Who is this game for?

If you have ever taken a class in writing, public speaking, any form of communication skill at all (including manufacturing and the creative arts), you know that one of the first things you learn is to define your intended audience. You simply cannot communicate effectively if you do not know who is on the other end. You would not launch into a scholarly discussion of the Laws of Thermodynamics if your intended audience is your toddler about to touch a hot stove. Nor would you frantically exclaim, “No! Hot! Ouchie!” in a presentation on heat transference to a group of industrial engineers.

Novelists, movie makers, musicians, politicians, housing tract developers, beer companies — all know that to be successful they must explicitly define their target audience for whatever product they are selling (even if, as in the case of politicians, that product is themselves) and then market the product in terms relevant to that demographic. If they fail to do this, their product success will be at best mediocre and at worst an utter failure. Their audience may be either broadly defined (“adults in their peak earning years”) or narrowly (“American fly fishermen who prefer waders to hip boots”), but it must be defined. Even if the intended audience is several groups, those groups must be described, and every feature of the product marketed in ways each group can relate to.

Which of course brings me to my topic for today: Who is WoW’s intended audience? More specifically, how does Blizz define the game’s intended audience? Who are they developing for?

I have no idea. Worse, I am not sure Blizz has, either.

Given Blizz’s phobia about actually communicating directly with their customers, I would not of course expect a public statement about this from them. All we can go by, therefore, are “statements” in the form of game design. The things they do with the game, and to some extent with marketing strategies, can give us an indirect assessment of how they define their target audience.

Bad news in that case, because lately what we see are conflicting and contradictory designs. The message from them is: “We have no coherent game goal. We are writing for, y’know, everyone. Whatever.”

Here is a perfect example. (Shout-out to The Grumpy Elf for his piece last week on what leveling may look like in Legion. It really started me on this line of thought.)

  • Over the last few expansions, and continuing into Legion, the game is less and less welcoming to new players. For someone who has never played this game before, and who may have no one to help them through it, the leveling process is daunting and confusing. Profession leveling is completely out of sync with character leveling. Blizz does nothing to guide new players, lazily relying on third party sites to do this for them. Game lore has been so twisted to accommodate design mechanics that a new player wishing to learn it would need a graduate course of study to do so. The message is that Blizz is not designing this game for masses of new players.
  • Cata, Mists, WoD, and Legion all introduced game design and game play changes on a massive scale. Most classes have had to be completely relearned from the ground up each expansion. Similarly, professions — especially in WoD and Legion — have undergone changes so extensive  as to make them unrecognizable from only a couple of years ago. Raid structures have changed completely, in a way that has arguably made raiding less accessible to many players. Social aspects of the game — a reason many players started playing WoW in the first place — have been made less and less significant, through cross-realm LFR and questing, weakening of guild perks, and failure to police the most vile and threatening players. People who have invested a lot in this game over the years, in the form of in-game friendships and guild structures, developing class skills, improving raid skills, etc., do not like it when their efforts are completely negated every time there is a new expansion. The message is that Blizz is not designing this game for long-time current players.

So, if they are not designing the game for new players, and they are not designing it for current players, who exactly is their intended audience?

Your guess is as good as mine. There is no discernibly coherent strategic design goal in WoW. If Blizz does indeed have a defined target audience in mind, it must be an extremely narrow group — eSports celebrity wannabes? Elite raiding teams who bring endorsement money? Their own devs? None of these make sense for a game whose business model is mass paid subscriptions.

If I knew that the game were being developed for a certain audience, even if I were not part of that audience, I think I could accept many of the most frustrating aspects of the game I see now. Because I would know that they made sense in that context, and I could either accept the limitations such a context imposed on me and keep playing, or I could not accept them and move on. (Chaos, on the other hand, when it is the result of either laziness or incompetence, makes me angry. Especially if I am paying for it.)

But the more depressing and likely explanation is that Blizz has no idea who their target audience is, they simply react to every perceived gaming fad and to every dev department’s brilliant ideas for their particular corner of the game. No one is shaping the product for a lucrative demographic, no one even thinks this is a desirable goal. Heck, I am beginning to suspect no one even thinks it is a question worth asking. They are on auto-pilot, mindlessly developing whatever seems nifty to someone, because that is what they do. To return to my example of discussing the Laws of Thermodynamics with a toddler, eventually Blizz’s lack of direction will bow to the Second Law of Thermodynamics:

The entropy of an isolated system that is not in equilibrium tends to increase over time, approaching a maximum value at equilibrium.

“Maximum entropy” is not good news for WoW.

No! Hot! Ouchie!






11 thoughts on “Who is this game for?

  1. I’m not sure how you can say raiding is less accessible. There are four levels of difficulty, flexible sizes, cross-realm raiding, valor upgrades to help with ilvl, and the adventure guide. I’m sorry, but if someone is out there not raiding, it is because they chose not to.

    1. Yeah, it’s a fair point, and I suspect where anyone stands on it has everything to do with their individual situations. The reasons I made the statement are pretty complex and inter-related, but check out my posts on the state of raiding, as they do get at where I am coming from:


      Basically it centers around two factors: declining guild active membership and the failure of the flex concept. Many social guilds can no longer field enough members for a raid team, and even if they can, anything beyond LFR is progression because of the way the tiers are structured. (The promise of Mists flex level becoming WoD Normal “friends and family” never materialized.) The group finder is not a way for someone who is not already an accomplished raider to go beyond LFR, they simply will almost never be accepted into a group.

      My hunch is that you are a very good raider, so it is difficult for you to see that, for example, HFC(N) is daunting for even a semi-casual guild raid team, particularly when they may not have enough active players to do anything but pug every raid night. And having a differing composition of players every raid night means a team really never becomes a jelled team, which means it is more difficult to down bosses with complex mechanics, which means people just lose interest in the activity. For many players, a significant part of the raid experience is that they have fun with people they know and have played with, and having to pug every night often removes that as a factor. It is not that they choose not to raid, it is more that they have very few options to do so, in spite of what may be the appearance of options.

      1. I totally agree that they failed in properly tuning normal to be for the “friends and family,” and I can’t argue the limitations in using the group finder. But players CAN solve roster problems. If your guild needs raiders, go recruit some. If you’re always pugging in the era of flex size, go recruit a few more for your team. We keep a roster of around 20 so even if a bunch of folks can’t make it, we have more than the required 10. I think players need to take a little ownership in the guild/team they are with, when it comes to finding personnel. It’s not Blizzard’s fault if I’m not surrounding myself with the right players. They are still very much out there.

  2. “… they simply react to every perceived gaming fad and to every dev department’s brilliant ideas for their particular corner of the game.”

    I think this is Blizzard to a T, with one small note – it has to be a fad that they like. It if is a fad or interest of their players, then if they don’t like it, too bad. If they like it, no matter what their players think – it’s going in!

    To be fair, some of these can probably produce something fun and add to the game. But most often, for me, they feel odd or out of place. Not inherently bad at times – but just odd. Plants versus Zombies in Hillsbrad is a good example. It’s not a bad adaptation of that game per se…but what does it have to do with anything?

    WoW has always tried to walk that line of silly and serious and I’m of the mind that it gets that balance wrong more often than it gets it right. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t want 100% silly or 100% dark but, for me, Blizzard hardly ever gets the balance right.

    I also kind of feel this way (who is this game for) when thinking about the class revamps coming for Legion. I keep reading commenters on Blizzard Watch who are excited about the changes and I don’t think they are alone. Meanwhile, every time I think of undead beast Marksmanship is getting, my interest in Legion takes a big hit. That’s even before thinking about the rest of the class changes or the over-the-top angst that I think Legion will bring.

    1. It does have to be a fad they like, you are right.

      I am not necessarily against the silly things they do, as long as they do not make it mandatory at some point. But some of the silly things as well as some of the expansion ideas cause them to have to really distort the lore in order to accommodate them, and years of doing this have given us “lore” that resembles the U.S. Tax Code in its complexities.

      I am not seeing much positive about the hunter changes, except possibly on Blizzard Watch. Even that staunch defender of almost all hunting changes, Bendak, seems quite pessimistic so far, as was the latest Final Boss review of MM spec in Legion.

      I remain convinced that my only hunter hope for Legion is BM, and if that is badly balanced, I will not have a hunter main.

  3. Many of mycurrent issues with WoW stem from the impact that WoD had on guilds. Most of the strong guilds on my server have finished HFC Heroic and either stopped there because they can’t get a team of 20 who want to do mythic, or they’re well into mythic (like my current guild in partnership with another guild). The weaker guilds have mostly given up or collapsed, usually because their better raiders have been recruited by stronger guilds. I experienced this in the first 6 months of WoD. Now even the stronger guilds on my server are trying to recruit members off each other because the pool of heroic to mythic raiders is shrinking. We’re still doing normal runs with alts to help gear up new joiners who aspire to heroic raiding, but it’s a very slow trickle.

    I believe it’s the lack of healthy guilds helping raiders to progress that is really hurting the game, and frankly if you’re not doing raid progression there isn’t really any need to be in a guild as virtually every meaningful benefit of membership for the player and guild was stripped away in WoD.

    This brings me onto new players. I started in MoP and if I wasn’t helped by fellow guildies to understand what the hell was happening there’s no way I’d have stuck with the game. It is beyond bewildering.

    Blizzard have put many tools and features in the game so that you don’t have to be in a guild to raid, etc, but they’ve done nothing to help new players get to grips with the game and understand what they need to do. I lurk in Reddit and there’s a never-ending stream of new players coming on asking exactly the same questions day after day. It would be nice to think that someone at Blizz also lurks there and sees this, and does something about it.

    The best mechanism Blizz has built in is Recruit a Friend. This is how I got in to the game, it gave my recruiter a nice mount, and gave me a guide. Can’t fault it.

    The other mechanism is level boosting. This helps to sell new xpacs and allows a new player to join their friends at maximum level and get stuck in to the end game content without all that tedious (and increasingly pointless) levelling bit.

    I used to be 100% against boosting, but as you don’t get your main rotation until max level and you certainly don’t learn much about how to fight, cc, etc as you level up because most classes just 1 shot everything, there’s really not much you learn now other than maybe a bit or lore if you pay attention. You can always do that stuff later when you roll an alt and level up at a more relaxed pace once you’re comfortable with the game. You mention professions: it is utterly pointless doing anything with professions until you hit level 100 in WoD, and it takes a trivial amount of time to learn them.

    As you said in your blog, Blizz are happy to let Wowhead et al be the manual for the game. The mechanisms Blizz have implemented both bring in revenue for them, where is the incentive for them to make it easier? To be fair it would require a huge amount of work on Blizzard’s part that could go into new content.

    Personally I hope that Blizzard make a game that entertains and attracts a wide range of players. If it gets too narrow in its intended audience it risks alienating a chunk of the others. In the WoD xpac I would argue that they went all-in on raiding as the end-game, and shot themselves in the foot by unintentionally harming the guilds that were the life-blood of bringing new raiders into the game.

    The one aspect of this game they need to take off life support is the social one, and guilds should be at the centre of this. So far I’ve seen nothing to suggest that Legion will help guilds out. More and more raiders seem content with pugging and LFR to avoid guild dramas, so even raiding won’t save some guilds. Even with all the dramas I’ve seen in guilds this year I believe they’re the lifeblood of the game, and my experience will be diminished if they continue to be squeezed out of existence in favour of elite raid teams and random pugs.

    1. Perfect summary of the crux of the game’s problems. You are spot on with the demise of guilds being at the heart of many of the game’s current ills. I was very disappointed to learn that the next semi-private instance mechanism we would get is Class Halls, because I think that further erodes the whole guild-based social structure that for so long was the glue holding many in the game. (I was hoping — in the absence of player housing — for Guild Halls, and let Dal itself be the quest hub.) The crumbling of guilds on every server has had ripple effects in nearly every aspect of the game, but it is especially notable for its deleterious effect on raiding options.

      I agree with you that guilds are “the lifeblood of the game” and I am dumbfounded that Blizz seems oblivious to this notion. I think when WoW’s epitaph is written, it will be something like “When the guilds died, the game died.” Yes, guilds can be messy and drama-ridden, but they can also be sources of fun, social centers, and help for players of all skill levels. WoW started out promoting itself as a social game, but over the years it has become less and less so, in spite of the fact that the social aspect is what drew many to it in the first place.

  4. The game is being designed for game players, not gamers, and that is the problem. Gamers solve problems, game players want a quick fix of adrenaline and then they’re out – they are invested in neither the adventure nor the world. This game used to be about a grand adventure, now it’s about the currently best piece of gear and it’s utterly boring.

    1. Interesting comment — in that I have read quite a few blogs and posts claiming the opposite: that the game is written for gamers but the majority of subscribers are not gamers. I think this just proves my point — no one really knows who Blizz considers the target audience to be.

  5. This is a really broad topic with many fine points: well done!
    I enjoy the revamping of classes each expansion; it is like getting a new menu in my favorite restaurant.
    Knowing who your audience will be is crucial unless it is so broad that it can’t be defined.
    Relying on third-party sites like Wowhead sucks big time, those sites are not very good and, even worse, depend on players to fill in the information and so is often out-of-date. Learning a new class via Icy Veins can make me feel sick and weak and frustrated — I’d pay WoW Gold to have a mentor!

    1. That’s a nice positive way of looking at the class changes each xpac. Personally I found the changes last time around about as welcome as being given chopsticks to eat soup, but to each their own 😉

      I’m glad someone else struggles to learn a new class rotation through Icy Veins. The only reason I’m as good on my Arcane Mage as I am is because another Mage in my raid team took the time to talk with me on Mumble and go through the “why” as well as the “what”. I came on leaps and bounds after his assistance sunk in.

      I will stick up for Wowhead though – the number of quests that has saved me hours of frustration on is beyond counting! It does at least show which patch the person was playing when they made the comment, so you deduce the out of date stuff reasonably easily.

      I know guildies who have twin monitors on their PCs simply so that they can have Wowhead open while they quest. That speaks volumes on the unintuitive nature of the game, even for seasoned players.

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