Time and the bottom line

Activision Blizzard conducted its public Q1 2017 Earnings Call yesterday. For those of you unfamiliar with this quarterly ritual, it is a conference call conducted to inform ATVI stockholders of the company’s financial status. The company being traded publicly, the transcript of the call is published for anyone when cares to read it, and in fact if you really are into masochism, you can register with ATVI in advance and sign up to be on the call (in theory, that is — I have never tried this, can’t imagine why I would actually). This conference call accompanies the public release of the financial report for the quarter. I am not even going to give links to these things — you can easily find them if you search, and honestly they are very dry and dull. There is, however, a quick and dirty summary on MMO-C if you care to read it.

There was not much in the latest report/call that had to do with WoW. In fact, there hasn’t been much for a few quarters now, usually only a brief mention of a new expansion or some comment about Monthly Active Users or Daily Active Users. That in itself is sometimes eye-opening to WoW players, because it underscores the undeniable fact that WoW is no longer the flagship it once was, it really is a minor part of the growing ATVI empire. In the big corporate picture, you definitely get the impression that WoW is a bit of a dinosaur — it is still a revenue producer, but it is does not seem to be part of ATVI’s vision for the future of gaming.

There were one or two points that I picked up on in the report, though. The first was the opening statement by Bobby Kotick, CEO of ATVI. You can sum it up in one word: esports. A partial quote:

One of our big priorities is to unlock the full potential of professional esports by opening the sale of teams and media rights of our leagues. Over the years, we’ve become a leader in creating world class competitive experiences, sustainable franchises that engage hundreds of millions of people around the world, through gameplay competition and connecting players and communities. This success is driven by our ability to tap into the timeless power of communities, anchored through organized competition.

The esports audience includes some of the hardest to reach and most sought-after demographics for marketers and advertisers, with the share of millennials two to three times higher than any of the big four U.S. sports.

We’re also going to combine delivery of our spectator content with unique advertising opportunities that includes the ability for advertisers to have better targeting and analytics, much more so than what you would see in traditional forms of broadcast advertising today. And with over 400 million MAUs and extremely high levels of engagement, our potential to generate meaningful advertising revenue is substantial.

Of course, it is not news that ATVI is betting heavily on esports. And no one should be surprised that the WoW franchise plays only a tiny part in that expansion — it is really focused on ATVI’s other, newer, games. What did strike me, though, is the very strong implication that ATVI is more than willing to use its entire stable of games — along with the very considerable and detailed data it collects on player activities and preferences — to “generate meaningful advertising revenue.” I confess I do not really know what that means, but it does tend to give me an itchy feeling between my shoulder blades now if I decide to click on the in-game Blizzard shop, or if I routinely check the Mac technical forum on the Blizz web site. Nothing illegal or even necessarily immoral about this, and it certainly is a widespread practice any time you use the Internet, it’s just that I had previously not considered it as part of WoW. Yeah, I know that is naive, but still Kotick’s comment got my attention. Are we on the path to becoming less valuable as customers and more valuable as ATVI mass data products?

The other major point I took from the report were a couple of related comments.

This, from ATVI COO Thomas Tippi:

Blizzard continues to see strong engagement from its players with time spent increasing by a double digit percentage year-over-year to a new Q1 record.

Blizzard’s strategy to release content and feature updates more regularly in World of Warcraft has been paying off with time spent up year-over-year, and with overall performance ahead of the prior expansion.

And this, from Blizzard CEO Michael Morhaime:

So, yeah, this year for Blizzard represents a new type of pipeline, one that’s not necessarily based on full game launches, but instead on delivering new content updates for our games. This quarter, we have meaningful new content for every franchise in our portfolio. In fact, a few weeks ago we set a new DAU record on the back of these new content updates. This reflects the evolution of our business from focusing primarily on full game releases to also providing a consistent stream of content for our players. Even without any full game launches this year, we’re continuing to add to the depths of our games to serve a very highly engaged community with more content across our portfolio than we ever have before.

Anyone who thinks the grindy aspects of Legion is just an expansion peculiarity needs to think again. It is, in fact the plan for the foreseeable future. We can expect the next expansion to stretch out professions, leveling, gearing up, achievements — every activity in the game — even more than Legion does. Why? Because time spent in the game is the metric for game success in ATVI.

Is this tactic really “content”? Who knows? The fact is that whatever it is, it has succeeded — at least so far — in evening out WoW player engagement. Whether you like or hate Legion or are somewhere in between, it seems to have kept more players  logging in further into the expansion than previously. Legion’s strategy seems to be a financial success, as measured by MAU/DAU. It is hard to argue with that. And while it can seem grindy — hell, it is grindy —  it is also fun, certainly to those of us actively playing.

Still, there is this stubborn, contrary part of me that feels manipulated and used. It’s the same feeling you get when you suddenly realize someone is taking advantage of you. I feel like Blizz is pushing my loyalty to the game so as to get better quarterly numbers. Yeah, I know that is why they are in business, but this feels different somehow.

It’s like this: What if movie theaters suddenly changed their business plan to measure success by how long movie patron cars remained in the parking lot? So once you got to the theater, there were deliberate setups that ensured long lines for tickets, for popcorn, for the bathrooms, to get to your seat. They added a gift shop you had to pass through in order to get to the seating area. They tripled or quadrupled all the pre-movie ads and trailers and trivia games. They added several intermissions to every movie. They gave you a coupon of some sort if you stayed after the movie was over to complete a customer feedback survey. And so forth. How would you feel about your movie experience? Chances are, if you really wanted to see the movie in a theater, you would still go, but you would not consider most of the experience to be happy. Some would undoubtedly love all the new “content”, but many others would remember when they used to be able to do the movie experience in 3 hours, but now it took 5 or 6, and they would not be pleased about it.

I don’t have any grand conclusions about all this. It was, after all, just a financial report. Still, it did give us a couple of insights into what the future may hold.

Speaking of which, my future includes a weekend. Weather weenies tell us it will be cool and rainy in my part of Virginia — perfect for staying warm and dry inside and playing WoW or watching a movie.

Cheats and chiselers and lines not to be crossed

Blizzard just announced that they had “taken action” against some players who were accepting real world currency for in-game assistance, such as carrying players for raid clears. You can read the Blue Post here, courtesy of MMO-C.

This is absolutely reasonable action from Blizz. The activities were clear violations of the Terms of Service agreement, and some forum posters claimed it was getting out of hand — blatant advertisements abounded. I wouldn’t know about that, I tend to be quite naive about these matters. Still, there is a line between the in-game economy and the real world one, at least as far as players are concerned. Blizz went to some pains to point out that raid carries for gold, for example, are perfectly legitimate. It is just when actual rent-spendable money enters in that it becomes illegitimate.

In-game gold versus real-world money is a line most of us can understand, but I wonder if Blizz itself has not blurred that distinction a bit with their introduction of the token. By becoming their own gold seller, they have legitimized a direct connection between real world money and in-game gold. If you have the money, you can pretty much amass as much gold as you want in the game. Yes, you have limits placed on you in terms of how many tokens you can buy over a period of time, but if someone is patient and well-off, they can easily max out gold on every character on every account.

Not that having millions and millions of gold gets you much in the game nowadays, beyond a certain Scrooge McDuck feeling of wallowing in wealth. The reason Blizz’s gold selling has not become pay-for-play is that they have severely curtailed the number of game-enhancing buyable items available. In WoD, for example, you could buy competitive high-level crafted gear, but you were limited to equipping just three such items, thereby ensuring players with a lot of gold could not immediately outfit themselves with raid-level gear. In Legion, Blizz allows unlimited pieces of crafted gear to be equipped, but they prohibit selling (thus, buying) such gear above level 815. It can only be upgraded if it is soulbound — again, prohibiting wealthy players from easily (if expensively) outfitting themselves with high level gear.

Another thing the token has done is give everyone a quantitative way to value in-game items and activities. In the U.S., one token currently buys you approximately 90k gold, and it costs $20. Thus, if for example a guild is selling Nighthold clears for 200k gold (I have no clue if this is the going rate or not), a player contemplating buying the service can know that this means the true cost to them is $30-$40. (If the player is an in-game buyer of tokens as a way to pay for their subscription, then the cost is approximately $30, or two months’ play time. If the player is an in-game seller of tokens for gold, then the cost is $40, or about two game store token purchases.)

Similarly, if a piece of BoE gear is priced at 100k gold, a player can evaluate whether or not it is worth one month’s play time ($15), or $20 of their hard-earned cash from the other perspective.

Still, even if the real world versus game world line has become a bit blurrier, it is still there, and it certainly does not justify crossing it.

Which leads me to the other aspect of Blizz’s announcement that gave me pause. Of note, they indicated some of the presumably-banned players were members of world-first guilds. This is troubling, for basically the same reason I discussed in a previous post: that is, it indicates a lack of high standards of integrity in these guilds. Let’s be honest — there is no way guild management could have been unaware of the money-grubbing actions of the members engaging in this illicit business. But for whatever reason, the guilds these players belong to chose to do nothing about it — the best you can say is they gave tacit approval, and the worst is that they may have shared in the profits.

I know I will get hate mail for this, but given the apparent high profile of some of the guilty ones, I think in this case a bit of naming and shaming might have been in order. If not the actual players involved, then maybe the guilds they belonged to. “Don’t do the crime, if you can’t do the time.” Maybe a little guild embarrassment would be good incentive to police their own members in future.

How much better it would have been if, when the guilds suspected some of their members were doing it, they issued explicit instructions to knock that shit off or face expulsion. At the very least, they might have taken a page from professional sports and benched the offending players for some amount of time or levied a fine of some sort. Any guild sanction would have demonstrated these professional guilds are serious about policing their own, serious about upholding high standards of behavior. Sadly, insofar as any of us knows, they did not.

I am certain I could play this game forever and not give a flying fig about world first achievements or the inner workings of the professional guilds. I do not care about the pseudo-celebrity players in them. But I do care that some of the players and guilds I encounter in the game seek to emulate those semi-pro players and their guilds. If their role models are cheats and chiselers, then that attitude may well spread down through the game, and it will take away from my enjoyment of it.

In a perfect world — or even an above-average one — guilds would be incensed if their members cheated, and they would take drastic and public action to ensure everyone knew such behavior was unacceptable, to uphold the rules of the game they play, indeed the game they are leaders in. But sadly this is not the case, and we are left with some guilds that get while the getting is good, knowing they need take no responsibility because Blizz will step in and police their players for them. Well, good for you, Blizz. And shame on you, all you who know who you are.

Of sledge hammers and responsibilities

Yesterday there was a long blue post in one of the forums, about Blizz’s decision to axe the use of all nameplate addons for friendly characters in raids. Basically, insofar as I can surmise, Blizz did this because they were annoyed that one of the world-first Mythic guilds used such an addon to gain an advantage defeating one of the Nighthold bosses, and Blizz thought this was No fair, no fair! (Stomp feet, pout, get angry red face.)

Up front, let me say that I really don’t give a flying fig about the specifics of this action — I don’t use friendly nameplates at all, much less in the chaotic visual salad that is raid bosses. So I doubt that this will have much if any direct effect on my game play, and I suspect it will have very little effect on 90% or more of regular players.

Still, I found Blizz’s action interesting. It struck me as a real overreaction, like using a sledge hammer to swat a fly. One top-level guild uses one specialized addon to help them defeat one boss in a Mythic instance of one raid tier, and Blizz considers the best solution is to ban the use of all similar addons for all raid teams for all bosses in all raids?

Why not tell the guild, “Sorry, we have determined that you used an exploit, and we warned everyone that use of exploits would nullify any achievements they were used for, so go back and try again.” Would this have angered the guild? Sure, and they might have rightfully claimed Blizz was being arbitrary and capricious, but hey welcome to the world the rest of us Great Unwashed live in. Blizz, of course, is loathe to annoy the top guilds because they are money-makers, so they tend to tiptoe around them asking if maybe they could get them another cup of tea or a crumpet or something. A world-first guild has to do something pretty heinous for Blizz to sanction them in any way. In this case, like the medieval use of whipping boys as stand-ins for misbehaving royalty, Blizz is punishing others for one incident of one guild’s naughtiness.

In any human endeavor, some will inevitably rise to the top, some will become leaders. As leaders they are treated differently than those they lead, they have certain privileges and are able to exercise certain powers either directly or indirectly. There are good reasons for this, and at any rate it is just the way of the world. Most people accept it.

But here’s the thing: With leadership comes responsibility. The more power you have, the more loathe you must be to exercise it. The more privileges you have, the less you must be willing to use them. The more adulation you receive, the more you must shun it. In all things, you must keep in mind the greater good of those you lead, not your own personal advancement. This is true whether you are the leader of a nation or an army general or the treasurer of your middle school student council. Or a top level guild in a computer game.

Which brings me — finally — to my point. Many players look to the achievements of top guilds, as well as to the game play of members of those guilds, as models worthy of emulation. And Blizz encourages this through their promotion of world first competitions and esports events. This makes these guilds and their members leaders in the gaming community. No, they don’t have the nuclear codes, and the world order will not collapse as a result of their decisions, but they are leaders nonetheless, whether or not they realize it.

Gaming “leaders” are a relatively new group on the world stage. The closest similar group are sports stars, both individuals and teams. As we all know, not all sports stars exercise their leadership in positive ways (well, to be honest, many world leaders do not, either), but maybe now is the time for gaming leaders to establish a pattern of high standards and excellent leadership in their games. Not just in achievements, but in the methods they use to get there.

I don’t honestly know if the nameplate addon usage was a shady exploit or not, for all I know it was perfectly legitimate to assume it was okay to use. But what I do wonder is if the guild that used it even thought about the precedent they were setting, or the possible ramifications to other players if their technique was determined to be unfair. Are these guilds setting a good example when they skirt the boundaries of normal play by using split runs and gear funneling in their pursuit of a world first achievement? Do they even consider the possibility that their actions may have an adverse effect on normal players? Again, I am not saying any of these procedures are wrong, I just think it is time for the top guilds to acknowledge their leadership position and to make decisions responsibly and in accordance with a consideration for the greater good of the game. If that means they reject certain actions as not setting a good example — even if it means they might lose an edge for the title of world first — then that is a positive sign for the future of world class gaming.

And now, let the weekend begin.

Happy Pi Day and other numbers

Woohoo! It’s Pi Day, which of course is celebrated with pie. What could be better for a dreary Monday in March? And this year the day is somewhat special. Well, it was special last year, too, but we do like to drag out our specialness when possible, don’t we? As ABC News explains:

Last year’s Pi Day was one to celebrate since it was 3/14/15, perfectly matching the first numbers past the decimal point of pi. Last year, hardcore math fans even started celebrating the day at exactly 9:26 a.m. and 53 seconds. There’s a big reason to celebrate this year too — math enthusiasts are calling today “Rounded Pi Day.”

When rounding pi to the ten-thousandth (that’s four places beyond the decimal point), it comes out to 3.1416, matching today’s date — March 14, 2016.

In our house, Pi Day takes on slightly more significance since it is also the day before the Ides of March, which happens to be my spousal unit’s birthday. Poor fellow, he has never had an actual birthday cake from me, he always gets birthday pie. It is, of course, always a rounded pie, but this year the shape clearly assumes greater importance!

Anyway, Pi Day being about numbers, I decided to go back and look at the Q4 2016 report from Activision Blizzard, which was issued early last month. I had scanned it when it came out, decided it made my head hurt, and quickly moved on. But something made me look at it again. My usual disclaimer: I am not an economist or stock expert, and my comments are purely a lay person’s observations. Take them for what they are worth, which honestly is not much.

Of course, all the comments by the ATVI execs were rosy and optimistic. In general, they have a right to be — the gaming industry is flighty and fickle, and to maintain a multi-billion dollar gaming company for years is a pretty impressive accomplishment. So this is not a “WoW is doomed” post, just a couple of observations — an attempt to read between the lines — about the Blizzard and WoW corners of the massive ATVI entity.

The first thing that really stood out for me is something one of my regular readers alluded to in a comment on my last post — that Legion artifact weapons are a huge gating mechanism. I agreed with him and it made me think, oh silly me of course this is done on purpose, especially the part about having to level an artifact weapon for every spec, not just for every class. And the reason is that the success metric now applied by ATVI is “monthly active user engagement”, which just means amount of time played each month by players who log on. (I think — I really do not know exactly how ATVI defines “active users”.)

ATVI  COO Thomas Tippl (emphasis mine):

First, we broadened our audience reach with successful new content launches and expanded onto new platforms and geographies. In the fourth quarter, our monthly active users grew to our highest level ever at over 80 million users. For the full year, MAUs grew 25% over 2014.

Second, we drove deeper engagement by providing outstanding game play and frequent content updates. Players spent 3.5 billion hours playing our games in the fourth quarter alone. For the full year, engagement was up 16% to a record 14 billion hours, and this doesn’t include rapidly growing hours spent spectating which we estimate for Activision Blizzard alone is now 1.5 billion hours. Third, we progressed in something that is very hard to do, but is critical for our business. We shifted to a year-round player investment model, while growing engagement at the same time. And as a result, we grew our revenues from in-game content and services to over $1.6 billion. That’s up 57% year-over-year at constant FX.

When executed well, increased player investment and deeper engagement are not a tradeoff but instead can reinforce each other, and we are pleased that our results are proving out this important element of our business strategy.

That is the big ATVI picture. Here are related comments from Blizzard CEO Mike Morhaime (again, emphasis mine):

Moving onto World of Warcraft, we saw quarter-over-quarter growth in Q4 as we kicked off presales at BlizzCon for our new expansion, Legion, which is coming out in the summer, and we released a new content patch. With Legion we’re taking care to build off the best aspects of Warlords of Draenor to create an experience that appeals to an even wider audience and which offers more opportunities for sustained engagement.

(I’m not sure I remember the release of a new content patch in 4th quarter of 2015, but never mind.)

It seems clear that one of the main goals for Legion, as part of the larger ATVI corporate goal, is to extend the time each player must spend in order to attain desired goals. Thus, we will have spec-specific artifact weapons, each of which entails a relatively long process to open up the entire range of what amounts to a new talent tree based on a unique weapon. Further, I think we can expect to see other goals — especially the most sought after — to be fairly long and involved (think flying as an example).

I am not necessarily passing judgement here — forcing “engagement” is not inherently good or evil. I am just saying that the prime motivator for many of WoW’s mechanisms probably has very little to do with player fun or some bogus “spec fantasy”, and a great deal to do with the bottom line in the next quarterly report. Remember that when you are collecting your 30th widget of 300 for quest number 6 in a string of 21 required for Legion flying.

My last point is that, despite rosy pronouncements from ATVI execs, all is not unicorns and puppies and rainbows as far as the company’s future goes. They certainly are not in imminent danger of going under, but they face some very significant challenges, some of which are described by this analyst. Essentially, acquisition of King remains a large gamble for the company, and the realization of huge eSports revenue, while still promising, is in its very early and formative stages. A lot could still stop it in its tracks.

What this means for WoW is anyone’s guess (although it appears less and less  likely that it will be revived as an eSport, it just is not a good genre for that), but — not to be a harbinger of doom — it seems pretty safe to say that this MMO is playing out its own end game. Sure, it may remain viable for a couple of more years, but I think we are seeing Legion as a possible last-ditch attempt to revive it, or maybe just to allow it to exit gracefully. The analyst I cited above had this comment to make:

World of Warcraft – increasingly becoming an afterthought, which shows just broad and deep ATVI’s portfolio is – appears to have declined sharply from the billion-dollar levels estimated as recently as last year. Durkin said that for the first time since Activision and Blizzard merged in 2008, WoW drove less than half of that company’s revenue. Given that Blizzard generated $1.565 billion in revenue for the year, that caps WoW’s contribution at ~$780 million.

And last, this thought from yet another analyst (my emphasis):

Whatever the reasons for the decline in Activision’s main products are, there is no question that there is a decline.

First, World of Warcraft. The game hit its peak of just shy of 12.5 million subscribers in the fourth quarter of 2010. Since then, it has steadily declined, with a short recovery in Q4 2014. By end of the third quarter 2015, the game had slightly over 5 million subscribers and is expected to have ended up slightly below 5 million by the end of 2015. Worse, it looks probable that this decline is very likely to continue and will not be reversed by the forthcoming release of World of Warcraft: Legion on September 21, 2016.

No, it may not be time yet to head for the WoW exits, but it wouldn’t hurt to know where they are. Enjoy the game as much as you can as long as you can, but know that it will not last forever. The world of gaming is changing, and some genres will not be part of the next game generation.

Meanwhile, I recommend pie.

Well, that answers that question

A couple of days ago, I posed the question, “Who is this game for?” I am pretty sure I now have my answer.

Official Blizz announcement:

This Tuesday, February 9, at 3:00 p.m. PST, tune in live at Twitch.tv/Warcraft to watch several top World of Warcraft streamers, YouTubers, and personalities from Europe and North America race against the clock—and each other—in some of the new max-level dungeons coming in World of Warcraft: Legion.

Our two teams will be racing through two dungeons: The Maw of Souls, a brand-new dungeon not yet available in the Legion Alpha, and the Heroic difficulty version of Halls of Valor, home of the greatest warriors of the vrykul. While these teams have had some practice with Halls of Valor on lower difficulty, this will be the first time any adventurer has set foot in The Maw of Souls—all these two teams know is to expect the unexpected!

For this challenge, we’ve assembled a colossal collection of some of the biggest names in the World of Warcraft community. Representing Europe: Treckie, Bellular, Qelric, and Alex and Loz of FatbossTV. To face off against them, representing North America: Towelliee, Killars, Monkioh, and Tattva and Tovo of Line of Sight Gaming. Both of these teams have a ton of experience, knowledge, and history with World of Warcraft—but will it be enough to triumph?

Assistant Game Director Ion “Watcher” Hazzikostas will join Community Manager Josh “Lore” Allen to provide commentary and insight as each team fights through the dungeons in a race to earn the fastest time possible. The winning team will claim victory not only for themselves, but for the region they represent!

Who is this game for? It is clear from this announcement that Legion, at least, is for the elite players, for the “stars” and the wannabes. It is for the new Activision Blizzard eSports Division. It is for dev-execs like Watcher to indulge their Howard Cosell fantasies. It is for the advertisers currently losing revenue because no one is watching the WoW streamers whose channels they place their ads on.

Why else would Blizz make An Event out of an expansion draft that is not even in beta yet, with classes and specs far out of balance and buggy?

And not for nothin’, but apparently Blizz has reverted to what I can only assume is its core attitude of flippant and snarky answers to legitimate questions. As quoted on MMO-C’s Blue Posts today, in response to a serious question about when we might expect Legion beta with — presumably — a wider group of testers, there was this:
Community Manager
2016/02/04 11:44:00 AM


Nice. Such a great, respectful, satisfying response to a perfectly reasonable question. Now, I grant you that this CM may not know when the beta will be available, or indeed if it ever will be. But what a missed opportunity to show the community that a serious concern, if well presented, will elicit a serious response. The CM could have responded, for example, that she does not know, but here are some of the factors we consider in order to decide when to launch a beta.

But no, much better to give a snide one-word non-answer that has the dual benefit of demonstrating how very witty she is while at the same dismissing this player’s concerns as trivial.

Anyway, back to my main point: Legion is being developed for the less than 1%, not for the majority of current players, who have transitioned in Blizz’s view from customer-players to “audience”.

Going slightly tinfoil-hat here, but of note, this transition might even explain some of the extreme ability pruning we see. I am guessing that most people watch eSports for games with which they already have some familiarity. So it is to Blizz’s benefit to increase their audience by promoting it as accessible to new players. Accessible for the basics, mind you, not for the full end game experience. If you can draw in new players with the movie and possibly with a port to game consoles, if these new players only have to learn a few button fundamentals, that may be enough to profitably increase the eSports audience size for the game. (Better, it may lure them into other Blizz franchises.)

So maybe Legion is being written for two groups — brand new players who are never really expected to get to the end game, and the afore-mentioned “personalities” and “elite” players.

Another quick detour. This announced “event” makes it clear why Blizz went with the highly-restricted alpha test instead of a larger beta as they usually do. By inviting the “personalities” and streamers, they ensured these players would have a huge advantage in mastering the new stuff, thereby helping them to maintain their profit margins while at the same time allowing the eSports Division to create continuing events even between expansions.

(And forgive me for a bit of schadenfreude here, but wouldn’t it be awesome if the new Maw of Souls turned out to be a complete tech, mechanics, and class balance disaster during the live stream?  It won’t, of course, because even Blizz is not that incompetent, except when they are launching a live expansion (Mists, WoD). But still…)

So far, of course, these streaming events are “free” — i.e., revenue-generating through placed ads. But mark my words, soon you will have to pay actual money to view them, either as single events or through some sort of “premium” subscription. You heard it here first.

So we know who this game is for. Who is it not for? It is not for players like me, who love the game but who do not care to make it a profession.

It is not for the “serious casuals”, who play it for relaxation and sometimes escape, but who also like to challenge themselves to become more skilled — because when the class and profession mechanics totally change every expansion, you can’t really progress in your skills, you can only start new, become semi-proficient, start again, etc.

It is not for the social player, who loves being in a social guild or a leveling guild or a casual raiding guild.

It is not for the player who loves to level and quest, because that process has become chaotic and disjointed, a mere means to an end rather than the end in and of itself.

So I asked the question, “Who is this game for?” Now I know, and I regret asking. As my grandmother used to warn me, “Don’t ask the question if you don’t want to hear the answer.”






Bits and pieces

I’ll be glad when Legion alpha cranks up again, because frankly it’s becoming quite a challenge to write about WoW these days. Very little is happening in the current expansion, and the news about Legion is both parsed and parsimonious. While I am personally not bored with the game, I am involved in activities decidedly not interesting to write about. No one wants to hear about my exciting new herb farming route, or my glacial progress on a ring for my warlock, or my new Worgen transmog, or my misadventures healing in LFR. (However, if I get desperate enough you may expect to be subjected to such posts.)

There have been a few recent snippets about the game, though, so here’s my take on them.

New patch?? Nope. For a few hours last night, there was a blue post entitled “World of Warcraft Patch 6.3.0” which had about two uninspiring lines about a couple of extremely minor bug fixes. It drew my interest obviously because of the title, but clearly it was a boo-boo, because today the new headline is “World of Warcraft Patch 6.2.3 – Build 20886”.

I didn’t think the two minor fixes were a new patch, but for a fleeting moment I wanted to believe that there was an actual WoD patch that had secretly been in the works for a while, and that the blue poster had gotten his project notes mixed up. But alas, no, just another piece of inattentive work from devs who, like the rest of us, have written off WoD, and in this case could not be bothered to do even minimal proofreading.

Still, what could have caused such a typo? I could understand if the title had been “Patch 6.3” because that might mean the poster  had a too-light key touch in the middle of trying to type “6.2.3”. But the title  patch number was “6.3.0”. Weird. Are things at Blizz in such disarray that the devs have lost track of which patch they are working on, or even which patches are live?

Activision acquires Major League Gaming. (Check out the post over at alt:ernative chat for one WoW blogger’s excellent take on this.) I’m sure if you are Activision or one of their shareholders, this is a good move, but I really think it is another nail in WoW’s coffin. Clearly, ATVI is going all in on eSports, and that does not bode well for WoW, certainly not for the aspects of the game that drew most of us to it in the first place.

I don’t see Wow PvE as suited to being a spectator sport, beyond the occasional elite guild raid face-offs. No, if there is eSport money in WoW — and I am not really sure there is — it will be made in PvP. Make no mistake, if there is money to be made, it will be huge money. If you are Blizzard with finite development resources, and PvP is making you rich, how much time are you going to spend on the PvE side?  Even if PvE can be profitable, how must it change in order to please the spectators? How much pressure will Corporate put on every franchise to evolve into a major league style “sport”?

But in the end, I don’t see WoW — or any traditional MMO — as a profitable eSports venue. The genre is dying. If Legion is not the last expansion of the game, it could well be the penultimate one.

Who is playing WoW? I have been reading some social science papers lately on the subject of who plays video games these days, and it made me wonder what the true demographics of WoW are. Surprisingly — or maybe not — there are no data available on this, beyond a few undoubtedly inaccurate guesses based on severely limited sampling.

I doubt even Blizz knows the demographics of their customer base. How would they? I don’t recall what if any personal information I had to give when I first subscribed, but even if it was enough to be statistically useful, I doubt if Blizz “ages” it as the years go by, not to mention anyone can fake it (though most do not). Besides, no tech company ever went broke by just assuming their target audience is 20-30 year old males and tailoring their products for that demographic.

Still, it makes me wonder if maybe some of the discontent with WoW these days is the result of Blizz failing to understand who their main player base is and what game design keeps that real player base engaged.

That’s it. Everyone have a good weekend!

The state of raiding, part one

Maybe because of the impending reintroduction of valor in patch 6.2.3, or maybe because there is not much else to talk about until Blizzcon, there has been a recent spate of forum discussions and blog posts calling for an end to LFR. In turn, this has called into question the entire current raid structure. I’ll throw aside the inevitable bunch of illiterate invective-spewing crazies on some forums, but even so there are bloggers I respect posting some thought-provoking pieces on the subject. Check out Marathal over at Rambling Thoughts About WoW, or Pherian at alt:ernative chat for starters.

This the first of two posts on my take on the current state of raiding in WoW. Today’s focus is on the underlying game factors affecting raiding. The next (Monday’s) post will be some ideas on where we are and where we might go.

I always try to see things in terms of the larger picture. Raiding is part of a vastly complex socio-technical game system  we call World of Warcraft. So I am going to try and order my thoughts on the subject by looking at the various factors bearing on raiding as a game activity. Obviously, each of these factors is intertwined with the others, but I will try to separate them for purposes of discussion.

Game design. I did not play the game when it first launched, so I have no idea of how it felt back then, or what most players perceived the game design to be. From reading, my impression is that it was focused on questing and socializing, and that raiding was a minor part of what players could do for fun once they had pretty much finished other activities and reached the highest level available for their characters. But the raids were about fun and achievements, not so much about gear.

In other words, the game was about the journey, not the destination. But somewhere along the line, Blizz began to focus on the destination — the end game — and encouraged players to speed through the journey as fast as possible to reach that destination.

We are now at the point where the entire game is focused — by design — on raiding. That activity is central to nearly every aspect of the game, and indeed it defines the end game.

Technical/mechanical environment. As the game has swung from process-oriented to goal-oriented, and as that goal has been defined as organized raiding, the concept of “class balance” has assumed greater and greater importance. Back when the game focus was on questing and exploring the virtual world, it really did not much matter if one class was significantly more powerful than another, or had better movement, as long as both could use their abilities to be successful in the world. The competition was with yourself, to see how well you could cope with the virtual environment, it was not about publicizing damage meter results.

But when the game became all about raiding, players demanded class equity, because they needed to be able to compete favorably with other classes for raid spots. As the various classes had been designed on different power models, balancing their abilities with those of other classes became extremely challenging. To come even close — without a complete rewrite of the entire class structure — Blizz had to rely more and more on easily-configurable mechanisms such as gear and secondary stats. Thus, gear assumed greater and greater importance, and the methods for obtaining it became more varied.

As raids became more important and popular, players demanded new and harder fight mechanics, further complicating the already-precarious class structure subsystem. Further, several class talents and abilities were targeted solely for raid participation — they had little or no value to individual questing or adventuring. This even has begun to affect gear, as we see with the legendary ring mechanics.

Social environment. WoW was and is a social game. It encourages building of bonds with real life as well as online friends, through chatting, cooperating on quests and achievements, and seeking out others who share your views/philosophies/fantasies/whatever. Guilds have been the game’s most important social structure, and they naturally served as the basic foundation for organized raid teams. Some guilds were formed solely as a support structure for creating raid teams — they were known as raiding guilds and for a long time stood in contrast to so-called “social” guilds, which may have had one or more raid teams but raiding was not the stated purpose of the guild. Often, raiding guild raiders were known as “hardcore”, whereas social guild raiders were known — usually unflatteringly — as “casual”.

Raid teams need a more or less steady supply of active players, and as raids have gotten more complex, those players need to work well together as a team. What this means is that without a large pool of active players and a robust guild structure, the number of viable raid teams dwindles and raiding becomes less accessible to those players who remain. Competition for raid spots increases, much of that competition is based on gear levels and raid experience, both of which require successful raiding nowadays, and so we are in a Catch-22 situation. You can’t raid without gear and experience, but you can only get gear and experience through raiding.

Prior to WoD, you could get around this problem by being in an active guild with a raid team that would accept your gear and experience shortcomings and work with you to get you up to speed. But players judged WoD to be so terrible that they left the game in unprecedented numbers, either by unsubscribing or just by not logging on, and the result has been disbanding not only of raid teams but of entire guilds because of lack of participation.

Blizz has tried a few bandaid fixes to this problem, but they have either been ineffective or have had unintended consequences. Some of their attempted fixes include implementation of Raid Finder and Group Finder, introduction of LFR and flex-style raiding, and the impending cross-realm Mythic raiding mechanism. But they have done nothing to get at the basic problem of player apathy and thus greatly diminished raider base.

Community perceptions. As the game has changed focus, so have player expectations and definitions of game “expertise.” Some of this, of course, springs from shallow adolescent one-upsmanship — “I am great and you stink because I have different colored gear/bigger mount/higher damage numbers/more Archie kills/etc.” For this kind of thinking, a game focus on raiding easily lends itself to the stereotype “hardcore versus dirty casuals” screeds you see far too often in forums and trade chat.

The unfortunate thing about this particular stereotype is that it does tend to shape much of the discussion about the role of raiding in the current game. Check out some of the get-rid-of-LFR forums and you will see what I mean. There are logical arguments on both sides of this subject, but neither is furthered by using this lazy, simple-minded stereotype.

Of possibly more impact, Activision Blizzard’s all-in move to eSports for nearly all their games is shaping the community perception of raiding in WoW. (Just yesterday they announced the formation of an entire new division devoted to furthering the corporate venture into eSports.) For one thing, it drives the highly-publicized Mythic “firsts” we read about ad nauseum at the beginning of a new raid tier, which in turn promotes the idea of individual and team superstars, fostering the notion that this is what the true raider should be aiming for. Many of us do not subscribe to this line of thinking, but enough do that it shapes concepts about raiding.

As the popularity of eSports grows (and I think it will), it will have an inevitable impact on raid design. People want to watch the World Cup or the Super Bowl, not a couple guys playing Tiddledy Winks. If they perceive that it’s something anyone can do pretty well, they are not really interested in watching it. But if they think only the elite can play at that level, they will shell out a lot of money to watch. I confess I do not know exactly what effect this will have on raid structure, but I am certain it will have one.

What I have listed are not all the factors affecting raiding in WoW, but I think they are the major ones. Any discussion of raiding really has to consider them in their role of shaping the current state as well as in — since they are inextricably intertwined —  what the effects on them may be if major changes are made to raiding.

And with that, my brain hurts. I wish you all a good weekend.