After years of speculation, we finally have the official smoking gun as to why World of Warcraft was dumbed down with the release of the Cataclysm expansion. They did this to make their MMORPG more accessible beyond the core demographic which they established with the release of WoW in 2004.
It wasn’t done for the integrity of their MMORPG or to enhance the play experience of their existing customers. It was done simply to make more money.
Blizzard truly believed that the more accessible a game is, the bigger demographic it can attract which translates to higher profits. Unfortunately for them, they got too greedy, didn’t know where to stop, and alienated their core base of fans.
In an interview with Seth Schiesel of the New York Times hosted by the industry cheerleaders at Venturebeat, former Blizzard CEO essentially admitted that the social nature of MMOs — the thing that made it unique among all other video game genres — was collateral damage in order to make more profits.
Here’s a transcript of Morhaime frank admission from the video:
“I would also observe that as World of Warcraft evolved over the years, it actually kind of became less social because in an effort to achieve more accessibility, we kind of removed some of the reasons why you needed to play with the same group of people over and over…”
“I think it takes away some of the reasons for some people of why they play, and why they might want to continue playing.”
This is a shocking revelation from Mike. Although I don’t agree with him on much of anything, I have to respect him for being honest enough to speak the truth.
Accessibility was Baked into WoW’s DNA
When WoW was released in 2004 to great critical acclaim and massive public acceptance, it was clear from the outset that WoW was far more accessible than it’s hardcore father: EverQuest. I recall interviews given by ex-Blizzard VP Rob Pardo where he stated many times that with WoW they were striving to make a more accessible version of EverQuest.
Blizzard’s magic formula was this: they would get the idea for a new video game from a great hardcore video game, distill it down to its key mechanics, simplify the interface, polish the hell out of it and make it easy to learn and hard to master. This is precisely what they did by transmuting EverQuest experience into World of Warcraft.
In WoW it was possible to solo all the way to the level cap; in EverQuest it was pretty much impossible to achieve this solo. WoW created a highly polished newbie experience that gently introduced MMORPG mechanics to the player; EverQuest just threw you out into the world with a rusty sword and no quests (as breadcrumbs) and left you to fend for yourself.
So the idea that somehow WoW was not accessible enough and needed to be even more accessible to grow the demographic is patently false. The barriers to entry were already so pitifully low that Jeff Kaplan remarked that his mother had a cleric that played and raided in WoW regularly.
Various ex-WoW devs like Greg “Ghostcrawler” Street have lamented Blizzard’s unhealthy fixation on accessibility:
Different approaches work for different products, and I don’t want to second guess the WoW team. Let’s just say that after working on Age of Empires and World of Warcraft for a total of 16 years, it’s really refreshing to work on a game where I don’t have to worry whether someone’s grandmother can pick it up or not.
Accessibility is code for “we want more profits” and we don’t care if we have to water down the gameplay to get them.
The Genesis of the Erosion of WoW
When Blizzard was sold to Activision in 2008, a fundamental shift in the design philosophy of WoW happened. Suddenly, placating investors was more important that Blizzard’s commitment to making the very best games and releasing the game when it was ready.
For many years, Blizzard enjoyed a sterling reputation in the video game industry and gained a cult following for releasing ultra high quality games. This is because Blizzard was both a developer and their own publisher and they could release games when they — not some money grubbing publisher — felt they were ready to be released. This unique kind of company is almost unheard of the industry. Only a few other companies like Nintendo have the ability to operate this way.
I discussed the uniqueness of Blizzard many years ago in the following article:
In that article, I quoted industry veteran Scott Cuthbertson from his book: The Battle for Azeroth: Adventure, Alliance, And Addiction Insights into the World of Warcraft:
Publishers and developers are the main players in the modern game industry. Their relationship is a pretty simple formula at least on paper: Developers make the game; they design it, they program it, make the art and write the words. Publishers pay to have the game made, packaged, marketed and shipped to your local retail store. Depending on your point of view, Developers are poor souls desperately seeking funding to craft their creative vision, while Publishers are large corporations with money to fund said poor Developers. (I’ll leave it to you to figure out which fish gets eaten in this relationship, but here’s a hint: it isn’t the one with the big bank account.)
At some point in the development history of WoW — most likely before the release of the Cataclysm expansion and after Blizzard was sold to Activision — the goal of WoW’s designers changed and Blizzard lost its autonomy. Like Saruman the White who was eventually corrupted by the Dark Lord Sauron, Blizzard became corrupted by Activision.
Even though Activision promised to allow Blizzard to operate at an arms length which means they would behave like separate companies and Activision would not be allowed to meddle in Blizzard’s design decisions, eventually Activision and the expectations of their shareholders began to exert more control over the creative process at Blizzard.
When this happened, the design mantra of accessibility became the dominant design philosophy. The theory was to make WoW easier to lower barriers to entry. However, when you make things easier to attract people on the periphery of the typical gamer demographic — younger and older games and people with less skill — you erode the challenge which alienates the majority of your established players from casual to hardcore.
Minecraft’s Success Contradicted Blizzard’s New Philosophy
A few years after Blizzard started dumbing down WoW, the Minecraft juggernaut conquered the world and to this day has sold a staggering 176 million copies and counting.
But Minecraft took the exact opposite approach WoW. Instead of insulting the intelligence of new players by offering a childishly easy amusement park game on rails, it challenged players with harsh and unforgiving sandbox world. There was no easy newbie area with quests acting as breadcrumbs. Minecraft was a brutal world of survival where you could be killed if you didn’t quickly build a safe location to protect yourself from monsters who would appear when the sun set. If you happened to die, your items would be lost forever if you didn’t retrieve them where you died within 5 minutes.
In Minecraft hardcore mode, there is permadeath. There is no equivalent hardcore mode in WoW. Blizzard never bothered to pause and learn anything from the design of Minecraft. Stubbornly, they continued to cling to the notion that making WoW easier to play was the answer to widen WoW’s demographic and make more money.
I will never forget one day observing primary school children playing Minecraft and thinking that this game was more hardcore than World of Warcraft. If these kids could survive and thrive in the hostile and unforgiving world of Minecraft, playing WoW would be a breeze for them.
The Dumbing Down of WoW
Once Blizzard was sold to Activision by Vivendi, it became increasingly easier to defeat monsters in WoW and many quality of life mechanics and streamlining of features started to occur. Eventually WoW became so easy to play that it became much like shooting fish in a barrel and was unsatisfying to regular players. Even lawyer and uber guildleader turned WoW designer Ion Hazzikostas lamented that the WoW was too easy:
It’s way too easy. It’s not even about difficulty; it’s about pacing. It’s something that frankly we’ve neglected a little bit over the years. There’s been a lot of trickle down effects from balance changes made. Things that used to be talents we now bake in as passives. Buff abilities. We moved things that used to be high level abilities down to make them available at level 10. The end result is that if you run around your basically invincible — even without heirlooms. Heirlooms are a whole other level of degeneracy. But if you’re doing a level 3 quest right now on a new character, make a hunter, make a night elf hunter and go run around Teldrasill — you’re basically one and two shotting things. You are killing things before they can even engage with you. And the amount of time you are spending fighting versus the amount of time you are spending running around to your next objective is completely out of whack.
Perhaps the biggest tragedy of all, was the fact that the unique value proposition — it’s social and cooperative aspect — became almost non-existent because of misguided mechanics like the group and raid finder.
Players had no need to talk to other players because they could easily level to the max level via soloing and if they wanted to upgrade their gear in dungeons and raids, they could do so by using the Looking for Group and eventually the Raid Finder feature. It was at that point that the ability to socialize with other players had no worth. Taking in a group and even role-playing was seen as an impediment to completing the dungeon as fast as possible.
WoW became less of a social shared experience and instead was reduced to a transactional experience where players existed primarily to obtain more power by amassing better gear and more gold. Of course, the devs were only too happy to oblige and the result is what you see in WoW retail even to this day: an orgy of progression, acquisition, and achievement. Other time-tested RPG notions like role-playing were cast aside and completely ignored.
The last straw that broke the camel’s back was that players would be playing and see players from other servers. So each server was not allowed to develop its own identity and culture. Why bother to make a friend because chances are that person was from another server and you’d most likely never see him again.
In war, this called the new soldier syndrome. Nobody wants to know the name of a new soldier and invest emotionally in that solider because chances are they will be dying soon anyway and they would have to grieve them.
With the incentive to be polite and diplomatic taken away by the removal of features which contribute to social cohesion, many WoW players developed anti-social and disruptive tendencies. Combine this with the anonymity of the Internet and the WoW community became plagued by immature and toxic players. Instead of bringing people together, WoW brought out the worst in people with little to no accountability.
As the need for challenge went away, and the reason for socialization which is considered by many inherently enjoyable by-product also went away; WoW essentially became a single player MMO. It was then Blizzard became heavily obsessed with delivering narratives and story telling to hide the inherent design flaws of WoW. In past MMOs, lore and narrative were always incidental to the experiences and memories players would create for themselves.
The WoW “B” Team Theory
Over the years, when evaluating WoW, many critics have placed WoW’s incremental demise at the feet of the infamous WoW “B” Team.
I believe another reason that WoW was allowed to drift into an anti-social easy mode was that many of the original WoW developers — the WoW “A” Team — such as Rob Pardo, Chris Metzen, Alex Afrasiabi and Jeff Kaplan were no longer working on WoW and had transferred to the Titan MMO project. This left the less experienced and less talented WoW “B” Team in charge.
The WoW “A” team created vanilla WoW. They understood and valued the social cohesion and class interdependency that was integral to a MMORPG like WoW. I believe most of them, perhaps Kaplan excepted, would never have gone along with broadening the demographic at the expense of eroding challenge. The competent and surefooted “A” team would have been less likely to be bullied into watering down WoW by Morhaime and others in the executive team sympathetic to Activision.
Don’t expect to win the Super Bowl when you put your second string talent on the field.
Since the release of the WoW Cataclysm expansion that dumbed down gameplay across the board, many people including yours truly, have painstakingly pointed out the inherent conflict of keeping your regular audience happy at the expense of increasing the demographics to increase profits and to reduce subscriber churn. Of course, we were all ignored. Yet when former CEO of Blizzard Mike Morhaime says the exact same thing the industry takes note and he is hailed as some kind of genius. Truth is still truth no matter who utters it.
It feels good to finally be vindicated — by Mike Morhaime no less — after all these years.
While I appreciate Mike’s honesty, he was there while this happened. He signed off on all of this. He signed off on the sale to Activision which made him filthy rich in the process. He knew full well that Activision and their investors would be expecting a big return on their investment and that Blizzard would have to keep growing their demographic and that Activision wouldn’t care about the long term damage that this would do to the integrity of WoW.
Don’t kid yourself. Morhaime is not stupid. He knew what was going on, but he let it happen nonetheless.
Today, WoW retail is essentially a single-player video game played with other single players in a shared but barely virtual world. Under Morhaime’s leadership, Blizzard took an amazingly unique video game genre that valued socialization and cooperation and trashed it all for profits.
The poetic justice in all of this is that after Blizzard attempted this strategy they ended up alienating their core demographic and proceeded to lose million of subscribers each year until they reluctantly released WoW Classic. But until now, Blizzard was always too proud to admit this rookie mistake.
The numbers don’t lie. Your fans saw right through your smoke and mirrors. Greed and stupidity are not a winning formula. Drunk on accolades and hubris, you thought the laws of economics didn’t apply to you. You can’t have your cake and eat it Blizzard.
Even worse, is that Blizzard is no longer that shining city on the video game hill that players look up to with devotion, awe and wonder anymore.
In recent years since Morhaime’s departure, under the helm of J. Allen Brack, Blizzard is a company riddled with missteps, mediocrity and ineptitude that has even invoked the ire of politicians from both parties. The oafish Irvine giant is now just another run of the mill entertainment corporation that has succumbed to soulless banality of corporatism, shareholders, and fads like wokeness.
If there is a silver lining in all of this, it is that Morhaime’s admission will be a cautionary tale that video game studios can learn from to avoid making colossal mistakes like this in the future. Take care of your core audience/customers/players. Don’t throw them under the buss.
The destruction of WoW’s unique value proposition — its social experience — was first of many of Morhaime’s bad decisions that came home to roost at Blizzard Entertainment. Expect more chickens coming home to roost after Blizzard’s proven successful male development culture is fully emasculated/feminized and absorbed into the Borg Collective. Get woke, go broke.