WoW: How Blizzard is Cheating Explorers

treasure mapAre you an explorer? Do you play MMOs primarily to see new areas? Do you delight in discovering what may lie beyond the next valley or hill? If you play WoW and happen to be an explorer, Blizzard is cheating you and you may not even realize it. How are they doing this?  One demonstrable example is that they routinely employ a marketing philosophy aimed at retaining current subscribers that continually tantalizes players with information about major details about upcoming changes to the content and mechanics of WoW. This constant barrage of information posted on their website erodes the benefit of the element of surprise for the player who should be experiencing the MMO firsthand instead of vicariously through the eyes of the writers at the marketing department.

Exploration has always been a central theme in adventure games, RPGs and MMORPGs — that was until WoW came along. Even in MMO’s the relationship between achieving and exploring was symbiotic and healthy. Players who wanted to explore dangerous territory needed to become more powerful via leveling to do so; players who wanted to become more powerful needed to explore uncharted territory to gain that power. With Wow, the thrill of discovery which was crucial in motivating a large segment of gamers has been relegated to the sidelines in order to appease the dominant player culture: the achievers. So what is an explorer anyways?

What is an Explorer?

Before we go any further it would be helpful to understand the MMO definition of an “explorer”. Richard Bartle’s classic paper Players Who Suit MUDS gives us some good insight. Note: I will be using his achiever, explorer, killer and socializer terminology extensively in this article. Here is just one quote among many that explain the motivations of explorers:

Explorers are interested in having the game surprise them, i.e. in INTERACTING with the WORLD. It’s the sense of wonder which the virtual world imbues that they crave for; other players add depth to the game, but they aren’t essential components of it, except perhaps as sources of new areas to visit. Scoring points all the time is a worthless occupation, because it defies the very open-endedness that makes a world live and breathe.

Unfortunately that explanation may seem alien and unfamiliar to the current typical WoW subscriber. After all, who isn’t playing WoW to “pwn noobs” and get “phat purple epix”?

What Empty Towers Taught Me About Blizzard

Back when I first started playing WoW, what troubled me was how often I was let down by Blizzard when I explored structures. In the beginning human lands of Elwyn Forest I would often climb to the top of towers and find nothing there — no guards, no people, not even a scroll, treasure chest or book of lore on the ground. I soon realized that exploring most buildings was pointless and a waste of time as there were no secret entrances to dark mysterious caves at the bottom of the inn just behind the barrels. I guess it’s too much to ask that people who take the time and trouble to investigate their surroundings are rewarded. I can’t help feeling that Blizzard has created a MMO for idiots that need a flashing neon sign that says, “DANGEROUS DUNGEON HERE!” for all to see.

Reality Check: Exploration as a Means to an End

Given the casual demographic of WoW and the fact that it’s an achievement based MMO, many players look upon exploration as a necessary evil. Tim Howego in a recent article looks at exploration from the point of view of an achiever: it’s a means to an end, instead of an end in itself. Traditional MMO exploration is a way of gathering information which helps players to enjoy the game by becoming better achievers. He contends that due to players having a lack of time and the copious amounts of information in WoW, that as the game becomes more complex as per the “easy to learn, hard to master” mantra that players must become selective in how they obtain that information. Ultimately they end up turning to 3rd party sources such as the web or strategy guides. Here’s a quote from his article:

So why continue to build game worlds that require so much exploration? Exploration has become redundant for most players, because the only skill they need is information management. Explorers are a minority group, that games like WoW already fail to completely satisfy.

This is an excellent analysis of exploration from the point of view of a non-explorer player who thanks to Blizzard has become the dominant play style in WoW these days. But what of players who are inclined to be traditional explorers? Do they still have a place in MMO’s like WoW? Would WoW be a better MMO if more explorers were brought into the fold?

WoW’s Golden Age of Exploration

Back in the original WoW, it was common to explore areas of the world and find unique people and places. In game design parlance these are known as points of interest. Many of us while flying between flight paths were treated to surprises such as the mysterious airport above Ironforge, the ongoing battle between a dragon and dwarves in the Searing Gorge — all existing for the simple virtue of helping to make Azeroth come to life. Even the achievers and killers who play WoW must admit that these kinds of seemingly trivial things add meaning and depth to their play experience.

Explorers like to dig a bit deeper then others for their treasure. I wonder how many people who played the original WoW missed clicking on Morgan Ladimore’s grave in Duskwood? How many ever swam beneath the Thandol Span and clicked on the dwarf skeleton and got the waterlogged letter which starts probably the one of the most heart wrenching quests ever? Not many I wager. These days finding little gems in the world that exist only for their sheer intrinsic value is rare indeed. MMO assets are only valuable if they have a purpose such as being part of a quest line or story arc. Blizzard has embraced a design philosophy of utility that is aimed primarily at satisfying the achievers.

Enjoyment for Explorers Not Important

While the landscapes and settlements of Azeroth are startlingly beautiful and ripe for exploration they largely exist to provide a sense of context for their target audience: achievers and killers.

While Blizzard still manages to create some interesting content for explorers, they have managed to negate it by their incessant publication of content spoilers on their website and forums. By marketing and advertising content with such detail they are removing the sense of surprise and thrill of discovery for not only explorers but all players. It seems that Blizzard is wholly prepared to sacrifice the potential enjoyment of explorers so that achievers will feel compelled to keep subscribing.

For evidence of this, we have only to look to two recent news items found on the official WoW website in the past week few weeks.

Example One: Northrend Interactive Map

The first was the introduction of an interactive map of Northrend which is where the bulk of the new content for the upcoming expansion Wrath of the Lich King takes place. The player can view an overview of Northrend complete with maps of all of the major zones, towns and outposts. Links are provided in each map where even more information about the bestiary and level requirements is given to the player. Players don’t need obvious spoilers like this. They should be required to discover the areas themselves. So much for the thrill of discovery and the satisfaction of finding something by yourself.

Example Two: Pirate’s Day Event

The second example last week was the promotion of Pirate’s Day one day event in WoW. Blizzard leaves nothing to the imagination as they explain in detail every aspect of the festival. Here’s an excerpt from the description of the event:

First, talk to any pirate commoner to receive a costume to help you get into the spirit of Pirates’ Day. Once appropriately attired, head down to Booty Bay to join in the fun. There, look for Dread Captain Demeza and her crew, who have taken over the roof of the Booty Bay bank and auction house. By talking to Captain DeMeza, players become an honorary crew member and transform into a pirate of their race and gender for 12 hours. This costume buff may be clicked off but persists through combat, mounting, death, and so on.

Other highlights of the holiday include:

  • A large crowd of pirate revelers (“Dread Crew”) who dance, talk, eat, drink, laugh, and shoot fireworks. Ask Baron Revilgaz what he thinks of the visitors.
  • The Tauren First Mate Hapana and his giant South Seas assault parrot, Nyuni.
  • A trio of cannons and cannoneers who periodically fire out into the bay – at times, just barely missing the sails of the incoming transport. Those crazy corsairs.
  • Cap’n Slappy and Ol’ Chumbucket, two curiously-named pirates.

After reading this detailed description it seems rather pointless to even attend Pirate’s Day if you are an explorer. Nothing is left to chance as you are told who to speak to and what reward you will obtain in advance. Why would anyone want to attend the event after Blizzard has released spoiler information? Would you cheerfully attend a film if you were given spoilers about the plot? Must every detail in WoW be constantly promoted and advertised?

On a side note, the way this event is described leads me to believe that Blizzard is targeting a pre-teen to teen audience. I feel like I’m reading a travelers guide to Disneyworld where you are told when and where Mickey Mouse will be so you can get his autograph and pose for pictures. Blizzard should stop insulting the intelligence of it’s players. Yet this is to be expected from the company that created the first MMO for Dummies where players need to be guided from one area to the next via large yellow exclamation and question marks positioned over the heads of NPCs.

Given the fact that people today are pressed for time, live in culture of convenience and are just *gasp* plain lazy, it’s not surprising that Blizzard requires so little from it’s players by providing them with a constant trail of breadcrumbs. Sheer exploration for the fun of it seems like an anachronism in the fast paced world of busy WoW players furiously racing to the level cap.

A Long Established Pattern

Blizzard has been spilling the beans on future content updates, gear and events for years now. They happily reveal the storylines and plots of major events complete with detailed quest and loot info long before these events even take place. Even the outdoor undead invasions that were part of the release of the original Naxxaramas were published well in advance. Events in WoW are simply not permitted to just happen — they must be fully promoted and discussed for weeks if not months before they actually take place. The element of surprise has all but vanished in Azeroth with no regard to the detrimental impact it will have on explorers. Anything to keep the salivating achievers subscribing

Trickle Down Design Philosophy

While the landscapes and settlements of Azeroth are startlingly beautiful and ripe for exploration they largely exist to provide a sense of context for their target audience: achievers and killers. Blizzard has never treated explorers with parity. Everything in WoW serves to reinforce the two dominant in-game activities: PVE raiding (achievers) and PVP (killers). How did it get this way? The current direction of WoW is largely the result of the personal preferences and resumes of the two designers in charge of these areas: Jeffrey Kaplan and Tom Chilton.

Jeffrey Kaplan who one of the two lead designers is in charge of the the ultimate form of achievement: raiding. He was the guildleader of one of the most notorious EverQuest guilds: Legacy of Steel. His guild was full of powergamers and min-maxers. Legacy of Steel became famous for many world firsts in EverQuest and epitomized the classic achiever paradigm.

On the other hand you have fellow lead designer Tom Chilton who is the architect of the WoW PVP system. His background was in Ultima Online expansions where he was in charge of PVP content. As a player, he was also a hardcore PVPer.

Here we have two lead designers that have extensive backgrounds in representing achievers and killers respectively. Where then are the lead designers in charge of exploration and socialization? Where is the equivalent of Raph Koster at Blizzard? The problem is that they don’t exist at Blizzard or are so marginalized that they have no power in the direction of WoW.  One wonders if Kaplan and Chilton have even heard of Richard Bartle or if they are aware of Bartle’s classifications? Perhaps they just don’t care.

It’s also entirely possible that they have consciously crafted a MMO that has utterly deemphasized the explorer/socializer (world) archetypes in favor of the achiever/killer (game) one. In the end, it may be that the game has won out over the world at the hallowed halls of the Blizzard headquarters.

Comparative Reward Structures: Achievers vs. Explorers

In order to understand why explorers are being shortchanged, it’s useful to understand that achievers and explorers are rewarded differently. Achievers are more likely to evaluate an activity or endeavor by the tangible gain that they can accrue in the way of better loot or more money. Achievers love to deconstruct games in order to get the maximum return on their investment. Achievers are easy to satisfy as you can keep creating better loot for them to desire which keeps them subscribing.

Explorers are not motivated as much by material possessions in game such as gear or money. Instead it’s the thrill of discovery that lies ahead on the horizon that keeps them motivated. Explorers also like to feel they are part of a living breathing world which conversely is not that important to achievers. As long as there are parts of the game world that have not been discovered and personally experienced by the player they will continue to subscribe. One of the problems with creating content for explorers is that content at any given time is finite. Technically speaking an explorer can exhaust content and become bored.

At first glance it would seem that raiding would be a way to keep both achievers and explorers happy as both of them get what they want: more gear and more exploration (new dungeons, new bosses). Raiding is an activity that is a classic example of the law of diminishing returns — a great effort for meager rewards. The difference is that an achiever will keep farming a dungeon over and over again in order to loot a piece of desired gear but an explorer will have long become bored of that dungeon and will be seeking new areas to explore and experience.

A Culture of Incentivization

Blizzard has created a MMO and a corresponding player culture that is almost entirely incentivized — naturally this favors achievers. Everything in WoW has a reward associated with it. The world is so reward driven that most players will only participate in something if there is some kind of benefit to be obtained. Wow players don’t seem interested in NPCs that don’t have question marks over their heads. Players are like worker bees only interested in flowers that can produce honey. Utility and gain are the order of the day. Blizzard has trained us well.

Ironically even explorers will be rewarded by visiting all areas in a map via the new Player Achievement System. So now we’ll have a situation where more achievers engage in exploration not for exploration’s sake but in order to achieve more. I believe this will manifest itself in exploration for all the wrong reasons and will do nothing to attract more explorers to WoW.

Why Most of the Explorers Have Left

One of the main reasons that most explorers have left WoW is due to the nature of finite outdoor and indoor content. Explorers are usually the first in and the first out. Tim Howego calls them “early adopters”. They are among the first to “discover” a new MMO and the first to depart when there is nothing left to explore. I believe this also explains why MMOs have more player diversity in their first few years. New players are naturally curious and eventually as the true nature of the MMO becomes evident those Bartle archetypes who don’t find that MMO to their liking just leave. Also this is true when you look at WoW when it’s punctuated by the release of expansions — people unsubscribe as the new content dries up and resubscribe when expansions are released.

In the case of WoW which caters exclusively to the achiever mentality, the scarcity of non-achiever content explains why there aren’t as many explorers or socializers still playing. As more and more explorers leave WoW, there is less concern and demand for more content that is explorer friendly. The remaining play styles end up becoming dominant and Blizzard caters to them with more specificity.

The Impact on Content

Tim Howego points out that catering to achievers has even affected the linearity of current dungeon design:

Open-ended exploration has been removed from a lot of content aimed solely at “achievers” – players primarily motivated by advancement and competition. For examples, examine the evolution of dungeon content. Some of the early dungeons featured a lot of open-ended mazes, with little structure as to how a group should progress through them – Blackrock Depths is a good example. Recent additions have tended to be much more linear: Exploration is bounded to learning how to kill individual enemies within the dungeon, rather than trying to find what needs to be killed.

Of course this new philosophy of streamlined dungeon design has been created to appeal to casual gamers with limited amounts of time. Exploration, map making and even memorizing dungeon layouts are skills that are no longer needed. One never feels lost in a new WoW dungeon; just hop on the car and enjoy the merry ride on rails to the boss. I can’t help but feeling that these instances have been developed for younger audience due to their child-like simplicity. We’ve come a long way from the dungeon masterpieces of yore found in MMOs like EverQuest: Upper and Lower Guk, Solusek’s Eye, Permafrost and Nagafen’s Lair just to name a few.

Why We Need More Explorers

According to Richard Bartle’s article Players Who Suit MUDS, players who play MUDS (the precursor to MMOs) can be broken down into 4 motivations: achievers, explorers, killers and socializers. In fact if you take the Bartle Test you will soon see that most players have varying amounts of each of the 4 archetypes as part of their play style. Bartle makes the case that for a MUD to be balanced there has to be recognition of each of the 4 archetypes. Here are a few excerpts with regard to balance from his paper:

Making sure that a game doesn’t veer off in the wrong direction and lose players can be difficult; administrators need to maintain a balanced relationship between the different types of player, so as to guarantee their MUD’s “feel”. Note that I am not advocating any particular form of equilibrium: it is up to the game administrators themselves to decide what atmosphere they want their MUD to have, and thus define the point at which it is “balanced”…

A stable MUD is one in which the four principal styles of player are in equilibrium. This doesn’t imply that there are the same number of players exhibiting each style; rather, it means that over time the proportion of players for each style remains roughly constant, so that the balance between the the various types remains the same.

Without a doubt, the current state of WoW has both achievers and killers as the de facto dominant play styles.  In my opinion this imbalance has harmed their MMO on a whole and degraded the play experience by creating a homogenized player base where everyone shares the same goals and behaves similarly. When everyone in your MMO has either one of two motivations for their involvement it lends itself to promoting a bland and uninteresting playerbase that lacks synergy and depth that is vital for virtual worlds to thrive.

Conclusion

Even if you are a hardcore achiever or killer, you need to realize that your MMO experience is enriched by the presence of explorers and socializers. Sadly, there is no evidence to suggest that Blizzard even cares about having any semblance of balance in the player archetypes that choose to play their MMO.

Sure it’s more of a challenge to design and implement content and mechanics that support exploration and socialization within MMOs. Still, that’s no excuse for a company that made $520 in profits from WoW last year. Its also worth noting that those kinds of virtual world elements are considered  dubious “experimentation” by a video game industry that is becoming more risk adverse. As well, catering to achievers and killers is far easier to accomplish as they rely on more traditional game mechanics that are easier to design and implement. Let’s be honest, Blizzard really does not have the genuine desire to create a cohesive virtual world. In my opinion, they are really only interested in making a game with a few “world” trappings.

If this article has but one point to make it’s this: Blizzard has alienated and forgotten explorers in its effort to pander to the new breed of achievement addicted gamers. Explorers usually don’t run large guilds or have flashy websites. Nor do they dominate the discourse on the official WoW forums. Despite the occasional thread asking for more support, non-achiever types are routinely ignored by Blizzard. While I’m afraid it’s too late for Blizzard to change the MMO mono-culture they have created with WoW, I believe there is hope that future MMOs will rise to the challenge. Eventually the bulk of Blizzard’s subscribers will grow up, discard their WoW soothers and realize that virtual worlds have the potential to be so much more.

-Wolfshead

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