Friday, May 8, 2015

Game Evolution - Why The Game Changes

World of Warcraft has changed dramatically over the course of its life. We all know that the game does change - duh, it's not going to not change. We joke about playing "the same game" for ten years, but really, no one is going to play the same game for so long. The game has to change for people to keep playing it. You'll go back to a game you liked and play it again, but not for, say, six hundred total days worth of time. For a game to accumulate that kind of loyalty, it has to keep its playerbase entertained and happy.

A more curious question is why does the game change the way that it does? What factors influence the designers' decisions on how to change the game?


This subject is misleadingly complex. There's no shortage of people claiming they know exactly what would fix the game, but that actually attributes to part of the problem.

We all know the game has to change, that the driving factor in changing it is to keep people playing, and that the changes made are intended to keep people playing and hopefully increase the amount of people playing it. Anything else would be nonsensical.

What's complicated about that? Well...

playerbase vs. blizzard

For Blizzard to accomplish those goals - goals of changing the game with the intention of keeping its playerbase happy - they have to understand what kind of changes will accomplish that. Blizzard has made tons of changes that they believed were good, healthy changes that got immense amounts of negative feedback. Whether they stand by their decisions or not depends on a lot of factors - sometimes they stand by decisions with bad backlash, and sometimes they listen to the playerbase and revert it. What influences Blizzard in making these "bad" decisions? What convinces them to revert some changes, but not others?

The reason is simple:

The playerbase has absolutely no idea what they want.

Now, calm down. We all know what we like and don't like, but we forget that individual players and "the playerbase" are different entities, even different concepts entirely.

You're talking about an incredibly large and diverse group of people who all like and want different things. It's not that individuals don't necessarily know what they want, but rather that when you look at the playerbase as one massive unit of people, you're never going to get anything close to a recognizably unanimous agreement about literally anything.

At all.


hint: not everyone is upset about the same things

Even personally, there were changes I loved and changes I didn't love, even some changes that made me unreasonably angry at a video game. I recognize that some of the changes I didn't like were put into place to appeal to the largest possible group of people, which is a group I didn't belong to. There were still enough things that appealed to me to keep me around, but now that amount of things is much smaller than the amount of things that are driving me away. It's the same for a lot of people, but also not the same for a lot of other people.

It's so complicated because you are looking at this massive group of people as one group due to the fact that they all have the same basic thing in common - that is, they play World of Warcraft. However, that's pretty much the only thing they all have in common. This is the biggest bar to understanding why Blizzard "can't fix" their game.

It's impossible.

and probably intimidating

We forget that the gaming and MMORPG culture was different when WoW first came out. I remember the only competition (and, let's be honest, I use that word loosely) World of Warcraft had at its release was Guild Wars, and that both playerbases were coming out of Everquest. Frequently when I first started playing I heard about how much better the game was than Everquest - and how much easier it was.

With World of Warcraft now, it's easy to forget its origin story. It came out when MMORPGs were still pretty new - and it made the MMORPG genre more accessible to a wider audience. World of Warcraft was easymode when you looked at it from Everquest players' point of view.

World of Warcraft can attribute its early success to a variety of things...

  • Lack of other choices
  • Uniquely accessible to a wider audience
  • New approach to the genre
  • Success with the Warcraft brand

Of course, the game itself was certainly good - if it hadn't been, the playerbase wouldn't have risen and continued to rise for so long, but it's important to note that these very important aspects that allowed WoW to become so popular early on do not exist anymore. It will be 12 years this July that Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne was released, there are a huge number of MMOs available, and they all have similar and unique aspects as well as being very accessible as a rule. MMOs that are very difficult just don't exist anymore. There's also a large pool of free MMOs - and just other games, period - to play that people may be choosing in lieu of WoW.

...not that they are necessarily masterpieces, but free is free

The audience and the environment are different now - what worked then may very well not work now.

Nonstop we hear about how this is what drove people away, or if they just brought back that then people would play again, but really, a large number of people are just done with the game, forever. The 7.1M players active right now are not necessarily all part of that 12M peak back in WotLK - far more than 5M people have quit playing the game, and some people are just never coming back no matter how hard Blizzard tries.

This means not only do they no longer have the unique advantages they had when they first started, but they face a formidable group of people numbered in the millions who simply are completely uninterested in ever playing again - they are not sitting back with their arms crossed waiting for Blizzard to impress them again enough to come back, they just never will - it's not even a thought in their mind.

"I'm waiting, Blizzard." - less than 5 million people

World of Warcraft can only rely on being a better game than the others, now, and that requires that they change the game in ways that will attract and keep the attention of the largest number of people. A good chunk of the people who used to play won't be coming back regardless of what they do, so "going back to the good ol' days," might not even be a good option.

Blizzard changes the game very dramatically very often nowadays, almost like they are throwing darts at a wall - and it may be because that's really the only choice they have to figure out what people want.

It's easy to say that decision A and decision B were definitely bad, or that decision Y and decision Z were absolutely great changes, but there is someone, somewhere, who disagrees with you.

and I'm sure that person is, like, totally stupid, right?

There is no magical formula to change the game in a way to retain their playerbase that Blizzard is somehow just not understanding - the secret is that it's actually ridiculously complicated to figure out, and we're expecting Blizzard to have some kind of supernatural clairvoyant power to discern exactly what everyone wants. It will take time, and they will have both successes and failures. They might not ever figure it out.

I can't expect my opinions to be the most valid and accurate. I can only hope, that once Blizzard gets things on track, that the changes they find to be the most successful are ones that appeal to me.

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