Belated BlizzCon 2013 WoW Impressions: Trapped in the Mind of Chris Metzen

by Wolfshead on December 28, 2013


For World of Warcraft devotees the almost annual BlizzCon love fest is like an American State of the Union address combined with the euphoria of an Amway convention. There is no dissent to speak of as the lucky few fans who managed to purchase tickets sit in rapt attention awaiting revelation of new features and story narratives that will shape their game play experiences in months ahead.

Blizzard is preaching to their loyal choir. So it’s no surprise that BlizzCon 2013 was predictable and scripted spectacle. In grand tradition, I too follow with my predictable BlizzCon article.

Before each BlizzCon there is always a feeling in me that maybe this time Blizzard will get it right with World of Warcraft and change course. After all, how can a video game company continue to adopt a stay the course philosophy after losing millions of subscribers? Surely something has to give…

After watching BlizzCon 2013 in DirecTV’s virtual ticket pay per view my hopes were again dashed. The massive and aging ship USS: WoW lurches toward the iceberg of its obsolescent doom in a sea of ice cold reality.

The BlizzCon Formula

BlizzCon opens with the competent DirectTV panel of Geoff Keighley and Kat Hunter who both manage to ask some occasional good questions. Unbeknownst to most viewers, Kat Hunter — now Kat Metzen — is married to Chris Metzen and is in fact a Blizzard employee herself which is never revealed during the broadcast and during the later interview with her husband. From start to end, BlizzCon is slick and expertly orchestrated masterpiece of gaming promotion and glitz.

Then BlizzCon magic formula unfolds as affable CEO Mike Morhaime arrives on the stage and repeats his signature BlizzCon introductory speech.  He is followed by the enigmatic Chris Metzen who rallies the faithful followers like a big tent evangelist with cries of “for the Horde” and “are you with me Alliance?”. The sermon continues and he starts preaching the virtues of the new expansion. The lights dim, the crowd hushes in anticipation and the new expansion video plays…

Then come the endless parade of panels staffed with the same cast of smug senior developers. Even the players know their roles in the Q & A sessions. These are the true believers who’ve spend thousands getting to BlizzCon line up to be blessed and validated by the gods of Azeroths. Some of the questioners try to attain Internet fame by attempting to recreate a Red Shirt Guy viral video moment by stumping the devs with obscure lore questions.

Then the seemingly inebriated and generationally displaced comedian Jay Mohr takes the stage and tries to crack jokes that the young and humorless BlizzCon audience can’t seem to fathom. Yes, we’ve seen this all before.

Back in Time: Warlords of Draenor

Enter WoW’s 5th expansion: Warlords of Draenor. Right off the bat, the new Garrison system is introduced. It’s essentially a personal instance of buildings and NPCs and quite frankly looks very interesting and a glimmer of hope that Blizzard may finally be awakening to the reality of MMO game design circa 2013.

Garrisons are basically a variant on player housing — something long sought after by WoW players and WoW devs like Jeff Kaplan. It’s a feature that has been sprinkled with Blizzard’s “it’s got to be cool enough for non-role-players” treatment. I confess that back when I used to really care about WoW, I would have been all over something like this. Now it all seems too little, too late.

Some long-awaited good news: Blizzard will be completely revamping player models to keep them current and equivalent to the high quality Pandaren models. This is something that Blizzard should have done two expansions ago. This investment in resources is all about keeping WoW current and a good sign that there will probably not be a WoW2 in the near future. Thankfully there will be no more butt ugly humans avatars!

The plot of the new expansion has the player going back in time time and features many of the classic villains from Warcraft history mainly found in the pre-Burning Crusade version of Outland. When all else fails, return to your roots.

As a perk and as a way to deal with the new level 100 level cap , each account will be allowed to boost one character to level 90 to play the expansion. Blizzard rationalizes this as way to get people grouping with their friends. The notion of grouping with friends seems to be the new Blizzard mantra. If only they would have thought about this back in 2004 when easy soloing to the level cap was one of their design principles.

I’m worried that Blizzard’s time travel themed expansion will impact immersion and the believability of the entire Warcraft universe.  With so much of the WoW world and expansions happening in different chronological times, the result for a new WoW player leveling up will be a convoluted and confusing experience. Back to the Future’s Marty McFly has nothing on Blizzard Entertainment for abusing the constraints of the space time continuum.

By recycling the Outland, I get the feeling that Chris and Blizzard are running out of ideas just as fast as they are running out of subscribers. Time travel is a huge cop out to say the least.

The Blizzard Vision?

In a world where every company has a guru-like CEO with a vision, a TED talk and an accompanying book, the reserved and humble Mike Morhaime seems the antithesis of a CEO like Steve Jobs or Tim Cook. He’s more like a caretaker than a driving force. I get the feeling that Mike doesn’t really have a vision for MMORPGs or virtual worlds per se. I wonder if he even plays WoW.  His heart really seems to be with Blizzard’s e-sports initiatives. This is understandable as Blizzard is now big business with a host of gaming products and related merchandise.

Maybe vision is overrated. Perhaps one doesn’t need it or the ego that goes with it to be successful. Great success may be in fact Morhaime’s ultimate accomplishment. Better to have no vision and success than a vision and no success.

However vision is absolutely required when you are responsible for creating a virtual world and motivating the millions of players who inhabit them to keep on playing.

Trapped in the Mind of Chris Metzen

The only vision or philosophy I see for WoW comes from the imagination of Chris Metzen. The days of Rob Pardo, Jeff Kaplan and Alex Afrasiabi — the Three EverQuest Amigos — having a substantive influence on WoW seems to be over.

Metzen is a dynamo and a force of nature. For all intents and purposes, Metzen is Blizzard. He is the ultimate deity in the Warcraft universe that with the wave of his hand can bless or curse, create or banish.

Metzen’s vision for WoW is that MMORPGs are all about episodic narratives — his narratives to be exact. This is problematic because players are little more than spectators in the grand scheme of things. Everything is cast in stone — the heroes and the villains. Then about 18 months into the expansion a patch is released where the uber boss must die — and usually does within minutes of the release of the final patch courtesy of some European uber guild. Rinse and repeat for every expansion.

If you are not in a uber guild that can achieve a server first, there is little heroism in taking down a uber villain after it has already been done. It’s anti-climactic. When everybody wins, nobody wins.

All the World of Warcraft is a Stage and We are Merely Players

Another problem is that since the plot and story outcome of every WoW expansion is a foregone conclusion means that players have no self-determination both individually and collectively within WoW. Their virtual destinies are subject to the imagination of Chris Metzen, the quest writers and the class designers. I think MMO players in 2013 deserve far better than to be treated like puppets.

The sobering reality is that players will always be mere extras and spectators of the real action in WoW. No player will ever be the mayor of Stormwind. No player will sink low enough to be a uber villain or rise high enough to be a uber hero. Thanks to the socialism of instancing, no player will ever allowed to make an impact on Azeroth.  It’s not the way WoW works.

Millions Less Served

Lost in the hoopla of BlizzCon is the reality that each year the total number of WoW subscribers plummets by the millions. Subscription numbers don’t lie. Given this dire trend, I was surprised that I didn’t see any signs of urgency emanating from Blizzard.

Some of the people that are collectively responsible for WoW losing millions of subscribers were on the BlizzCon stage but you would not have known that by their confident demeanor. I wanted to see the cocky Blizzard upper echelon sweat like Richard Nixon in the 1960 U.S. presidential debates. I wanted to see some semblance of repentance for years of misguided MMO design that grew the player base (and incidentally their coffers) at the expense of the health of the WoW, the community and the MMO industry. Instead I saw a business as usual attitude from Blizzard.

At one point, I did see some humble pie being eaten. Despite being unapologetic for recent critical failure of Diablo 3 and declining subscription numbers for WoW, at least they acknowledged that the Diablo 3 auction house was a mistake. That fact is as sure the fact that the sky is blue. Apologies are almost unheard from Blizzard. I really hope and pray that this grand experiment with the Diablo auction house will forever be regarded as the ultimate example of the pitfall of profit centric-game design.

Pondering the Future of WoW

The new expansion Warlords of Draenor is still the same old WoW but with some new bells and whistles attached. At this point in the life of WoW these new features are just bandages on an antiquated and systemically broken MMORPG.

The central design thesis of WoW — most of it borrowed from EverQuest — has existed since around 2000 when it went into pre-production. Even though they dumbed down EverQuest significantly, WoW hasn’t aged well and feels predictable and formulaic. As declining subscription numbers prove, MMO players are generally tired of it and clamoring for a something fresh and innovative.

The fundamental problem for Blizzard is that WoW’s episodic narrative and quest based design makes it impossible to change and evolve to a dynamic sandbox model where a player’s actions can help to shape the world. WoW will be forever trapped in the mind of Chris Metzen whose passion for story telling is at the core of their MMO. The personal vision of one man should not be the substitute for the autonomy, the personal memories and the self-actualization of the player who inhabits a virtual world. It is such as shame that it’s his story not your story that is central to the WoW experience.

The Blizzard model of MMO development is a one-time success story that has failed to be replicated in the industry. As other MMO companies have found out, creating theme park MMO content for WoW is expensive and time-consuming; players voraciously consume it faster each time and then unsubscribe. After each expansion is digested, there are scores of dungeons and raid content that ends up being unused and essentially wasted.  For the entire industry, this kind of MMO development system is unsustainable in the long run. Yet Blizzard has managed to get away with this because of the staggering dominance and ubiquity of WoW.

The epitaph for WoW will be that Blizzard never grasped the big picture with virtual worlds. The holy grail of MMORPG design was always to create a virtual world that was living, breathing and dynamic where communities of players would coalesce, survive and thrive against shared adversaries. It was also the idea that someday there would be virtual space where players could truly make an impact. Blizzard never cared for such a lofty vision and the tragic result is that they have painted themselves into a corner.

Blizzard always focused on the short game not the long game.  They got the small things right like creating brilliant stylized art, amazingly fluid combat animations, and an Apple/Zen like user experience for their MMO. Then they fell victim to greed and became obsessed with making WoW too easy and accessible to attract more subscribers. Whatever community that even existed was obliterated by mechanics like instancing and the dungeon finder mechanics.

At this point in time, I do not think Blizzard can or will change WoW’s design. Blizzard is all in and completely invested into the core theme park design of WoW. I suspect they will keep pumping out expansions as long as there are enough loyal players around to buy them.

Conclusion

As an outsider looking in on WoW, watching the BlizzCon spectacle was a strange but enjoyable experience nonetheless. When WoW still mattered to me, I used to hang on every word coming from the devs at the various past BlizzCon panels.

Although I have perennially challenged much of the WoW design philosophy, the sheer artistry, excellence and passion of Blizzard’s talent and execution is unmatched in the industry. I often wonder what WoW could have been if more daring and ambitious people were at the helm.

-Wolfshead

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