Can this relationship be saved?

In every long term relationship, there is an awkward phase where the rush and breathless excitement are gone and suddenly all you notice are the disgusting sounds your partner makes in the bathroom and the annoying way they chew, or that they snort when they laugh. The things you used to think of as cute and endearing become grating and nerve-wracking. True love is eventually able to move on from this phase to one of very deep commitment — a kind of intricate dance of intimacy and distance — but it really is an early go/no-go test for every couple.

The same principle applies to a lot of leisure activities, including computer games, most especially MMOs. In the beginning, if we have gotten past that “first date” part, the game is all new and shiny, offering endless fun. But eventually we start to see its warts, and the challenge for every developer is to keep the magic alive long enough for players to make that deep commitment. Even more, given the cyclical nature of MMOs,  developers have to deal with the problem every expansion.

Blizzard has historically been very adept at getting commitment from its players, and to be fair they in turn have bought into that commitment. It is no small feat to keep millions engaged in an online game for 15 years. Still, just as in a failing marriage, it seems like the transgressions are coming more rapidly than the good times. Of course, Blizz keeps their subscriptions numbers secret these days (ever since the disastrous days of WoD when they were publicly losing millions every quarter), but there seems little doubt that the customer base is shrinking, possibly at an unsustainable rate. And Patch 8.2 is not likely to save that decline — I suspect it will be too little too late. If I am wrong, I will happily eat my words. But I’m not wrong.

The desperation to force players to take longer and longer to achieve even uncomplicated game goals seems to be a last ditch effort to shore up MAU in the face of declining subscriptions. (Protestations of Mr. Game Director Hazzikostas notwithstanding.) It becomes a tidy little math word problem: If 100 players each play a game for 30 hours a month, how many hours each must 35 players play in order to achieve the same total? The devs are continually reaching for play-extending mechanics to address this problem — how else, for example, to explain the “mount equipment slot” change that will greatly limit a player’s ability to avoid obstacles and mobs at every turn of the game?  How else to explain the significant expansion of rep-based game progression (and the accompanying limit on how much rep can be earned in a given time period)?

I’m not really sure where I am going with all this, except to make a couple of observations.

First, being in a “failing marriage” kind of relationship with the game means the trust is pretty much gone, and every new development is met with suspicion. Example: Almost certainly the next expansion will include a character level squish. The details are not yet known, and Blizz has told us they are just thinking about it, nothing is certain. Right. That tells me it’s a done deal. And while I really do not care about an arbitrary level number, and can see their point for doing a squish, my immediate response is, “Yeah, and what else?” My suspicion is that the level squish will also be a great opportunity for the devs to address their MAU problem and lower the leveling xp earned or do some other mechanic that will make it take physically longer to reach max level (whatever that is) than it does now. Maybe, even if they lower max level to something like 60, they will still require level 20 for riding and level 60 for flying.

This is what continuous breaches of trust do, they make me suspicious of every move.

My second observation comes from a weekend spent revisiting Final Fantasy XIV. I think I have said before that I tried this game a couple of years ago, was unimpressed, and did not continue. This weekend I renewed my game time for 30 days, downloaded all the patches, and played for quite a few hours. It was terrific fun. I leveled a character to 14, figured out a lot of the puzzling interfaces, joined a “free company” (guild), and generally had a great time. Of course, I am in the early excitement phase of the relationship, so who knows how it will end, but it was a very nice interlude that I hope will turn into something I can commit to. (Still, I can’t shake the feeling that I am cheating on my “real” game… And when I logged out of FFXIV and into WoW, it all seemed dull and familiar and boring.)

And, not for nothin’, but I already have gotten some “player housing” in the game — a private room in the inn with all kinds of cool things to unlock and to which I can return any time I want and use as a restful place to log out. Clicking on the bed in the room actually brings up a quit/logout menu screen, and if you follow through, you get a cute little mini-cutscene of your character flinging herself down on the bed in her undies and sprawling out with a contented sigh just before the game closes. It’s a nice touch.

My last observation is more administrative in nature, and that is that dealing with what I really believe is a failed expansion in WoW is a bad thing for writing this blog. No matter how hard I try to find positive things to write about, I just can’t seem to see them because of all the crap parts blocking my view. Knowing that this is my own personal prejudice coming through does not change the fact that it is there and active. Just as in a real relationship, both parties contribute to a breakup. (Maybe WoW and I need couples’ counseling…)

Anyway, the point of that last observation is really to warn you, my loyal readers, that I am struggling with this blog lately, and you will likely see some uneven posts as I grapple with the bigger question of whether my relationship with WoW is worth saving.

Meanwhile, it is going to be in the 90’s here today and humid. Summer has arrived with an attitude. I am going to contribute to it by firing up my kiln to around 1900º and baking some pots!

10 thoughts on “Can this relationship be saved?

  1. I look back at last years Blaugust challenge where I almost hit the one a day goal, and had a few two blog days. Certainly over the years I’ve expressed frustrations, I’ve had posts where I’ve made suggestions, thought of what would help, why I was frustrated. I’ve had hundreds of posts over the years, and these past few months it has gotten harder, just like logging in.

    1. Yes, for sure. I have almost always had the attitude of, if those first 10 attempts to break the brick wall by charging into it headfirst did not work, well maybe if I get a longer running start and push harder, the next attempt will do it. Stubborn. But I am getting closer to the I-don’t-give-a-rat’s-ass approach now.

      I have always said the day I stop venting criticism about the game is the day I don’t care enough to play it any more. I am getting frighteningly close to that, and I am mainly just hanging on to see if it is a passing low point or a permanent thing.

  2. I agree with you. I haven’t logged into WoW for over a month now. I haven’t seriously logged in to try to play Crucible of Storms was released. It’s just not fun anymore… The design focus appears to be on e-sports and trying to make things challenging for elite players (tonnes of mechanics for raids/dungeons, big swathes of trash packs in dungeons to reward those who know the skips, and loads of one-shot mechanics). The elite mentality didn’t work out so well for Wildstar. I’ve got a feeling it’s not going to help WoW. While I don’t mind some tough mechanics. It’s not unreasonable that a character might die if they pull too much trash while questing. The you get a lag spike in a raid and you’re dead (plus you kill part of your raid team for good measure) isn’t cool.

    I’ve been focused on summer things and Elder Scrolls Online (with a bit of Diablo 3 on the side). I love the crafting system in ESO. Really cool that one toon can learn all the professions. The dungeons are more reminiscent of a traditional dungeon system (but only being 4-man can result in a really atrocious wait time for dps). But they also have solo dungeons, public dungeons (non-instanced), world bosses, etc so there’s always plenty to do. The player housing system is neat. I never thought I’d enjoy having a personal place for my toons to hang their various hats so much.

    I was going to wait until 8.2 to see if I’d continue to play WoW or not. But from what I’ve read, it’s not something that really interests me. I might try it. But right now, there are MMOs out there that I enjoy playing more. I might give Final Fantasy a try after your comments on it. 🙂 I suspect I’ll be uninstalling WoW in the not too distant future.

    1. I was not expecting Final Fantasy to be much of an option after I briefly tried it a couple years ago. So I was surprised that it suddenly seemed quite fun. Part of it, I guess, is that it is new and shiny still. But it seems to have a ton of things to do, and like ESO, one character can learn all the professions and can even learn all roles eventually (healer, melee, ranged, tank), which eliminates the whole alt dance if that is not something that appeals to you.

      I did pretty much enjoy the couple weeks that I tried ESO, too, but something about the graphics kind of turned me off of it. Also, like with FF, it is a pretty steep learning curve to get comfortable with the mechanics, terminology different from WoW’s, etc. Once you do that, though, these games seem to offer more than the current WoW.

  3. I am completely baffled by this fixation on MAU. I certainly understand that they aren’t stoked about making the subscription numbers public, but even so, that’s pretty much all that matters, right? (aside from Blizz store revenue). Why would Blizzard care if someone wants to log in for just a handful of hours a month if they’re still kicking down their $15?

    If they are actively making the game worse and potentially driving people (subscribers) away, just to increase a made-up number, how is that not totally counterproductive?

    1. As am I. I should point out that Ion Hazzikostas has rather indignantly denied that MAU drives their game design, but it is hard to explain many of their recent changes any other way. I think MAU is just a handy metric for Activision Blizzard to use across all their properties in order to have some kind of measuring stick for their investors. It is reported at every quarterly corporate investors’ call. It certainly makes sense as a metric for games like Candy Crush, for example, but as you point out, not so much for a subscription-based game. Still, when corporate issues orders, subordinates do not have much choice but to comply. And sadly, once the metric is put into place, it tends to drive design rather than the other way around.

      WoW has, I think, come under corporate scrutiny because of the natural cyclical nature of player participation — heavy engagement at the start of a new expansion, then falling off until new raid tier or patch or next expansion. The more Blizz can show that players are staying engaged even during the between times, the better corporate likes it, even if it is a rather artificial metric.

      Stretching out the amount of time required for loyal players to even do “housekeeping” dailies or what have you — in between new stuff — has got to make a difference in MAU. Let’s say in Mists the average active player logged in for (making this number up) 45 minutes most nights to do dailies, pursue rep, run dungeons, etc. If Blizz is losing players, one way to stretch out that “engaged” number is to make sure that the exact same kinds of things that took 45 minutes in Mists now takes an hour.

      Of course, there is a point at which the tedious nature of new mechanisms pisses off enough players that even stretching out the time for the remaining players does not make up for it. Unfortunately, it seems to me that the way Blizz compensates for this dropoff is to add even more tedious requirements, rather than try and entice players back. It is not working.

      1. But that isn’t actually the same metric, is it? If I’m understanding what both companies are/were doing, Twitter was counting each account as (1) if there was any activity during a month.

        From what I understood, Blizzard uses MAU as users logged in x time, isn’t it? Like, if I log in 3 days a week and play for 6 hours each day, that counts as 18 each week toward MAU, and if Joe logs in every day but plays an hour a day, that’s 7 each week toward MAU.

        Right?

        Because if Blizz was counting the way twitter was, then an MAU would be counted as 1 for any player who logged in once in the month. That’s more accurate than simply counting subs, but (a) it doesn’t really reflect the game’s profitability, since revenue is on subs, not logins, and (b) that doesn’t seem to be what they’re counting, because otherwise someone who logs in once in a month would count as much as someone grinding 4 hours a day to accumulate rep or whatever.

        Or perhaps I’m wrong…?

      2. We’d probably have to see the DAU (Daily Active User) numbers to get a better picture. From what I read there really isn’t any uniform standard. Blizzard could count it as anyone that had 5 or more hours logged in during a month, Riot could use 4 hours. If I am in the mood to give myself a headache I’ll take a look at the 2018 year end to see if there is a definition. Since they no longer isolate games it could be tough to compute. Especially factoring in King.

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