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WoWAug 7, 2015 8:00 pm CT

The mistakes of Warlords and how Legion must avoid them

This week’s earnings call revealed that WoW had dropped to slightly above five million subscribers, a rather precipitous decline from its 10 million subs at the start of Warlords of Draenor. No matter what you say about how that doesn’t really mean much (and it doesn’t, honestly), it’s still a startling drop. We could post mortem Warlords all day, and I think quite a few people will, but I’m not interested in where we’ve been.

I’m interested in where we’re going next, and what Legion needs to be seen for players to retain interest in future WoW expansions. Because the fact is this: WoW is an aging game both in terms of its existence (it launched in 2004 after years of development) and its players. It’s time for certain core conceits to be examined and perhaps outright rejected.

We know what World of Warcraft: Legion is going to be now, and it’s a big deal. People have called it the “fanservice expansion” and in some ways that seems remarkably apt. But it’s clear that even Blizzard knows they’ve made mistakes in Warlords — now we just have to hope they can avoid them moving forward.

What you love well remains

First up is this simple concept — raiding cannot be all there is at endgame. Warlords of Draenor removed the certainty of gearing through valor points, making LFR the easiest, best way to gear up a character if you weren’t in a regular raid guild. It made raiding far more accessible and but also created the Mythic difficulty with a hard cap of 20 players that made top end raiding less accessible. The results were simple: if you were interested in playing past level 100, you were given a suite of raid options and not much else.

Five player dungeons were trivialized almost instantly. The scenario, a method for any player to almost immediately enter into small group content and gain some small but meaningful reward (valor and justice points in Mists), was removed. Daily quests, which gave players a structured way to again gain that small but meaningful reward were also removed. Both Apexis Crystals and Garrison Resources attempted to provide some form of reward for max level, small scale play, but they were confusing and far less convenient than valor or justice.

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Frankly, it seemed like Warlords was ashamed of letting players reliably gear themselves through outside raid play until Tanaan Jungle, at least. From the time of launch in November of 2014 until late June 2015, players were stuck on the LFR treadmill, or hit with the RNG of garrison missions hoping to acquire better raid gear without ever actually stepping into a raid.

Patch 6.2 actually fixed a lot of these issues, but that just illustrates the point. We can’t have mid-expansion fixes: — this needs to be incorporated into all future expansions from the start. Small group and even solo play needs meaningful rewards because WoW‘s eternal gear treadmill is the only way players have to feel like what they’re doing is meaningful.

I would argue that the model we saw in Wrath and Cataclysm for endgame content is a good one to emulate. Wrath introduced four new dungeons: the Trial of the Champion dungeon accompanied the Trial of the Crusader raid, and there were three five-player dungeons with an interwoven story linked to Icecrown Citadel. Meanwhile, Cataclysm not only had the two revised troll dungeons (upgraded versions of the 10-player troll raids from The Burning Crusade) introduced in-between the initial raids and Firelands, it then saw an additional three dungeons (End Time, Well of Eternity, and Hour of Twilight) leading up to the Dragon Soul raid.

Ion Hazzikostas admitted as much on the stream — Blizzard knows they didn’t do dungeons the way they should have. Now they just have to make sure they do it better this time, because we heard them say that before at the end of Mists of Pandaria, and yet here we are.

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Content, content, content

Also in Mists of Pandaria we saw the introduction of new, completely soloable content — patch 5.1’s Dominance Offensive/Operation Shieldwall, patch 5.2’s Isle of Thunder, Patch 5.3’s Battlefield Barrens, and Patch 5.4’s Timeless Isle. In Mists, we saw small scale group or solo content introduced in every single patch, and there were four of them. One could argue that Battlefield Barrens wasn’t a lot of content, but it was content. There was a quest chain associated with it and a title — it was something to do.

Warlords has really suffered in comparison. Patch 6.1 provided no actual content. Patch 6.2 delivered quite a lot of content — Tanaan is enormous — but as much as I personally enjoy it, I’d have to agree with players who argue that by this point in Mists we’d seen both 5.1 and 5.2 and gotten a lot more to do. Where have the developers gone? We could, and should have gotten content in 6.1. The next expansion cannot ignore this. I’m going to make an argument here — call it Rossi’s law if you wish — and it goes like this. No major MMO can go eight months without some new content, and that content must be playable. A selfie camera is all well and good, but it’s not content.


Flying, players, and communication

Next up is flying. The flying/no flying discussion in Warlords was some of the most rancorous I’ve ever seen. Accepting at face value all of Blizzard’s reasons for wanting to curtail flying, it’s simply a genie they couldn’t put back in the bottle. They’ve sold people flying mounts for real money. They spent an entire expansion redesigning Azeroth to work with flying. Do I think there are legitimate design reasons to prevent us from flying while we level? Absolutely I do. I’m willing to admit I even wonder if we would have been better off if flying had remained an “Outland only” aspect of the game. We didn’t have so many flying mounts then, if we were ever going to turn back the clock on flying, it was probably going into Northrend.

But the fact remains, that’s several years past. We’ve since had Cataclysm and Mists of Pandaria and flying has become so familiar a part of the game you can’t really go back. Players have grown accustomed to it. The feeling of reaching max level and gaining flight is one of liberation from the game’s leveling restrictions — you immediately gain the ability to avoid the constraints and inconveniences, like packs of trash mobs between you and an objective, node, or herb. You can ask the players to delay that gratification, and they’ll generally accept it — they displayed willingness to do this in both Wrath and Mists.

But more important than whether or not we get flying is this — don’t dither about it. Make a decision at the beginning of the expansion, announce it, and then be very, very quick to judge the player reaction. Not only did Blizzard take until May to decide, but they communicated it very poorly to the players and then took until June to reverse the decision. And that’s unacceptable. In fact, that’s a conversation that needs to happen. Can WoW sustain such a sluggish pace on making, implementing, and, especially, communicating its decisions?

Absolutely not.

I’m sure Blizzard knows this. The pace of content releases in Mists of Pandaria highlights that yes, they’re aware that they release content too slowly. But specifically in Warlords, Blizzard dropped the ball on managing and communicating with its community, specifically in WoW. They’ve done a bang up job on almost every other franchise they have — Hearthstone, Heroes of the Storm, Diablo 3, or even the not yet released Overwatch have all seen a steady stream of interviews and community outreach. But World of Warcraft, the biggest MMO in the world, seems to be a victim not of any of its rivals but rather its own company and its unwillingness to talk to the players.  There are certainly people at Blizzard who engage with the community on a personal level, but there’s a definite feeling of detachment. In the next expansion Blizzard needs to find its voice again.


Garrisons vs. Class Halls

Finally, it’s time for me to talk about the Garrison and how it succeeded and failed. This is especially important because we’re seeing a redesign of the basic idea in Legion with the Class Hall and it’s very important that this be done right this time. We can’t (or at least we shouldn’t) retread the old design that didn’t work.

The Garrison as a home base and questing hub, a place from which you range out to explore Draenor, works very well. It works as a place to return to after a zone’s story is complete, get your new assignment and range forth. It works as a minigame, where you can see it progress as you progress.

It does not work as your endgame content. It does not work as a replacement for professions — indeed, the close incorporation of professions into the Garrison made them feel like chores. Have you swept your mine for ore today? Have you picked your herb garden yet? What about your savage blood, did you go out and trap beasts? I play WoW to play WoW, ultimately. I’m a heavily armed veteran of campaigns across Azeroth and Outland. I’m not here to pick flowers. Okay, sometimes I am. But that should be done out in the world, in between murders. When WoW moves away from gameplay — actually going places to get our resources, having there be stuff to see and do on the way — it gets really tedious really fast. The Garrison does not work as endgame content.

It especially does not work when that content consists of Apexis dailies (which consist of ‘go here, fill a bar, come back’ — despite this basically being exactly the same as getting a daily quest to kill x number of murlocs or collect x number of goretusk spleens, it doesn’t feel the same) or the mission table or shipyard. Why do I argue that going to Tanaan and completing an objective is enjoyable content, but doing missions at my garrison isn’t? Three reasons.


  1. Garrison missions take between half an hour to a day or two to complete. During this time, you are not interacting with them at all. They are simply ticking away in the background. All of the gameplay of these missions is in the selection of your followers — have you leveled them sufficiently and gotten the right abilities to get that 100% chance? If not, will you succeed or fail? That’s the gameplay. Making me wait a day to find out if that 99% mission succeeded or failed isn’t fun. It turns the garrison into a chore. The garrison is already filled with chores like the mine, the herb garden, potentially the barn, and it doesn’t need the mission table to feel like one.
  2. Garrison missions had a good intention — get you out in the world to collect followers with the right abilities — but the follower limit means that you end up having to play the ‘which follower will I never use’ game, and once you’ve collected the 20 or 25 followers you intend to use, you’re done. The collection game aspect of followers is muted by this restriction. Getting out into the world and connecting followers could have been another fun minigame the way pet battles work now. I don’t have to pay gold to get a pet I haven’t been using out and level it up, and it doesn’t make me choose one of the pets I’m currently using and stick that in limbo.
  3. The shipyard takes every problem missions had and amplifies it with a mission failure penalty that’s simply ridiculous. It is bad enough that I’m expected to sit around for a day or even two sometimes to discover whether or not my 95% success chance mission actually succeeded. Potentially losing two ships that I spent time leveling to epic in the process basically makes you not want to bother playing at all. Especially when it takes more time to replace those ships, level the replacements, and then potentially lose them. The destruction of ships you’ve spent time leveling basically says ‘If you can’t hit 100% on this mission, don’t do it‘ and it’s made me completely stop doing them.

The next WoW expansion needs to learn from what worked in the Garrison and what didn’t. We shouldn’t have to spend gold to level the Garrison — it should level with us as we confront our enemies and win victories. It should serve as a customizable home base, a place where we can decide how it looks, bring home trophies, and in general I’ll just come out and say this: It should be player housing. Stop being afraid of player housing, next WoW expansion. It’s been eleven years. People have wanted player housing for eleven years. And this is where the next WoW expansion really needs to understand something that Blizzard once knew.

Give the players what they want. What little we’ve seen of Class Halls and how the new system for Champions will work, they’ve realized that followers ended up not feeling particularly special, so I have hope here.

I’m not saying make the game a cavalcade of easily gained gear and endless customization. I’m saying do what you’ve done well for over a decade — find a way to give players what they want in ways they didn’t even know they wanted it. Make it so players have to work for all the awesome stuff they want. You did this brilliantly with transmogrification, to the point where I have never known what bank or bag space was again. Make a system where we have to play the game, not one where we sit around and a table plays the game for us while we wait for it.

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