Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Apologies don't improve games

After losing 20% of their players this year CCP apologized for having developed EVE in the wrong direction and promised to do better. So what? Does anybody believe they will actually remove the monocles from the game? They won't, and all the other damage to the game is done as well. Future development concentrating on what players have asked for is okay, but even there I'd be careful that this doesn't end up developing the game specifically towards the needs of the Goons or any other vocal minority.

Syncaine is hoping for an apology from Blizzard for Cataclysm, but frankly I couldn't care less whether they do that. First of all, Syncaine never played Cataclysm (nor Wrath. Syncaine is the Ed Zitron of the MMORPG blogosphere, he judges all games without playing them.), and wouldn't play World of Warcraft regardless to what Blizzard changed to the game, or said, or promised to do. Secondly even to players who did play Cataclysm, like me, an apology isn't of any use. We basically already got one, distributed over various Ghostcrawler posts. But just like for EVE, all the promises we ever get for improvements are whatever the loudest vocal minority is shouting for, and then that gets badly implemented and doesn't fix anything.

World of Warcraft at this point is not one game, but two. There is a game where people start at level 1 and level up through doing quests. You can play that part of the game for free up to level 20. Other Free2Play MMORPGs retain only single-digit percentages of the players that try the game. World of Warcraft retains 30% of players trying the game. But somebody at Blizzard decided that this still was too low, and somehow came to the absurd conclusion that the retention rate was linked to the leveling game being too hard. The second game of World of Warcraft starts at the level cap, and is, and always was, much, much harder than the leveling game. But Blizzard listened to the vocal minority of veterans having spent thousands of hours in the game, who wanted the leveling game to be faster (because they basically didn't want to play it at all), and the end game to be harder (because they had become so good at it through thousands of hours of training). Then of course it turned out that besides a handful of hardcore players, the WoW end game wasn't of much use to anybody, and Blizzard nerfed it, managing to please no-one in the process.

I do not think that World of Warcraft at this point can be fixed with an apology or giving in to any player demands. The game simply has broken apart. The majority of players, even the very casual, find the leveling game too easy now. And the gap between leveling to the cap and being prepared for what is coming after has grown to a chasm that can't be bridged any more.

Nerfing the end game is a crutch, and not a very good one at that. An overwhelming majority of players of World of Warcraft does not raid, and never will. Raiding is just a completely different game, and what links still exist between raiding and the rest of World of Warcraft only serve to make both games less good. Nobody ever listened to the needs of the silent majority, who actually liked leveling, and would have liked the expansions to lengthen their leveling fun, and make it more challenging. Instead World of Warcraft managed the unlikely feat to get shorter with every expansion. These days you enter a new zone, you cough once, and that causes enough mobs to drop dead that you already outleveled that zone. Where is the fun in that? The casual players never asked for the leveling game to be nerfed, and the end game players would have been better served with a "create level-capped character" functionality.

Vanilla World of Warcraft was justly hailed as a great game, because it was ONE game, with some sort of cohesion from start to finish. By concentrating on "player demands" and constantly fiddling with the end game, that cohesion has been lost. Cataclysm was a chance to fix the gaps and get the game together into a seamless whole again, but that chance has been squandered. And no apology is going to help that. I don't want Blizzard to apologize or promise yet another fix. Apologies don't improve games. I want them to learn from the experience and make Titan a cohesive game with no gap between leveling game and end game.

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