E3 is all my Twitter feed seems to be talking about this week, and watching the revolving door of new and upcoming releases across multiple platforms has given pause for thought. There seems to be a lot of interest in the concept of open world, dynamic gaming: infinite possibilities, multiple options to obtain the same reward. The days of questing on rails and a distinct linear path seems very much to be an idea that designers are leaving in the past… yet Warcraft remains as a bastion of the predictable and, in certain lights, the utterly dated. Because even though I’m an unabashed lover of the game and its look, age is undoubtedly beginning to show. And after all this time, when held up against other titles and design approaches?
Is it finally time to accept that Warcraft needs to take some genuine risks with its established format?
There will be those of my friends who, whenever I suggest an alternative approach in Azeroth, will give me the look that’s normally only associated with troublesome pets or annoying relatives. People don’t like and often fear change, but that’s not what this game needs anyway: Warcraft should very much remain its own arbiter of both direction and environment. The Company sells everything on a very distinctive graphical style and an almost predictable gameplay/endgame approach which remains largely unchanged despite significant updates to both mobs and race models in the last Expansion. This isn’t about cutting-edge realism or being able to scan your own face into the game. It’s about immersion and persistent lore and a sense of a truly unique and magical world. When living in such a sacred place, you don’t want to start tearing stuff up and altering everybody’s perception of what is ‘right’ because the reason most are here to begin with is the notion of a complete package that is, in effect, its own reward.
Except, there are now mutterings from various corners of the game world, that maybe the time is right for change. Blizzard publicly admitted at the weekend in a Q&A Session with players that it had made some significant errors of judgement in how story has been handled, that pre-produced rewards were not as compelling as perhaps they should have been. Most importantly, it then accepted shortcomings in the newest addition to player’s range of in-game displacement options outside of raiding and 5 Mans, the Garrison, especially in reference to players with many ‘alt’ characters. The biggest surprise of all in the last week however was the reversal of the previously intractable stance on Flying being available before the Expansion was over. The ‘requirement’ to earn this has sent thousands of players both willingly and happily out into Draenor in preparation, and even if you’re one of those who feels this is simply gating content by another name, the fact remains that the company reversed their outlook when they realised the depth of feeling over the ability’s long-term loss.
And that’s something that’s just doesn’t happen, and to me appears as an indicator of willingness to adapt I’ve not seen from this Company for many years. It makes me wonder what else might now be on the table as ‘up for discussion’ in the months to come: with 6.2 predicted to drop into the Game this time next week in the EU, we’ll soon be in a position where there is no upcoming content on the table for us to look forward to. There is, as yet, absolutely no indicator of what happens after we are sent to Tanaan, which is also something of a surprise. Because for as long as I can remember, there’s been a roadmap and insight of what we can expect when reaching the last tier of content before players even arrive. But not this time. All there is is an almost deliberately-engineered silence from Blizzard, punctuated by a selection of social media themed contests to keep people occupied throughout the summer months. Of course, anyone raiding will be wrapped up in the Citadel for the that time, with the rest of us expected to play current stuff until we get sick of the sight of it before returning to Legacy Farming. Because that’s always been the deal at the end of Expansions since they began.
For those with one eye on June 2016, of course, the connection between Movie (lots of original Lore Dudes) and players’ current location (we’re back in the past by tenuous means, Dark Portal’s just over there) is all too apparent. However, what E3 has shown is that you don’t necessarily require relevance or connection to your cinematic ‘tie-in’ to capitalise on enthusiasm. The two Star Wars titles that were announced by Electronic Arts in the last few days have little or nothing to do with the events of ‘The Force Awakens’, but are both being aimed at an audience who’ll come bounding out of Cinemas eager to reproduce their own fantasies in either title. Battlefront and the MMO Expansion will be available well before the movie’s December 18th release date, and I am sure that the game designers will be hoping that this resurgence in interest in the Franchise will be reflected in an influx of players to both. Does this mean that Warcraft is planning to directly link movie and game together, or will they be happy to use the coattails of Duncan Jones’ production to welcome a whole new generation of players to Azeroth?
The biggest issue then might well become the lack of innovation to encourage new players to even pick up the title. This is not a game, it must be said, that you can even scratch the surface of in an evening, or perhaps a week. It asks a great deal of its player-base, demanding levels of commitment and persistence that could easily put off the more casual player completely. On the flipside of this, there are a number of very loyal and quite intractable players who clearly don’t take kindly to not being able to do what they want, when they want. If these are the two extremes that Blizzard need to balance in any effort to innovate, how on earth do they start, or should they even try at all? Where is the happy medium to be struck in terms of steering the franchise forward? There’s been many suggestions put forward (a few by myself, it should be noted) on how this whole thing might play out when we hit the week of… ooh, let’s say Gamescom in August. Because by then some people may well have the Citadel beaten, and the more casual players might be ready to leave Tanaan’s Jungle backdrop. Ideally this would be the moment to tease players for what comes next, and Blizzard could do a lot worse than drop some major hints as to what we might expect in the future. As to how long we’d wait for an Expansion? Well I think that you’ll see it a good month before the Movie hits, just so that any technical issues with Launch could be ironed out. Ideally I could pin my limited reputation to the wall here and suggest you’ll have that announcement at Gamescom, the Beta live to play at Blizzcon and the new game in your hands in May 2016. Simples.
In fact I’d go as far to suggest that if Comic Con in July might tease players with glimpses of the Movie, however brief, there’s the distinct possibility of an Expansion trailer in August in Germany of the type we saw for Draenor. As to what would be in it? New races tend to appear every other Expansion, but can the game support another set of indigenous natives when class balance has become so important to continuity and complicated by association? Is anyone in a position to stomach a ‘reboot’ of the Original title, launched alongside the existing one, allowing everyone a choice of which ‘version’ of Warcraft we play? Will there inevitably be a mobile title (looking at you Lara Croft) to cash in on the popularity of Pet Battles and Missions? What I think is entirely possible at this stage is that Blizzard will find a way to make the Old World live and breathe again for players at the same time as presenting new content built on the game’s existing framework. But to do this, the ten year foundations of this game may need to be retired once and for all. That could mean our reboot is as simple as giving everyone a brand new game to install on top of their old one, and Blizzard finally relinquishing the revenue that is generated every time someone buys into the experience for the first time. All the Expansions are ultimately merged into one super-game, repackaged as Warcraft 2.0, recoded and presented as a fait accompli, allowing Blizzard a new and solid foundation on which to build the future years of gameplay. You’ll see the introduction of key open world elements and a slow divergence from the traditionally-accepted linear storytelling Blizzard loves so much. But basically, deep down, it will remain what it has always been, a title that dances to nobody’s tune but its own.
Because if there’s one thing people love, it is familiarity, and in an ever changing world of gaming innovation? This is the title millions of people still love to come home to, time and again.Related: Blizzard Entertainment, Column, Community, Developer, MMORPG, Update, World of Warcraft, WoW Wednesday