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.