The Destructive Legacy of Blizzard’s World of Warcraft

At the end of 2014, Blizzard Entertainment celebrated the 10th anniversary of World of Warcraft. There can be no doubt that WoW is a juggernaut that changed how we play and how we think about virtual worlds and MMORPGs.

But not all change is beneficial and not all success is healthy.

Amid the accolades and self-congratulatory celebrations going on there is unreported dark side to the triumph of WoW and it has come at a high price. It is this: the fantasy MMORPG that some of us used to know and love has all but evaporated and turned from an experience rich with social interaction into one devoid of it.

As WoW has systematically obliterated every MMORPG that came before it, the fate of the entire genre is now symbiotically linked to WoW. Look at your average MMO today and chances are it’s just another WoW clone with a different skin, story and setting.

Just as a rising tide lifts all ships, the reverse is also true. This essay will attempt to explain the destructive legacy of WoW and in particular how Blizzard caused the widespread decline of social interaction in MMORPGs.

Blizzard’s Design Malpractice

I have always believed that WoW is a time bomb of design missteps that have been characterized by the fruition of unintended consequences. But there is one particular consequence that strikes at the unique proposition of MMORPGs that is so glaring, so inexcusable, and so utterly abominable that it deserves deeper investigation. Undoubtedly the biggest casualty of the Blizzard’s foray into the world of MMO development has been the massive erosion and outright neglect of the social aspect of the virtual world user experience.

The best barometer of social interaction in a MMO is the caliber of the community. One only has to look at the quality of the WoW community — easily the worst community in the MMO genre — for damning evidence of Blizzard’s design malpractice. As the early computer programmers used to say: garbage in, garbage out.

This article is mainly an attempt to chronicle the absence of social interaction in Blizzard’s WoW. I will tell you who did it, why it happened and the destructive legacy it has unleashed. First let me explain how the term MMORPG has been transmuted by the alchemists that reside in the ivory towers of Irvine, California.

The Legacy of WoW: The Great MMORPG Vanishing Act

Before we proceed, it will be useful to take a small side trip. Over the past 10 years, along with the casualty of social interaction, much of what we used to love about MMORPGs has vanished. Blizzard has managed to accomplish an incremental bait and switch with WoW.

Instead of the MMORPG, we have a “MMO” that claims to be a group experience but instead has created the environment where your fellow player is inconsequential and the opportunity for social interaction has been jettisoned in favor of a fast, streamlined combat centric experience.

Today in WoW, we have guilds — the supposed backbone of the MMORPG social structure — where members don’t know each other, have never played together and barely speak to each other.

Then there is the sorry state of role-playing in WoW the “RP” in MMORPG. The fact is that it barely exists if at all. Having no role-playing in a MMORPG makes as much sense as having no country music in Nashville.

I consider today’s form of role-playing in most MMORPG’s equivalent to cosplay. Cosplay is showing up with a costume and saying “here I am” which is exactly what most people do when they log on to their WoW characters. They simply show up in costume and board the Blizzard train and prepare to be entertained like the riders of an amusement park ride.

Real role-playing involves more than attending a Halloween party in costume. Role-playing is a state of mind where you believe you *are* your fantasy character and live out that character’s dreams and aspirations within that virtual world. Real role-playing takes effort and commitment. You get what you put into it.

costumes

The problem is that real role-playing is an anachronism in WoW and almost non-existent. This is because the hack and slash developers in charge of WoW at Blizzard are simply not interested in it, do not support in any meaningful way and do not encourage it. And because of this, role-playing has been relegated to the ghetto of a few “RP” servers.

The Blizzard legacy is that almost every letter in the “MMORPG” acronym has been watered down or exists in name only. Like the YMCA of today which has nothing whatsoever to do with young Christian men. So too the term MMORPG exists as a quaint acronym of days of yore.

The truth about WoW is this: it is a MMORPG in name only.

How Blizzard Chooses Projects

The key to understanding why WoW is bereft of social interaction is to examine who Blizzard is and how WoW came to be. The first step is to consider the Blizzard development philosophy on how their projects are chosen.

We have heard time and time again from Blizzard that they only create games that they are passionate about. At first glance, this is a commendable philosophy because obviously the more passionate that developers are about what they are making, the better the result will be. Daniel Pink in his book “Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us” has found that non-commissioned work that artists create is more creative than the commissioned work that they create.

Blizzard has leveraged this fact about human nature with very successful results compared to the rest of the video game industry (which operates quite differently) and the results are most often inferior video games. In the real world of video game development, a publisher comes up with the idea and then finds a developer to make the their game which is the complete opposite of how Blizzard makes video games. Blizzard only makes games they are passionate about.

At the time WoW was conceived, which is probably the year 2000, MMORPGs like EverQuest were in vogue at the time and considered to be cutting edge. It is easy to see why various Blizzard employees would want to make a MMORPG at the time.

Blizzard is a Video Game Company First and Foremost

In order to help explain the origins of WoW’s social interaction deficiency, it’s important to outline the vast difference in transitioning from making a single-player RPG into a making a MMORPG which was the case with Blizzard. Here are just some of the problems:

1) Because Blizzard is primarily a single player video game company, they had little to no expertise in with social dynamics and social interaction. Also, they have rarely hired role-players or social gamers that would have resulted in a more well rounded virtual world.

2) The lack of role-players and social gamers at Blizzard ensures that future hires will be screened by existing employees who are not role-players and social gamers, therefore they will be more likely to hire employees that think like they do which perpetuates the problem.

3) Due to the initial inertia of the achievement and combat design bias of Blizzard’s staff, even if they had hired role-players and social gamers they would not have risen in the ranks to the upper echelon where all the decisions are made about the future of the WoW franchise. (I have read many comments at Glassdoor.com that suggest today it is almost impossible for a new hire to get promoted to a position of decision making authority at Blizzard.)

The character of Blizzard’s original talent base and the company culture that has resulted has created an inertia that is not conducive to promoting social interaction. This is even more apparent when we look at the four fathers of WoW.

The Four Fathers of WoW

From the beginning, what we see in WoW has been an amalgam of the personal preferences and biases of its creators. Let’s look at 4 of the top design people at Blizzard who were responsible for creating and developing WoW over the years: Alex Afrasiabi, Jeff Kaplan, Rob Pardo and Tom Chilton. Most rose from humble beginnings and now have lofty titles at Blizzard with the exception of Rob Pardo who has since resigned.

Mount Rushmore

The first three were all hardcore raiders in EverQuest which explains why raiding is the ultimate form of challenge in WoW.  Raiding content got the biggest development budgets despite the fact that for most of  the MMO’s history a minority of WoW players actually experienced raiding content. Now with the introduction of the raid finder feature anyone can find a raid and experience a watered down version of raiding.

The last, Tom Chilton, joined the WoW team when WoW was basically finished in 2004 and came from Ultima Online which was a PVP centric MMORPG.

In addition, the casual friendly aspect of WoW definitely came from Pardo. The story and narrative aspect of WoW came from Afrasiabi.

Given the background and proclivities of these 4 designers, is it any wonder that WoW became what it is today, a strange dichotomy of casual friendliness and on the other side a MMO focused on combat, achievement, raiding and PVP?

The key here to remember that Blizzard was and will always be a video game company first and foremost. Back in 2000 the MMORPG was considered a cutting edge entertainment phenomenon and everyone wanted to be a part of that — so they decided to make a MMORPG. Blizzard wanted their MMO to have broader appeal than the current industry leader EverQuest and the rest is history.

Unfortunately, an appreciation of the value of social interaction was not part of their plans for WoW.

Blizzard’s Design Ethos: Accessibility Equals More Profits

When WoW was first designed, it was common to hear Blizzard promote their “easy to learn, hard to master” philosophy.  This seemed like a magical formula that had the ability to appeal to a wide spectrum of potential gamers.

They would also talk about the famous Blizzard doughnut hole. Back then they wanted to attract players with different skill levels with the expectation that players could easily travel from the inner ring of the donut to the outer ring of the donut and back if they so desired. From an article I published in 2011, I talked about how Blizzard had changed the recipe for their donut:

The real culprit here is a corporate philosophy that is based on growth. Subscriber growth. Blizzard’s policy has been to keep expanding the outer edges of its famous donut philosophy with marginal players of lesser skill and lesser time availability in order to get more profits. The result is a flattened pancake instead of a donut.

WoW was designed with the goal of making the MMORPG more accessible to the average person. If Blizzard were given the task of redesigning the game of basketball they would probably give everyone jet-packs and put the hoops 3 feet from the floor so everyone could score.

By lowering the bar of entry they believed they could make more money. If profits are your goal, this is the correct strategy. However if making a great MMORPG is your goal then this is a terrible strategy because in order to attract lesser skilled players you had to give them easy progress without the need for other players and the socialization skills that are required.

At last we come to the actual design theories employed by Blizzard and their effect on social interaction in WoW. While there are many design problems inherent in WoW, the two main culprits are easy soloing and concentrated combat

Design Flaw #1: Easy Soloing

MMORPGs previous to WoW were designed with the requirement that players needed to form groups to progress to the highest levels. This design theory is called player interdependence. In those original MMORPGs, players could solo but it was difficult and not intended.

Each player class had a specific role to play in a group. Each class had strengths and weaknesses. Classes complimented each other and the result was that the sum of the parts was greater than the whole. This synergy was the true magic of the MMORPG, the MUDS and table top pen and paper games such as Dungeons & Dragons that went before them.

Suddenly with WoW, there was a MMORPG where you could solo to the level cap and never speak a word to a fellow player thereby circumventing the design philosophy of player interdependence. Classes became more independent and self-sufficient. The notion of the player as a loner “hero” began to take hold.

While some MMORPG players felt a sense of emancipation from “forced grouping” as some have called it, the cost of that freedom changed the MMORPG landscape forever and paved the way for the anti-social single-player MMO that currently dominates the genre today.

Design Flaw #2: Concentrated Combat with No Downtime

From the beginning combat has been the central activity of fantasy MMORPGs. Due to the way MMORPGs are set up, advancement via the earning of experience points is all but impossible without combat.

When players were adventuring in dungeons in the early MMORPGs and in the MUDS before them, there was a healthy and reasonable balance of combat and downtime. After combat, players needed to regenerate their health, their stamina and their mana. It was during this down time that players got a chance to socialize. Socialization took many forms such players talking about tactics and strategy, completing maintenance tasks such as rebuffing and healing, and chatting with each other.

The precious interval between combat was the critical time where players would get to know each other and create the bonds of friendship that would keep them coming back for more and keep them subscribing.

With the introduction and refinement of WoW, health, stamina and mana regeneration became almost instant which has meant that downtime has been removed from the play experience leaving no time for socialization. In vanilla WoW, food and drink helped players to reduce downtime which even then was negligible. As it stands now, food and drink are no longer needed as player regeneration rates are almost instant after combat.

When opportunities for socialization are removed and marginalized, it is no wonder that socialization among players is non-existent within a MMORPG.

Frenetically paced combat has always been the Blizzard design ethos. You can see it in Diablo and the Warcraft RTS games where the player becomes a superhero and easily vanquishes hundreds of mobs in a single play session with no apparent fatigue or appreciable downtime.

Combine this with the rise of single-player video games, consoles, FPS games, and the current super-hero culture of Hollywood and you can understand why pure combat with no down time has become the dominant form of combat in MMORPGs.

A player has only so much time to play. So the WoW designers figured that they would fit as much combat as possible into an average play session to make the player feel like a hero. Something had to go and it was downtime. The unintended consequences was that socialization would all but vanish like an extraneous film scene left on the cutting room floor.

Why Do Players Put Up With It?

We’ve established the groundwork that explains why WoW was designed the way it was and who was responsible. Let’s look at how players have reacted to it and why they continue to support it.

There’s an ancient Latin maxim used in Roman Catholic theology that is applicable to this situation:

Lex orandi, lex credeni, lex vivendi.

Translated:

As we worship, so we believe, so we live.

This means that the quality of worship matters as there is a direct correlation to it and the resulting faith and religiosity of the believer. The same is true about MMOs. Good MMOs produce good players and good communities; the converse is also true: bad MMOs produce bad players and bad communities.

I believe this idea also applies to the current collective state of the MMO in the minds of the public. The video games and MMOs we choose to play and patronize ultimately determine what we come to believe about how they should be made.

As we continue to play a MMO, we come to accept and validate the mechanics and features it provides for us, so we expect them in our current MMO and in all other MMOs we play.

We as humans tend to reinforce decisions we have made in the past. The same is true of MMOs. Once players become wedded to MMO conventions they have a tendency to validate those conventions by continuing to participate in them. This demonstrates what is termed consistency and commitment. Dr. Robert Cialdini talks about this in his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.

When we continue to play and support MMOs that are designed with certain values, we tend to justify our decisions and internalize the values that that particular MMO has imported to us. So if a MMO is designed with little to no reason for social interaction and we continue to play that MMO, we start to believe that social interaction is a needless distraction and an unwanted impediment on our quest for advancement.

The Generational Shift in the Player Base

It’s worth noting that the current generation of MMO players and designers has changed as well which may have put pressure on Blizzard to reduce socialization elements.

Today’s millennials have shorter attention spans and are notorious for having been fed a steady diet of undeserved praise compared to the generation X’ers and baby boomers that came before them. The millennials were also weaned on console games where there are no keyboards compared to the previous generations which grew up with PC’s to experience computer games. Gameplay is usually faster paced on consoles compared to computer games.

However, these generational preferences do not absolve completely Blizzard. They could have done more to promote socialization but instead they chose to ride the console gaming bandwagon by shamelessly borrowing design elements from console games systems and crudely inserting them into WoW.

Before the release of the Wrath of the Lich King expansion,  Blizzard’s Jeff Kaplan announced the inclusion of achievements as a feature in WoW.  This was lifted directly from the Xbox 360 gamerscore achievement system and designed to appeal to millenials and possibly to onboard console gamers onto the PC platform.

The Exodus of Role-players and Social Gamers

MMOs are essentially online experiments in social engineering. MMO developers create self-fulfilling prophecies by virtue of the mechanics and features that can attract one type of Bartle player archetype and repel another kind of player archetype. Don’t like social players? Then simply eliminate the need for social interaction either consciously or sub-consciously.

When content and features are not designed to appeal to social players and role-players, eventually they will leave for another MMO or just quit. Consequently the only people left are the ones that you have been catering to all along: the achievers and the killers (PVP).

Blizzard has been under fire lately for not having enough “diversity” in WoW.  While I am strongly opposed to the intrusion of identity politics and political correctness into the sphere of virtual worlds, I would agree that there is a glaring lack of diversity in player archetypes who play WoW which has led to a homogeneity and hegemony of achievers and killers in the player base. A virtual world that has more diverse player archetypes is far more interesting and provides a deeper play experience than one without socializers, explorers and role-players.

The Anti-Social MMO Phenomenon

In its current state, WoW is unmistakably an anti-social MMO. There is really no need to speak to a fellow player as you don’t need to speak to progress your character.

I’ve personally joined guilds both before and after the launch of Warlords of Draenor where it is rare to see guild members chatting on guildchat. Despite the propaganda and nostalgia for guilds that Blizzard would have you believe, this scenario of silence is representative of the average guild today. If it were not for various guild perks, most players would not need to join a guild.

Even in dungeon groups, there is no need to speak to anyone. Why bother to speak and make a social investment when you’ll most likely never see them again. If you were to spend time typing a “hello all” you might actually fall behind as the group races from mob to mob in their blood lust to complete the dungeon.

The Wages of Convenience and Trivialization

Feature after feature has been added to WoW that has killed the social component of a MMO and each one could easily have an entire article devoted to it. Features such as: personal quests, instancing, easy soloing, dungeon finder, raid finder, the auction house, flying mounts, fast travel and now garrisons. The list goes on and I have written articles on some of these abominations of convenience and instant gratification.

Then there are the socially binding features that have been removed: a serious death penalty, corpse retrieval, the need for pulling classes, the need for crowd control classes, the need to bind players to towns and cities, the need for resurrections and in general the need for class interdependency such as classes that can buff other players.

Features that create social bonding and cohesion have been removed and features that promote anti-social behavior and player convenience have been introduced. All in all, this is a recipe for disaster.

This is the state of WoW in 2015. And this is not me saying this; it is one of the spiritual fathers of WoW saying this: Alex Afrasiabi.

In a recent interview, WoW Creative Director Afrasiabi made a frank admission about the current state of the social aspect of the world’s most popular and successful MMORPG:

…one of the things that I feel like we’ve potentially lost sight of, and it’s my fault, more than anyone else’s — is the social world aspect of an MMO. Because we’ve made great strides in giving you more personal, meaningful stories to your character, but whenever you do something like that, in the manner that we do things like that, you risk removing the player from the social world.

It’s both shocking and refreshing to read this mea culpa. It is an acknowledgement that MMO pundits and essayists such as yours truly have been waiting for. If you don’t know what the problem is, then how can you fix it?

Credit is due to Afrasiabi as this is the first time that anyone from fortress Blizzard has ever acknowledged this problem.

Regarding Afrasiabi’s comment on “personal, meaningful stories,” I must disagree. In today’s WoW, a player is essentially a puppet on a string that is controlled by the scripted stories that the quest designer creates for them. How is that personal or meaningful? There has to be a better way.

I believe the better way is that players should be allowed the freedom and autonomy to create their own stories and their own histories free from the tyranny of the golden pathway of the “on rails” experience of MMOs like WoW. Stop building amusement parks and start building virtual worlds!

Koster Speaks about the User Experience

Regarding the lack of social interaction, even the great grandfather and Yoda of the MMO world, Raph Koster, said in a recent well-written 10 year anniversary retrospective about WoW:

And the game that was once called, by me and many others, “the least social MMO on the market,” is now the virtual home away from home for millions, as network effects, familiarity, and its ongoing dedication to a great user experience above all makes it makes the place we always return to.

Koster ends his retrospective with a chilling epitaph for WoW:

World of Warcraft effectively made MMOs perfect, and in the process, it killed them.

While I agree that WoW killed the genre as they set the bar so high that nobody could compete with them and in the process changed the rules of the game and the definition of a MMO itself. Perfect perhaps from a profit perspective, but far from perfect from a player and a design perspective. McDonald’s too has crafted a great user experience in the realm of fast food, but I would hardly call the Big Mac the best hamburger in the world despite how cheery their amusement park style restaurant is and how clean their restrooms are.

Consider a film you see at a cinema. What is more important? How the film makes you feel, how it entertains you, how it scares you, how it uplifts you? Or how clear the screen is, the power of the sound system, how comfortable the seats are in the cinema and how good the popcorn is? Blizzard got the screen, the sound, the seats and the popcorn right, the film — not so much.

What gets lost in all of the industry analysis is the actual experience of the player. The players true experience can’t be evaluated or measured by metrics. Perhaps this is the real problem as intangible qualities are impossible to quantify but we intuitively know when they are missing.

Gone from today’s MMOs is the sense of danger and excitement and fear that I used to experience when I played a MMORPG like EverQuest. The fact that you could lose two years worth of your playing time by losing your corpse in the Plane of Fear made for an incredible gripping and visceral experience. The reverse is true as well when you experience the joy and elation of recovering your corpse. WoW has never been able to recreate those raw emotions and the tragic thing is that they never even tried.

The Frankenstein Monster of Unintended Consequences

The WoW of today is a Frankenstein monster of unintended consequences caused by thoughtless design that Afrasiabi his compatriots concocted. For some reason, he, Jeff Kaplan and Rob Pardo thought that the social component of MMORPG would always exist as they proceed to “innovate” with feature after feature that killed group interdependency and social interaction. They were dead wrong.

When the obituary of MMORPGs is written these 4 people will need to be mentioned as being culpable in its demise. All of them knew the legacy that EverQuest bequeathed to them and they squandered it.

The Anti-Social Plague of WoW has Spread to the MMO Industry

The lack of social interaction is just not a WoW problem; it is now a industry wide problem as most MMOs have been patterned after WoW to some degree. Without a social component most MMOs are essentially online single player games where you may meet an occasional player who functions like a more advanced NPC than a player.

Many of us sounded the alarm bells about WoW. We wrote countless articles about the problems and we were constantly ignored. Even industry heavyweights such as Raph Koster and others who amply demonstrated the social paucity of WoW were ignored.

The fact is that Blizzard is an insular company. Rarely if ever do they engage with fellow designers on panels at game design conferences and allow themselves to be held accountable by their peers for their decisions.

The financial success of WoW shielded Blizzard from the ramifications that WoW has had on the industry. The deep vaults of gold that WoW made for Blizzard created a reality distortion field around the Blizzard designers and gave them the feeling that they could do no wrong and the result was that the band played on.

The Existential Sloth of the MMO Community

Not all of the bitter legacy of WoW is Blizzard’s fault. We bloggers, pundits and commentators are partly responsible too. We allowed ourselves to be seduced by the glamour of WoW and in the process we allowed them to continue on in their error.

There was a time when people actually used to write about MMORPGs with a depth that is almost non-existent today. We cared. We questioned everything. We had dreams too. This new genre was like a spaceship with a full tank of gas and we were giddy with wonder as we pondered what we could do with this power and potential.

passengers on a bus

Today, few if any ask existential questions about MMOs. We’re like jaded passengers on a bus, subway or airplane resigned to the fact that we are travelling a well-worn path from point A to point B. We don’t care about how much horsepower the engines have. Please don’t bother us, we’re getting our prescribed and routine dosages of opiates. The spice must flow!

Players Bear Responsibility Too

We as players must also accept some of the blame. Our human nature dictates that we often take the path of least resistance — even if it’s unhealthy for us and limits our long term enjoyment. Politicians know this all too well and tempt us with free stuff if we would only vote for them. Blizzard game designers are the same. They tantalize us with easy rewards and a pain free ride and in return we keep on subscribing.

Thoughtful players and MMORPG veterans know this is problematic but since WoW is such a mass market product, the average new player who has no knowledge of game design or the value of social interaction, accepts the bargain without a second thought and becomes unconsciously complicit in the slow destruction of the genre.

Czech playwright, essayist, poet, dissident and politician said it best:

“The tragedy of modern man is not that he knows less and less about the meaning of his own life, but that it bothers him less and less.”

― Václav Havel

This sounds to me a lot like the average incurious WoW player who has inherited virtual worlds of striking beauty that we as pioneer players could only dream about. The problem is they have no idea of what went before them and what we experienced. They will never know the thrill of earning the right to exploring new worlds and the pulse pounding feeling of risking everything by dying and possibly losing years of your characters life. They will never know the memories, the friendships and social cohesion that was created because they have been coddled, pampered and essentially cheated by Blizzard out of a more meaningful experience.

The Danger of the Herd Mentality

A recent study from the University of Exter shows that following the herd can lead to bad decisions. From an article at Phys.org:

Research led by the University of Exeter has shown that individuals have evolved to be overly influenced by their neighbours, rather than rely on their own instinct. As a result, groups become less responsive to changes in their natural environment…

…By using a simple model of decision-making in a dynamic environment, the team were able to show that individuals overly rely on social information and evolve to be too readily influenced by their neighbours. The team suggest this is due to a “classic evolutionary conflict between individual and collective interest”.

A dominant MMO naturally attracts the most players which then creates inertia that attracts additional players. This results in a herd mentality that exerts social influence that increases social pressure to keep playing so you can be part of the herd. The herd starts thinking with a collective mindset instead of the player thinking for himself.

One only has to watch late night TV to discover that the public is easily deceived and highly impressionable.

Once WoW hit critical mass it became a cultural phenomenon that pushed a lot of Skinner buttons for people. WoW was a unique cultural magnet that attracted a herd following and it developed an inertia of its own. It was easy to sell your soul to WoW because it was a masterpiece of polish, beauty and combat that gave players enough pretty distractions that compensated for the lack of social game play.

From the outset, some of us were not fooled and we lamented the change in the behavior of our friends and guild mates. Players who were previously friendly and cooperative in EverQuest suddenly became selfish and single-minded in WoW. Their inherent personalities didn’t change; rather it was the MMO and the mechanics that changed and eventually it changed us.

WoW: a Victim of its Own Success

Blizzard’s single-handed transformation of the MMORPG genre from niche to mass market has had devastating effects on the quality of the average player. The success of WoW was made possible because Blizzard dumbed-down and streamlined the MMORPG experience to appeal to the palette of the lowest common denominator gamer. Suddenly the MMO community was flooded with people who had no appreciation of social interaction and those that did appreciate it were drowned out, ignored, starved out and left the genre entirely.

Social interaction in combination with other features such as role-playing was seen as a superfluous and anachronistic convention that was an impediment to the mass acceptance of WoW and it was either quietly discarded or conveniently ignored by the Blizzard devs.

Blizzard’s Lack of Vision

Without a vision you are embarking on a journey without knowing the destination. You are blind. If you are going to create a fantasy MMORPG you need to have a vision that is deeper and bigger than just saying your out to make “fun” and “concentrated coolness”.  I can’t even remember the last time anyone at Blizzard even mentioned their borrowed “easy to learn, hard to master” mantra.

I couldn’t tell you what Blizzard’s vision is because I don’t believe they even have a vision today. If they have a vision its this: give the customer what they want or the customer is always right. This manifests itself in a dangerous design philosophy that encourages a sense of entitlement among players.

Instead of offering equality of opportunity, Blizzard believes in equality of outcome. Blizzard has always been obsessed with giving everyone a larger than life Disneyland theme park ride experience and every seat on that ride is the same.

blindfolded man

Standing up and proclaiming “For the Horde” or “the Alliance” and telling everyone how “geek” we all are at BlizzCon is no substitute for a vision.

If your vision is not about bringing people together from all over the world and letting them escape into dangerous fantasy world then what is the point? At some point you have to challenge people and entice them to band together to face shared adversity. Surviving and thriving in a fantasy virtual world is not supposed to be easy.

Blizzard has earned a great reputation asking about every feature: “is this fun?” . I wonder what would kind of WoW we would have today if at every design meeting, they had also asked this question of every feature:

How will this promote player interdependency and social cohesion?

Can WoW Be Fixed?

I think it may too late for Blizzard’s WoW to be salvaged. The horse is well out of the garrison barn. Any change to create introduce more socialization would probably alienate those that are still playing and their corporate masters at Activision and the shareholders would not be pleased.

I had hoped that with their top secret Titan MMO, Blizzard would have learned many of these lessons and redeemed themselves. Sadly, that MMO was cancelled and with it a chance for redemption was lost. I believe that Blizzard will never make another MMO. That is a topic I hope to explore in a future article.

Conclusion

Although we live in a world that has never been more technologically connected, we are becoming more disconnected from each other and the people around us. Not all technology is good. Not all innovations are beneficial. The same is true of MMORPGs.

In the quest to improve other aspects of a fantasy virtual world, the Blizzard developers foolishly ignored the importance of the social nature of MMOs and boldly marched forward with innovations that created the unintended consequences of killing social interaction altogether. They probably assumed that social nature of their MMOs would always exist and that communities would always coalesce around their creations. They were dead wrong and the sorry state of the MMORPG which has morphed into a massively multi-player single player game is the result.

There is an old saying that goes like this: the journey is more important than the destination.  In a good MMORPG both the journey and the destination are equally important.  Sadly, in most MMOs all that matters is the getting the player to the destination as fast as possible. The social aspect of MMOs was but one facet of the journey has been carelessly eliminated in favor of excessive pandering to achievers via combat-centric game play and a bloated reward structure.

Thanks to irresponsible developers, social interaction is almost non-existent today and seen more of a nuisance by both by players and developers. This is a real shame because the MMO industry has lost something really special in the process — something that single player videos games will never have: a sense of shared purpose where people need each other and have to come together to collaborate, cooperate and surmount challenges together. Social interaction — the only unique proposition of the MMORPG — is almost gone.

Even more tragic is that courtesy of the Blizzard MMO blueprint, the new MMO player of today will probably never know what it is like to experience the joys of friendship and camaraderie that once was possible. Without the cohesive and magnetic nature of social bonding it is no wonder that most WoW players lose interest and unsubscribe after content is rapidly consumed.

For too long we have had no major developer in the MMO development community that has championed the cause of social interaction and created a balanced approach to creating fantasy virtual worlds. The problem is that most MMO developers are hired from the video game community and since single player games are what they make, there are precious few people who have the skills to understand, appreciate, design and implement social interaction in a MMO. Besides, the average game designer was probably weaned on WoW which puts him at a disadvantage from the get go with regard to the appreciation of social interaction as a design goal.

I have said this many times and it still bears repeating: The friendships and social bonds that players experienced in EverQuest have never really been equaled by any other MMO since. The social aspect of EQ was the intangible and inscrutable cohesion that united all of the other aspects of a fantasy virtual world and made EQ so magical and memorable. No MMO developer has been able to create it and even worse none have bothered to try as they are too busy chasing the golden WoW dragon.

Despite the lack of social interaction, somehow millions of people convince themselves to play WoW each week and find some value in it. Perhaps the alone together aspect of WoW echoes the alone together phenomena of people fixated on their smart phones that you see so often these days in public spaces. If this is indeed the future of the fantasy virtual world, then it is a bleak and impersonal one that I want no part of.

For me, just being alone together is not enough. Shouldn’t fantasy virtual worlds aspire to something bigger and better than that?

Quite often, I get heartfelt letters from my readers lamenting the state of MMORPGs today. Many of them complain about the lack of immersion and the lack of social interaction. People who crave social interdependence within a MMORPG are out there and they are just waiting to return to the genre once something worthy shows up.

Even the MMO press which is in decline is coming around and starting to ponder the lack of social interaction in this genre. It’s really gratifying to see that there are people out there that are deeply concerned about the terrible curse that has befallen this genre . It gives me hope that perhaps some day, a new MMO developer will arrive on the scene that will restore the need for social interaction to its rightful place and not take it for granted like Blizzard and its counterfeiters have.

-Wolfshead

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