A lot of current debate in videogames can be summed up rather quickly in a single statement – the line between games as a business and games as art is eroding and business is winning.
My recent post about the Q4-2019 ATVI earnings call brought out some interesting comments about how Battle for Azeroth is worse than the 15-year old Classic, and this is a bad omen for Blizzard. In truth, it absolutely is bad news – nostalgia can describe an individual-level desire for something, or a distaste for the modern thing, and this is absolutely fair to consider. However, at the volume inferred in that post, the appeal of Classic (or, more likely, the lack of appeal of BfA) cannot be blamed solely or even majorly on nostalgia.
Before we address that core concern, though, I want to take a step back and address some macro-level factors in gaming.
Gaming has, as it has grown, been through what can best be described as severe growing pains. Videogames as a medium were about fun and enjoyment, but as independent game development grew and the ideas that could be expressed through games were expanded, the medium has been expanded into a lot of various expressions. Games at their core, to me, are art – the encapsulation of audiovisual presentation of art akin to any movie, TV show, or record – but they also have a layer unique to games in ludonarrative. Games can present emotions through their story in cutscenes or little vignettes that unfold as you play and aren’t terribly dissimilar from movies or a show, but they can also reinforce, subvert, or deliver this emotion through gameplay. Doki Doki Literature Club delivers fear through gameplay by undercutting choice and railroading a player down a single, horrifying main story by presenting as a game with lots of choices and then slowly pulling away choice. Braid uses written story in game to present a tale, but the gameplay reinforces this, and the last scene then presents the conclusion of the protagonist as warped via the view of the player through gameplay (while also maybe being a metaphor about nuclear war?).
To me, games can do a lot of fantastic things to deliver their message – gameplay, graphics, audio cues, and the ways in which all of these things intersect.
My greatest disappointment in modern gaming is that in many ways, the major releases have given up on the art of gaming in some ways. I certainly wouldn’t go as far as to say modern games are not art – that is clearly not the case.
To begin to wind back to World of Warcraft, I must first discuss how Activision-Blizzard came to be. In 2008, Blizzard parent Vivendi and Activision merged into Activision-Blizzard, a move meant to set apart Blizzard and to, in all likelihood, give Activision some good will. At the time, as a gamer, I mostly dismissed it – Blizzard had its own leadership and steady hands, and I had just come back to WoW with Wrath of the Lich King. WotLK to me was a fantastic expansion, focused on delivering some big story beats from Warcraft III their ultimate conclusion, with a beautiful, well-sculpted world that was interesting and appealing to me – and, by the numbers, millions of others as well. From a gameplay perspective, Blizzard perfected the Normal/Heroic difficulty model by delivering better dungeon gameplay (even if it could get a bit AoE-y in spots), 10/25 player raid splits to allow smaller social groups to play, and delivered Heroic raiding eventually, which meant that there was a new plateau in the game to reach.
Cataclysm and Mists of Pandaria continued this, largely – while each had little design quirks and flaws, they were ultimately enjoyable as games and had decently thought-out endgame content loops (albeit too small in Cata and too daily-encumbered in MoP), and while Cataclysm never quite got over the initial content problems with its endgame, MoP landed on a beloved model with the Timeless Isle.
From Warlords of Draenor on, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of gameplay mechanics that seem designed to be “sticky” – to require more regular gameplay. The Garrison was the forebear of much of this – the Garrison cache and mission table were clearly designed to be login and play incentives, because they required you to jump into the game, loot the cache, and launch missions. Note that no mobile app for mission table gameplay was added until after Legion launched – this is not coincidental.
Likewise, in Legion, emissaries, multiple time per day world quest switches and refreshes, and the artifact system were all designed in a similar way. Login, play the game, get a reward, and gameplay past that point drops off in reward substantially. World Quests really are a good model for world content in my opinion, but the emissary system and the anemic individual rewards point to their intended purpose – a login incentive that gives you a burst of rewarding gameplay, but hits diminishing returns past the point of completed emissaries.
BfA has continued this while also adding more systems that have a similar return. Grinding Azerite hits harsh diminishing returns once you are current. Azerite gear has a same number of drops in the system (3 pieces = 3 relics) but has a larger possibility space for the 3 pieces of dropped gear. Horrific Visions are fun gameplay, but there is a certain amount of gatekeeping done by the Coalescing Visions and needing to grind them out, coupled with the limited rollout of quests to rank-up your Ashjra’kamas cape. The incentive is to log in for emissaries, assaults, the daily minor vision, Horrific Visions, and all of that on top of your standard mode of play – dungeons, raiding, PvP, etc. BfA also marks the point where Blizzard lost its semi-autonomy, and has been taken over with the CEO role now being held at the top of ATVI, rather than all things Blizzard funneling to a Blizzard executive.
Somewhere along the way, the art of play has been lost. The game no longer has open-ended content in the way it once did. Instead, whether intentionally or not, Team 2 has encumbered WoW with these systems that encourage daily or periodic login and play, making it such that you can no longer explore the world for fun and finding goals. The goals are given to you – you can make a choice to discard, de-prioritize, or self-select goals to complete, but the game no longer has the kind of system that encouraged you to make those choices. In Wrath of the Lich King, I could choose to champion specific reputations for rewards, farm specific heroic dungeons for a piece of desired loot or generally farm dungeons to get emblems to buy a desired piece, and I could choose which size of raid I wanted to partake in. I frequently raided 25 player with my guild but would find 10-player pugs, and eventually my guild had officer runs I was invited on for 10 player and pushing hard modes. The game provided me with a large structure of content and encouraged me to find my own way through it, with rewards and incentives used to qualify certain paths. I didn’t need to farm every reputation for a pathfinder acheivement – I could, instead, pick the one that gave me a great gear reward at exalted and farm that first and specifically. Short of daily dungeon quests, I had free reign for what to pick to do – not a random keystone pushing me into a dungeon I don’t like, like Freehold (sorry, I love the pirate theme, but as a dungeon, it sucks to me).
The modern game has, in segments, lost the art of freeform gameplay and the art of deterministic rewards. Loot in WoW has always been random, but there have been carveouts – crafted gear you could make or buy, emblem or currency gear – ways in which you could influence your own destiny. In the current model, you can farm dungeon and raid drops the same as ever, but there is no fallback currency, no chance to acquire a similar reward through other means, and in Mythic Plus, it becomes an even more frustrating mass of loot, with every possible piece of gear in a dungeon being capable of appearing in the end of run chest, and every single piece of current dungeon gear being capable of appearing in the weekly cache. There aren’t fun endgame sections of existing zones anymore – you explore the whole zone, more or less, during questing, and there are no new places intended for max level play.
There are things I like about the new model, don’t get me wrong. Being able to rapidly gear up alts with random gear is fine, because I don’t need them at the bleeding edge of progress – just powerful enough to solo old raids and do some world content. I liked the Artifact, partially because it felt like the old talents I came up through the game with, delivered in a new way. I don’t hate Pathfinder – I just wish it was presented in a way that didn’t make clear how much Blizzard hates that I want to fly.
More than all of that, though, is the aggregate effect of this type of decision-making. When I log in to play, it feels like I am meeting a reporting metric, and the content feels tailor-made to be enjoyable enough for most people to be okay with that. Look, in some ways, I get it – WoW has always been a business, designed to milk me for subscription fees by keeping me engaged with content. In the past, I felt compelled to play because the content on-offer was fantastic and allowed me to define my journey in my way. I can recall the decisions I made, the quests I completed, and while some fragment of that is nostalgia, a big piece of it is that I legitimately enjoyed that journey.
In the modern game, I just don’t, and it feels like it isn’t made to be an enjoyable journey taken as a whole. It is, almost arguably, more of a theme park than ever. Each component is a ride, designed to thrill and entertain for a short period of time. I then spend the rest waiting in line (like, farming vessels for HVs), walking around the park (moving between zones for the fun stuff), and sitting around tired after hurrying up and waiting (sitting in town afterwards talking to guildies or doing small activities like tradeskills). Not to shortsell amusement parks or current WoW, but there’s just not a journey to either that is worth recounting. Theme parks try to remedy this by peppering the walkways with mascots, music, merchants, and all of these distractions that keep you primed for fun. WoW, in theory, does the same – the world itself is supposed to be fun and thrilling, but in practice, the level design in the current game makes navigating the world feel bothersome. I am an advocate for not flying in theory because I do enjoy Blizzard’s art, but at the same time, when the world map requires an excess of attention to things like elevation and routes, it becomes a task – and while you could argue that strong level design can be an asset, my contention is that puzzles belong in places where I can opt-in – dungeons, raids, scenarios, and not as a part of my normal gameplay in an unavoidable way.
What makes it more irritating is that there is this degree of avoidance of the topic. Blizzard won’t say the game is made this way for a business metric – just that their design vision executes the way it does and happens to also satisfy a business model built on repeat engagement. If I am highly charitable to the team and take Ion’s claims that the game is not purposefully built to MAU metrics at face value, it speaks to a sort of bumbling that the team is doing. I can assume malice or incompetence, and neither is good – and that is the real problem the team has on its hands right now. If I take them at their word, then their design is occassionally rough and un-fun in a way that makes me think they’re doing so to satisfy shareholders and executives rather than me, and if I assume they are covering for the true purpose of their design, that means the game is sometimes unsatisfying for play on purpose, which is worse, but not worlds apart from the first idea!
All over the games industry, this kind of change is happening. Activision built a name on being DLC kings. EA also helped pioneer it, and is trying to use a subscription access model to their library as means to move their whole model towards an MAU metric rather than relying on people showing up to buy every new release in volume. Ubisoft, WB, and many others have moved to premium currencies earned at a trickle through gameplay but like a firehose if you just pay. The business side of gaming is fully exposed to even most average casual players, and complaints of excessive and rampant monetization are no longer reserved for the angriest players on niche messageboards.
WoW’s design has, intentionally or not, suffered greatly for this. Ever since WoD, when Blizzard indicated they’d move to a model based on MAUs over subscriptions, we’ve seen the game shift in this direction, to the point that the flexible, player-defined endgame has eroded to a point of great loss. The saddest thing is that BfA isn’t even necessarily bad on paper – some of the systems sound enjoyable and some of them actually are! But as long as players are pushed towards gated engagement through multiple layers of systems, the fun feels locked away, and unless Blizzard changes course on that, in my opinion, they risk losing a generation of players.
By many measures, they already have – and if I were Blizzard, I’d be very worried about how reversible those losses are.