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!