Over the weekend, as I was cooking for, cleaning for, picking up after, and entertaining relatives, out of the blue I had one of those forehead-slapping moments. For months now — maybe even a couple of years — I have been baffled by Blizz’s apparent business model shift from a game accessible to nearly everyone to one that:

  • Is increasingly complex, to the point that it is almost impossible for new players to navigate without accessing third-party explanatory sites
  • Is moving to funnel all game play into a structured end game model
  • Is designed to require ever more game play hours each week in order to reach and maintain end game level
  • Often implements “fixes” that serve to penalize casual players but are in response to elite player exploits or perceived exploits (example: the rules for loot trading in raids)
  • Gives early testing access only to elite players or “image shapers”, and structures entire expansions based on their feedback

WoW made its reputation and early MMO dominance by being a game tens of millions could play and find their own leisure niche in. Anyone with a computer could subscribe and go about finding their happy place picking herbs or exploring or being fierce in the face of marauding gnolls or hanging out with friends in chat or venturing into raids and instances with their guild or a pickup group. And for the most part, players could pursue their pleasure on whatever schedule they wanted — there were weekend warriors, some who played an hour or two every couple of nights, some who played more intensely, some who played only a couple of days every few weeks.

The point is, these players were not penalized for whatever play schedule they adhered to. They could structure their game time to meet their personal goals. Starting as early as Mists, Blizz began to gate significant content behind time requirements. For example, to get certain profession recipes or gear, there were  fairly stringent rep gates, and you could only gain faction rep according to a rationed weekly and daily schedule. It is that last part that in my mind started the slide into “enforced game time”. Suddenly the weekend player — even if they were only interested in profession crafting and not end game raiding, for example — was at a significant disadvantage. No matter how many hours they might have to play on a weekend, they could not “catch up” with the gated dailies that gave them access to their game goals.

In WoD, we saw the garrison mechanism used as a similar hammer. Players had to fully develop their garrisons if they wanted to see the final patch zone (in spite of Blizz’s early fabrication that garrisons would be “completely voluntary”) and garrison development was limited by a resource that could only be earned in measured amounts, doled out according to weekly and daily activity rations. Garrison development was even further impacted by completion of time-bounded quests in the mini game of champions and ships.

Legion, of course, has seen the exponential growth of game mechanisms designed to penalize the non-regular player. I won’t detail them here, as I have written extensively about them for the past year, but they include the chase for AP, the legendary RNG system that rewards frequent play and penalizes infrequent, the RNG aspect of profession learning, and so forth.

Yeah I know, Get to the point, Fi! So here was my forehead-slapping revelation:

Blizz considers the future of the game to be wholly contingent on esports, not on mass appeal. 

Maybe some of you have taken this as a given and are not blown away by it as I was, but that realization finally put into context for me nearly all of the company’s heretofore-inexplicable expansion policies.

Blizz considers the future of the game — if it has a future — to be masses of people watching the elite play it, not so much playing it themselves. Oh sure, they can dabble in it if they’ve a mind to, but doing so will be akin to a weekend touch football game if you love the game of football — the real players get big bucks and you pay big bucks to watch them playing in the NFL.

This explains a lot.

For one thing, the increasing complexity. Professional athletes spend hours understanding and maximizing the nuances of their sport. They are fascinated by the small details of it, and they pride themselves on being able to shape those details to enhance their performance. Is it possible to not pay attention to the myriad of details and still play? Sure, but of course not at the pro level.

In pro sports, it is fairly important to have a dedicated fan base that understands the game from a player level, that knows they themselves do not have the wherewithal to compete at the top, nevertheless they are rabidly interested in how the pros can perform so perfectly. It will be the same with esports.

In WoW, if the goal is merely to keep the current loyal player base, it is not especially important to make the game accessible to masses of brand new players. Sure, some will be brought in by veterans, but in general it is not a high priority to simplify the game or to make its user interfaces more friendly or to gently lead players through quest lines, because most of the current player base already understands these processes.

The shift from subscription numbers as a metric of game success to Monthly Active Users is simply a way to measure how dedicated the fan player base is. Moreover, Blizz wants this loyal player base to stay engaged. This explains the catering to “vanilla” players, the emphasis on “how it used to be in the old days of leveling”.

The strategic goal of esports as game direction also explains the introduction of fast mini-competitions within the game, things like Mythic+ dungeons and Islands in BfA. Players can try these for themselves (have a quick touch football game at the park on Saturday), but the real Blizz emphasis will be on spectator versions of them carried out by the pros.

If you are trying to build an esports fan base to cheer for pro teams engaging in end game activities, then another thing you have to do is ensure every player who reaches level is funneled into those pro-friendly end game activities. Can’t have a whole group of leveled players who care nothing about the core end game activities, who have interest and experience only in crafting or gathering or whatever. So the answer is to force even these players into at least a passing familiarity with dungeons and raids and gearing up and soon Island scenarios.

Last, if you believe the future of the game involves people watching the pros play it, then of course you structure it to favor that aspect. This explains Blizz’s catering to the less than 1% of elite players and world-first guilds. It explains why they do not for the most part allow casual players to be early shapers of a new expansion. It even somewhat explains why they seem to abandon some classes and specs every expansion — if the pro players consider the spec not worthy of serious play, then there is no need to focus any more resources on it. The game is no longer being designed for casual players, except insofar as to give them a taste of what real pro play involves. 

So, yeah, I know — I have veered rather deeply into tinfoil hat territory here. And yes, it may be time for my meds. But think about it and apply Occam’s Razor or lex parsimoniae or any of the standard problem-solving paradigms.

If it is a far-fetched explanation, it is at least a simple one requiring few assumptions.

10 thoughts on “Epiphany

    1. Interesting. I have read some Activision Blizzard statements — for example in the quarterly reports — where they actually think an esports “league” will eventually rival huge current sports leagues like the NFL, NBA, international soccer leagues, etc. They are talking multi-million dollar franchises in major cities, arenas, the whole thing.

      Thing is, they may be right. (See @Bheleu’s comment below.)

      1. Of course it could all end up like any number of ideas that everyone thinks will be the next big thing. Like Betamax

  1. Anecdotal I know, but my 12 year old, and many of her friends, just get on YouTube and watch others play games. Sometimes even games that I have purchased for her. I can’t figure it out myself, why would you watch someone else play when you could be playing instead?

    If you are right, that is who they are marketing to. Except that she got bored with Legion very quickly because she couldn’t do the ‘fun’ stuff. She was going to get back into it once I unlocked flying, but flying has been unlocked for a while now. She has already moved on to the next new game. GG Bliz, on your way to losing a long time customer, and lost a new young customer too based on your game design decisions.

    Great – now I feel old. You YouTube watching kids get off my lawn so I can go back to complaining about the good old days, when SV was ranged…

    1. I don’t have kids, but I am pretty close to my teenage and pre-teen nieces and nephews, and I have the same experience with them. For the most part, the ones who are interested in computer games do not see an entertainment difference between watching a game being played and actually playing it themselves. If anything, they prefer watching because it is less time investment. They, like your daughter, feel that the time required to get to the “fun stuff” in many MMOs is just not worth the effort, when they can get as much entertainment value by watching others play the game.

    2. This has got to be a generational thing rather than simply a geek thing. My first brush with video games was the original 1975 Atari Home Pong console. It was only available through Sears (!!!) and featured four pong games via two knobs on a console bigger than my microwave. And I had to wire it into my TV! It was sublime. I’ve played and owned pretty much every gaming console and first Apple (late 1970s to mid-1980s), then PC gaming setup available since. This more or less makes me the consumer on which this entire industry was built. Health and mental capacity willing, I hope to play video games for the rest of my life.

      And I have zero interest in watching e-sports.

      I will watch football and hockey on television weekly and baseball games beyond count, but I would honestly just rather sit and stare at a wall than watch e-sports. I simply don’t get it.

      I’m fully willing to admit that this is likely a case of the world passing me by rather than an entire industry being stupid. (I am not so generous with today’s music. What is wrong with you kids?!?) Still, if “my” video games are no longer going to be created for my playing enjoyment, then my entertainment-related future may ultimately be much, much different than I’d envisioned or wished.

    1. We have a similar situation in our guild. Generally, the guildies who run a lot of M+ dungeons themselves are the ones who follow the competitions most closely. I used to try to run one each week for the max weekly chest, but I have pretty much stopped. I don;t need the Wakening Essences really, and the gear is usually not anything I can equip anyway because of my delicate balance of legendaries and tier. Plus I do not enjoy the timed aspect of them.

      But like I wrote, if Blizz can get players even somewhatinterested in these short esports-designed activities, it boosts their fan base for the competitions.

  2. It’s a fair point – but a little bit over the top 🙂

    It’s true that a strange tendency is up now – watching people play rather than playing yourself. I confess watching several walkthroughs, but only in games I don’t feel like playing myself, for example recent Mortal Kombat or Cuphead.

    For WoW, I can’t even watch a single full video of a new boss kill. The videos of getting to some hard place which I need to watch are a pain nevertheless. It’s the type of game where your experience feels nothing compared to others playing. And the keyword is: freedom. I could abandon a questline and chase butterflies, or go for an ore node, or decide to perform some exploration.

    WoW doesn’t feel like making players follow one and only path, designed for elite players. They have LFR for the likes of me who care about mogging collections and seeing the story – and I couldn’t care less about normal/heroic/mythic raiders and their progress. I know a person who is interested in pet battles ONLY nowadays, and she’s leveling with a mere goal to get an access to the new continent’s pets. I never felt bound to do any mythic dungeons or grind AP – cause it is not required for my personal goals.

    Yes, ignoring esports trend would be too stupid to miss. Quick content like islands, dungeons and what not perfectly fits the trend, and it will be played, watched and competed, with prizes, champions, fans, and what not.

    But I don’t feel like my – perfectly casual – goals are abandoned in favor of that. Lore, professions, questlines, LFR raiding, transmog (hello wardrobe and old boss loot tables), exploration, and even altoholism are being addressed with care. In fact, I’ve never felt so engaged and even overwhelmed by that many of aforementioned activities like it was in Legion. Even if I don’t have a single artifact weapon at 75 yet and ran only 3 mythic dungeons during the whole expansion 🙂

  3. Thank you for this post. I have been having this feeling like the game was slipping more and more away from me in the last few expansions for all of the reasons that you mention. I started playing in Vanilla and enjoyed the game through BC and Wrath even though I didn’t have much time to play. During this period I never did much endgame or any raiding at all but still was happy to give Blizz my monthy sub even if I only got in a few hours on the weekend. In Cata I got some more time to play and started raiding in a casual guild. This was probably the most fun I ever had in Wow. I was still what most would call a “casual” player, but 2 to 3 nights of playtime was enough to hang with a casual raid group and still enjoy other parts of the game like leveling alts.

    But ever since MOP, keeping up with the endgame has felt like more and more of a job instead of fun. Everything in the game (even professions) got tied to dailies and when you didn’t put in your “time” for the day, you felt like you were getting farther and farther behind. Legion went crazy with this even to the point of forcing endgame content onto everyone even if you only were trying to be casual with alts just doing professions. Legion has completely killed raiding for me because of all of the systems (AP, leggos, gated quest chains) that make you “put the time in”.

    I could see what was happening but I could not understand it. Wow became popular because it WAS more casual than other MMO’s and therefore more accessible to a wider audience. Reading this post is the first time that I have come across something that makes sense and explains why Wow is moving the direction that it is. I think I am now at peace with it. The Wow I loved is gone and I have to figure out a new way to enjoy the game that doesn’t involve endgame, raiding or professions.

    Maybe I can be the master of pet battles and still have some fun.

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