Widening player gulf?

Legion is, in many, many aspects, a vast improvement over the nightmare of Draenor. The lore is more relevant, artwork is phenomenal, and there is tons of content both new and repeatable. Even the leveling process, which was one of the few highlights of Draenor, is if anything more engaging in Legion.

But I find myself wondering if Legion will ultimately be bad for the game. I am seeing what I perceive to be early indications of a widening divide between the player “haves” and “have-nots”. Just as in a thriving capitalist economy it is a robust middle class that drives the engine of optimism and opportunity, so it is in WoW that the majority player base of casual and semi-casual players drives extended game interest and engagement. When these middle groups start to dwindle, when they lose hope that they can achieve their aspirations, the systems begin to break down. It starts with economic disparity and inevitably spreads to nearly every other aspect of the system.

As with real systems, the WoW problem, too, starts with the economy.

  • Blizz’s decision to give away massive amounts of gold to try and staunch the WoD subscription hemorrhaging is a move we are still paying for. It has resulted in massive gold inflation, driving up the cost of materials and equipment to the point where only very wealthy players can afford these items.
  • Prices are driven even higher by Blizz’s decision to stretch out the time required to achieve even initial game goals such as profession leveling — even gathering professions. Not only are there quest lines for gathering, but Blizz has opted to place very few nodes in zones, compensating by making them theoretically multi tap. But the overall result is that it takes significantly longer to gather a stack of herbs or ore than it did in previous expansions. (Every time I say something like this, I get comments from self-styled genius gatherers that just the other day they gathered 100k worth of mats in some ridiculous amount of time like 30 minutes, and I must be doing something wrong. Please, spare me the tall tales.)
  • Prices are driven still higher by the decision to require non-related mats to craft almost anything. Food requires ore chips and rare herbs. (OK, I get the herbs, but who deliberately puts heavy metal chips in their food?) After years of telling us that LW/skinning is a winning combo, Blizz now requires buttloads of ore to buy LW recipes. (!!!) (Why is it not leather you need to buy them?) And we are not talking about the odd piece of cloth for mail pieces, or the odd bit of leather for a cloth belt. Oh no, we are talking about very high quantities of these mats.
  • There is a noticeable disparity among professions for usefulness, with alchemy/herbalism being the current lottery winner. Gear-producing professions are already for all practical purposes obsolete, as the same or better gear can be obtained via world quests and other means. The sheer amount of time and materials needed to produce and upgrade a single piece of crafted gear to 850 are no longer worth the cost. (The obliterum forge idea stinks, the quest to obtain it is ridiculously expensive and annoying, and the cost to produce obliterum is prohibitive given the mediocre result.)

The net result is that it takes vast amounts of gold to buy anything in the AH or even in trade. Yes, you can — if you were lucky enough to pick the right professions — make a fair bit of gold yourself, but for most people it is not enough to cover their costs for other things they need. (And if you were stupid enough to pick a gear-crafting profession such as tailoring or LW or BS, you might as well abandon it — it is not even worth reaching max level to say nothing of it not being worth grubbing for rng- and rep-granting higher level recipes. Any gear you could produce from it is basically worthless.)

Players who did not start this expansion with a great deal of gold, or who did not pick the right professions, or who have limited play time each week, will have a very difficult time catching up. For example, being able to raid or participate in Mythic and Mythic+ dungeons requires, at the very least, a certain level of gear and a certain supply of food, flasks, and pots. The time commitment for gear as well as the gold and/or time commitment for consumables is a very significant hurdle for all but the most dedicated players. (Not even talking here about gear enchants and gems, which easily run more than 20k each on my server.) Players might be able to raid with a team that is willing to overlook shortfalls in these areas for a while, but not for long. And pugs will certainly not put up with it.

Not everyone wishes to raid, of course. But the thing is, raiding and/or running high level instances is required now for nearly every end game activity in WoW. Want to just concentrate on producing/gathering for professions? Sorry, you gotta do all these other activities in order to do the one you like. Just want to putz around with a few different alts? Sorry, even if all you want to do is level them, you still have to pursue quest lines like class halls, artefact power, and time-consuming profession quest lines if you want to even gather a few herbs with them.

My point is that the combination of high cost and huge time commitment for virtually any Legion activity is starting to show a clear dividing line — those willing and/or able to do it, and those not. The former are becoming the game’s “haves” and the latter are becoming the “have-nots”. I do not in any way begrudge people who decide to put a lot of time and effort and gold into the game their just rewards. More power to them. Similarly, I do not judge those who simply want to spend a couple of hours a week at the game as pleasant diversion — it’s how they relax and have fun, and good for them.

What does give me concern is the possibility of the game’s “middle class” losing hope that they will eventually be able to acquit themselves adequately in their chosen end game activities. If they perceive that the road to gear or raid preparedness or profession completion or faction rep or certain achievements is too difficult or time-consuming or expensive, they will just stop pursuing these goals. If they drop out in appreciable numbers, then we will be left with what I think is an unhealthy mix of hardcore near-professionals and super-casuals.

The thing that drives many of us in this game is the thought that, it may take me a bit longer to get there than some, but I can very respectably compete in fill in your favorite end game activity here. But if you think the point at which you can do that is some ridiculous number of months in the future, then you might just give up. You have more commitment to the game than the super-casuals, but you cannot or will not devote the same time to it as the semi-pros, so there is little left for you but frustration. Nobody plays this game to be continually frustrated.

Now, as I said in the beginning, this is not the game’s situation yet. It is just what I think could happen, the situation that we have the right conditions for now. I even see it happening in the microcosm of my guild, where we have a small group of super-dedicated people with ilevels like 860 or higher, with artifact weapons into the high 20’s for development, with the Broken Isles Pathfinder achievement completed, who regularly run Mythic+ at the +6 or above level, and so forth. They have the highest level gems and enchants on their gear, and they always are well supplied with flasks, food, pots, runes, things that let them change talents on the fly, and so forth. They are incredibly generous with their time, offering to run regular Mythics or +2s with people just to help them gear up or complete quests, and they willingly make profession items if you can supply the mats. But even this — when added to the time burden of world quests/rep grinds/profession quests/mat-gathering/etc. — begins to exceed the limits of play time for many of us.

For many of us in the middle, it may not be possible to get to the same relative level in Legion as we did in previous expansions. That is diminished expectations, and it is not a goal that game developers should strive for.

Where do you see WoW a year from now?

Administrative edit: I am taking a holiday break and will see you all after New Year’s. To all my readers, whether or not you celebrate Christmas, I wish you warmth and happiness and love in this season of hope and throughout the coming year.

“Where do you see yourself five years from now?”

Most of us have probably had to deal with this by-now trite job interview question. Over the weekend I was writing some job and college recommendations for colleagues, and I admit my mind was wandering a bit. I found myself fantasizing about interviewing Blizzard for the job of keeping my money and occupying my time in the weeks, months, and years ahead.

I imagined myself as an interviewer, and Blizz as a job applicant. Honestly, the interview did not go very well, mainly because my imaginary Blizz applicant pretty much assumed he had the job all sewn up, and frankly had not prepared for the interview at all.

Me. Mr. Blizzard, very nice to meet you, please come in and sit down.

Blizz (dressed in wrinkled khakis, untucked shirt, no tie, sneakers, could use a haircut). Hey, how’s it going?

Me. I hope you didn’t have any trouble finding the place. Can I get you some coffee or anything?

Blizz. Nah, I’m good.

Me. Well, fine, let’s get started then. My first question is one I ask every applicant: why do you want this job?

Blizz. Well, um, you know. Guaranteed monthly income, plus big chunk of change every time I put out a new expansion. Not to mention it lets me develop games way cooler than the one you play.

Me. I see. And what do I get in return?

Blizz. Well, you get a pretty nifty game, and you get to play it the way I think is best. Y’know, immersion and stuff. Oh, and something I’m really excited about, you have an opportunity to watch people way better than you play it. For a spectator fee of course. Awesome, huh?

Me. Uh huh. Well, let’s move on.

(Interview wraps up.)

Me. Last question. Where do you see yourself a year from now?

Blizz. (Long pause) Errr, Legion and stuff?

Me. I mean bigger picture, where do you see your subscriptions, the composition of your player base, your goals for the game, that kind of thing? And in particular, where do I fit into this bigger picture?

Blizz. (With perplexed look of a pig gazing at a wrist watch.) So do I get the job or not?

Where, indeed, will the game be a year from now? And will I or you still be in the picture?

In contemplating Legion, especially in light of Blizz’s ventures into eSports and Hollywood, I find myself wondering who exactly they see as their player base any more? More to the point, do they see me as a part of that player base beyond being a means to finance their “real” players?

When I first heard about the WoW movie, I thought of it as a giant advertisement for the game, the purpose of which advertising was to pull new players into an aging game. Certainly such a strategy makes sense after a year like 2015, which has seen the loss of something like 5 million subscribers. Even if Blizz no longer counts subscriptions as a measure of business success in the game, that big a loss has got to hurt. Another year like that and it will be the end of the franchise.

So there are huge stakes involved in both the movie and Legion. But what does Blizz see as the nature of those stakes? How will they measure “success” a year from now? And how are they structuring the game to maximize what ever their definition of success is?

On the one hand, we see the company going pretty much all in on eSports, although WoW being suitable for that genre is a bit dicey in my opinion. Still, it’s possible if Blizz has the right showbiz approach. An interesting question is, what kind of player base is needed to support WoW as an eSport? I don’t claim to know the answer to that, but I know what kind does not support it: the super-casual-futz-around-when-you-have-some-time-to-kill player that I am betting has historically been WoW’s bread and butter even if Blizz does not want to admit it.

These are the players who always felt like they could play once every few days and still get enjoyment from the game, so they kept their subscriptions current. These are also the players who decided that WoD took away that possibility of casual enjoyment and thus made their subscriptions not worth the money.

So how is Blizz shaping the game to win back large numbers of mom-and-pop and other  casual players, while at the same time trying to re-brand it as a fierce professional “sport”? Again, I have no answers, but I do have a couple of observations.

First, I am not entirely certain that Blizz itself knows the answer, or indeed if they realize it is even a question. I say this because of the conflicting messages we have gotten in the game for the last year, and which I see continuing as we move into Legion. (I am talking about big conflicts here, such as making raiding almost the exclusive end game activity while at the same time implementing designs that make raiding more and more elusive for large numbers of players.)

Second, if Blizz is indeed looking to swell its subscription numbers with new players as a result of the movie combined with Legion, I doubt if they will be able to walk the thin line between new player accessibility and enraged cries of “dumbing down”? Character boosts and professional catch-up mechanisms notwithstanding, the learning curve for a brand new player who has no friend to help is almost impossibly high. Without dedicated study of third-party web pages, I maintain that your average casual player will abandon the game within a matter of a few weeks.

In short, I doubt if Blizz is on a path that will result in significant numbers of new players. Like it or not, and whether Blizz wants to admit it or not, the game is moving inexorably to a hardcore player model. They simply cannot make the game suitable for eSport pros  and fans while at the same time attracting the millions of casual players they need to sustain the business model. They might be in the same position with this dilemma that they were in regarding competing demands of PvP and PvE — until they admit that it is really two different games both approaches will suffer, but game design will inevitably favor one over the other.

So: Where do you see WoW in a year? Where do you think Blizz sees it? And most importantly, if you are interviewing them will you give them the job?