Blizzard Dev Ion Hazzikostas Admits WoW Leveling is Pretty Broken

It’s not every day that a Blizzard developer candidly admits that something is terribly wrong with one of their products. This week Ion Hazzikostas did just that when he shared his feelings on the current state of WoW. What began as a discussion about Blizzard’s decision to shut down the Nostalrious volunteer operated legacy server morphed into Hazzikostas commenting on the state of leveling in the World of Warcraft MMORPG.

Here’s what he had to say during an official interview broadcast on Twitch.tv with Jesse Cox held at Blizzard Entertainment media studios:

Ion Hazzikostas: The level up experience through classic zones, it’s pretty broken right now frankly. It’s not really very well tuned.

Jesse Cox: As in too easy?

Ion Hazzikostas: It’s way too easy. It’s not even about difficulty; it’s about pacing. It’s something that frankly we’ve neglected a little bit over the years. There’s been a lot of trickle down effects from balance changes made. Things that used to be talents we now bake in as passives. Buff abilities. We moved things that used to be high level abilities down to make them available at level 10. The end result is that if you run around your basically invincible — even without heirlooms. Heirlooms are a whole other level of degeneracy. But if you’re doing a level 3 quest right now on a new character, make a hunter, make a night elf hunter and go run around Teldrasill — you’re basically one and two shotting things. You are killing things before they can even engage with you. And the amount of time you are spending fighting versus the amount of time you are spending running around to your next objective is completely out of whack. There’s a lot of other areas like that where the pacing of the game isn’t what it should be and we need to spend more time fixing that up. I think, acctually it’s something we’ve been looking to at even starting to do via hotfixes right now but want to keep doing going forward.

He’s absolutely right and my respect for Blizzard has gone up in spades based on the honesty of one dev. However, I would argue with him that it actually *is* about difficulty more than it is about pacing. We need to be honest. There is no semblance of challenge at all in MMO when you can reach the level cap in a few weeks. The problem with Blizzard is that they view speedy player advancement as something that is normal and a mere formality toward the goal of being at the level cap. They seem to believe that a player’s progress should be paced the same way a director paces a film.

As a player I don’t want to go through the motions and feel like I’m on an amusement park ride where I end up at the predetermined destination whether I earned it or not. I want to savor my time in a fantasy virtual world. I want to earn my progress — not have it handed to me. Many WoW players who crave legacy servers like the recently terminated Nostalrius server feel the same way.

We often hear about the sense of entitlement that most MMO players have these days. Blizzard’s design philosophy is based on a desire to attract new subscribers is a big part of why that sense of entitlement exists. They actively enable it and promote it.

A big part of the problem is that Blizzard sees MMOs as a vehicle for storytelling and episodic narratives. They are not optional and are foisted upon the player. The storyteller then becomes the driver instead of the player. The public is has grown weary of narrative based MMOs and a growing number of players are seeking the freedom and autonomy of sandbox virtual worlds where they will be the master of their own destinies.

The Imaginary “Friend” Contrivance

For years Blizzard and the media that covers them have ignored the state of the leveling aspect of the WoW experience. Due to the financial realities of  MMO development, expansions get all of the focus from the dev team, the marketing department and the video game press. The problem is that an expansion is but a few brush strokes in the larger canvass of what constitutes a MMO.

Not only is the level up experience the bread and butter of a MMORPG, it’s where new players get their first taste of your virtual world. If they see an infantile MMORPG that has no challenge and no sense of danger they might very well decide that your virtual world is not for them. The very same young children that are playing the brutal survival version of Minecraft will balk at your kiddie MMO and look elsewhere for a serious fantasy virtual world.

In recent years the leveling up experience has been trivialized and that is by design. After the release of Cataclysm, Blizzard started to focus on finding ways to appeal to the imaginary “friend” of a hardcore WoW player. The imaginary friend — let’s call him Timmy — who’s been living under a rock and never tried a MMO before is a clever contrivance trotted out by MMO designers just as they are about to announce and justify new a feature that is going to attract new subscribers. The sad reality is new features designed to bring in more people to the MMO space usually end up dumbing down the core gameplay and alienating existing players and cheapening their previous accomplishments.

mythical gamer friend

When financial concerns become more important than the integrity of the MMO, you start hearing phrases like “barriers to entry” come into the conversation. Metrics have replaced good old fashioned game design. For years Blizzard has seen the leveling experience from level one to the level cap as a barrier to entry to the “real” content of the expansion which starts about 5 levels before the level cap.

Blizzard’s idea to solve this problem was to make leveling as fast as possible so that everyone could play the premiere content of the latest expansion in short order. In the interview Hazzikostas talks about the fact that the leveling experience was considered a barrier to entry. Even the public has embraced this unhealthy idea and now leveling to the level cap has become a means to an end. The result is that leveling up became totally trivialized and essentially meaningless.

At face value, Blizzard’s concern for the ability of the imaginary friend to play with his WoW buddy is admirable. But when we look at it a bit deeper, I have to ask:  why couldn’t the WoW buddy have just rolled a level one alt so he could play with his friend Timmy? Problem solved with the integrity of your MMO intact.

Sadly Blizzard did not consider this and the tragedy that befell WoW is incalculable with millions upon millions of lost subscribers as evidence. Over the years, various strategies and gimmicks employed to appease the imaginary friend while ignoring the actual fans has pretty much killed the MMO genre.

#AllLevelsMatter

One of the most unique aspects of playing an established MMORPG is the fact that you progress through content that was created during the original release and onward through various expansions. It’s like travelling back in time as you get to experience locales, quests and challenges created by different game designers with different philosophies and different competencies. That is no longer possible in WoW as the Cataclysm expansion changed almost every low to mid-level zone.

As Jesse Cox stated very accurately in the interview, things started to go wrong for Blizzard after the release of Cataclysm expansion with a focus on narrative gameplay and shunting players from zone to zone. It was in this fateful expansion that Blizzard revamped all of the classic legacy zones found in vanilla WoW with more narrative/quest centric gameplay that morphed an on rails experience into an on rails experience on steroids with handcuffs and a straitjacket. Mobs became so easy and trivial that most players found that they had out-leveled the quests in the zones. It was a debacle and a mess that still reverberates to this very day and it turned WoW from a serious MMO into a kiddie MMO overnight. It is no wonder that after Cataclysm was released, WoW subscribers started to fall off by the millions.

What Blizzard lost sight of is that all levels in a MMO are important. Every level should be as satisfying as the one that came before and as fun as being at the level cap. Hazzikostas finally admits this in the interview and it’s about time. This is the first time I believe any Blizzard dev has had the honesty to tell the truth about the horribly broken leveling system in WoW.

Replayability is also big part of the MMO experience Most players enjoy creating alts — brand new characters — and leveling up with different races/classes/factions. By making the level up experience so trivial, Blizzard is cheating their existing subscribers of meaningful gameplay. Again, all in hopes of luring Timmy the imaginary friend that has never played a MMO before.

#DifficultyMatters

Not only have the mobs become weaker and experience now flows like water, there is another problem that is perhaps more glaring and insidious. When low level players are given near god-like powers (which is essentially the premise of the new WoW expansion Legion) and when difficulty has been reduced and mobs become trivialized it sets off a catastrophe of unintended consequences that impact the entire ecosystem of your MMO.

The average player is no helpless rube as Blizzard would have you believe. They are smart, savvy and will always take the path of least resistance and greatest efficiency. Here are some questions that an average player might ask themselves given the current state of WoW:

Why bother going to dungeons or using the auction house to upgrade your weapons and armor when you can one shot kill mobs with quest gear as you level up?

Why bother harvesting resources or crafting items when nobody will need them or buy them?

Why bother grouping with other players when you don’t have to group because you are unstoppable and overpowered?

Why bother wasting time in a dungeon and exposing yourself to dying when you can kill mobs outside and just do quests to level up?

Properly tuned challenge is the lifeblood of a MMORPG. Without it, the MMORPG will fall like a house of cards.

There is a natural saw-tooth pattern the best exemplifies the level of challenge that players face in a MMO and in most great video games. When you get new spells, abilities and new gear you become more powerful but just for a short time. As your levels increase, your abilities do not keep up with the increased power of mobs and you start to struggle until you get your next set of spells, abilities and gear upgrades. This pattern is perfectly natural and expected and how successful RPGs have been made for decades.

Challenge is not a bad thing; rather it is a good thing. Challenge is not a barrier to entry or subscriber retention. It is indeed the opposite.

Challenge is fun. Challenge is satisfying. Challenge crates a sense of urgency. Challenge is exhilarating. Challenge is rewarding. Challenge and yes dying makes you a far better player than a player that is coddled and spoiled by a game designer. Challenge brings people together to overcome shared adversity. Challenge is the nucleus of MMORPG design.

How an Accident Made WoW Fun Again

I remember back when I used to play WoW during the Wrath of the Lich King expansion. I played a both hunter and a paladin. Both of those characters became so ridiculously overpowered that I was usually one shotting mobs to complete my daily quests. I didn’t even have raid gear. I recall I would log on for 10 minutes, kill the mobs and turn in the quests and log off. I wasn’t challenging in the slightest and it wasn’t fun.

Then one day there was a talent reset and I logged on and forgot to resubmit my talents. But something strange happened, the fights became a bit more challenging. I was actually having fun for a change and then I realized it was fun because I had not spent my talent points and I could not vanquish the mobs with my god-like powers.

Think about it: if you are a tennis player, you derive the most fun from playing with opponents who are equal to you or better than you. What fun is it to play against someone who is inferior to you? It’s not fun at all. This is the same mistake that Blizzard has made with WoW over the years. They have systematically removed the sense of challenge from 95% of their content.

The Appeal of Starting Off Weak and Powerless

One of the things I love best about MMOPRGs is that you start off as a level one underdog with a basic weapon and no armor; you are as helpless as a baby but still you must find some way to survive and thrive. Fantasy virtual worlds are all about the struggle to survive and thrive with others. For me, that predicament has created some of the most magical memories in fantasy virtual worlds.

It used to take skill and hard work to progress in a virtual world and levels used to mean something. If you are never weak and always powerful and there’s nothing for you to aspire to and it saps the sense of motivation that is the cornerstone of why people play MMOs. Overcoming adversity gives players an immense sense of accomplishment. That is the one of the big reasons we play video games!

The Super Hero Obsession

Entertainment has become saturated with films, TV shows and MMOs about super heroes. Video games reflect this puerile fad too. MMO designers are convinced that players want to play super heroes in their MMOs and the result is that the end game player has become god-like and practically invincible.

Over the years, Blizzard has been also obsessed with the concept of the player as a “hero” has given far too much power to their players. Each expansion has game designers endlessly tweaking and tinkering with talents and abilities to the point of absurdity. This goes hand in hand with their other obsession which is to create so-called “epic” experiences for their players. The truth is if everything is epic then nothing is epic.

Today, in most mainstream kiddie MMORPGs you can simply buy high level characters with god-like powers and abilities. Blizzard started this design malpractice with their Death Knight hero class in the Wrath of the Lich King expansion and since then other studios have followed suit.

Power that is unearned and bestowed by short-sighted game designers can and will kill your MMO.

Some Suggestions

I’m not naive enough to believe that Blizzard would ever listen to anyone including myself, but I’d like to offer some suggestions just in case:

  1. Double the hit-points of every non-raid mob
  2. Reduce the level of experience derived from all mobs and quests by 66% if not more
  3. Reduce the drop rates of all random mob loot drops of green/blue/purple loot by 75%

Those 3 simple and doable suggestions alone would create a WoW that is immensely more enjoyable than what is currently available. Players would actually start to group up and may even start chatting with each other. Loot and levels would actually start to mean something as mobs would take more time and greater skill to defeat.

Blizzard is famous for creating strike teams to solve problems. They need to create one and get on this problem ASAP.

Why Did Blizzard Allowed This to Happen?

How could the most successful MMO company in history, with the best talent and seemingly unlimited resources allow the WoW leveling experience to become so utterly debased, infantile, degraded and ridiculously easy? It is inconceivable how Blizzard could have allowed to happen. It’s like they stopped playing their own MMO. It’s not like this happened yesterday, this has been going on since the release of Cataclysm in October of 2010.

Perhaps they got too obsessed with Hollywood, e-sports, social justice, making fine wine, motorcycles, sponsoring art museums or purchasing NFL teams to notice how bad their flagship MMO had become. I wonder when the last time Mike Morhaime, Paul Sams, Frank Pearce, and Chris Metzen created a level one character and leveled them up? I wager they have not done so in years or at all. If they had they would have seen the problems for themselves. Guys, there is simply no excuse for not playing your own MMO.

I think a big part of the problem with Blizzard is their success has blinded them to reality. Too much success can cause one to cloak themselves in a reality distortion field. Eventually, you become convinced of your greatness and your genius. Over the years, Blizzard feels they can do no wrong and in the process they have grown arrogant, self-indulgent, smug, insular and yes even lazy.

Since the release of Cataclysm, Blizzard has lost millions of subscribers and is experiencing a downward trajectory. Clearly, their design philosophy of trying to broaden the MMO demographic has not worked and actually backfired on them. Blizzard has become like the Titanic, too big to turn around and pivot to avoid the iceberg of doom ahead.

With the cancellation of Titan, I believe that Blizzard will never again attempt to create another MMO and to be honest that’s not a bad thing given all the damage they have done to the genre.

Conclusion

Creating appropriately tuned challenges for your players is the number one responsibility of a MMO game designer. Blizzard has failed to do this in every aspect of their MMO with the exception of higher level raids which are enjoyed by only a tiny minority of players. Shooting fish in a barrel is not fun or satisfying and nor is it noble.

Ion Hazzikostas needs to be commended for being one of the first WoW devs to break the code of silence and actually admit there is a problem. Alex Afrasiabi lamented the lack of social gameplay in WoW back in 2014 and he too should be commended for telling the truth. If it wasn’t for the plight of the 800,000 WoW fans impacted by the shutting down of the Nostalrius WoW legacy server, I doubt that any of this would have come to light. When your fans are telling you that they want a return to an earlier version of your MMO you know there is something seriously wrong in the state of Azeroth.

Yet both Hazzikostas and Afrasiabi know WoW is riddled with problems but they seem to be proceeding with their new expansion Legion anyways. By all accounts, Legion will bestow players with more unearned, preposterous, god-like powers via legendary weapons. For the past 5 years with the release of various lackluster expansions, Blizzard seems like a runaway train of misguided design and bad ideas that will only be stopped as it hurls itself over the cliff and ends in a pile of smoking wreckage.

In biology there is the concept that organisms are self-limiting. Organisms can only grow so large until they kill the host and kill themselves in the process. I think Blizzard is perilously close to this point now with WoW. I am afraid that as they continue on this trajectory they might take the entire MMO industry with them.

The Nostalrius situation is in reality a precious gift for Blizzard that has brought to light many of the undeniable deficiencies of WoW. They need to find the humility and courage to embrace the hard truths from this incident, both as a company and as game designers. Ion Hazzicostas’s brave admissions are a good start.

-Wolfshead

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