You'll look back at Draenor in two years and realise just how important it was for the game to move forward.
Just you watch.
— Gotta Alt Them All (@AlternativeChat) July 15, 2016
In the last few days before Azeroth changes forever, it is perhaps unsurprising that I feel the need to be reflective. A lot of copy has been published around Warlords of Draenor, Blizzard and the individuals responsible for producing it in the last year or so, and much of that has been less than kind. Everybody in the mainstream media has their own individual pet theory as to why World of Warcraft’s not the game it used to be, as if to justify the vitriol and anger there has to be a reason why the game is the villain and not the people who write the columns or host the podcasts or streams. I’ve been there, and I’ve said my piece, and with the benefit of reflection have come to understand that Draenor was, when all is said and done, exactly the content this game needed. Warlords was an expansion that did, in the end, redefine the entire franchise going forward.
The biggest problem in this expansion was keeping everybody happy.
If you step back and look at Warlords of Draenor as purely an exercise in popularity, there’s a section of the demographic who, pretty much the entire time, were never up in arms. They happily played their way from start to finish with minimal objection and effectively remained the lifeblood of Azeroth. For those involved in organized raiding, life may not have been totally smooth sailing and undoubtedly there have been casualties, especially as the last tier extended way beyond its expected lifespan. However, for those people, raiding remains the reason they exist and on that front, the future never really dimmed in significance. The difficulties occurred when you didn’t raid, the other extreme end of a demographic that demanded to be satisfied in increasingly disparate fashions.
The mass exodus of players once their free month of playtime had expired following the expansion’s launch told only one side of the story. I firmly believe it forced Blizzard to rethink the manner in which they reported the game’s popularity to financial markets and served as a salutatory warning that the lessons learned from Cataclysm had not been fully addressed. It was all well and good to entice people to raid and participate in organized content, but if nothing significant and enjoyable existed outside those areas? There was always going to be trouble. However, depending on who you spoke to, those issues were wildly different. PvP was basically broken. Questing at end-game was non-existent. Dungeons remained effectively pointless once a certain gear threshold was reached. The Garrison, championed as a means to make casual play more interesting, became a benchmark for who could best exploit the single player mini-games within.
However, without the outpouring of complaint that accompanied this expansion, and the manner by which the company listened and then acted upon it, we’d not have Legion. It is abundantly apparent, even with the expansion still six weeks away, just how much has been thrown at The Broken Isles. What is becoming evident is that it has taken from Mists of Pandaria for the supertanker that is the Warcraft franchise to realize it needed a course change and act upon it. In the meantime, one could argue that there has been all manner of distraction away from the frantic attempts at redefinition to keep the ‘family’ occupied while Blizzard worked out where the engine room was in fact located. If I were a storyteller, I’d also look at the factors acting on the title behind the scenes and offer some insight into how the Real World transformed this title. It wasn’t just the movie that altered the course of events; key personnel changes within the company and the shifting of personalities behind the game away from the center of action and to the periphery have all affected this eventual transformation.
There is one key point at the center of the renaissance; the re-acceptance that the audience for this title is as varied as the game itself. At the center, undoubtedly, is the notion of the varieties of friendship at play. There are infinite means to participate in Azeroth, and that has always been the case from the earliest days of the title. These days it is less about stopping everything to play, and more often than not having to make time within busy schedules and often very tight timescales. That requires the developers to provide incentives that actively encourage some to participate, allow others to not feel they’re falling behind and, for the voracious, keep giving new distractions whilst they wait for the new stuff to come along. Time has always been the ultimate gating mechanism for Blizzard but as the game has evolved over the last decade, that gate has become largely irrelevant for those who decide to dedicate themselves to the task of playing their way. Whether you refuse to leave the Wandering Isle and remain faction neutral for 100 levels, play Iron Man style and delete your character the first time they die, or level every one of your 700+ battle pets to 25, time no longer dictates the majority of player actions.
If you want something badly enough in an MMO, you grind it. This has always been the way in Azeroth. However, in Pandaria it was impossible to do this quickly thanks to the rigidity and repetition in the questing system. In Warlords, the Garrison removed the need for people to raid , but by placing high-level gear in a static environment it also effectively removed the requirement to grind. All that was needed was patience and those who expected their game to be played in order to receive rewards sat and waited for content that effectively never came. The designers failed to grasp the need for carrots that weren’t loot based, that storyline and plot were needed to motivate just as much as, perhaps more than, being better geared on a weekly basis. Effectively, we needed the two extremes that Mists of Pandaria and Warlords of Draenor provided to allow Blizzard to create the middle ground that the Broken Isles now presents.
Ultimately the biggest single factor Blizzard has failed to grasp are the changes they can do nothing about; social media, streaming and mobile gaming amongst them. There’s also been the real and probably embarrassing wake up call that many players would rather play World of Warcraft for free in its Vanilla form than anything currently offered. Those looking for a return to a time when the only thing to worry about was level 60 and flying was never even an option? Legion will need to appease them and that might be hard with the level of sophistication currently on offer. If all people demand is the simplicity of fighting a system that never even considered a world outside of two kingdoms? The Broken Isles has lore that fits perfectly within the ‘Vanilla’ restrictions of the past and systems that allow you to work at your own pace, whatever that might be. There’s also a ton of social based changes coming, quite apart from the Facebook integration we’ve spoken about at length.
There’s also one other factor at play here that’s not been considered: will people come back to play as they did at the start of Warlords? A large part of this equation seems to be wrapped around the belief that the ‘seasonal’ nature of gaming now accepts that you’ll have people arriving for launch and leveling, and then quite possibly leaving again after a month, but with the way the game’s audience is now reported, most won’t even consider this as failure. However undoubtedly the aim this time around is to retain a larger core audience: if my small corner of the Warcraft world is any indicator, I’ll be looking for a new guild if I want to do anything other than five man content in an organized fashion. There will be no real indicators of success until the servers collapse under the weight of launch traffic, if that even acts as one at all. I sense I’ll know if Blizzard has it right by the amount, or lack, of complaint that appears in the weeks following release. If everybody’s too busy playing to complain? I think that’s probably going to qualify as a success.
As you read this, the pre-patch will be live in both the US and EU, and I’ll be fighting my way through piles of transmog gear. It’ll be several days before I even play my characters, but that’s not an issue because, for me, Legion’s already proved that not only do Blizzard listen to criticism, but they’ve produced an expansion I am genuinely looking forward to playing. For me, Warlords was the expansion that did everything else wrong so that Legion could finally set the record straight, once and for all. In the next six weeks, I’d expect an awful lot of feedback from players being acted on, some last minute emergency hotfixes, and no gold at all from my Garrison. None of these will be a surprise, all of them part of the normal process of evolution in this game.
Welcome to the next chapter of Warcraft History.Related: Blizzard Entertainment, Column, Legion, MMORPG, Update, World of Warcraft, WoW Wednesday