WoW Factor: This time will not be different

Or at least, not in the way that matters

The stars are over Dun Morogh.

The other day, I got a nasty email from a World of Warcraft fan. This is not inherently unusual; it happens a couple of times a month, I’d say. And it was almost certainly the exact rant you’re imagining just from that premise, full of a very predictable apologia for how it’s Actually Very Good that Blizzard has made obvious unforced errors and so forth. This one thankfully did not include the once-standard “I bet you don’t even raid” syllogism, which is kind of the video game equivalent of “bro do you even lift” and equally silly.

But it did include one thing that stuck in my mind because it recited the idea that we’re somehow in the “third era” of WoW development and therefore obviously I couldn’t wrap my feeble brain around that concept. And he (it’s always a he) was kind of right insofar as I definitely am not buying that “third era” nonsense. I even wrote a whole column about that. And that makes for as good an intro as any for why I’m not really all that hyped for BlizzCon and definitely not taking a couple days off or whipping up BlizzCon Bingo cards any more.

Because I’ve heard this story before.

Let’s all take a trip back to the waning days of Wrath of the Lich King, something that is ironically very appropriate right now. There were previews of Cataclysm, and while there were some things giving people pause – stuff like the overhaul of talents, for example – for the most part the energy was still high. We, as players, were excited for the next expansion. Outside of the tryhard elitists, the game had been getting better over time and bringing in new people. It’s not like the expansion was just going to be bad, right?

Oh, yes, fool me once, shame on you. But the negative reception also meant that we got used to something that would become very familiar over the following years, the refrain from Blizzard that sure it had made some mistakes this time, but that was because of trying so darn hard and just making a misstep. This time, things will be different.

By my math, Blizzard has been telling me that from now on, things are going to be different at least once a year for the past 12 years. And at first, it definitely sounds plausible. But increasingly it doesn’t even sound like a positive promise.

It’d be wrong to pretend that Mists of Pandaria wasn’t an improvement over Cataclysm. Sure, it had some boneheaded and just plain bad ideas, but it was different. But we were also promised that things would be different moving into Warlords of Draenor. Too many daily quests? We hear you. Too many skills? We hear you. Stats too high? We hear you.

Warlords of Draenor sure was different!

Zeno's prepatch.

“Different” sounds a lot like “better.” I would definitely agree with anyone who said that Pandaria’s daily quest structure was kind of overloaded. It could use some revision. But Blizzard doesn’t like to revise things, and as I’ve written about before, once the game decided that it could completely rip out talents altogether and replace them with something else there was nothing so sacred that you couldn’t tear it from the game’s structure. The game has spent the better part of a decade now seemingly designed by the ethos of a petulant child, ripping out anything that gets any pushback and throwing it in the garbage.

It’s led to a game that feels like being built upon pillars of sand would be a step up in sturdiness. And it’s also led to a constant series of promises that this time, the designers get it. We understand why you’re upset. We get your reaction.

And it’s led to interviews that are, quite frankly, wildly at odds with reality.

Don’t believe me? Take a gander here. It includes the truly baffling line claiming that WoW is not static but a living world. This is just… maddeningly out of touch to me. It makes sense only if you have never played another MMO with any sort of ongoing evolution because WoW has one of the most static worlds possible, and the structure of the game even enforces it. The last time I remember something other than a late-patch “oh, unlock a new cosmetic option” quest bringing me back outside of the expansion’s content island or a capital city was Legion.

The problem of “players have no reason to go anywhere but capital cities and the latest zones” has existed since the first two expansions, and Blizzard has been promising that it’ll give you reasons to exist in the open world since then. It never has come close to figuring out even a basic solution to that problem. It has basically just made it easier to live in those two spots and never deviate. That’s it. Full stop.

It’s a constant string. Things will be different now. But the one thing that is constant is that promise and the refusal to listen to what players are saying they want. How many times have we heard that you don’t really want deterministic gear? Heck, how many times were players told that WoW Classic is better without the dungeon finder and you don’t want it and the community is happy without it?

And that lasted right up until there were material consequences that made it clear no, people had wanted this. Too little, too late, but always “this time it will be different.”

This sounds normal, sure.

While I think Andy’s analysis of total WoW subscribers the other day was too optimistic (and I say this after talking with him about it, lest you think otherwise), I think it was informative just the same. I don’t think the game has 4 million subscribers, but that was – let’s face it – an optimistic read for the game. That’s a far, far cry from the game’s height, and the trend line is not reversing itself. And it’s a trend line that has persisted through the years of being promised that this time, it’s going to be different.

You can promise me anything you want at this year’s BlizzCon when you reveal the next expansion (and if you don’t have one to reveal… ooh, that ain’t good). But it has no credibility because I’ve heard the promise that now it’s going to be different over and over. It’s been more than a decade of trying to reverse course without saying so, promising that now I’m going to like it when I haven’t up to now, and it has no authenticity behind it. It’s the same promise, each time.

This time it’s going to have Metzen in charge of the creative. This time we’re going to a new continent. This time we’re going to stick with talent trees. This time we’re not going to have borrowed power, or we’re going to have better borrowed power, or it’s going to be something else. It’s the same refrain.

The words change, but the song stays the same. So no. This time is not going to be different. It’s not going to fix the problems. Because if the problems were actually going to be fixed, you wouldn’t have to promise that things are going to be different. I’d see it. And that ain’t what I see.

War never changes, but World of Warcraft does, with almost two decades of history and a huge footprint in the MMORPG industry. Join Eliot Lefebvre each week for a new installment of WoW Factor as he examines the enormous MMO, how it interacts with the larger world of online gaming, and what’s new in the worlds of Azeroth and Draenor.
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