is feeling some pressure from TOR, then they may be shifting personnel around to accelerate development among all of their projects, not just the ones officially acknowledged. Like oh, say, Titan?
  6. Activision/Blizzard is going to move development overseas.  I mean, really?  Come on, man.  You're going to read that into this move?  Get a grip.  If Activision/Blizzard decides to move development staff overseas, I'm sure there will be other signs than the movement of a con to Asia.
  7. Activision/Blizzard is going to kill Blizzcon.  That's entirely possible.  The corporate world works in Byzantine fashion a lot of the time, but one truism often remains:  the money will go to the cheaper alternative.  If Activision, as the parent company, decides that Blizzard is flushing too much money down the drain by hosting a separate event when they could be better served integrating into PAX, that'll be the end of Blizzcon.  Given the history of some game companies to have less than stellar customer relations, it wouldn't shock me if this was merely the beginning of the end of Blizzcon.  That said, I'll believe it when I see it.  Of course, I said the same thing about Pandaren in the upcoming expansion, so maybe I ought to be careful what I wish for.
Overall, I expect that the next quarterly investor call from Activision/Blizzard to be very interesting, and will shed some light on the direction of WoW in the near future.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Elekk in the Room

Remember how busy the Old World was when the Shattering happened?

Toons swarmed over the Vanilla zones like ants on a picnic, investigating the new quest lines and the leveling experience.  Many new alts were created, and a plethora of blog posts were written about the new zones.  This fed into the excitement surrounding Cataclysm’s release and for the first few months after, keeping Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms busy.  Blizzard’s gambit to revamp the Vanilla zones paid off in spades.

Or did it?

I’ve spent the spare time I’ve had in between battlegrounds catching up on my Eastern Kingdoms’ questlines, and what I’ve noticed more than anything else is how empty the zones are.  There are a few farmers around and maybe one other leveling toon out there.  Some zones, such as Arathi Highlands or the Hinterlands, are completely empty.  In fact, it seems like the only busy zones in the entire Eastern Kingdoms are the starter zones.  I’ve cruised up and down the Ghostlands right before Christmas, and there was nary a Horde toon around.  You’d think the sight of a Draenei riding on a blasted Elekk around the Dead Scar would bring some L85s out of the woodwork, but that didn’t happen.

Is it possible that all that work to revamp the Old World was wasted?

Think about it:  we’re back to where we were in terms of leveling zone population from mid-2010 in a bit over a year since 4.0.3b dropped.  It’s the equivalent of a kid ripping open Christmas presents, playing with them, and declaring “I’m bored!” an hour later.

Are there no players leveling toons?

Well, there might be toons being leveled, but there are LFD and BGs as alternate routes to max level.  Additionally, we can’t simply state that there aren’t any new players, either, because new players are typically shunted into the new, empty servers.  However, on servers that have been around for a while, there are definitely very few players leveling toons through questing.

Which again begs the question:  was the revamp worth it if very few of the existing player base take advantage of the options presented?

Now Mist of Pandaria is on the horizon, and without a further update –aka more money spent on these zones that have seen little long term interest— the Vanilla zones will be once again out of date.  A new player to WoW will end up scratching their heads if they try to level via questing.  (“I thought Mists of Pandaria was about Pandas!  All I see are all these Deathwing references!  And who’s Illidan and that Lich King guy?”)

I believe that the revamp was a bold move, but incomplete in execution.  Furthermore, by performing the revamp Blizzard set itself on a course where the story of Azeroth is told in a jumble, not in a series of sequential chapters.  A revamp is pretty much an all-or-nothing scenario, especially when you mix the expansion’s new zones in with the original Vanilla zones.  No amount of hand waving can make a new player forget about Outland and Northrend --especially when you have to pay for them!

Friday, January 6, 2012

Where is that d20, Anyway?

I’d say about 99% of the time I play WoW, I forget about the ‘RPG’ part of the ‘MMORPG’ label.  That’s neither a good nor bad thing, it just is.  I don’t play on an RP server, and there are just enough metagame pop culture-ish jokes in Azeroth to prevent me from being completely immersed in the story.  Oh yeah, and there’s the little fact that nobody else is RPing, either.

It just struck me how strange that was, given my RPG roots.

I’ve been playing RPGs for 30 years, dating back to the day a friend of mine offered to show me this cool game he’d started playing called Dungeons and Dragons.  Those early days were filled with homemade dungeons with a lack of plot and story, and plenty of “you open a room an inside are…. Three Red Dragons!” 

(What was the Loot chart for a Red Dragon, anyway?  Something like “Q” or “S” on the table in the AD&D 1st Edition Monster Manual?)

We were too young to know any better about the story, given that we were in the Sixth Grade and we’d skipped the plot and flavor text in the old Keep on the Borderlands module and gone straight to the Caves of Chaos.  Kill the monsters, get the loot.

Sounds kind of familiar, doesn’t it?

I’m not exactly sure when, but sometime during my high school years the story became very important to my role playing.  The most important question you could ask a player –why—infected me, and I pushed myself to provide reason and logical underpinnings to my gameplay.  Ever since, I’ve played and/or GMed a story driven campaign.

They why don’t I roleplay more in WoW?

You know, I don’t have a really good answer.

Some of my toons –Q, Neve, and Tom—I have a backstory for, while most of the others are just, well, there.  I created some of them to address a need (Balthan to try out the Dwarf Paladin, Adelwulf the Warlock/Worgen, etc.) and others just for the hell of it.  Still, my big three toons do have a (semi-cohesive) story in my own mind, but I don’t act on it.

The game doesn’t really lend itself well to RP-ing without investing significant effort.  Blizz has spent a lot of time incorporating pop culture into the game, and while that may be amusing to me as a person, it also is the metagaming equivalent of throwing ice water in the face of an RP-er.  Even if you manage to avoid that pitfall, tools used to simplify life in Azeroth will throw you out of the RP zone too.  As Souldat once remarked on a post of mine about RP-ing LFD, it would be hard to RP when you’re ported into an instance on the fly.  Compound that with potentially four other players who aren’t interested in RP-ing, and you get the point. 

I’ve read several posts over the past few years about how RP-ing is an endangered species, even on the RP servers, and I can understand why.  In a sense, WoW is a victim of its success, in that even RP servers have significant populations who are more interested in the metagame rather than the world itself.  Their subs pay the bills, so Blizz can’t complain, but in a sense it makes the game smaller than what it could be.

Still, RPing does survive in WoW. 

I have a low level toon on Wyrmrest that I created just to check things out.  When she entered Silvermoon City that first time, she was hailed by a higher level toon passing by, asking the time of day and whether I needed assistance. 

“Just point me in the direction of the nearest inn,” I said.  “I’m tired.”

The Tauren did just that, and wished me well.

I sat back in my chair and smiled.  All was not lost.