A couple nights ago I was grinding out some world quests, and it struck me how annoying most of them are. Not because I have done them dozens of times and they are boring, though that is true, but because Blizz has steadily gone stark raving bonkers with packing mobs into every available space. There are no longer any of the huge uninhabited vistas that so delighted me in Pandaria and Uldum, nowhere a player can go and just relax and breathe and take in some well-designed artwork and animation and matching sounds of wind or waves. Almost nowhere a player can peacefully space out and throw a line in the water and catch fish (an activity, my grandfather once explained to me, that is the very best way to be lazy), listen to some music, and think about Things.
No, nearly every square inch is now filled with mobs you have to kill in order to get to the activity or place you want to be. And even when you kill them, they respawn rapidly, guaranteeing that you will have to fight the same mobs when you leave as you did when you had to fight your way in. In far too many cases, they spawn so fast that there is not even sufficient time to loot or skin before the entire pack is back at you again. Of course, as you get better gear it takes less time to kill them, but it never stops being annoying.
The net effect — regardless of how well geared you are — is that everything you do in the BFA zones takes longer. Not much, in some cases, but still longer.
Now add to this Blizz’s steady extension of no-fly zones and of the time before flying is even permitted each expansion. Clearly, if you have the ability to fly, you can skip many of these annoying mobs and go directly to your quest site, do your thing, then skip them again on the way out.
Dollars to donuts, the new zones we get in 8.2 — when BFA flying is expected to finally be permitted — will be no-fly zones, pretty much on the same pattern as Argus in Legion. Basically, they will repeat the pattern of early expansion times — you cannot fly, and the combination of road structure and invisible walls will constantly channel you into the WoW equivalent of box canyons with dozens of rapidly-spawning mobs, just to get to a quest site. And to ensure people participate, the places you can fly by then (Boralus, Zandalar) will contain world quests and world bosses at such a low level that most players will have little interest in them. “Fly if you want to,” seems to be Blizz’s attitude, “but you will get nothing of value. HAHAHAHAHAHA we win!”
So what do these practices of infinite mobs and reluctance to permit flying have in common?
The Monthly Active Users (MAU) metric, that all-powerful measurement of success that every Activision-Blizzard game now lives or dies by. As I have noted previously, the exact formula for calculating this is pretty much a secret, but major factors include number of players logging in to the game each hour/day/week/month, along with how much time each remains logged in. (I think it is quite a bit more complicated than this, but those are obviously two important sub-metrics.) Theoretically, increase either factor and your MAU goes up.
Why is this metric important to a subscription-based game? I have never been able to figure that out, but for some reason it has become so. Blizz abandoned subscription numbers in WoD when they were losing literally over a million a month, and now the only publicly-reported metric (besides “monetization”) is MAU. And even so, the actual figure is rarely reported, it is usually more along the lines of “World of Warcraft had a 3% increase in MAU over the quarter.”
Legion and BFA seem designed solely to increase MAU. Think about the endless Legion AP grind, about the move to total RNG-based loot and even to automatic personal loot, about the move to soulbound critical profession mats, about the introduction of weekly quests, about Legion’s legendary gear grind and the grind each patch to upgrade the items — all designed to make the players who still log in spend more time in the game. And the endless mobs you have to fight your way through, along with longer and longer wait times for flying in each expansion, are part of the grand MAU-extension mechanism.
Unfortunately for Blizz, there is a delicate interaction between the two major MAU factors: having to spend a lot more time to achieve your goals in the game tends to turn off some players. Which means they just stop playing altogether, either permanently or for weeks or months at a time. Fewer players means MAU goes down, so Blizz needs to compensate for that by adding more time sinks into each activity. And the cycle repeats.
Having given it some thought, I think this move to MAU-driven game design is one of the main reasons the game seems less fun now. (As I noted in my last post.) As Mr. Game Director Hazzikostas has pointed out many times — but only whenever it suits his purpose — grinding is not fun. If he would actually listen to himself, he would realize that a game designed to force players to grind for everything by extending the time required for all game activities is not fun.
As a short exercise, I dug up some old Blizz developer interviews on design philosophy. It is eye-opening to see how much WoW design concepts have changed over the past few years, sometimes a full 180 degrees. Blizz might do well to recall that these old design precepts were in place during the heyday of the game, well before the game was ruled by MAU.
If you are interested, check out this Engadget interview with Rob Pardo from 2010, or this 2016 one with Mike Morhaime. (And for sheer mental contortion, check out this tortured explanation of why Blizz has completely abandoned the “Bring the player, not the class” philosophy.) I am not going to dissect them, but a couple of points really stuck out to me, illustrating just how far Blizzard has diverged from core principles.
From the Pardo interview:
Before anything else, you want to concentrate the game on the fun. All aspects of the game — the design, the mechanics of encounters, the quests and story are focused on making the game fun to play. Not only fun to play — but fun to play for players, not developers.
Less is more when ‘less’ is concentrated into one simple, overpowered and fun class to play. Rather than having 27 different classes in WoW, they took the best elements from units in Warcraft III (Thunderclap from the Mountain King, Critical Strikes from the Blademaster, Shockwave from the Tauren Chieftain) and combined those into one ‘super-concentrated cool class’ with many fun abilities — the warrior. Other classes were approached with this ‘concentrating’ concept in mind.
Pardo noted that tuning is easy to do, but hard to do well — that you have to keep in mind who you’re tuning your game for. With World of Warcraft, they succeeded in matching the level curve to the level of content, making it so that every player can solo all the way to max level if they want to, adding enough quests that it didn’t feel necessary to grind along the way. Pardo also noted that there was a myth about reaching max level — that players would simply quit the game once they reached the level cap. Blizzard took the stance of ‘if the game is enough fun for someone to get to level 60, they’ll want to play the game again’ — a stance that seems to be working remarkably well for them so far.
Pardo followed up with a short note — don’t ship your game until it’s ready. Self-explanatory, but refreshing to see that Blizzard is the sort of company that would rather a game be complete than push it out the door half finished.
And from the Morhaime interview:
GamesBeat: This gets into much later, but I was wondering where you guys picked up the ethic taking such a hardline focus on quality — shipping games only when they’re done, killing an awful lot of games that you never even announced. That distinguishes Blizzard today. How far back does that go?
Morhaime: There’s a bunch of key moments that reinforced how important quality was, when we were faced with decisions. There’s always intense pressure to be done on schedule. “If we don’t get this thing out by this date, so and so magazine won’t be able to put us on the cover.” There’s always pressure to do that.
GamesBeat: One thing I’ve noticed as you’ve moved through your later titles is not only maintaining that high level of quality, but also putting together games that appeal to an audience that’s as broad as possible. And sometimes in genres that were pretty hardcore before you got there. World of Warcraft, if you compare it to the difficulty of playing Everquest, or Hearthstone compared to other CCGs. Was that a deliberate strategy as you moved forward? Do you feel like there are still genres to work on like that – hardcore experiences that can be made more friendly for a mass audience?
Morhaime: We do always approach our games from a standpoint of—We’re trying to make these games for everyone, even if they’re not already familiar with a genre, and especially if they’re not already an expert at the genre. We want anybody to be able to play a Blizzard game and have the tools they need to enjoy it. We apply that to everything we do.
Time for a weekend. See you on the other side.