Monday, February 5, 2018

“World of Warcraft”, Blizzard and trading off “fun”

(NOTE: This was written before the 7.3.5 patch, which changed the leveling experience in World of Warcraft, went live. I have not returned to the game since then to test the new system)

I need someone to explain to me what the hell Blizzard has been doing lately.
I’m a simple man; I play games to have fun, enjoy myself and experience what they have to offer. I decided, very recently, to restart my World of Warcraft (WoW) subscription. I don’t do this often with any MMORPG; I get bored easily, but in games like City of Heroes or Final Fantasy XIV, I typically have a good amount of fun for about half a month before I cancel again. With World of Warcraft, not so much .
Quick history for context; I bought WoW around 2007; it was full price then, which means I paid 60 Euros for it, including a two-month game time card at 27 Euros. I installed the game and played for literally two hours before forgetting it ever existed and returning to City of Heroes. That’s right; 87 Euros for two hours of play


I didn’t bother with the game much afterwards; I mostly forgot I even had it, with the exception of a couple of cases that Blizzard gifted me a week of free play to promote the game after they released Cataclysm. I eagerly used that free time, but the game failed to convince me it was worth the sub.
Two summers ago, after Legion came out, I bought another card; I was hoping for a different result and I did my best to stick with the game for as long as I could tolerate it; I got my character, a Human Paladin, to Level 53 and gave up again, before the first month even ended.
A few weeks back, I got a WoW itch I wanted to scratch; the game always enticed me with its visual style and seemingly expansive lore, as well as its theoretically traditional and simplistic gameplay. Not one to learn from past mistakes in arguably any area of my life, I bought another month less than a week before writing this. 
As I logged in to my Paladin avatar, I found myself stranded in a volcanic area, with about 10 quests on the tracker, a bunch of dwarves with exclamation marks over their heads around me and two hotbars of skills I had to re-familiarize myself with. I was overwhelmed.

It’s not uncommon to be a little lost when returning to a RPG after a long time (let alone over a year). Most of the problem, however, usually comes in the form of not remember what the story is about and WoW isn’t big on “story”. No; the problem was that I felt no connection to my character. I couldn’t remember a single damned minute I’d spent with him, outside of a few hours of frustration during some earlier forced stealth bits. In contrast, I can still recount in excruciating detail hours of experiences I had in City of Heroes over a decade ago. I can still sing the praises of all the super-heroes I had created and I still miss every single one of them.

Look at that quest tracker. Just LOOK AT IT.

So, off I went, deleted the character in frustration and made a new one; a Night Elf Hunter this time, my WoW standard archetype from way back in 2007, as well as the free post-Cataclysm time. 
I’m recounting all of this, because I decided to use my frustration with my Paladin as a cautionary tale; I wouldn’t let it happen again. I wouldn’t let myself get absorbed in so much repetition that I don’t remember anything about the game once the subscription expires. I would pace myself and drink in the wonderful world and lore and missions of World of Warcraft.
It didn’t work.
I tried, really; instead of picking up every quest in a hub, I picked them up one-by-one. I wanted to focus on each quest separately, to remember why I was doing them, what the story of each of them was, why I was in that area I was in. I wanted to remember the path from and to the quest, to feel like I was actually an adventurer, immersed in the world around me, with an important task at hand. I didn’t even buy my mount until Level 26; I was going back and forth, on foot, me and my pet saving the world.
It wasn’t too bad at first; the starting area has just the right amount of quests and none send you too far, making the game accessible and the areas memorable. The longest stretch of road is between Dolanaar and Darnassus and not many quests force you to go back and forth on foot. 
The combat was the first thing that ruined it; it was too easy. I play some “vanilla”, WoW 1.12, on the side (thank you Elysium) and I can draw the comparisons. Vanilla combat is absolutely shit; too slow, too difficult, the game is unnecessarily punishing, considering the combat system is kind of simplistic shit that requires little skill or tactics. Current, official WoW has jumped entirely on the other side of the spectrum. I started realizing why I didn’t remember anything about my Paladin; there were no encounters worth remembering. From cannon fodder in the forests to the quest-significant enemies, they all dropped in two, maybe three hits. That bloody pet didn’t help; from some point on, all I had to do was aggro an enemy and my pet did the work for me. I was tearing through entire enemy camps in under a minute. I didn’t even have the chance to see what it was I was fighting, all the enemy NPCs just started blending in together.

This populated camp would’ve been a nightmare of careful planning and pulling in any other MMO.

Again, I tried. I was playing the Survivalist specialization and I tried to make things difficult for me. I refused to use a mishmash of armor with parts that didn’t fit; I purposefully downgraded my gear to look good. I even downgraded my weapon, from a two-handed axe to a quarterstaff that capped its DPS output to the base output of my previous weapon. 
No changes. Enemies still dropped like flies.
Eventually, I just got rid of the pet and switched to Marksman. It didn’t get much better; the combat was still easy, but at least each encounter lasted 3-5 seconds, which was 3-5 seconds more than before. So... progress?
I was very annoyed the game forced me to do this. Whenever I play a RPG, I don’t just do so for the mechanics and I certainly don’t do MMORPGs for the social aspect; I play these games for the lore and the world, to go about doing quests and to role-play. I really enjoyed my hunter, the Night Elf Don’thalar, roaming the woods with his pet bear Bols’htaran. I liked the story in my head, that I had rescued the bear when he was a cub and he was corrupted (I tamed it on Darkshore) and then took him to the druids to cure him through one of the quests I did for them. Afterwards we started hunting in the woods; I, my trusty axe and lil’ Bolsh, my only friend in the whole of Azeroth.
So, I sacrificed my RPing for some gameplay value. It still wasn’t enough.
At the time of writing this, my hunter is Level 31. I’ve left him next to a giant treant near a Burning Legion killing ground. I feel disappointed and exhausted. 
Mind you, I started playing this character four days ago.
Four. Days. Ago.
I didn’t even play that much each day, the progression system is just on steroids. For all my efforts, right now I still can’t tell you what game I’ve been playing, what I have experienced and what I have accomplished. I couldn’t tell you which areas I’ve visited and why. Four days. One character. Pacing myself. Acting out all the quest descriptions. Trying to role-play. And I still can’t recall a damned thing about the game.


This is bad. This is really bad. This is a fundamental issue with the game right now and, even though I’m far from an expert on WoW, I’m not the newbie I was in 2007. I’ve since become extremely familiar with the MMORPG genre, especially when it comes to the leveling experiences (which is what interests me in these games the most). WoW is currently work for me. It’s a thing I’m having no fun with and I’m literally paying Blizzard money for something I don’t enjoy.
Make a character. Walk to a hub. Pick up a quest. Finish quest. Turn it in. Five more quests pop up. Go to a different area for one of the five, another seven pop up.
This isn’t a game, this is what being at the back-end of the world’s biggest chili aficionado feels like. This is an avalanche of menial, insignificant bullshit that weigh on the player like insane. 
Outside of capping the character for raids and dungeons, the game gives literally no encouragement to go through its dull, grueling leveling process. Once upon a time you’d do quests at least for gear, if not for the XP. They can’t even pace that properly, however; I literally had (in more than one occasions) two NPCs side-by-side give me the same exact piece of armor, with only minor stat differences. I was spending hours doing insignificant quests for gear that has practically no impact in the game.
What kind of design is this?!
Most modern MMORPGs offer a basic storyline to hook the player in. WoW is older than it wants to look and doesn’t offer that. That’s not a problem in itself; even the very first single-player RPGs didn’t feature storylines. What they did feature was exploration-oriented gameplay. You can explore in WoW; sooner or later, the onslaught of meaningless quests will run out, you’ll open your map, see what the next area close to your character level is, jump on your mount and go there to find the next collection of exclamation marks. But that’s not exploring; that’s just moving elsewhere. There is nothing interesting to see in the world, it’s all enemy mobs roaming massive, but otherwise desolate plains dressed in slightly different trousers.  
The world feels dead. This is always going to be a problem with fantasy MMORPGs; one of the reasons I always loved City of Heroes was that you could see friendly NPCs, citizens, doing their thing. They weren’t exactly complicated, but they helped make the world feel alive. Fantasy MMORPGs have to rely on other players to inject the sense of life into their worlds. WoW is clearly still very populated, but it feels like all the players exist in their own bubble. Yes, we see each other; we pass each other on the road to objectives, in the big cities and near missions. But we don’t interact. We have no reason to. Because of the current design, instead of making the world feel alive, the player population makes the world feel manufactured. These aren’t other adventurers of Azeroth; they’re players, like you, detached from the framework of the adventurer in a fantasy world.
When I took a day off to try out vanilla WoW, we were all interacting. I’m not saying it was a better game; I’m the first to recognize the value of being able to solo without the game forcing team-ups for certain quests. I hate that shit. But I got more of a sense of community in the unofficial vanilla server than I ever do in official WoW. 
WoW is still installed in my computer because I need to do some screen captures for this bit. Once that’s done, it’s out for good. I renewed my sub less than a week ago and haven’t touched it in two days. From where I stand, the World of Warcraft experience is a vacuous one for anyone not interested in endgame content.
That’s what the crux of the argument really is and where I have to wonder what exactly it is that Blizzard is trying to do with their games. The leveling process has clearly been boosted to reach cap as fast as possible, so players can access endgame content. They’re not the only ones doing this; Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR) recently streamlined the leveling experience as well for the same reason. SWTOR, however, comes with a lot less trekking and a lot more story to string you along. WoW remains a gelatinous mass of exhausting, forgettable leveling content that now you don’t even get to enjoy. 
I understand; arguably the majority of players want to cap their characters and enjoy the endgame content. Most expansions add almost exclusively endgame content, which is why they usually come with character boost tokens. Cataclysm was the only one that changed leveling dramatically. But when you want to focus exclusively on endgame, you lower that cap; DC Universe Online is very endgame-oriented and its cap is at a mere 30 and you can burn through leveling in two days, at most. WoW, on the other hand, keeps raising the cap with each new expansion. It was 60. Then it was 80. Then 90. With Legion, it’s 110. This is done to lock away people who don’t own the expansions out of the new areas, but at the same time, all it does is add to that gelatinous mass and make the leveling experience a lot more exhausting.
The core of WoW is no longer “fun”. It’s not the combat, it’s not the lore, there is no story; it’s all about more endgame content, more raids, more dungeons, more shit to do after you’ve spent two months of gaining nothing from the experience outside of finally hitting the cap. Then hitting it again. And again. The core mechanics are garbage and always have been, any sense of socialization comes into play after capping and anything story or lore-heavy is during endgame as well. Blizzard most certainly doesn’t force you to, but from some point on, that character booster token seems like the only viable option to enjoy the game; because the leveling just isn’t enjoyable. Even then, unless you grind for better gear or own the latest expansion, you’ll still find it hard to join a dungeon group or a raid if you’re not part of a Guild. 


WoW isn’t the only Blizzard game with misguided intentions; Overwatch, as popular as it is, doesn’t seem to focus on “fun” anymore either. Blizzard made a very attractive, well-marketed casual hero shooter. When all is said and done, it’s an average shooter with a lot of irrelevant hooks. Its reliance on team balance can make it infuriating more often than not. If, originally, Overwatch was designed to be an accessible shooter with interesting heroes to choose from, now there are only two things at the core of its design: loot-boxes and competitive play
The loot boxes are already annoying. They’re only cosmetics and one can ignore them, but they are a hook that plays to the game’s detriment in the long term. My experience was that I enjoyed the game at first and didn’t pay much attention to the loot boxes. Come the first Year of the Rooster event, I finally found a D.Va (my main) skin I liked. I never cared for the other alternatives to the base skin. So, I decided I’d grind for it. 
During the time that event ran for, I leveled my account for about 100 levels; that is a lot of playtime invested. I tolerated the broken arcade mode games (particularly Mystery Heroes), for the three extra loot boxes. No drop; I got a million other stuff, some even good, but nothing I really cared for. I eventually did the unthinkable and bought 10 extra loot boxes.
Still no drop! The only thing I managed to do with the boxes I paid for was finally scrounge up the 3000 credits needed to buy the damned thing on my own.

The legs may or may not had something to do with wanting this skin.

Needless to say, I was exhausted by the end. I’d grown to resent the game. I’d seen through the cracks in its design, how broken it is and how worse it gets with each update. The paint had started chipping away and I could compare it to other online shooters, like Red Orchestra 2Natural Selection 2 and Insurgency; different types of shooter, but all of them infinitely more complex, tense and mechanically engaging.
It’s my fault I allowed myself to be hooked like a gambling addict, but the point is that the game stopped being about having fun. The core mechanics were shaky to begin with and at its core the game is made to provide more bad experiences than good, unless you have your own team of people you know and can communicate with on the fly. 
Then, there is the Competitive angle. Blizzard made, by design, a very casual shooter to appeal to lowest common denominator, with its simplistic mechanics and waifus. Then, they suddenly decided they wanted in on that Competitive scene, because Starcraft had proven them there’s a lot of a money there. In doing so, they started re-balancing and changing and overall slaughtering their own game design with one questionable decision after the other. Re-balancing wasn’t done on the basis of fun gameplay, but instead on the basis of pick-rate. The whole thing was (and is) a sordid affair.
It doesn’t stop there, though. Both in terms of WoW and Overwatch, one could argue that the problem is that these games aren’t for me. I’d disagree, I think the design problems of these games are fairly easy to recognize, but one could debate I’m reading them wrong. The best example of how completely off they are with their modern design is Heroes of the Storm (HOTS).
I don’t like MOBAs and I don’t really play MOBAs. I’m slightly familiar with the genre and even I can attest to the fact that HOTS is a bad MOBA compared to DOTALeague of LegendsParagon etc. I wouldn’t ever go back to that game and I don’t think anybody, not already into it, would.
Blizzard aren’t idiots; they know HOTS isn’t very popular. So, they did this promotion event, where they forced you to play HOTS to unlock Genji’s Oni skin and D.Va’s police outfit in Overwatch.
I played HOTS, during that event, for four hours. Consecutive. I did all the matches to get everything on offer. I was exhausted. I wasn’t the only one, either. At some point, some six games in, all of us, unrelated people, strangers to one-another, started complaining in chat about how tired we were and that we really didn’t want to move our characters and play. Couldn’t we just sit there, shit-posting and let the other guys pretend they’re playing, so the round can be done as fast as possible?
We weren’t trying to be assholes and ruin the game. We were legitimately just exhausted. Our brains had started melting from the repetition. We couldn’t even pretend we were having fun. 
This entire event was Blizzard’s brilliant idea to promote HOTS to people who played Overwatch, but not HOTS. I don’t know the retention numbers after that event ended; what I do know is that the moment all the D.Va shit unlocked, that game was out of my hard drive immediately. Again, I wasn’t the only one to do this.
In the process, not only did Blizzard fail to promote HOTS; not only did they turn off newcomers to HOTS, because grind-based gaming is a necessarily evil and not a good motivator; they also alienated their established player-base, who just wanted to play the fucking game and ended up matched with us assholes who just wanted the goodies; goodies for a different fucking game, no less.


Between these three games, it’s pretty obvious to me that whatever Blizzard’s current focus is, it’s not to provide an entertaining experience for the player. Making money is good; I’m not going to be the person to say that Blizzard shouldn’t care for profit, but it infuriates me that their system works. I don’t even mean it works on others; the Blizzard spell mind-controls me just as well. I’m still itching to go back to WoW, after writing this long diatribe on why I hate it. Part of it is the repetition; I can waste entire hours, doing the exact same thing for no reward. It’s like pulling the level in a slot machine, only in this case I know for a fact there will be no reward. If not for that, I feel like going back simply to justify the money I paid for the subscription. It’s almost Machiavellian; I gain absolutely nothing from the experience, but if I don’t sink my time into this dull and dreary experience, I’ll feel like I’m not getting my investment back. 
So yes, their system currently works. They’re doing well. The problem is, I’m not sure how long this will last. A really good way to not only sell copies, but also retain a player base is to offer a game that’s actually enjoyable. Though I’m certain there are newcomers to WoW, I’m pretty confident in assuming the majority of players are veterans. They got into the game when it was still fun, when the market was much more bare and there was far less competition. They stick around still, because leveling your character to the cap is an investment you don’t want to sacrifice. Familiarity is a powerful motivator, but it only goes so far; especially when the audience is constantly growing. 
As someone who has never capped a character in a MMORPG, all I feel I’ve been offered by Blizzard is extra chores to do. Leveling in WoW feels like an obligation, like work. Grinding for loot boxes in Overwatch feels like work. That shit I put myself through in HOTS was absolutely work. Their games started out well enough, but they evolved into these unpaid internships that ultimately offer nothing outside of killing time. Worse yet, this is the scummiest kind of unpaid work, the kind you have to pay to be granted the honor to partake in. 
When you reach the point that have to schedule your game sessions as a thing you “must do” each day to make sure you get that gear, or that level, or that loot box, instead of going “I can’t wait to play this game again”, there’s something wrong. I have a soft spot for Blizzard; I think all of us do. I want to like a lot of their stuff and they have put out good games in the past; some of them being the very games I now find so infuriating. But considering I just paid 15 bucks for an experience that’s so depressing I had to switch to Cryptic’s shitty Neverwinter game to sate my MMORPG hunger (UPDATE: It didn’t work), I’m not really very willing to give them any more chances. They need to restructure their focus. Money’s good, popularity is good too; but you’re making games, something intended to make people feel good and enjoy themselves. Do try to remember this, once in a while.

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