Tuesday, August 24, 2021

A Messy, Sloppy Situation

Kayrliene has an interesting post about Retail WoW's problems and strengths, entitled Strong Core, Weak Fluff - The Real Weakness of Modern World of Warcraft. His contention is that while the core gameplay (and he deliberately sidestepped the story here) is and remains strong, it's the borrowed systems --the Azerite/Covenant quests from two recent expacs, for example-- that are Modern WoW's weak point.

I found the article interesting and was about to comment when I realized that my focus, on the story, had pretty much been written off by Blizzard as a lost cause.

If World of Warcraft were an IT organization, assuming the 3 year depreciation cycle, my resources would have been depreciated 4 years ago and taken off the books. My basic assumption, that Blizzard learned the wrong lessons from Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King, and went in a story direction that turned WoW's story into a soap opera among the faction leads, has already been discounted by Blizzard based on their lack of interest in returning the faction leads to a more remote viewpoint and centering the story --as it were-- on us.

For people like me and other people who felt WoW lost its way in Cataclysm and beyond, Blizzard created Classic and TBC Classic,* patting us on the head and telling us to "go play and let the big kids alone to enjoy Retail."

But the thing is, without us, WoW hasn't consistently maintained subs at 9 million or higher ever since Cataclysm released. Sure, there's the spike around Legion, but that was just a spike, not a consistently maintained number of subs. And to be honest, I would never base my entire product strategy on "getting a quick spike so we can claim 'we're back!'", because spikes are just that: volatility in the face of declining subscriptions. 

And that's the thing: Blizz hasn't released sub numbers in years because anybody can smooth out the spikes and see the downward spiral in front of them.


"Modern" WoW has become spiky in nature in part because of Blizzard's 'the game begins at endgame' philosophy, and in part because of Blizzard's emphasis on faction leaders and cutscenes to propel the story forward. The former ought to be obvious, because if the game begins at endgame, then people will rush to get to endgame, complete a raid or two, and then say "I'm bored" in Trade Chat and log until the next patch. That by itself is unsustainable, because you've conditioned your player base to only login when something new is there, rather than there's things to do all the time that aren't a waste of time.

Believe it or not, not everybody wants to run Mythic or Mythic Plus.

When the dev teams focus on Endgame processes alone and don't harness the other stuff --the 17 years of other content that is just sitting there, unused, because Blizzard couldn't find a consistent way to keep all that old content useful without upsetting their current Endgame focus-- then you're just conditioning your player base to simply ignore 90+% of everything every dev ever created.

And that's not a healthy ecosystem.

The latter might not be quite so obvious, since cutscenes and faction leader content seem to get the current player base juiced, but the emphasis on those two items and their manifestation in game** take away from what the game is really about: us.

Back in Wrath days, Anne Stickney --long before she joined Blizzard-- wrote in WoW Insider how WoW is the story of us. We are the ones who make Azeroth tick, and it is us and our deeds that make the game come alive. 

And now, looking from Wrath to Shadowlands, it seems that WoW is no longer the story of us, but of those NPCs instead. We're just lackeys who do their bidding. These NPCs drive the story, are the emphasis on the cutscenes, and given the way Warlords of Draenor, Battle for Azeroth, and Shadowlands unfolded, were the damn reason these three expacs even existed. These three expacs started because of a faction leader's actions. And two of the three are the worst received expacs in WoW. Never forget that. 

When I was a youngster and back at college, in my History of Western Civilization (Up to 1789) class, one throw-away item from the Professor stuck with me all these years: the last English King to die in battle was.... Richard III. In 1485. Before Cristobal Colon's first voyage. A mere 33 years after Constantinople fell to the Ottomans. Over 500 years ago. 

So... Just how often have we seen faction/racial leader turnover in WoW and Warcraft? 

Very often. 

Roman Emperor type of often.*** Or barbarian tribe type of often.

Which is kind of nuts.

A WoW faction lead dying of old age, in bed, just hasn't happened yet in game. And what gets me the most is that if you're a faction lead or a huge NPC****, you're going to have a bodyguard around you large enough that it would take a brigade to cut through to kill you off. And even then, you're most likely to be captured for ransom and/or better terms in war.

But I digress.


From my perspective, the biggest thing that's ailing WoW the most is the thing that should give WoW such an unfair advantage over all other MMOs: the sheer size of the content. Blizzard has all this content, but instead the active game is only a very tiny sliver of the actual content itself, which is whatever the latest patch is. Blizzard is self-isolating, and it can't break out of this problem.

Timewalking, to be perfectly and bluntly honest, doesn't do shit. It only focuses on dungeons and raids of one particular expac for one particular point in time, and that's a temporary focus as well.

If you want to re-engage with older content, make it relevant.

Oh wait, that's right. Every single expac has their own separate borrowed system, whether it's Azerite for BfA or badges for T9/T10 sets in Wrath, and each one is totally worthless when the next expac drops. 

And with every couple of expacs, someone gets the idea to go mess up Dalaran again. 

Or blow up Theramore. 

Or destroy Teldrassil.

Or retake Stromgarde.

Or just in general destroy the Old World.

Kind of hard to go back and integrate old content when the content isn't even there, is it? When your oldest content in game is in the "original" Outland, because Vanilla WoW simply doesn't exist in Retail. You can't create a new toon and head out for Northshire Abbey and spend all your time in Vanilla.

Welp, I guess that kind of kills it. There's no going back, and Blizzard seems dead set on making sure that only a small sliver of the history of WoW is useful to its player base. It's kind of sad that the part in WoW's history where all the content was easily accessible to all players was at the end of Wrath. Cataclysm ushered in an era of rebuilding without a clear realization as to what the long term impact on the game would be. To that end, I'll harness a quote meant for those who were clamoring for Vanilla servers, but in a twist can now be used in hindsight on Cataclysm and later expacs, given Retail WoW's current state:

"You think you do, but you don't."

*And, to be totally honest, to try to get some money out of "official" servers from those who would otherwise be inclined to go play on private servers instead.

**And in the books, the short stories, the posters, etc.

***For every Trajan or Marcus Aurelius, there's a Commodus.

****Importance wise, not physically wise. Although I swear WoW's design showing important NPCs so much larger than anyone else drives me nuts. There is no way Jaina is going to play Center for the Washington Mystics of the WNBA, so stop making her and the other NPCs so physically large that they look absolutely silly.

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