Saturday, March 03, 2007

Farewell World of Warcraft

As you probably gathered from my earlier post (if you read it), I have become increasingly disillusioned with WoW after the release of Burning Crusade, and my wife and I have decided to quit the game cold turkey. I mailed my valuables to friends in game and we've uninstalled. Buh-bye.

As with all MMORPGs, WoW's chief addictive quality is personal relationships. While the game may become tedious, boring, unrewarding, or repetitive, one's sense of obligation to friends in the game is often the thing that draws one back in. You might stop playing for pleasure, but a friend will plead with you by AIM or email or phone to just come join tonight's raid.

The single worst feature in World of Warcraft is raid caps. A given "instance" has a maximum number of players who can enter it as a group. For most it is five, but for the hard instances -- the ones for which guilds are formed -- it used to be twenty or forty. Almost all the tension in guilds was a consequence of these caps, since you needed to make a guild large enough to handle specific instances (e.g. 40 for BWL or Naxx) which generally meant making it too large and then cherry picking members to fill your raid.

Contrast this with, say, EverQuest, where most raids could be as large as you liked (within the technical limits of servers). Now, Blizzard's designers were afraid large raids "trivialized" content, which leads us to the second-worst flaw in World of Warcraft: bloody-mindedness.

Tedium is to EverQuest as bloody-mindedness is to WoW. It seems that most high end encounters are specifically designed to be possible only for an ideally composed raid with idealized gear performing at 90% or better of optimal output. Furthermore, you can only succeed by knowing the encounter in advance -- i.e. by trying it and failing or by reading spoilers. Preferably both.

It seems to me that Blizzard has made some huge mistakes with Burning Crusade, and I think I'll list a few of them. The first two mistakes are huge because they undermine the personal relationships which are the chief addictive component of the game.

1) They charged for the expansion.

As I understand it, if you sell a game for $40 you get $15 wholesale of which $10 or so is profit (after you subtract production and distribution costs). Blizzard gets $15/month from its players, so every player who quits because the expansion is too expensive is a huge loss, while the gain is trivial. The negative consequences are huge because they can't make the old world more interesting (then folks who haven't bought the expansion might enjoy themselves, and we can't have that) or thread new content into it. The potential cost is huge since I know of many players who baulked at the $40 which made them likely to quit the game. Why risk subscription income for a one off profit equal to a single month's subscription?

The only reason to charge for the expansion was to keep retailers happy, since most of your $40 goes to them (and middlemen) and not Blizzard. This is dumb; it's not like retailers will refuse to sell some new Blizzard console game because Blizzard sold its WoW expansion direct to customers (or gave it away).

I'm guessing charging for BC will, of itself, cost Blizzard 5-25% of its customer base.

2) They changed raid caps.

The proximate cause of our departure from WoW was idiotic guild leadership trying to reshape the guild solely to deal with Karazhan -- the first "end-game" instance -- despite the fact that it will probably be "old hat" within a month or two, and the next set of instances will be 25-man, meaning more wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Many cry "Karazhan isn't like UBRS, because it's hard" forgetting that UBRS (and Strath and Scholo) were very hard way back when. Oh well, those who do not know history -- even having lived it -- and condemned to repeat it.

On our server it seems almost every major guild is self-destructing in one way or another specifically owing to changing raid caps. I conservatively guess this may cost Blizzard 10% of their player base on its own in the short-run, and possibly seriously dent WoW's player base in the long-run.

3) They didn't fundamentally improve their content in any way.

Burning Crusade is literally just new content in the old engine. Or old content with new graphics. Where are the dynamic instances and quests? Where are the dungeons where you can choose your path? (WoW dungeons are, with almost no exceptions, linear.) Perhaps the most promising thing anywhere in BC is that some of your early quests require you to kill "20 Fel Orcs" (say) where any kind of Fel Orc will do. (Versus quests requiring you to kill 15 Fel Orc Sorcerors and 5 Fel Orc Attendants. "No no no, 36 Sorcerors and 4 Attendants is not good enough, go away.") But this promising trend quickly disappears and we go back to the usual slaughters and collects.

If anything, the new content is more repetitive and banal than anything from the old world. I found myself doing a quest where I'm basically killing giant level 66 sheep and thinking "so this is essentially a super tedious copy and paste version of a newbie quest" ... and guess what, it was part of a set of nine essentially identical quests. The quest "line" was a copy and paste version of a near identical quest line (from an NPC with the same name) you do at level 35 in Stranglethorn Vale. Wow, someone gets a credit for "Game Design" for this masterpiece.

Although this last major mistake does not directly attack the relationships which keep people playing an MMORPG, I think that in the long-run this is going to be the most damaging mistake. In the end, BC shows that Blizzard has run out of ideas (or that the folks with ideas have run out of Blizzard).

What might they have done?

In Dark Age of Camelot there are plenty of dynamically generated mini-quests. If you want to work on smithing, you can get a quest which gives you a customer for whom to make something which allows you to make a slight profit by buying or acquiring materials, making the item, and delivering it. Blizzard hates this idea and has designed all tradeskills to be incredibly tedious to improve and intrinsically unprofitable. The only way to make money is kill stuff or get it from other players. If you just want to help the local authorities you can be assigned a random local mission (go kill some bandits).

In Anarchy Online and EverQuest there are dynamic quests and dynamically populated "dungeons". The most "dynamic" thing you get in Blizzard dungeons is some random spawns (e.g. there might be one NPC who only spawns 10% of the time in a given instance, or can appear in one of three places) and loot tables.

In Guild Wars there are instanced outdoor areas, allowing for epic (or seemingly epic) journeys. Every outdoor area in Burning Crusade is teaming with other players eliminating any sense of heroic adventure. "There they stood, in the Valley of Dark Death, facing the Arch Fiend, when three level 70s wandered by and gave them some free buffs and then killed the shadow fiend three times waiting for motes to drop. 'Wanna join up and score the kill credit?' they asked."

Most of the quests in Burning Crusade are ridiculously local, along the lines of understandably dumb newbie quests: "Seek out wolves and kill 8." Hmm, I seem a bunch wandering aimlessly around me right where we're standing... This is probably because quests requiring you to run around in the old world were very unpopular; but Blizzard never figured out this was because the rewards sucked, not because travel is bad. (A quest requiring 15 minutes of travel through dangerous areas generally yields very little money or experience, while a quest requiring you to kill 10 monsters strolling about within a few yards of the quest giver will yield far more. This is why everyone hates "long journey" quests.) In Guild Wars you can be sent on a quest to kill a bear and bring back its skin because the outdoors are big and finding a bear is an interesting task in and of itself. And you don't mind, because the rewards are decent. (Hey, I'm not saying you should play Guild Wars; I'm saying that Blizzard's designers should -- they might learn something.)

Finally, Blizzard could have allowed Horde and Alliance to cooperate and mingle in some or all of the new world. This makes sense with the back story, and it would have afforded huge new possibilities for creating new social glue to hold players into the game. Instead, the exact opposite makes, as I understand it, the PvP realms almost unbearable (imagine trying to complete quests in a city 2/3 full of enemy players). I imagine a lot of PvP realms have become, effectively, PvNo-one realms.

Anyway, I'm done with time-sink games for now, and -- I hope -- forever. When someone brings out an MMORPG whose business model isn't based on keeping people on a repetitive treadmill while charging them for it, I may come back. Meanwhile, I will probably go back to games that I used to consider outrageous time-sinks, like Final Fantasy XII -- my goodness, 50h of gameplay with 25h of repetitious crap? That's ridiculous.