Depending on who you speak to, Warcraft currently is still Best MMO EU or in a state of utter desolation. Never at any point in the game’s ten year plus lifespan has there been so much mumbling and muttering about what once was the title everyone wanted to emulate and nobody could touch. So, the first question I ask myself whenever this conversation comes up in social circles is simple: just who is right, here? How is it possible that so many players can hold such differing viewpoints on what is going wrong inside the Franchise? How do you solve a problem like Warcraft when nobody can actually come to a consensus on what that ‘problem’ actually is?
A lot of people have been in this MMO relationship for a long time, and I use that word deliberately and right up at the top of this article, because it is this that defines so many of the problem Blizzard will have with large sections of the static player base. Ten years worth of time invested in anything, computer game or not, is going to count for a great deal in many individual’s minds. All those hours, countless bosses and millions of gold… however, most will tell you that it is not those moments that matter as a player in Azeroth. It is the shared experience of past adventures with friends and family that carries a far greater emotional value. Plus many cannot in good conscience dismiss the commitment to others as Guild Leaders or inside established ‘communities’ created within the Game: these are the real reasons that prevent many from saying their goodbyes.
It is not as if this side of the game is particularly broken right now either. If you overlook the issues with what many consider is Mythic Raiding’s awkward 20 man limit, pretty much everything in the Raiding garden is rosy. In fact, I’ll show you many people for whom their sub or WoW Tokens is only being maintained because Raiding exists in game. If it were not for the desire to keep pace with current content, they’d not be playing. There are a remarkable number of people for whom Garrisons are not a millstone, but in fact the saving grace of the Expansion, allowing them to feel they have a relevance without the need to be tied to their computers or give up completely due to extenuating Real Life constraints. Yet still there is a feeling that with three million players vanishing since November, all cannot actually be well in Azeroth.
Because if everything was great, why would so many people have left to begin with?
I had dinner with a very good friend on Monday and something was said that I feel bears repeating: she’s always drifted from the game during its lean times, and I’m betting she’s not alone, yet she has continued to pay for her sub regardless. As tastes have changed in MMO playstyles over the years, the ‘static’ population of Warcraft has moved from the title to other tastes, but the manner in which Blizzard has recorded ‘interest’ has remained largely unchanged. With the introduction of the WoW Token it is no longer a requirement for players to even hold a sub, so numbers may yet continue to fall. More importantly, players can cancel their commitment but if their last day of play isn’t for six months, they’re still counted as a Subscriber. As a result, numbers could also be considered as deceptive.
However, I’d be foolish to ignore the spectre from last week’s column in my assessment of current woes: players have been utilising social media this week to very publicly quit the game over the no-flying issue. As Blizzard quietly and without ceremony upgraded their Launcher publicity material of the Spectral Runesaber to a deliberately wingclipped version of their original graphic, it seems that the decision has already been made, ahead of the much anticipated 6.2 Q&A: flying in current content appears to have gone for good. Players seem to believe that they can have a real say over how Blizzard design their game, but the company are clearly confident enough in this direction to stick to their guns, at least for now. What players don’t know, of course, is how this will be compensated in upcoming developments, and if the company has new plans to replace or even negate the need to fly in any subsequent content.
And here is the bigger issue when we talk about what’s wrong with the game: what if Blizzard doesn’t share the fan’s concerns and already has the next couple of years planned in advance? There’s certainly an argument in my mind to think this could be possible, when one realises that at this time in 2016 I’ll be buying cinema tickets to attend one of the most hotly-anticipated movies of the year, which just happens to be based on this gaming franchise. In fact, a smart woman would look at the notable absence of certain key Blizzard designers from social media in the last six months [*] and wonder if something big was coming. After all, we have absolutely no idea what transpires after 6.2 launches (presumably sometime this month) and after that? Emptier than something with a LOT of space inside it. Blizzard are holding back on something fairly substantive, I’d wager: the question now becomes how much of a tie-in any potential new Expansion could be to the movie… or could there be something even larger on the horizon for the Franchise?
What if Blizzard were planning something so huge for the next chapter of the game that not having flying simply wouldn’t matter?
Depending on how you judge success, numbers of actual players could be said to be largely irrelevant in an age where Free to Play is the norm. Blizzard’s still clinging to a Sub-based model, remember, even if Tokens allow you to play using in-game gold, it is still cheaper in the long run to hold a recurring sub. If the company is judging success for the amount of money they make, then I’d say they’re not exactly worrying about the end of all things quite yet. They may also believe that what they’re planning is solid enough to ride any amount of seasonal movement: the Summer is always a lean time for the title, and that’s not changed since I started playing in 2004. After all, if the weather’s good, the last thing you want to be doing is being tied to a computer.
But I digress: what could be coming? I’ve discussed a couple of options on my own Blog: possibly a mobile/tablet tie-in, the unlikely yet awesome in my mind ‘complete reboot’ of the title with a Loyalty bonus for long-standing players, allowing them to import their characters from the ‘old’ game, and even the possibility of the introduction of much sought-after open world elements we’re seeing become so popular in other MMO’s. What we do know does need to be addressed as a matter of priority is the architecture of the game itself: this entire structure’s built on, in cases, more than 10 year old code. That sixteen slot Inventory bag you can’t replace is only one of many annoyances that have the potential to act as the straw on a long-term player’s back, that final tiny niggle that could stop annoy them enough to quit playing for good. So actually, a Reboot’s got a lot going for it, when you think about it.
Except, of course, there’s those people who’ve been in this relationship for a decade and won’t want to move on, however attractive you make the incentives.
Ironically, I’m seeing suggestions now of the possibility Blizzard could launch a ‘new’ version of the game and leave the old one running simultaneously, simply allowing the latter to die quietly and without ceremony. It would probably solve all the potential issues at a stroke: if they make the old version less attractive over time, then people may simply migrate without being prompted. From where I’m sitting, the chance to start again is becoming more attractive by the day, and not just because I’m frustrated in both Normal and Legacy content by a lack of effective progress of my own personal goals. Truly effective and engaging gaming hinges on the notion of personal choice actually mattering: which quest path you take, how you attack different problem solving exercises, the need to interact (or not) with other players. Give us the old beside the new and some will always say the former’s superior. But, over time, if the old is no longer maintained, you’ll inevitably make your choice to either stay or move on.
In this regard, there wouldn’t be a problem to solve with Warcraft to begin with. It would simply do as it always has, continue regardless, until the last person leaving the Servers was obliged to turn out the lights. Perhaps this would be the most ideal solution of them all, because everybody wins. Let’s hope there’s not too long after 6.2 launches before we get a real idea of what is ahead of us for this journey. It would be nice to know if we’ll be needing that second breakfast and elevenses cooked and packed…
[*] Retweeting stuff and marketing your own company doesn’t count.Related: Blizzard Entertainment, Column, Expansion, Warlords of Draenor, World of Warcraft, WoW Wednesday