Video: Why WoW Developer Kris Kaleiki Left Blizzard

Blizzard employees come and go. When they leave most of them are very secretive about their reasons for leaving and you get the typical platitudes about how working at Blizzard is a life changing experience ™ and how everyone is so awesome ™ — blah blah blah.

Frankness is not something ex-Blizzard employees are noted for. Most just leave quietly and skulk off into the darkness without a word. But ex-Blizzard World of Warcraft 13-year developer Kris Kaleiki is different. He just posted a video explaining why he left the Blizzard 2 Team which is responsible for WoW.

Apart from Kris’s inspiring personal story on how he got hired at Blizzard, he relates to the viewer what is wrong with the state of WoW. For me, this is the part of the video that is instructional from a game design perspective.

Some quick takeaways from the video:

  • The release of WoW classic made him realize how broken the state of WoW retail is as it provided a stark contrast from what WoW once was to what Wow currently is.
  • WoW’s shift from being a player focused fantasy virtual world to being a narrative driven Game of Thrones episodic NPC focused virtual world where the players are incidental.
  • The erosion of the importance of the WoW guild and the lack of social cohesion and interdependence that results because of LFG and LFR mechanics.
  • The focus on cinematics have sucked up all the development oxygen at Blizzard.
  • Blizzard gave in far too much to players who are always demanding independence and destroyed social cohesion in the process.
  • Too much time focused on progression systems but no time focused on social mechanics that only a virtual world (MMORPG) can provide
  • The lack of focus on player competition/drama/conflict in WoW retail compared to WoW Classic.
  • No clear vision about what WoW is from management

Kris Kaleiki’s shockingly honest video is an affirmation of all the things I have been preaching about for 15 years on this website.

The big question is: how and why did all these things change?

I believe that this happened for a few reasons:

The first is that Blizzard became obsessed with growth and figured they could broaden the WoW demographic by luring in players on the periphery: Xbox kids, etc. I recall that Jeff Kaplan introduced achievements at the time of Wrath of the Lich King with no other rationale other than it was popular in XBox Live. Achievements were Kaplan’s parting gift to WoW players. Instead of evaluating their design legitimacy he just crudely copied them into WoW. Perhaps Kaplan was running out of ideas and got lazy and needed to come up with a gimmick to impress management. Maybe he had a kid and saw his kid playing XBox Live. Who really knows?

The second reason is that all of WoW’s top developers who were the impetus for WoW’s original vision were no longer able to safeguard the original vision of WoW and were transferred to the ill-fated $50 million dollar failure called Project Titan. This left the less talented WoW “B” team to take over the development of WoW. This proved to be a disaster.

The third reason is the Wrathgate cinematic which was unveiled at a certain point in the player’s journey in the Wrath expansion. This proved to be tremendously popular and Blizzard designers — who saw themselves as the next George Lucas and Steven Spielberg — decided to create more of these for future WoW expansions without thinking of the unintended consequences of how designer scripted narratives and storylines would overwhelm the emergent narratives created by players.

The Wrathgate cinematic was inspired by a 6-minute WoW machinima short called Return.

Note: the person responsible for creating this was eventually hired and is now creating cinematics for WoW.

Conclusion

Anyone who has played both WoW Classic and WoW retail knows that the Wow of 2004 is vastly different from the WoW of 2020. I think that Kris Kaleiki has had enough. The fact that he left and has no job lined up tells me that he feels more discouraged and disillusioned by the state of WoW and Blizzard than he is letting on.

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Kris ends his video by talking about his love for virtual worlds. He knows the potential of this genre and he’s not giving up. Kris explains how he wants to be a part of the next big virtual world but he no longer believes that Blizzard is interested virtual worlds.

It takes a lot of courage to leave a company that you’ve been with for 13 years. People don’t make big decisions like this lightly.

This really begs the question: why isn’t Blizzard making another virtual world that their employees can aspire to be a part of, just like Kris aspired to be a part of Blizzard 13 years ago when he was just a player?

My thesis is that Blizzard never really cared about virtual worlds. It’s a well documented fact that Blizzard surveys its staff and asks them what game they would like to make next. Back in 1999, EverQuest the first 3D fantasy MMORPG was all the rage and many at Blizzard were playing it so they chose to make their own MMORPG.

The sobering reality is that Blizzard showed no particular love for virtual worlds or their vast potential. I believe they never truly understood the genre. To Rob Pardo and the Blizzard team, it was popular at the time and they wanted to jump on the bandwagon. Whatever is popular in video game circles, Blizzard will copy and make it their own. The truth is that deep down, Blizzard is unoriginal and the failure of Project Titan proves this beyond a shadow of a doubt.

If Blizzard was wise, they would lure Kris back and start to work on a new virtual world or at the very least fire the person in charge of WoW and put him in charge. But the Blizzard of 2020 is not wise. Instead, they are run by a band of smug, incompetent, virtue signaling fools who could care less about virtual worlds.

The only thing I know for sure, is that the next big virtual world will not be coming from Blizzard.

― Wolfshead