Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Winter of Our Discontent

All grey and lonely. Image by Arowhena

All the Warcraft news has shifted to Patch 6.1 which is on the PTR now.

And let's be really clear up front: This is not a "content" patch. This is a "fixing-things" patch. This is a "roll-out-the-stuff-we-should-have-had-ready-at-launch" patch. Fixing things is always welcome, but I would have expected that in a 6.0.X patch, not disguised as a content patch. I can't begin to explain why things weren't ready at launch except to guess that a lot of the things (like how they've aggressively expanded the garrison missions) feel like they realized somewhere in the past three months that the basic content they rolled with wasn't nearly enough.

Warcraft subscriptions bounced back from continuing declines as Warlords of Draenor came out to levels that we hadn't seen since... well, the last time we left Draenor, in the Burning Crusade. I'm not sure if that's because the playerbase was jazzed about seeing proto-Outlands, or if that line-up of smug looking orcs on the box cover was just so exciting, but it's something worth considering.  Unfortunately, Blizzard cannot expect that subscription trend to continue. Endgame hasn't delivered, and Patch 6.1, which, again, is not a content patch, is not going to deliver either.

What's the problem? Always an easier question to ask than to answer, but here's a few observations.

This expansion has already had significant systems overhauls and that's just continuing.
Some of this, like the garrison, has been a remarkable achievement. Some of this, like reagents tabs and toy tabs and heirloom tabs are large quality of life changes and probably required intense amounts of coding but don't feel revolutionary.  Now, Blizzard correctly points out that the guys who figure out how to hang our heirloom items in their own tab are not the same guys who design five-man dungeons, but there has still been an historical tendency for Blizzard to largely focus on systems or content but not really both at the same time. They don't release one without the other, but one is always dominant when they push code out. I think the systems overhaul, and the many serious problems that arose and had to be dealt with has taken priority over "content" to a certain extent. It may have had to be that way, however.

All Systems Refinement feels like No Play Make Jack a Dull Boy
And sure enough, it feels like a record low number of five man dungeons-- and even less incentive to go into them than ever before. It was announced at the beginning we'd only see two tiers of raiding content this expansion, instead of the more-typical three. The endgame scenarios are gone (though I don't miss them), and apart from Ashram, there is no new PvP content this expansion at all.

And let's be honest: the Highmaul raid feels like filler. The ogres of Draenor feel like a big retcon in the first place and there are no tier pieces in there. It barely has anything yo do with the Iron Horde. And I can't figure out why Cho'Gall attacks the ogre stronghold and whether he was acting on behalf of the Shadow Council or getting crazy all by himself. That place is just a big friggin' mess and it makes Me ANGRY!

Despite quality of life improvements, Blizzard walks back on other big design choices.
Note: Aviana's Feather is not really flying
We're talking about flying here. I'm still on the fence about this particular issue. I generally enjoy ground exploration and Draenor has been interesting to explore. But then any time I'm trying to chop down a tree and discover it's at the top of a cliff and the only way to get to the top of that cliff is to take the very long way around, then I don't appreciate gravity so much. Also, any time that I get back to Azeroth and hop on a flying mount, it feels almost as much fun as the first time I got a flying mount in this game.

And the problem is that I'm a lot more patient than the average WoW player who have been clamoring for whatever is "most convenient" for a long long time now and have been used to getting it. To make an heirloom tab for all your heirloom convenience and then handicap your movement and collection abilities feels a lot like one step forward, three or four steps back to me.

I dunno. Like I said, I'm on the fence about flying or not flying in Draenor. But I think Blizzard may likely find that this one thing did more harm than good in the long run.

The Goods and Bads of the Garrison

In the end, I think it all comes back to the Garrison.  It's a remarkable achievement. It's completely changed the approach to professions. Lore wise, becoming the commander of this garrison has elevated players to a respectable position in their factions. There are all sorts of cool adventures going on in this place and it's made faction hubs like on Ashram seem old-fashioned.


Blizzard missed in their estimation of how much time it would take to manage a garrison. Their tools for the UI were insufficient. There is so much RNG associated with the garrison and there are no instructions about how to make things go that players are having very uneven experiences in their bases. For example, I've several friends who haven't been invaded yet. I had one per week in the first month and then a month with no visitors at all. Nobody knows why.

The follower missions ran out quickly and have repeated far too often. If I have to send somebody to find Faralahn again and bring back another Archmage Vargoth's Spare Staff, I'm gonna freak out (and then do it because it seems like that's the only rare mission I ever get, and I want to reach the 50-achievement. I am such Archmage Vargoth's bitch).

"Workforce management," in terms of getting the followers to be able to accomplish the missions presented to you, is slow, costly, and ultimately capped and limited. I'd like to reactivate a number of followers on the bench so I can have the fun of empowering them, but that would take several days and a hunk of gold to accomplish. And meanwhile, I'm afraid too, lest tomorrow, a Highmaul Raid mission appears and I need my best guys in their 645 gear back on the job immediately, which is not something I could do without repeating the week of activations and another hunk of gold.

And Then There's This:
I'm going to put this very boldly for all to consider:
Blizzard has us micromanage the logging operation of our garrison 
Think about that. Really think about that. Logging on the surface of things seems harmless and simple, but even the commandojacks know better. "Haven't you got a world to be saving?" And I'll mention again how this particular part of game play chafes the most when I'm looking 100 yards up a cliff at a tree I sorta need and can't find a path to.

Surely there are some players who have approached this aspect of the game with a different perspective. "I never wanted to be a warrior!" they say, " I really... wanted to be... a LUMBERJACK!"

... and I'm very happy for them, of course. This is their moment! But at no point in playing any MMORPG did I really want to take this amount of control of the resource acquisition systems.

The success of WoD rests on how much we like the garrisons. But, as it stands now, garrisons are not in the winning category, I think. I read through a forum thread at WoW Insider a few days ago that asked about what you'd want in a Garrison 2.0 of the future and there was nobody who wanted a garrison like we have now. (For the record, I hope we get a South Seas expansion and I get my own ship. "Admiral Merinna" has a nice ring to it!)

Blizzard knows the Garrison is not right yet. The overwhelming amount of work going into Patch 6.1 are expansions to missions and revamping the lousy Command Table UI. Harrison Jones, is coming as a follower (though I'm not crazy about this. I haven't been a fan of his since all that stupid time we spent together in the deserts of Uldum). And they are tweaking resource generation, resource consumption, and other things to get from people who live or pass by your castle in the woods.  I welcome the additions and changes that I've read of for the most part, though I don't see them as "content" and ought not be the centerpiece of a content patch.

Too Late?
As we noted at the beginning of this article, the subscription numbers have already dived, we just haven't heard the report about the EA/Blizzard investors call yet, in which they are going to have to cop to this fact. Blizzard will correctly point out, how the sub numbers always decrease "in the middle" of an expansion. 

The problem about this metric-- the number of ongoing subscribers-- is that it's a measure of Blizzard's pain, so to speak. My experience doesn't change a bit if 3 million other people stop playing. And hey, Blizzard has figured out how this metric is cyclical and will blow off any significance in the drop in numbers. Losing or gaining a million subscribers here or there doesn't have to shake their long range plans. This is basically a good thing. I don't the company that makes my favorite game forced into a corner. I want Blizzard to remain profitable and keep making expansions.

When players talk about what was a good expansion and what wasn't, you tend to see some trends: Wrath of the Lich King was a good expansion. Cataclysm wasn't. It's hard to find a veteran of the Burning Crusade that has a bad word about that experience even though by today's standards, most things about Outlands feel archaic. But it's so hard to find a metric that show this. And, how can it all be so contradictory?

Cataclysm is far and away my least favorite expansion, but I don't know exactly when or why my feelings about Cata reached that point. I'm sure there was no one moment it happened (though, if there were, a Dragon Soul LFR was surely involved). But at some point-- clearly and singularly-- I realized I didn't have as much fun in Cataclysm as I should have.

That didn't break the game though. Diehards like us are not going to bail on Warcraft because there was a bad expansion. But what'll happen when the bad expansions outnumber the good ones. There's a "fun" metric that's not been identified here and we'd all do well to figure out exactly what it is.

And is it too late for Draenor? I'm not sure. Blizzard's already laid out and is executing its plan and won't significantly change that. Black Rock Foundry is about to open and may or may not be more fun than Highmaul. 

I think the die is cast and we're only waiting to see how it lands.


  1. Btw: when I reference "the earnings call," I don't mean the one that happened this week, covering the period that ended Dec. 31. I mean the one that will happen in late April or early May.

  2. I've been fairly outspoken about this since Garrisons were announced, and I'm still peeved that they weren't released as a Guild based entity. WoW was great when it as about community! Wrath is the most popular expansion because it got it right! People could run as many raids a week as they wanted. If you were a shit person everyone on your server knew it, if you were awesome you were getting invited to participate in other guilds runs... Community still meant something and being involved in the active realm community meant running a PuG was easy and getting invited to leading GDKP runs was a weekly occurrence!