WoW: The Battle for the Future of Azeroth

Warcraft1Many people who play WoW these days simply ignore the official Blizzard forums. Unfortunately the forums are usually seething with bitterness and hostility. Too often those posters indulge in the “forum” meta game of one-upmanship. However,  from time to time there are moments of poetic greatness on the official WoW forums. Last week a gem of a post by Calian of the Norgannon server caught my eye with a well-written, thought provoking history of the state of Blizzard’s MMO.

It’s rather long but it’s well worth the read. I do disagree with him on some minor points such as casuals being universally happy about being able to get epics via the PVP system. I would counter that not all casuals like to PVP. Many casuals are just happy soloing, grouping and leveling alts. Other casuals just happen to be time-starved PVE’ers and raiders at heart.

I do think that the great PVE vs PVP debate has left many players falling through the cracks.  One example is role-players, where is the content for these folks? Heck, where are the epics for RP’ers? Where do they fit in if all in the grand scheme of things at Blizzard? Blizzard has practically ignored role-players in a so-called MMORPG despite the fact that in a recent interview with PC Zone magazine Jeff Kaplan acknowledged that role-players do in fact exist.Although Calian identified some of the big problems in WoW today, he was curiously short on solutions. Regardless, it’s a very good read:

After an illuminating account of the history of WoW the MMO, he basically he comes to the conclusion that the two main groups in WoW (casual and hardcore players) exist in a symbiotic relationship –even though they seemingly despise each other.

What players do not understand is that they are inextricably linked to one another: the hard core and the casual.For the casual, the hard core player (believe it or not) has served as your WoW billboard for more then 3 years now. It is by their accomplishments that we have measured our own success in game, time and time again. At one point or another, you’ve seen some player with a new item and thought, “I want that” or’ “That looks REALLY cool”. These players have served as a driving force for interest in this game and the hopes to achieve ones goals. One needs milestones and heroes to look to for inspiration when founding our own dreams of success.

For the hard core, there is no raiding; there is no “hard core” without the casual. One can only inform their significant other, room mate, or mother of the fact that they have laid some “uber pwnage” on a boss so many times before your self lauded praise falls on deaf ears.

And what is the cause of this rift between casual and hardcore players? He describes it as symptoms of “invalidation”. Both groups feel invalidated by the way Blizzard treats the other group. Raiders resent casuals that gain access to epic gear from PVP. Casuals resent raiders that have access to epic gear that results from Blizzard spending a disproportionate amount of resources on creating raiding content for a small minority of the player-base.

I think what is really going on here is that players are confused as to what MMO they are playing and where Blizzard is taking them. WoW was originally created as a PVE based MMO. Back in good old vanilla WoW, most aspects of the game were cohesive and worked well with each other. You could solo and learn your class, eventually you’d start grouping to complete quests. Then you’d progress to instances to learn more group dynamics. Ultimately to advance your character even further and experience high end content (Onyxia, Molten Core, etc), you’d need to join a good guild.

All the while on PVP servers, Alliance players would assault Tarren Mill and then Horde players would in turn assault Southshore. No bribes, incentives or rewards were needed back in those days to get people to engage in “war” between the Alliance and the Horde. People engaged in PVP for one reason: it was fun.

Then Blizzard decided to create a whole new form of advancement within WoW: PVP Battlegrounds. A new form of advancement was created where players could battle each other and be rewarded with better gear (also known as “welfare epics”) that equalled what was available in instances and in raids. With the introduction of the Burning Crusade Blizzard expanded PVP into a Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome meets Gladiator experience called Arenas.

I believe the major problem today with WoW is that PVP has become reduced to a transactional system with so-called “honor” as it’s currency. PVP in a virtual world should be about being emotionally invested in your town, your race, your faction. Give us reasons to care about defending the Horde or the Alliance. Instead, PVP is emotionless and very mercenary in it’s approach. It’s all about the “me”, instead of the “we”. And that’s why it fails for me on every level. Clearly, PVP in WoW was an after thought that was ineptly attached to a PVE centric game.

In WoW, PVP is a literally a virtual world within a virtual world. It has had a negligible impact on the real persistent world within WoW. There are very few dynamic events which lets players shape their world for the the short term or the long term. Ironforge will never burn to the ground, Stormwind will never fall. Nothing ever changes because everything is safely instanced. Like the Las Vegas commercial: what happens in Battlegrounds, stays in Battlegrounds.

Wasn’t WoW supposed to be about an ongoing “war” between the Alliance and the Horde? Wasn’t that conflict the very foundation of WoW lore and the reason for playing in the first place?  The way I see it, the conflict between the Alliance and the Horde is presented as an uncompelling, shallow, meaningless farce. Blizzard has utterly failed to make that conflict believable and engaging.

Yet despite the lack of real and meaningful major conflict in the actual game, we paradoxically have an epic conflict within the WoW community. The battle for the future of Azeroth is at stake. Casuals vs. hardcore and PVP’ers vs. PVE’ers. Who’s “world” of Warcraft is it really?

So why has Blizzard chosen this path? It gets worse. I believe it’s all about the money in the long run. Blizzard seems to believe that PVP is the best way to keep 10 million players entertained and subscribed. Since every opponent is controlled by a human with varying degrees of skill and equipment, the gaming experience and content will always be somewhat fresh and unpredictable. Creating content for PVP is cheap versus creating expensive labor intensive raiding/PVE content. Repurpose existing art assets such as gear and structures and presto — you have another arena or battleground. WoW Insider columnist V’Ming Chew nailed it when he said the following in his excellent article: Blood Sport: Is WoW turning into a PvP game?

This Arena columnist feels that Blizzard is now trying to retrofit the entire game – and our beloved classes – into an e-sport game. We are into the fourth year of WoW and Blizzard seems to be realizing that regular PvE content development will never keep pace with the rate at which player consume it. Other than high-end raids designed for the elite gamer, most of us have repeated leveling content to different extents with different toons. The PvP and e-sport route is probably more sustainable in terms of player interest – and revenue – in the long run. PvP encounters are never the same, after all.

In 2007, I published a blog article entitled Are MMO’s in Danger of Becoming A Spectator Sport? which talked about how casual gamers end up experiencing content vicariously through the achievements of hardcore players. Little did I know that Blizzard was seriously considering the e-sport model for WoW. In fact, Rob Pardo speaking at the 2008 GDC admitted the following:

“We didn’t design WoW up-front to be an e-sport game. We’re now trying to retrofit this in — I hope one day to implement some sort of spectator mode,” he responded to a question on a spectator mode for PvP.

With all this focus on PVP by Blizzard, it’s no wonder that millions of loyal subscribers who came to WoW for it’s PVE game are worried and uncertain about the future of this once great MMO. One has to wonder why long sought after features like player housing and guild halls (long promised by Blizzard) have been put on the backburner in favor of features that nobody ever requested like built-in voice chat and now WoW as an e-sport.

So in the final analysis, you have a MMO that doesn’t know what it’s trying to be or perhaps it’s trying to be all things to all people. Is it a PVE MMO or is it a PVP MMO? Both systems as currently implemented are not complimentary to each other and lack synergy and cohesion. And that is exactly what is causing the angst and division among the player-base today.

Lately, some players have been thinking that Blizzard needs to bite the bullet and split WoW into two games: PVE and PVP. (Note: a long thread on the official Blizzard forums entitled Idea: Split WoW Into 2 Games has been mysteriously deleted by Blizzard). Unless they can revamp PVP and correctly implement it into the PVE structure, I think this idea has merit and would be a good approach. Let PVP’ers and PVE’ers support their own games and let the chips (and dollars) fall where they may. Then at least Blizzard could adequately fund each game with resources from their respective games.

If Blizzard wants to change WoW from an MMO into an e-sport game then I will gladly cancel my subscription and find another more suitable MMO to play. It’s time for those in charge at Blizzard to come clean and tell their subscribers where they plan on taking this MMO. At Blizzcon in 2007, Mike Morhaime the President of Blizzard Entertainment bragged that the number of WoW subscribers exceeds that of many countries. It follows that as de facto leader of this virtual country and in light of the growing uncertainty of the player-base with regards to Blizzard’s increased focus on PVP, he needs to make a state of the union type address to reassure 10 million loyal subscribers world-wide and explain where this MMO is really headed.

-Wolfshead

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