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!