Where did World of Warcraft go wrong?
Something is rotten in the state of Azeroth, and it has been for a while.
The problem of talking about World of Warcraft‘s decline is that no one is interested in doing so. The game’s fans are eager to point out that the game still has an impressive number of subscribers rather than talking about the fact that, on average, the game has been losing more than a million subscribers per year since the launch of Cataclysm. The other side of the coin likes to forecast the game’s death, neglecting to acknowledge that even if the game keeps bleeding off subscribers at this rate it’s got several more years of life left in it while discounting spikes.
But there’s a frank discussion to be had, one that doesn’t invest itself in hyperbole, and it’s obvious that the game is on a downward arc. Over the past four years (Cataclysm launched at the very tail end of year six) the game has lost an extraordinary number of subscribers. Its growth has stalled. This is a stark reversal when the game was in an upward trend for the first six years of its lifespan. Why is that? What’s changed its fortunes so thoroughly? I wonder about that a lot, and I think a lot of it comes down to learning the wrong lessons from its height.
What do I mean by that? Let’s look at a little correlation.
The Burning Crusade rewrote a lot of fundamental parts of the game. The two faction-specific classes were no longer faction-specific any longer. Raiding wasn’t the same, either; the game incorporated smaller raids all around, along with tighter, more linear dungeon design. It introduced the idea of daily quests, adding in several reputation factions for players to advance both solo and in small groups. Toward the end of its cycle it introduced another 10-person raid and a bunch of gear that you could buy with Badges of Heroism, the currency that dropped from Heroic dungeons and raids. Specs still had a lot of diversity, which led to complaints about things like spellpower plate (i.e. armor that no one who wasn’t playing a Holy Paladin) would want.
Wrath of the Lich King took all of this to the next level. Heroics were tuned down, meant to be easier for players to progress through. In the early parts, a quest was added targeting a random Heroic dungeon for extra badges; at the end of the cycle, the Dungeon Finder baked those rewards into doing a random dungeon alone or with friends. Every raid now came in a 10-person or 25-person flavor. Not that you even needed to worry about those toward the end of the expansion’s life cycle, when getting the tier armor was as simple as getting badges. Sure, you had to go into raids and beat some bosses to get the upgrades for that tier armor, but you could literally just run random dungeons and grab a full set for your character that way. Dungeons became more scripted experiences, and there was even more emphasis on solo progression in the form of the Argent Tournament and a variety of single-player daily reputations.
Cataclysm reversed a lot of this. Raids were meant to be harder. Heroics were meant to be harder. The designers scaled back the availability of epic items significantly, removing the option of buying your tier set altogether and ensuring that most of what you could buy with badges would be blue items. Raids did get the strictly heroic version added in, which meant that any given raid had four different versions; at the end of the cycle the raid finder was added. Despite all of this, there were still some large-scale solo progression elements added into the game; if you didn’t like raiding, you could still assemble some equipment from reputations, which were slow and ubiquitous but were at least present. The raid finder’s introduction was welcomed, but the expansion ended off with far fewer subscribers. The expansion also didn’t add any new classes of any sort; two new races, yes, and some new class combinations, but that’s all.
Mists of Pandaria seemed to be a return to form, at first – the raid finder was in from the start, the Monk was added, and there were plenty of dailies. In fact, there were too many dailies, requiring a reputation grind to unlock another reputation grind at launch. Not that it mattered, as most of the reputation rewards were now gated behind Justice and Valor points, which encouraged you to get in there and raid if you wanted to actually see all of this gear you theoretically earned the right to wear already. Mists of Pandaria‘s overall progression saw lots of groups hitting hard walls early on in the raiding game. The game is currently waiting for the next expansion with its subscribers sitting at 7.6 million, fewer subscribers than the game had at the end of its launch version.
Obviously, correlation does not equal causation, but connected items correlating can offer some useful feedback. In this case, the changes wrought to the game over time suggest what people enjoy and what they don’t. Numbers were highest when tier sets were available to anyone putting in the time to collect the badges necessary, dungeons were easy and straightforward, a new class was being thrown around, and dailies were present without being ubiquitous. Or, as seems much more obvious, when players had options about what they were doing in the game.
The game right now gives you a simple choice when you hit the level cap: you raid in some fashion, you PvP in some fashion, or you have nowhere to go. You can argue that the game isn’t forcing you into vertical progress, but let’s not be ridiculous here, that’s the whole point of the game. Saying it’s not forcing you into vertical progress is like saying that Super Mario Bros. isn’t telling you you can’t commit suicide via Bowser over and over. You can, but it runs counter to the stated design goals.
At a glance, my suggestion would be that the popularity of the raid finder isn’t due to a deep-seated desire of players to raid; it’s indicative of the fact that it allows you to raid without, well, all of that raid. You show up and you get a shot at your desired items. Some of these people can’t hack it in a raid due to skill, latency, or whatever. Some of them can do fine but don’t have a desire to devote that sort of time any longer. Some just want to log in, see some stuff happen, have fun, and progress their characters.
In Wrath of the Lich King you had a lot of options to do stuff with your character whether you raided or didn’t. The Argent Tournament gave you goals to work toward without forcing you to even step into a dungeon, much less a full raid. Even before that you had plenty of reputations to level up, and you had options about doing those, too. Sure, slapping on a tabard and chain-running dungeons was the fastest way to get to the top there, but if you wanted to just grind out a few dailies every day that was also viable. The game didn’t care. Get there faster or get there a little slower. Ditto with tier; you could assemble a tier set much faster with the badge drops from heroic raiding, but if you didn’t mind waiting you could still work toward it without raiding.
Put it more simply: people like having lots of options. When you’ve designed a game that doesn’t give you a choice of destination – and let’s be fair, World of Warcraft only has the one ultimate destination – you give them choices about how to get there.
Unfortunately, the designers of the game in the past several years have steadily torn down any meaningful choices for players. In Wrath of the Lich King, there was distinct equipment that was better for certain specs, sometimes even specs that didn’t share equipment with many other classes, but that’s slowly been eroded. So has distinct class identity, at that; the visual flair is a bit different, but an Arms Warrior and a Retribution Paladin are only different now in a few areas compared to the vast differences of earlier versions. “Bring the player, not the class” started with noble intentions, and Wrath struggled with hitting that sweet spot of giving every spec some useful roles to fill inside of a full raid while still keeping them distinct, but eventually that just got tossed by the wayside. It’s the reason why pure damage classes like Rogues feel a certain malaise; there’s so little separating the specs from one another or even from other physical DPS that what made the class attractive in the first place is lost.
This was to avoid the problem of loot that almost no one wanted, the challenge of gearing for some kind of off-the-wall specs, and so forth. But it also erodes a lot of what people enjoyed over time.
Cataclysm reworked the talent system, and Mists of Pandaria reworked it again, so now there are basically three (or four) sub-classes for each individual class with a handful of choices. Is it easier to balance than the old system? I have no doubt. Is it functional? Totally. Do people seem to like it as much as the old system? Arguably not. Even if the choices were never really all that optional, it takes away the feel of the original system. Sure, most of your choices were always made for you, but the bits you did get to choose and the mechanics of choosing felt better.
In short, it seems like we keep losing choices. There are fewer options about how to play, more funneling toward a single option that is doubtlessly cleaner on paper but winds up feeling less engaging to players. For all the discussion of why these changes have been made, it seems as if no talks have been had about why players like the old way of doing thing, or for that matter why the game’s subscriptions have dropped off steadily over the past couple of years.
What would I have recommended? Sticking the trajectory. Make tier sets something earnable by everyone willing to put in the time, even adding in slow solo mechanics to earn those badges. Sure, give them some upgrades with boss drops for people pursuing hard content, but make it a difference of “how fast can you get this” rather than “can you ever achieve this if you don’t go into raids.” Diversify your paths. Add in more dungeons. Add in different sorts of dungeons, instanced content that isn’t just a straight fight from start to finish – imagine an exploration-style dungeon where the emphasis is on jumping and movement, where classes with movement toys have a distinct advantage.
No, I don’t know if that would have fixed everything. Maybe six years was always going to be the turning point. But I don’t think it’s a law of the universe by any means. I think the game has consistently been designed by people who have taken it in a sharply different direction than the one the game had been heading in, emphasizing a model that really appeals to some people and doesn’t appeal to a lot more. We’re looking at a four-year slump, and based on what players have been told thus far about Warlords of Draenor it’s just going to keep going.
And that’s sad. And I don’t think it’s something necessary. The trajectory was there, it needed only to be embraced. Maybe that isn’t the whole of the facts, but there was a shift, the drops keep coming, and it seems like the discussion to be had is what changed between the height and the current point. The game has several more years of life in it, without a doubt, but it’d be a shame to see it sinking and dissipating when it could be doing so much more.