There’s no denying the fact that Warlords of Draenor hasn’t played out to be one of World of Warcraft’s strongest expansions. Between Patch 6.1’s lackluster release and 6.2’s relatively strong yet rather delayed release, WoD hasn’t seen many content patches in comparison to previous expansions. Not all of the received content resonated well with the playerbase, either. Garrisons, shipyards, 6.1’s Twitter/selfie bonanza, and the entire debacle about flying registered negatively with more than a few fans.
Despite all the negativity, World of Warcraft is still going fairly strong.
I’ve talked at length before about why I feel World of Warcraft has staying power over newer, shinier MMORPGs, but one thing that’s made itself extremely apparent to me over the course of WoD’s release is that MMORPGs that have been out for a long period of time need to be structurally changed at their core in order to remain popular. This is one reason why Blizzard makes it a point to make major structural changes to every expansion (interestingly enough, the Warcraft movie may also play a positive role here).
Developers can’t expect a game to survive forever without changing certain structural points, and Blizzard, despite getting a little lost here and there, has done a pretty fair job of navigating those change-filled waters. What changes am I prattling on about, exactly? Hold tight—I’ll explain.
The Effects of Nostalgia and Repetition
You know that saying about insanity being defined as doing one thing over and over while expecting different results? It applies to MMORPGs that are “past their prime” so to speak. After a game has been out for a while—at least a couple of years—players tend to develop habitual behaviors that help them become better players.
Let’s take leveling in WoW, for example. Let’s say a player started during The Burning Crusade. At the tail end of TBC, this player might have leveled 2-3 alts to the level cap in order to experience all of the quests they missed on their main. They may have even leveled a character on the opposite faction. Seeing unexplored content is pretty awesome, right?
Fast forward to the end of Wrath of the Lich King. Now that player likely has experienced a larger portion of the overall endgame of WoW. They probably dabbled a bit in raids and PvP. They probably leveled a Death Knight and tried out another combat role, like tanking. But did they have that urge to dive through all of Hellfire Peninsula and Zangarmarsh with the same zest as during TBC? Not likely. This time, that player probably chain ran dungeons to get that DK to level cap. No harm in that, right? Dungeons are pretty awesome.
So, what happened in Cataclysm? If that same player wanted to level fresh alts, they probably skipped as much questing content as possible. Dungeons for the win. They probably didn’t feel like taking any more time than they needed to during those dungeons, either, since time is money and all (especially if you’re leveling a goblin). It’s all about that efficiency.
This meant choosing to skip certain “annoying” dungeons like The Oculus. Dealing with newer players who didn’t understand fight mechanics most likely became frustrating. Trying to do early Cataclysm dungeons in a complete pick-up group might have been a nightmare (this is before the nerfs, remember). It’s safe to say that this player might have ended up a little annoyed by the time they leveled their 2nd or 3rd character to level 85. Many players began to feel this way around Cataclysm/late WotLK, but why, exactly?
One word: monotony. The monotony of leveling and “experiencing the same thing over and over” is the culprit of this type of frustration. There’s simply no easy way of getting around that monotony after you’ve played a game for 4+ years.
Blizzard answered with dungeon nerfs, EXP buffs, major class overhauls, and the heirloom system. From a business point of view, these changes were the simplest way of easing that frustration. It also let everyone gain the benefits of super quick leveling by ensuring even the newest of players could dive into a dungeon and not fail.
Jumping forward a bit, let’s say that same player was so frustrated by Cataclysm that they took a break during Mists of Pandaria (it happened to the best of us). They returned during late MoP to find dungeons faceroll, tank threat a non-issue, and player communication during dungeons extremely absent. They might have felt nostalgic and missed the challenge that TBC dungeons brought. They might have felt frustrated that WoW had changed so much. But did it, really? Isn’t it the playerbase that has essentially changed?
The answer to that question is a little more complicated than you might think. The playerbase of an older game has little choice but to change after monotony settles in. This is due to the fact that, as humans, we naturally aspire to better ourselves. A factory worker might set goals for himself to become more efficient or make less mistakes. A professional MOBA player might try a risky move in order to shave off a couple precious seconds. A WoW dungeon leveler might set goals to complete dungeons quicker, do more DPS, not let teammates die even when they act like idiots, or pull 4+ packs of mobs per pull instead of just 2.
WoW players cope with the monotony of doing the same thing a little too often by becoming more and more efficient, and in turn, better players. This is why many players have a kneejerk reaction to blame Blizzard for poor behavior issues. In essence, it’s partially the developers’ faults for creating monotonous paths to begin with, but there’s really no escaping the possibility of monotony in a video game. Anything can become monotonous when done too often, whether it’s related to video game tasks or real life tasks.
Monotony is also why players who take long breaks from a game like WoW come back reinvigorated and may suddenly enjoy questing again, or see the need to run challenging dungeons that feel like they did “back in the day.” Recently, Blizzard attempted to build content around this feeling of reinvigoration by adding Timewalking dungeons ,which scale players back to stats we would have roughly had back then. Some folks consider Timewalking to be a success. Others? Not so much. For better or for worse, throwbacks to nostalgia without the necessary accompanying structural changes never have the same impact.
Why is that? Nostalgia’s a powerful force, but it can’t break the chains of monotony completely. As time passes, we become more efficient in games and become better gamers. As we become better gamers, our games must structurally change to keep up with us.
A Choice-Based Solution and Its Hurdles
Every time Blizzard talks about the challenges of game design in WoW, the developers aren’t exaggerating. It’s damn challenging to keep an older game up to the standards of both veteran players and newer players alike. In many ways, Blizzard would have an easier time starting from scratch and making WoW 2.0, but keeping the original WoW going allows them more flexibility in their overall number of projects. It also gives them the challenge of figuring out how to get rid of some of the structural monotony in World of Warcraft and make it an enjoyable game for as many players as possible.
One huge way they’ve tackled this challenge is by giving players a wider array of difficulties to choose from for both dungeons and raids. As some players become more and more skilled in World of Warcraft (due to all those years of aforementioned monotony), the higher difficulties appeal to them. For newer players or players who simply don’t have a lot of free gaming time, the lower difficulties may be more ideal.
This helps the game in more than one way, too. It gives us all a reason to keep playing—as long as we can find that ideal difficulty—but it also naturally separates the playerbase into groups and niches that allow for better socialization. When players have an easier time finding other players who are like them and enjoy the same type of in-game activities, guilds are more likely to form, and friendships are more likely to stick. The more friendships, guilds, and niches there are, the more players keep playing WoW.
Raiding is a natural environment for this type of player behavior, since raids were inherently created to encourage communication, friendship, and teamwork (LFR—group finder difficulty—might be the exception, of course, but remember that raids are created first and foremost with non-LFR difficulties in mind). A player can poke around on the official forums or in the manual looking-for-group tool and find a similarly-minded group of players to attempt raids with, and hopefully find a group where they’ll always feel at home.
As WoW continues to age, this natural separation is becoming the primary way for newer players and returning players to find a group of like-minded individuals. Unfortunately, the current method of looking for a new guild in WoW is far clunkier than it should be. The in-game system could use a complete rework while the guild forums on the official forums could stand to be better organized.
The way in which server transfers are still handled in WoW is extremely cumbersome as well. While the transfer fees are obviously in place for a reason, I can’t help but think how much better a system like RIFT’s would be for newer WoW players. In RIFT, players can transfer characters between servers for free, albeit with a time limitation. Such a system in WoW would cause some interesting shifts to occur during raid progression periods, but with a time-based limitation in place, the frequency of these shifts could be controlled somewhat.
Alternatively, a system where players could pay and move up to 3 characters for the same fee, for example, would make moving alts around a little easier. Blizzard has a lot of options here. More merges also need to happen between servers with smaller populations.
There’s also the issue of the most difficult raid difficulty in the game currently: Mythic. Since current Mythic raids require 20 players and can’t accept cross-server players, guilds are forced to recruit tirelessly in order to obtain and retain a stable Mythic roster. It’s tough to be a Mythic guild this expansion, and unless Blizzard makes some changes, it will be even tougher next expansion. More changes need to happen, especially at the community-transferring level.
These continued structural changes will become even more vital as Blizzard releases additional expansions. With every expansion that gets added to the big block o’ WoW history, new players need every bit of help they can grab in order to find a home within a community that’s extremely diverse and not always welcoming to those who are inexperienced.
With the combination of WoW’s current raid difficulty setup and Blizzard’s stated goal of shorter expansion schedules and tier lengths, WoW is undoubtedly becoming an MMORPG where endgame raids are intended to be accessible by all and are becoming the game’s main focal point. Overall, this is a good thing, since the range of difficulties can appeal to just about any MMORPG player out there.
It’s also a challenge. There’s a lot of work to be done to ensure that the raids do more than appeal. They need to appeal, yet also deliver. Players can want to raid, but they need to be able to attempt those raids before any organization system can be defined a success. Blizzard’s work isn’t done yet—not by a long shot—but they’re on the right track.
With any luck, Legion will add features that help players seek out those communities the game needs to stay healthy. So far, there’s been talk about a social “grouping” system that will let players create social groups of friends and guildmates for likeminded group creation. This may help, but more is definitely needed. BlizzCon 2015 may prove quite informative this year. Stay tuned for more Legion and BlizzCon content in the months ahead!
Laura Hardgrave is a staff writer.