Almost 6 years ago in 2010, I penned an article entitled the Are Chatless MMOs a Precursor to Console MMOs? It was during that fateful year that Blizzard designed to automate the process of assembling groups for dungeons in their World of Warcraft MMO with a feature called the Dungeon Finder. WoW would never be the same. Back then that I predicted the bleak, anti-social future of MMOs that had decided to embrace the seductive path of convenience based game design. That future is finally here with WoW and it is not good.
The closure of the Nostalrius legacy server has made world-wide news and touched a nerve. The very existence of legacy servers is a public repudiation of Blizzard’s stewardship of WoW. Many faithful fans are finally asking serious existential questions about the current state of WoW. The fact that hundreds of thousands of people are voting with their feet and rejecting the current version of WoW and instead are playing on legacy servers speaks volumes about the how out of touch Blizzard has become about the state of their own MMO.
This week while browsing YouTube and researching the fallout from the closing down of the volunteer run Nostalrious server, I happened upon a video gem entitled Is the Social Aspect of Warcraft Dead? by xJsnowgamingx.
Warning: What you see in this video chronicles almost everything that is wrong wit the state of WoW today.
The author of this video decided to conduct an non-scientific experiment and give viewers a glimpse of what a player may expect during a typical dungeon run using the Dungeon Finder tool. The author starts off with the premise that the social aspect of WoW is dead. His premise is absolutely correct and easily proven by the end of the video by the evidence we see with our own eyes. What we see in the video is not an outlier, this is what everybody experiences in WoW.
Nobody talks or socializes in WoW anymore. The social aspect of WoW is dead and everybody who plays WoW or who used to play it knows it.
I don’t agree with the author about everything. For example, he claims that travelling to a dungeon and assembling a group just takes too long. So he supports the convenience offered by the Dungeon Finder but is alarmed by the unintended consequences — mainly the lack of social interaction. You can’t have it both ways.
I remember back in vanilla WoW it took a while to journey to far away dungeons like the Scarlet Monastery. But let’s not forget you could fly much of the way via gryphons if you were the Alliance. Travelling to dungeons was part of the complete MMORPG experience back then with WoW, EverQuest, EverQuest 2 and others. In WoW, you could also use the special stone by each dungeon and summon additional players. You stuck with your group and you could spend hours doing the dungeon or repeating it. You actually talked to your fellow players. You got to know them and become friends with them.
Back then, when you played a MMORPG you fully expected to socially interact with your fellow adventurers. Yes, grouping required effort but if you wanted the best loot you had no choice. Just like in the real world, if you want certain things you have to work for them.
A Litany of Design Errors
Back to the video. Not only does the video demonstrate that WoW has no social interaction to speak of, it shows how simplistic, trivial and absurd the gameplay has become. The video exposes a litany of self-inflicted problems that is currently besetting WoW. Here are a few just from the top of my head:
- Chat is dominated by gold spammers and other players offering paid services
- There is hardly any trade conversation on going on in Trade Chat
- Very little skill is required in WoW to complete a dungeon, just keep spamming a few keys and you’re golden
- No strategy is required as addons like Deadly Boss Mobs tell players what to do at every turn and trivialize encounters
- Players are overpowered and trash mobs seems to die almost instantly
- Boss mobs in heroics are often dead within 30 seconds
- Heroic Dungeons can be completed in 14 minutes (as shown in the video)
- Players are only doing dungeons for the daily quest rewards as the loot is worthless to most player as dungeons are obsolete within a month of release
- Needless narratives and over wrought cinematics are shown in dungeons that most users have no interest in seeing again for the 100th time
- Battles in dungeons look like a Transformers movie meets the 4th of July pyrotechnics with over the top animations, garish colors and visual effects
These are heroic dungeons we are talking about — not outdoor locations. Given what you have seen, can you imagine how easy generic outdoor mobs are in WoW?
I just have to stop and ask Blizzard this:
Are you proud of what you see in this video?
Let’s discuss the design flaws in more detail.
The Amusement Park MMO
Despite the fact that Blizzard expends a lot of time and resources in scripting dungeons in order to make “epic” experiences, there is nothing epic or heroic about the current dungeon experience in WoW. Once you complete a dungeon, repeating that dungeon takes you into Groundhog Day territory where you experience the same scripted events and bosses over and over. Is being the MMO version of Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog day really epic?
Why has Blizzard made no attempt to create any kind of dynamic content in WoW?
The answer is simple: Blizzard wants to control the narrative like a Hollywood film director. You are not allowed to have “your” story, you must live out “their” story.
Back in during the heyday of WoW, Blizzard dev Jeff Kaplan gave a talk in 2009 at GDC entitled Cruise Director of Azeroth. (His talk is available in video format and well worth watching to see how prevalent his design theories were during the zenith of WoW). From the beginning, Blizzard has always wanted to control and direct where players go and what players do via their quest system.
Twelve years since its release in 2004, I believe that many MMO players and those many millions that have stopped playing MMOs altogether are tired of it. Today an increasing number of players are hungry for self-directed autonomy and unique memories that only a sandbox MMO can offer.
The Emotionless MMO
The worst thing about the WoW dungeon experience is that players feel no sense of fear or danger. You can have the most amazingly immersive environments but that won’t save you when the world doesn’t feel real or believable because a lack of consequences.
Outside of mythic raids, players rarely die in WoW these days and if you do, death has no sting. Dungeons have become routine, predictable and transactional in nature and are essentially farming expeditions. To be fair, this seems to eventually happen in most MMO dungeons but with WoW it is to the extreme.
The Achievers MMO
One thing is very clear from the video: WoW is a MMO made by achievers for achievers. The Bartle player types have 4 distinct motivations for people that play MMORPGs: achievers, explorers, socializers and killers/disrupters. There is no content shown in the video that would even remotely satisfy players who seek to explore, socialize or kill/disrupt. What you see is a bacchanalia of gameplay and rewards that are exclusively tailored for achievers.
The Disposable MMO
Another glaring problem with WoW dungeons is that you get the feeling that your fellow group mates are disposable like the content. Why bother to say “hello” and develop a friendship when you will probably never see or interact with your group mates ever again. It’s similar to the new solder syndrome. Nobody wants to get to know the new solider and suffer the pain of loss when chances are they will die soon in combat anyways.
The entire premise of WoW is based on content that is disposable. Creating zones and populating them with mobs and items is expensive. Every expansion makes the content that came before it obsolete and disposable and worthless. The gear that players earned in an expansion are also rendered obsolete within a few hours of gameplay in the latest expansion. Character boosts to near the level cap can now be purchased so players can avoid all of the content that came before and go directly into the expansion. It’s like with each expansion Blizzard created an entirely new MMO.
The Anti-Social MMO
MMOs used to be about community. When you played an MMO, you expected to develop deep and lasting friendships and experience camaraderie with your fellow players. You cared about the friends you met in a virtual world. You looked for them when you logged on. Today’s MMOs are largely single-player games devoid of any meaningful community and full of self-absorbed and anti-social players.
Despite their propaganda, Blizzard has managed to created the worst community in MMO history with WoW and it is all by design and because of their irresponsible stewardship. To make an analogy: the experience you get in a restaurant or a nightclub is by design and the responsibility of the management and the owners. MMOs are no different and the community that players experience is a direct result of the actions, inactions and decisions of the management and owners of the MMO studio.
Somehow I got sucked into writing another WoW article. What began as an article highlighting a video about the declining nature of social interaction in WoW grew into an article that examined the current state of WoW based on the average play session of a typical player. I admit I do not play WoW anymore, but can you really blame me and the millions of other players that have stopped playing? I stopped playing a few months after the release of Warlords of Draenor because of the stifling anti-social nature of garrisons that forces players into a play-style that is neither fun or enjoyable.
The WoW we see today is shadow of its former self. To be honest, vanilla WoW contained the seeds of its ultimate destruction. Mark Kern a former Blizzard employee who was a lead designer in WoW, has revealed this in many of his brilliant columns over at MMORPG.com. He readily admits that they didn’t want any downtime in WoW and that it was their intention to create a MMO where every class could solo with limited class interdependence.
It is my belief that Blizzard really never understood the design foundations that made EverQuest great and the importance of the MUDs that came before. They simply copied EQ, polished the graphics, the combat and the interface and then started to remove features they didn’t like and added in “cool” features that they liked. There was no consideration for the long-term negative effects of their tinkering; all that mattered was what the metrics were telling them and creating instant gratification for the players.
A fantasy virtual world is a fragile ecosystem. The addition or subtraction of features, mechanics and abilities has an impact on existing ones. Failure to validate, test and anticipate unintended consequences is game design malpractice. The decision to allow flying mounts is one such decision that shrunk the size of the world and trivialized content.
The overwhelming financial success of WoW has immunized Blizzard and unfortunately validated their decisions giving them carte blanche to do whatever they wanted. For years, those at Blizzard who worked on WoW were worshiped like gods by MMO designers who foolishly tried to duplicate everything they did. The abject failure of their unannounced Titan MMO proved that without a MMORPG like EQ to steal from and cannibalize, they didn’t have the design chops after all to create a new blockbuster MMO. The gods have fallen and oh my, what an embarrassing fall it was.
How people can continue to play WoW and defend the design decisions made by Blizzard boggles my mind. The only possible explanation is that whoever still plays WoW is a fanboy and deeply emotionally invested because of the fact that they’ve dedicated a lot of time into it. It’s probably a variant of the sunk cost fallacy where people continue to do things that are against their interest because they’ve paid for something already or invested a significant amount of time into it.
Back in 2007, one of the fathers of the virtual world genre, Richard Bartle made a controversial statement regarding WoW and the future of virtual worlds. He said he’d close down WoW if he had the power. I agree with him. If I had the power, I would do the same but use the vast resources of Blizzard to create a fantasy virtual world that elevates sound design principles before profits and stock prices. Seven years later in 2014, video game luminary Raph Koster issued a similar statement by saying that Blizzard killed the MMO genre.
The takeaway from both of these experts is that the success of WoW had a terrible dark side: it stifled innovation and originality and replaced the genre with homogeneity and dumbed down gameplay that removed all meaningful socialization from the user experience and put the entire MMO genre in a age of darkness.
We see similar depressing trends in today’s cultural offerings especially in the banality and shallowness of popular music. Popular culture has become like junk food. It is made to titillate the senses with little to no nutritional value and if consumed regularly has negative consequences for long term health of those that consume it.
Years ago, many MMO critics like myself tried to put a positive spin on the mass popularity of WoW. We thought that the millions of WoW players would eventually grow tired of it’s shallow gameplay and anti-social nature. We predicated that new MMORPGs would be created that would provide a more mature experience for these players when they finally grew tired of WoW. We were wrong. What we didn’t foresee was that the industry was never interested in making a better, more adventurous, more ambitious MMO. Tempted by millions of dollars of potential profits, the industry was hypnotized by WoW and proceeded to make WoW clones. We all know what happened. They failed over and over again.
It’s time to make peace with the reality of Blizzard’s intransigence and World of Warcraft’s vapidity. No matter how much we may want them to make WoW *our* MMO, we must realize that it will never happen. Blizzard doesn’t have the vision, the talent or the will to aspire to anything greater. That’s just the honest truth folks. Blizzard will always be the McDonald’s of the MMO world with billions upon billions of mundane burgers served to the masses as their mission statement. Blizzard will never make a 3 Star Michelin MMO and that’s okay. Although it’s scant consolation, while we continue to play EQ or WoW on legacy servers, all we can do is bide our time and wait for the MMO of our dreams to appear.