WoW: Could Deathtards Be the Worst MMO Blunder of All Time?

by Wolfshead on May 12, 2008

Raphael: The Knight's DreamLast week, Blizzard finally released more information about the upcoming WoW expansion Wrath of the Lich King. We now have more details about their plans for the introduction of the first hero class called the Deathknight or Deathtards as I like to call them. It seems that anyone with a level 55 or greater character on a server will be able to create their own deathknight character. They’ll get plenty of perks too such as a new exclusive quest hub, 45 instant talent points, green and blue armor and a free mount. Previously, Blizzard had hinted at some kind of quest would be needed to be performed by an existing character in order to unlock a special deathknight slot. Unfortunately, those plans have been scrapped in favor of this new scheme.

Those that have read my previous article about hero classes in WoW will not be surprised that I’m appalled at this ill-conceived decision. Frankly, in it’s current incarnation hero classes are a stupid idea that puts many core MMO fundamentals at great risk with a host of unintended consequences. Just as the citizens of Troy were tricked by the Trojan Horse, many will be fooled and deceived by the hero class gimmick. Despite the fact that many people are predictably excited, I believe it could go down as one of the worst MMO blunders of all time.

There are so many things that are patently wrong about this decision that I barely know where to begin. Looking at the mechanics of becoming a deathknight and the power of the deathknight itself, it’s clear there is nothing “heroic” about either. Also, many have rightfully complained about how the lore of Warcraft will be adversely affected by their plans. Blizzard’s cavalier attitude of destroying their existing lore when it’s convenient is a given. That said, I’d like to examine the other reasons why I think their proposed implementation of hero classes is flawed and how it could impact the MMO world for many years to come.

From Hero To Zero: How Achievement and Status Are Being Eroded

One of the most core design fundamentatls of massively multi-player online games is that players are rewarded for achievements. In WoW and most MMO’s, the attainment of rewards equates to status. One can inspect a player and ascertain exactly what they accomplished in order to get the gear they are wearing. Blizzard’s recent problems with the disparity with which rewards are granted in PVP vs. PVE is one example of how this can go terribly wrong and create an acrimonious and divided player community. Players need to know that there is a sense of across the board fairness in the way rewards are allocated to players. 

So what are the status implications of playing a deathknight? The only thing another player can deduce is that you have must have a level 55 or higher character on their server. As we all know, achieving level 55 is very common in WoW these days and it is certainly doesn’t entail any acts of heroism to get. Achievements should not be made so trivial and easy so that they appear to be given away. If they are made too easy then they lose their intrinsic value and become common place. Quite simply, hero classes are all reward and no risk as they are handed on a silver platter to the player. This is a major deviation from the risk vs reward paradigm that has been a cornerstone of a successful MMO.

So what does having a level 55+ character on a server have to do with being able to create a deathknight hero class? Absolutely nothing. There is no correlation or cohesion between the two. Given the present things we know about hero classes, there is no logical reason whatsoever why having a 55+ character should equate one with being a hero. 

Only those players that have done great deeds and completed long epic quests should be able to unlock and play deathknights and be awarded the title of hero.  Status is truly a zero sum game. When everyone is a hero, nobody is a hero.

Dumbing Down WoW: It’s All About Money

Why then is Blizzard throwing risk vs. reward, achievement and status out the window and allowing practically every one of those 10 million subscribers to create an instant hero class at level 55+? Follow the money.

The truth is that Blizzard with all it’s ego and hubris has cheapened the whole notion of what it means to be a hero all because they want to sell more boxes of their expansion. Hero classes are a bullet point product “feature” —  a marketing vice-president’s dream. And Blizzard designers are only too willing to comply with their masters. With raiding and PVE being facing more emasculation, the veil has been finally been lifted on Blizzard true intentions — it’s all about creating a dumbed down MMO experience that appeals to the lowest common denominator out there. They are hoping that allowing you to create your very own hero class will entice you into buying the expansion. Fork over $50 and feel like Arthas! Never will so many have done so little for so much.

Population Explosion: Enter the Deathtard

You think hunters are bad now due to their reputation for being the easy class of choice of new and unskilled players? If Blizzard’s press releases are accurate about their subscribers there could literally be millions of deathtards running amok after the new expansion. Imagine countless scores of wannabe Arthas’s born into illegitimate hero-hood descending like a biblical plague upon Azeroth. Deathknights will be a dime a dozen. After the initial euphoria wears off they will most likely be mocked and derided by the WoW community due to their disproportionate representation in the WoW community.

Over representation of one class can be a major headache for a MMO and cause untold problems. This could be easily remedied if hero classes were only allowed to be unlocked by level 80 characters who performed a serious and difficult epic quest. Unlocking a hero class should be hard and non-trivial. Yet it doesn’t have to be as rigorous as the almost 5 months it took in 2003 for one player to unlocking the first Jedi class in Star Wars Galaxies.

The Erosion of the Importance of Leveling

Allowing a player to skip 55 levels of content is foolish and potentially disastrous to WoW. It has the effect of cheating players and their fellow players out of the entire WoW experience. Not only will the deathknight areas be overcrowded, low level areas will become all but empty as everyone levels up their high level deathknights. What kind of message is this sending out to players? It’s telling them that they consider their own game from 1-55 to be a boring grindfest. In fact Blizzard now tells players who cancel their accounts this very fact:

The Truth About WoW

It’s a startling admission that the real content begins at maximum level. Since WoW is a level based MMORPG, it seems counter-intuitive for them to offer ways to players to skip leveling. Leveling should be fun! Each level brings more gear choices, better stats, more talent points and ultimately a wider range of areas that the player is able to adventure in. As well, leveling in WoW has never been easier or faster. Would anyone really complain if the new deathknight class had to start at level one — just like the other classes?

In a few more years when more hero classes are offered players will be faced with the choice of choosing to level up a hero classes at level 55 (or greater) or leveling up characters from scratch. The choice will be obvious. They will chose the path of least resistance. This is setting a horrible precedent for WoW as players will start demanding some kind of fairness and they will demand that non-hero classes be given a break as well. Given Blizzard’s recent self-indulgent foray into e-sports, we may be seeing the end of leveling as a MMO mechanic in WoW. More evidence of this comes from the folks over at MMO-Champion uncovered a possible scheme that would allow a player to grant his friend free levels.

Other Concerns

Deathknights are going to cause a lot of alarm in the tank community — at least what’s left of it. Many paladins and warriors are planning on abandoning their characters altogether in favor of this new class which could create a shortage of warrior and paladin tanks. The enticement of easy PVP rewards has already caused many tanks to respec to non-tanking builds. This makes it even harder for other classes to get groups as the total pool of tanks is depleted.

According to Jeff Kaplan, deathknights will share the same gear pool as warriors which could be problematic. Also, an infusion of tanks will be confusing as it will be hard to determine who is skilled and who is not. At least if you see a level 55 warrior you know he’s played his class for 55 levels and probably has some skill and class knowledge.

Another problem is that players that choose to level up paladins and warriors from scratch will be penalized for doing so. If a guild finds that they need more tanks, why bother leveling up a pally or a warrior when you can instantly create a level 55 deathknight?

Tobold pointed out in a recent article that some players will probably create level 55 deathknights so they can serve as crafting mules. Most professions require that the player attain a certain level before they can train for higher levels in their craft.

One possible good thing that comes out of the deathnight is that it may help to alleviate the current tank shortage. Still, I firmly believe that most players that play deathnights will be more interesting in doing damage then tanking.

Conclusion

Despite the initial euphoria, the current implementation of hero classes is going to be a long term disaster for WoW. This decision has the potential to do great harm to this MMO for years to come as it creates a bad precedent that players need to be coddled and enticed into purchasing an expansion. It also forms unhealthy expectations among players by keeping them addicted to an environment of constant entitlement. Blizzard’s hero class scheme also threatens many core fundamental MMO design principles such as status, achievement, leveling, viability of low to mid level content, class balance and class diversity.  Blizzard’s plans have all the rationality of burning the furniture in your home to keep warm – very little reward for Blizzard and carry significant risk for the long term health of WoW.

As to the idea of hero classes, projoking a poster on the once great FoH forums summed it up best:

If it truly is all that Blizzard says it is and is a HERO then why should anybody play anything else? But if it is balanced and is within reason of all other classes then stop calling it a f*cking hero class. Its just a class.

With the deathknight hero class, Blizzard seems to be desperately trying to appease potential new subscribers and casual gamers by throwing them significant bones in return for continued subscriber loyalty. Blizzard is starting to be a victim of it’s own success as they feel they must make the game appeal to a wider demographic in a desperate attempt to to get more subscribers. Not only is this a bad trend for WoW, it’s going to spill over into other MMO’s that have rapacious investors that will want their company to emulate Blizzard/Activision’s financial success. Newsflash to Blizzard and other MMO companies: investors know nothing about game design.

To sum up, today at Blizzard we have sound MMO design and management being replaced by a bread and circuses mentality where the concept of earning achievements gets thrown to the wayside. Tempting short term gains have supplanted consideration for the discipline of long term thinking. Bribing your players with potentially destructive features is no way to run an MMO.

 -Wolfshead

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