Who is this game for?

If you have ever taken a class in writing, public speaking, any form of communication skill at all (including manufacturing and the creative arts), you know that one of the first things you learn is to define your intended audience. You simply cannot communicate effectively if you do not know who is on the other end. You would not launch into a scholarly discussion of the Laws of Thermodynamics if your intended audience is your toddler about to touch a hot stove. Nor would you frantically exclaim, “No! Hot! Ouchie!” in a presentation on heat transference to a group of industrial engineers.

Novelists, movie makers, musicians, politicians, housing tract developers, beer companies — all know that to be successful they must explicitly define their target audience for whatever product they are selling (even if, as in the case of politicians, that product is themselves) and then market the product in terms relevant to that demographic. If they fail to do this, their product success will be at best mediocre and at worst an utter failure. Their audience may be either broadly defined (“adults in their peak earning years”) or narrowly (“American fly fishermen who prefer waders to hip boots”), but it must be defined. Even if the intended audience is several groups, those groups must be described, and every feature of the product marketed in ways each group can relate to.

Which of course brings me to my topic for today: Who is WoW’s intended audience? More specifically, how does Blizz define the game’s intended audience? Who are they developing for?

I have no idea. Worse, I am not sure Blizz has, either.

Given Blizz’s phobia about actually communicating directly with their customers, I would not of course expect a public statement about this from them. All we can go by, therefore, are “statements” in the form of game design. The things they do with the game, and to some extent with marketing strategies, can give us an indirect assessment of how they define their target audience.

Bad news in that case, because lately what we see are conflicting and contradictory designs. The message from them is: “We have no coherent game goal. We are writing for, y’know, everyone. Whatever.”

Here is a perfect example. (Shout-out to The Grumpy Elf for his piece last week on what leveling may look like in Legion. It really started me on this line of thought.)

  • Over the last few expansions, and continuing into Legion, the game is less and less welcoming to new players. For someone who has never played this game before, and who may have no one to help them through it, the leveling process is daunting and confusing. Profession leveling is completely out of sync with character leveling. Blizz does nothing to guide new players, lazily relying on third party sites to do this for them. Game lore has been so twisted to accommodate design mechanics that a new player wishing to learn it would need a graduate course of study to do so. The message is that Blizz is not designing this game for masses of new players.
  • Cata, Mists, WoD, and Legion all introduced game design and game play changes on a massive scale. Most classes have had to be completely relearned from the ground up each expansion. Similarly, professions — especially in WoD and Legion — have undergone changes so extensive  as to make them unrecognizable from only a couple of years ago. Raid structures have changed completely, in a way that has arguably made raiding less accessible to many players. Social aspects of the game — a reason many players started playing WoW in the first place — have been made less and less significant, through cross-realm LFR and questing, weakening of guild perks, and failure to police the most vile and threatening players. People who have invested a lot in this game over the years, in the form of in-game friendships and guild structures, developing class skills, improving raid skills, etc., do not like it when their efforts are completely negated every time there is a new expansion. The message is that Blizz is not designing this game for long-time current players.

So, if they are not designing the game for new players, and they are not designing it for current players, who exactly is their intended audience?

Your guess is as good as mine. There is no discernibly coherent strategic design goal in WoW. If Blizz does indeed have a defined target audience in mind, it must be an extremely narrow group — eSports celebrity wannabes? Elite raiding teams who bring endorsement money? Their own devs? None of these make sense for a game whose business model is mass paid subscriptions.

If I knew that the game were being developed for a certain audience, even if I were not part of that audience, I think I could accept many of the most frustrating aspects of the game I see now. Because I would know that they made sense in that context, and I could either accept the limitations such a context imposed on me and keep playing, or I could not accept them and move on. (Chaos, on the other hand, when it is the result of either laziness or incompetence, makes me angry. Especially if I am paying for it.)

But the more depressing and likely explanation is that Blizz has no idea who their target audience is, they simply react to every perceived gaming fad and to every dev department’s brilliant ideas for their particular corner of the game. No one is shaping the product for a lucrative demographic, no one even thinks this is a desirable goal. Heck, I am beginning to suspect no one even thinks it is a question worth asking. They are on auto-pilot, mindlessly developing whatever seems nifty to someone, because that is what they do. To return to my example of discussing the Laws of Thermodynamics with a toddler, eventually Blizz’s lack of direction will bow to the Second Law of Thermodynamics:

The entropy of an isolated system that is not in equilibrium tends to increase over time, approaching a maximum value at equilibrium.

“Maximum entropy” is not good news for WoW.

No! Hot! Ouchie!






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?




Blizz, read this post (no, not mine, this other one)

I just read a blog that I usually don’t follow, but it popped up on The Grumpy Elf blog roll, so I followed the link and it really rocked me back on my heels. The blog is Still Searching by Samantha. Please take a look at it. In a nutshell, she describes the reasons for her decision to unsub, and to my mind it perfectly encapsulates the game play changes that have led us to where we are today.

This should be required reading at Blizz.

A couple of things struck me about the post. First, it was not a whine or tirade, it was simply an explanation of why for her the game is just no longer fun. She is not alone in this opinion, in fact I am betting that she is representative of a large part of the player base. But Blizz will not care, in fact will not even notice, that she unsubbed.

Interestingly, I had a related chat with a guildie last night on the same topic. We were discussing Patch 6.2, and that about the only reason we were looking forward to it is in the hope that it might entice some more players back to active play, our guild halls being very empty these days. Then, out of the blue, this guildie whom I have never heard disparage the game, who is a mainstay of our raid team and an excellent healer, said “I am sick and tired of Blizz catering to the whims of the top raiding guilds at the expense of regular players, just because those guilds bring in huge $$$ for Blizz with endorsements and paid events.” The guildie went on to say they expect a rash of unsubs over the next few months, but we agreed that such an occurrence would not faze Blizz, because who cares about a few thousand unsubs when you have 10 million customers.

A second thing that struck me about the post was how well it summarized the things many of us have been writing about now for months: Blizz is forcing one play style on everyone.

If you enjoy playing alts, sorry, that play style is not encouraged.

If you like crafting and professions, too bad, the current game does not support your play style.

If you are habitually unlucky, sucks to be you because every part of the game is now RNG-dependent, even something as trivial as getting that stupid selfie camera.

Dislike the farming on steroids that we call garrisons, hahaha we are going to cram it down your throats and you WILL do it if you ever hope to see any new content.

If you prefer not to raid, well what can we say other than maybe you should switch to Second Life because you are not the kind of player we respect or even listen to.

The third thing that occurred to me was that after the first couple of days that WoD went live, I have never read a WoW blog summarizing how terrific this expansion is and how the game is now more engaging than it ever was. Yes, I know it is always easier to bitch about something than to celebrate it. But you would think, if any significant part of the player base is really loving the current state of the game and is truly excited by it, that SOMEONE would rise to its defense in the face of all the negative things being written about it.

Last, a short (sort of) anecdote. Some of you may remember that I served a few years in the Army. I served with some of the finest people this country has to offer, but there was one officer who stood far above the rest. He was a role model who was liked and respected by officers and enlisted alike. If you listed all the desirable traits of an Army officer, he had them all, and none of the self-serving ambition that is far too prevalent. He was what we called a ” real stand-up guy” which is pretty much the highest compliment you could get back then.

Anyway, I digress. This officer had about 15 years in, a great future, and suddenly surprised everyone by putting his resignation papers in. I was his executive officer and along with everyone else was dumbfounded, so over a couple of beers I asked him why — was there a Bad Thing about to be discovered about him? Had he secretly screwed up so bad that his boss told him to resign? Was he gay and wanted to freely pursue that lifestyle? What?

He laughed, and then he said this:

“Think of it as a long hike, and you know you have to go straight north for a long ways over what looks like flat terrain. You see a clearly marked path going north, but as you follow it you notice every once in awhile it veers a tiny bit. You still know where north is, though, so you don’t worry about a couple of small deviations, because you can always correct for them later. Finally you come to a hilltop and look back to get your bearings, and you see that you are straight east of your starting point instead of north of it, and now you have come too far to go back and start over. I’ve started to notice some small turns in the path I chose in the Army, turns I have no choice but to follow, but turns that will inevitably lead me east instead of north. I don’t want to get to the end of a career and see that there is no longer any way to get to where I wanted to go.”

Blizz, please pause and take a look at the small design decisions you’ve made over the years, and ask yourself if they are leading you to where you want this game to be, or are they taking you in a direction you never intended to go?

And read Samantha’s blog.