While 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.
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.