BlizzCon 2013: Can the Return of Alex Afrasiabi Save World of Warcraft?

lex Afrasiabi 2010 BlizzConWhile viewing the schedule for the upcoming BlizzCon 2013, I noticed a familiar name in the lineup of panelists: Alex Afrasiabi. It seems that Alex, missing from the public eye for the past 3 years and rumored to have been working on the delayed top secret Titan MMO has indeed returned to World of Warcraft team as the Creative Director. This is certainly a promotion from his previous job title of Lead world designer.

Afrasiabi became somewhat famous a couple of years ago in a viral video from BlizzCon 2010 after being stumped by a WoW super nerd Ian Bates — otherwise known as the Red Shirt guy. To his credit, Alex graciously admitted the error and offered to correct the problem.

It has been a transformative journey for Afrasiabi which I chronicled in a previous article back in 2009. It seems he has finally been able to escape the notoriety of his brash and outspoken Furor Planedefiler EverQuest guild leader persona and morph himself into one of the leading MMORPG designers in the business.

Over the years he has been responsible for some of the most innovative and challenging zones in World of Warcraft. The tribute wing in Dire Maul Tribute Run comes to mind as one his best achievements as does the Deathknight starting zone featured in the WoW Wrath of the Lich King expansion which is hailed by some to be a masterpiece.

WoW in Decline

I don’t currently play WoW, so I don’t know much about the current state of WoW other than reading the news about its declining subscription numbers, but it is quite evident that WoW has been in a downward trajectory for the past couple of expansions.

In my opinion, the current declining state of WoW is largely due to a myriad of bad design decisions made over a number of years that have finally come back to haunt them. Design reasons side, there are management decisions that are also responsible.

One such reason is that after the release of the Cataclysm expansion Alex and other top WoW talent were transferred to the highly secretive Titan MMO project.  This had the unintended consequence of creating a vacuum of development expertise in WoW. What was left to manage WoW was called the “B Team”. Wise observers and others in the WoW community have blamed this problem for the erosion of quality and chronic declining subscription numbers.

Therefore it it entirely logical that top design guns like Afrasiabi would be returning to help put the aging WoW back on course. But can they do it?

What has Alex learned in the past 3 years working on Titan that could redeem WoW?

What fresh perspectives and insights about the MMO industry and the state of gaming does he have that could turn things around for WoW?

The Broken Theme Park MMO Model

From reading the BlizzCon schedule, it seems that Blizzard are still committed to an expensive narrative/story/episodic driven theme park MMO. Let’s be honest, the story is really what’s important in WoW — not necessarily the players.

Players are spectators while the plot unfolds and in the last act on cue become actors to vanquish the uber boss. This is as predictable and scripted as a Mexican bullfight.

Clearly, Blizzard is going to be fighting an uphill battle if they persist on their present course with WoW.

The times have changed. Goblinworks CEO Ryan Dancey proclaimed in a recent presentation, that the theme park model is unsustainable. From a recent Massively article:

GoblinWorks CEO Ryan Dancey gave a presentation earlier today at GamesBeat 2013 focused around Pathfinder Online’s approach to solving the “two fundamental problems of MMO development.” These problems are the “broken AAA theme park financial model” and the customer desire for a game that “persistently reflects the cumulative effects of their actions.”

Is it too late for Blizzard to learn these lessons with WoW? Will they learn them in time for Titan?

Crash Landing of the Titans

After the big news of Titan’s delay and reduction of staff it’s reasonable to ponder how the top talent in Blizzard failed to replicate the success of WoW with Titan. Titan was supposed to be coming out by December of this year.

Perhaps WoW — which is essentially a slicker and more accessible version of EverQuest — was a one trick pony. Maybe Blizzard needs to find another great but under polished MMO gem to innovate and recreate for their next success.

Conclusion

While WoW sober for about 2 years now, I find myself strangely compelled to watch BlizzCon this year as I have done other years. As a game designer myself, I am perennially fascinated and appreciative of the Blizzard’s unequaled creative and production philosophy. And as a fan of the original EverQuest, who’s currently fatigued following the snail like pace of development of EverQuest Next, it will be a therapeutic to see how a  real AAA+ MMO company creates their magic.

It will be interesting to see what Alex Afrasiabi and crew have in store for WoW fans. Much in the same way Alex redeemed and reinvented himself, I believe that it’s high time that WoW fundamentally reinvents itself as well.

Despite being almost 10 years old, miraculously WoW is still the industry leader. To survive and thrive, it needs to find ways to remain current and viable in a changing MMO landscape that has grown weary of the theme park MMO model and is now looking toward the sandbox MMO’s like EverQuest Next and Pathfinder Online to lead the way.

Since Blizzard is responsible for much of the mess that has befallen the MMO world, I’m hoping to see a new attitude from Blizzard at BlizzCon. The days of Blizzard panelists showing up on the stage like pompous rock stars reeking with self-importance and smug smirks are over. We need to see some semblance of humility and a healthy dose of urgency that the times have changed. Blizzard owes it to themselves and more importantly to their fans.

-Wolfshead

11 thoughts on “BlizzCon 2013: Can the Return of Alex Afrasiabi Save World of Warcraft?

  1. Pingback: /AFK: The Stare | Bio Break

  2. nice article. However, I think WOW’s decline was inevitable. They may have accelerated it a bit with some of the design decisions they made over the years but a model focused on static directed content and limited player influence and persistence in the world is inherently limited from the start. Eventually you are forced to simply add more of the same to the game because there is nothing else you can do. Over time, players will recognize and grow tired of the limited mechanics and simply move on. Look at the nature of their updates versus a game like Eve for example.

    The piece that i disagree with is that last paragraph. Sorry but WoW didn’t kill the MMO genre. That and the subscription model demonizing (the entry barrier is too high, that’s why people aren’t playing our game!) are the two copouts that the industry is using to avoid dealing with the real problem: the gameplay is now tired, repetitive and old and they have failed to come up with anything interesting or creative enough to take MMOs to the next level so that they stay relevant and compelling. None of these themepark MMOs are worth a sub from a quality, content and gameplay mechanic standpoint. While I still enjoy some of them (like GW2), I play them like single player games – 30 to 90 days and I am done.

    Blizzard didn’t force anyone to copy WoW. Developers and investors made a choice to do so and have collectively stagnated their own industry. No one on the AAA scene has even seriously tried to borrow any elements from UO for example.

    They took the easy road rather than put in some effort and try and create unique, dynamic persistent worlds which encourage (not force) group interaction, socialization and community. None of them have made any serious advancements on developing social hooks and community structures in-game. Even guild tools are half assed when these games launch.

    A little off topic but are we sure the Heroes of the Storm MOBA is not Titan? I thought they said once that Titan was some sort of esports play. I am actually curious to see what they can bring to the MOBA scene. I think that is the next genre investment and development is going to flood into, saturate and render generic after MMOs.

    • Good post! I agree with you on the inevitable decline of WoW. The heavily scripted quest/narrative centric design is largely responsible. There is really no room for player freedom and/or sandbox thinking in WoW which is the future for the genre.

      Many other horrible decisions have been made over the years in WoW that have had terrible unintended consequences such as the dungeon finder. There is also too much focus on false heroism and obscene player power.

      Their only recourse to make WoW fresh is to continue to tack on gimmicks such as the pet battle system and others. The real problem is that the fundamental core of WoW as mentioned above is broken and tired. Adding more features is not the answer, a fundamental re-design is the only way and that will never happen. The only hope is for Titan or WoW2.

      Another problem is the way they have segregated PVP into separate servers and created mechanics like Battlegrounds is a real shame too. World PVP actually used to mean something in vanilla WoW and then they got rid of that and put it in a ghetto.

      After watching BlizzCon 2013, the Blizzard team seems really set in their ways — especially Tom Chilton the PVP dev. I have always felt his contribution to WoW was dubious at best.

      I’m amazed at the lack of respect for role-players, socializers and explorers on the WoW dev team. They all seem like hardcore min/maxer achievers.

      You are right that WoW didn’t outright kill the MMO genre — it’s still alive and well but too many people got greedy and tried to imitate it and failed miserably.

      • Role-Players not getting much respect becomes even more apparent in the new character models so far not being accompanied by an opt-out option and/or free customisation (‘who cares about your characters’ face, you get a free 90!’ being the basic fanboy response) , and the recent forced name changes in the EU of (oft-longstanding) RP Guilds on RP Severs because they dared to name organisations RP’ing in Stormwind after Stormwind etc.

        http://eu.battle.net/wow/en/forum/topic/8606930742?page=1

        Whenever I look at WoW the number one feeling I get is: so much wasted potential.

        • I agree that there is so much wasted potential with WoW. They just don’t seem to care about role-playing. Not one member of the upper WoW dev team has any passion for role-playing.

      • I asked Ghostcrawler a question at Blizzcon on how they determine why people have left. His answer was via the exit questionnaire (and it’s stupidly tiny comment box) and analytics of what people were doing before they left. I think the holes in this approach are obvious and it wouldn’t surprise me if this has been a source of the ongoing problems.

  3. Three reasons why WoW is failing and it all started with Cata:

    1. Arrogance – Blizz started buying into their own hype and believed they were untouchable. The condescending Cata article by Ghostcrawler, “Wow! Dungeons are hard!” highlights this point.
    It only took one month before GC had to do a mea culpa and the difficulty was dropped down a notch.
    When I started diplomatically posting on their message boards on these arrogance issues, I got banned for continually talking about the devs.
    …which defeats the purpose of the message boards.

    2. Smug elitism – There’s a distinct difference between elite and elitism.
    Elite accomplishes. Elitism just talks… and talks… and talks.
    While Cata was desperately trying to force players to not face roll through the game, there was no learning curve. Instead of a smooth incline, the instance difficulty was a series of steep cliffs.
    Sure, it made the elitists happy, but the majority of WoW players were casuals who didn’t have the 4-hours a night to finish a single Cata heroic.
    Blizz’s failure to understand human psychology is a factor here. People will accept difficult challenges as long as there is a normal stream of progress. The extreme difficulty of simple heroics only served to damage a player’s confidence that they can succeed.
    It also didn’t help that with the ratcheted up difficulty, it placed players at each others throats. There wasn’t a single night when there wasn’t a verbal fight due to smug elitists berating a player all throughout the instance.

    3. Failure to understand Good People > Good Players – My guild had enough good players to succeed at end game content, but it was the good people that made the journey all that more enjoyable. It made playing raid nights fun, even in our fantastic wipes. There was great camaraderie… and then Cata came and destroyed the dynamic.
    As mentioned before, with increased stress levels, it tore my guild apart. With no margin for error and unforgiving conditions, guild mates weren’t having fun anymore. It was like a chore that required your complete and undivided attention, to which you weren’t even looking forward to raid night.

    4. Slow progression means no second life – Okay, so I lied, there is a 4th reason. With Cata difficulty, it made it impossible to have alt toons. So you couldn’t escape from the boredom of WoW within WoW.
    In addition, anyone who was new to tanking and healing on their secondary spec could forget about it. Which in turn had a cascading affect on randoms with wait times and success percentages.
    L2P is a great concept, however, you can’t L2P without experience. I had a good friend who was an excellent heals, but she wanted to roll a tank on the same toon and ended up getting clobbered, despite having the proper gear. Without the much needed experience of leveling up as a tank, the conditions are unforgiving for players who want to change their role. I wouldn’t be surprised if most players abandoned their secondary spec entirely and were forced to play a single role out of fear of stepping outside their comfort zone.
    Blizz could’ve done a better job of being more encouraging. It was far more easier to learn to tank for the first time at high levels in WOTLK.

    So basically, that’s how Blizz failed with their cash cow.
    I even wrote a heart-filled hand-written letter to Mike Morhaime himself outlining why I had quit WoW and it went completely ignored.
    Not even a courtesy response of “We appreciate your input, but FO.”

    Ah well, this is how great empires fall. History repeats.

  4. All the comments here are spot on. Really enjoyable to read people “who get it”. Sadly, the genre is not for us anymore and I suppose that’s ok. The world of gaming moves on.

    Hopefully someone goes niche on us someday. The sad part for me is I don’t think I have the time to enjoy the type of game I claim I want – or perhaps, I am just looking at it through WoW colored glasses.

  5. I don’t think it’s to late for Blizzard to turn the boat around, provided they put the effort into it unlike they have since (imo) TBC, I say TBC because Wrath undeniably got a huge increase based on the publicity from the players during TBC.

    Take into consideration what else is on the gaming marked (or have been released the past 5 years), nothing stand toe-to-toe with WoW even today, that includes a game like League of Legends, because despite it’s substantial numbers in active accounts.., it’s just another play-and-forget model, on top is undeniably has about the worst introduction for new players with their normal game mode, and by far the worst “community” in online gamings history!

    The developers of WoW clearly forgot somewhere along the line, that most people play to socialise (click button receive bacon model they implemented), if they can turn some of that off and focus on the core aspects that founded the game, public publicity will boost their subscriptions once again simply due to the fact, there’s no other game like WoW on the marked, and none has been released since it’s inception!

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