Friday, November 11, 2011

Occupy Azeroth - We are the 99%!

The news of the week continues to be Activision Blizzard's earnings call. An earnings call is a teleconference of a public company discussing their latest quarterly results. For most companies that is dry stuff, but for game companies this can get interesting: They tend to reveal information they otherwise don't tell players; and they are legally prevented from lying about that information, although of course they will always try to spin the info in the most favorable light.

Azuriel from I An Age bravely delved into the earnings call transcript, and found what Blizzard thinks is the cause of Cataclysm's relative lack of success: The end game is too difficult. Quote: "Once players reached max level, the end-game content in Cataclysm is more difficult. Balancing this content for our diverse player base can be very challenging." And they think they have a solution already: "The raid finder will make it easier than ever for casual players to experience end-game content, and it will open up a big part of the World of Warcraft to more of our players." I think I've even seen a reference to making raiding less "dance"-based in one of the recent Blizzard announcements, but I can't find the source right now.

I find this train of thought interesting, because it could herald MAJOR changes to how raiding works in future expansions like Mists of Pandaria. I do think that Mike Morhaime correctly identified the Cataclysm problem as being the gap between the leveling game and the raiding end game. And I believe that Blizzard is going to do everything possible to avoid the same story happening again in the next expansion. And that means finding a way for the majority of players of World of Warcraft to raid after having reached the level cap.

Blizzard might be underestimating how enormous that task is. We are *not* talking about applying a 25% nerf on some boss mob health here. What would be needed is a system in which the average player, and even the somewhat below average player, can have a meaningful experience with raid dungeons which makes him stay subscribed. That means raid encounters in which most players
  • do *not* have studied the "dance" on YouTube,
  • do *not* have spend hundreds of hours gearing up before even trying the first boss in the first raid,
  • do *not* have an uninterrupted block of 4+ hours available,
  • do *not* consider wiping 400 times before the first boss kill reasonable,
  • and finally do *not* have above average skills in moving fast or playing their character extremely well.
In short, for this plan to succeed there must be a form of easy-mode raiding which barely resembles the raids of today. That isn't to say that this can't co-exist with classic raiding. But for the average or below average player there must be a looking-for-raid functionality which allows him to jump quickly into a raid, get some success and reward in half an hour, and jump out of the raid again; without causing the raid to fail for the other participants, obviously.

I do think this is theoretically possible. How hard a raid is, how much preparation and/or skill it requires is a totally arbitrary value. You *can* make raids that aren't any more difficult than a current daily quest (although that might be overdoing it, it is probably sufficient if the raid is still challenging for a slightly below average player). It is just that these raids won't look at all like the current raids. It is safe to say that such changes would cause some veteran players to have apoplectic fits. And it is not sure that after 7 years of making raids designed for a minority of players, Blizzard developers are flexible enough to completely change their approach.

The main objection to such a system will be "but this is not what *I* want", from players who have played World of Warcraft for years, and raided for thousands of hours. But as I said, there is no necessity to remove heroic raiding from WoW just because you added easy-mode raiding. So at worst there is some loss of exclusivity. And that is probably a good thing, because "exclusivity" is exactly what killed Cataclysm. Any other solution proposed will still have to deal with the question what the 99% of players who aren't the elite are supposed to be doing after reaching the level cap. (And no, Mike, I don't agree that "the level-up content in Cataclysm is some of [y]our best works." It was too linear and didn't have good replayability.) Adding a hundred or so hours of leveling content every two years is obviously not a solution to achieving a more stable player base. If Blizzard wants to stretch out the time that average players stay subscribed after an expansion is released, they need to do something radically different.

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