Before I begin, it must be noted that I posted a short two paragraph exerpt from this blog on Blizzard’s Battle.net World of Warcraft forum, under a thread titled ‘No End Game For Non-Raiders’ – page 8. Don’t bother looking for it though because you won’t find it. Within 10 minutes of my posting, the entire thread was deleted. As an author & legal research analyst, there’s just something gratifying about hitting a nerve…
I’ve been playing video games since high school, when Pong was first introduced in our local Pizza Hut. My friends and I easily spent more money on playing arcade games than we did on food in those days. I also purchased Atari’s 2600 console system when it first came out some years later. That would be 1977 for those of you scoring at home.
The first computer software role playing game I owned was Castle Wolfenstein, featuring a digital decision-based plot discovery engine and a text display. Graphics? What graphics? GPUs didn’t exist, the computer CD ROM drive hadn’t been invented yet and 512k was a lot of RAM. Video gaming has definitely come a long way.
I won’t bore you with my beta experiences playtesting titles like Ultima Online, The Sims, Earth & Beyond and Guild Wars. Except for the fact that they would pave the way for me to play World of Warcraft.
WoW’s release was groundbreaking. A completely pervasive playing environment with near-promiscuous social player interaction weaved into robust game play mechanics. What really got my attention though was how immense the world was. Ground mounts weren’t available until level 40, which meant continental exploration was achieved entirely on foot for the first 2/3rds of a character’s level progression.
Participation in end game was a rite of passage. So much so that unless one was in a raiding guild, one had to know someone in a raiding guild to even see the content. Or get lucky spamming trade chat LFG.
Then Burning Crusade came out. Flying mounts were introduced as were a couple of new races (the mere thought of a Blood Elf Paladin really made some alliance stalwarts cringe.) Flying mounts planted the seeds of immediacy for players, allowing them to go anywhere they wanted to in the new expansion setting. Though the added geography really wasn’t all that sizable.
Blizzard noticed a divide forming between the geared and the wannabe geared in the original, so BC’s PvE dungeons were made smaller to speed up the casual player’s progression. What happened however was the ubers got to gear up even faster, and then their alts got to gear up faster. I lost count of the number of players I know who were irked at replacing T2 & T3 purples with BC quest greens within the first week of playing the expansion. Item socketing became paramount and the money was considered ridiculous by vanilla standards. Regardless, end game content still remained the exclusive property of raiding guilds.
By Wrath of the Lich King item levels and loot became even more ludicrous, as World of Warcraft’s focus steered even closer to making end game accessible to the masses. BoAs were born to accelerate this, though the only characters they affected were alts of toons who were already geared and had emblems to burn. If a player already had a level 55 character, the new Death Knight hero class became available. It spawned at level 55, so the time normally invested in level grinding was minimized. Naxxramas was relocated and tweaked. Patch 3.1 introduced us to Ulduar. Patch 3.2 brought us ToC – which rapidly earned its reputation as a loot piñata. Patch 3.2.2 featured a most excellent rebirth of Onyxia’s Lair. All this to get more players into end game more quickly.
But the piece de resistance was patch 3.3 which gave us both Icecrown Citadel (at last… the REAL end game!) and the Dungeonfinder tool. The Dungeonfinder in combination with Northrend’s Heroism and Valor emblems (copiously awarded for merely completing a dungeon using the system) allowed players to grind epic level gear in practically no time. Soon, characters became raid geared before the players themselves were actually ready to raid, causing FAIL/noob attitudes to erupt in randoms and widened the divide even more.
Also introduced in Wrath was phasing where timelines changed throughout the course of quest chains. While it was a clever way to expand the expansion, it basically sucked for ongoing group play. Unless characters were on the same quest in a quest chain, they couldn’t play together in the same geographical area because they were (all together now) on different timelines. Hell, they couldn’t even see each other! So unless playing schedules meshed perfectly, players would have to solo and farm or grind rep elsewhere until their friends caught up. But that was OK with Blizzard as quests were nerfed to account for it… to the point where the vast majority of them became easily soloable. Only a few in each zone required any true group participation.
So here we are in Cataclysm, where solo-friendly phasing remains intact. Where a single daily quest that takes 10 minutes to complete yields more money for a character than vanilla’s AQ40 did over the course of a week. Original level 60 Tier 3 epic gear was item level 88 and took almost a year of raid grinding and trading up to acquire. Current level 85 Cata Tier 12 gear is approaching item level 400 and can be had in just months of raiding – if not weeks for the serious player. We also have the ability to fly anywhere in the game now at upwards of 300% normal movement speed – in some cases just short of 500% with the master riding skill, guild perks and mounted movement bonuses. I dare say that, in the same way automation technologies and the World Wide Web shrunk our planet, the combination of game play nerfing and Cata’s flying system has shrunk World of Warcraft.
Courtesy of patch 4.2 there is now a Raidfinder system (can you say sphincter factor 12?) to complement the Dungeonfinder. Originally, LK’s Dungeonfinder was intended to not only gear up characters faster, but also to provide live fire reps so players could improve their teamwork in preparation for raiding. Cata dungeons are a direct extension of that as some of the boss fights are downright technical in nature.
In part I’m sure the difficulty of level-appropriate Cata heroics was intended to prepare players for the use of Raidfinder. But the expectation that players invest hours of spare time watching Youtube videos to learn a boss fight just so they can participate in a heroic smacks of catering to the hardcore customer. Which can be a good thing as long as it’s also good for business.
But is it?
While definitely not hurting, Blizzard’s subscribership is slowly shrinking. Their spin is that (a) players are getting so good that they are consuming content too fast, and (b) subscribership is subject to major expansion release churnover. According to Blizzard president Michael Morhaime, the cure is more expeditious releases of “major new raid and dungeon content.” The plan is to slow it down by speeding it up. They’ve even gone the way of other struggling MMORPGs and made the game free to play up to level 20, calling it the World of Warcraft Starter Edition.
For what it’s worth, I did some number crunching. As of this writing, according to WoWProgress.com there are 1,605,430 level 85 characters that have either personally scored a kill in Tier 11 content, or are members of a guild that has. Since most raiding guilds will likely have some level 85 characters that don’t raid, the actual number of players who do raid will be less. Factor in the number of T11 raiders who also have multiple raiding toons and the number of subscribers who raid nosedives even more. Performing simple arithmetic, the absolute best case scenario using the raw 1.6M number makes it a fairly safe bet that (of the current 11.1 million subscribers) barely 14% are engaged in raiding. Or to be more succinct… 86% are not.
My guess would be that Blizzard is either missing the point or avoiding it. Players aren’t blowing through raid and dungeon content - hardcore* players are blowing through raid and dungeon content. World of Warcraft’s primary game play directive has become one of herding the masses into end game as quickly as possible in pursuit of ensuing major expansion sales. But to physically make it through end game requires a player to invest serious time and study outside of the game, regardless of how helpful a player’s guild might be. Based on this trend one can surmise that 86% of WoW subscribers are not up to that task and I truly believe Blizz is alienating them as a result.
I was hardcore for years and completely understand how that 14% not being catered to with frequent end game raid and dungeon updates might lead them to eventual boredom and loss of interest. But for the 86% who aren’t rocketing through T11/T12 raids and heroics, increased emphasis on more end game dungeon and raid content tells them that their $15.00 a month isn’t as valuable as the $15.00 a month paid by the 14% of subscribers who do raid. Activision Blizzard’s announcement that frequent “major new raid and dungeon content” releases will spearhead the recovery of WoW’s subscribership essentially indicates that 14% is somehow generating more revenue (thus deserving more focus) than 86%. So unless the plan to push more of the same only faster is based on a guarantee that those other 86% of subscribers will drop what they’re doing to catch up, I don’t see how this fixes the problem.
Having played through the massive acceleration curves between expansions (and some notable patches) I begin to ponder the future of WoW. Maybe it’s just me but new content is starting to look like rehashes of old content with fresh coats of paint. More money, increasingly rapid level progression, more achievements and “over the counter” availability of raid quality gear appear to be Blizzard’s primary incentives for the supplementary 86% to keep playing.
Which begs two questions: how much more uberdom reinforcement can be withstood before game balance implodes… and has World of Warcraft creatively run its course?
How Fast Was Level 85 Reached in Cataclysm? by Mike Fahey
If you’d like to hear Podcasts of Activision Blizzard’s 2011 Q1 & Q2 Conference calls for yourself:
*** For the record – I define hardcore as all-in. For some their passion lies in making music, for others it is driving race cars or jumping out of perfectly good airplanes. As it pertains to this blog, hardcore depicts gamers who choose to make mastering World of Warcraft their hobby and passion. Being hardcore isn’t a bad thing unless narcissisism or condescendency becomes the manner in which it is expressed. But that’s just me…