World of Warcraft’s Long Decline

WoW is a game that is not in good shape in 2021, to put it mildly.

It must be said first that I say this absent any discussions about the quality of the game (or lack thereof). I actually like the core content of Shadowlands and the core gameplay of WoW, divided off from the negative ways in which systems and borrowed power intersect with that. But that discussion is subjective and also largely immaterial to the discussion I want to have in this post.

Over the last decade (yes, it has been that long), WoW has been declining as the top-dog MMO. If anything, it says more about the genre as a whole that it is only now that WoW is clearly not number one, but here we are. From the game’s peak in early Cataclysm, public sentiment about World of Warcraft has steadily gone down with brief rebounds, each of which fails to meet any previous high watermarks for the game. At this point, WoW has failed to have the expected rebound for an odd-numbered expansion, and has instead continued a downward trajectory in public sentiment.

Why is that? Well, that is what I want to discuss today, and I want to end it with something contentious. Let’s go!

Infrequent Content Patches

I just recently remarked on this issue in my post about the cadence of content updates in WoW, but now, 1 week out from the next patch, it is worth discussing here again.

WoW as a game has always had content patches whenever the development team damn well pleases. This alone isn’t bad, mind you – if you ask 100 players if they’re willing to wait for high-quality content, I think all 100 would say yes. The thing that dogs the WoW team today is simple – there’s a sliding scale for how much and how high of quality we expect content to be and how long we’re willing to wait for it. If you only deliver a content drop every 8-10 months but that content is primo, solid, and can last that long without artificial timegates or bullshit, it can still be a win. When you go that long and drop inferior content, stuff that is single-use and consumed quickly, or just don’t drop that much – well, the scale tips to the negative quickly.

Blizzard’s problem right now is that WoW patches are all negative on these factors – infrequent, with long gaps between releases, with small amounts of content that are consumed quickly after overcoming a number of artificial time gates, and then with too long to wait until the next update. Using myself (not an average player, to be clear) as an example, here’s my 9.1. The patch came out on June 28th 2021, and the big seasonal refresh was the next week on July 6th 2021. On July 17th 2021, I had already done Keystone Master for Season 2, marking me as largely “done” with dungeons, as anything past that point was simply to run up the numbers – better gear, higher rating for epeen, maybe clearing +20s for teleports, and helping friends/guildies. I finished the normal raid upon rejoining my guild in August, getting my normal Sylvanas kill on 8/18/2021. We ground through Heroic for about a month, with me getting a Sylvanas kill and Ahead of the Curve via a PUG on 9/13/2021. The story of Korthia and 9.1 resolved after weeks of artificial time gates, and I completed it on 8/21/2021. My guild completed the Glory of the Dominant Raider meta achievement on 10/7/2021, and that marked what was, for me, the effective end of the content. 3 months of stuff.

The problem now, then, is that the patch is still ongoing, and even the upcoming 9.1.5, solid QoL changes and all, offers no real “new” content. The first new thing since the patch content rollout of 9.1 is Legion Timewalking, with a two week event coming on 12/7/2021 – 5 months into the 9.1 season. This content is, itself, recycled, and thus not really new, although I will give Blizzard credit for Timeworn Keystones and for the return of the Mage Tower. That means that we are likely going at least 7 or 8 months with nothing truly new added to the game, if not perhaps (and likely) even longer. My guess is 9 months minimum, and I say that with no pleasure.

These gaps and delays are problematic because each patch that fails to hold interest for long enough gives more players a chance to dip out of the game. 9.0 lasted nearly 8 months, but that didn’t quite hit the same because the new expansion smell was still there and a lot of people were still completing various goals – alts, grinding through endgame content, etc. 9.1’s long draught sucks more because it is both longer and people generally have less to do – having had so long to meet early expansion goals, all there was to focus on in 9.1 was any longer-term expansion goals and the content on offer, which was about…3 months worth. I would use that for even the more casual players because the LFR raid was complete in August, as was the story campaign, and all that was left past that was for players to individually determine what they wanted to repeat content for – transmog looks, gear upgrades, etc. Most players I know, across the board, are at a point now in 9.1 where they’ve done what they want – I have a few guildies chasing the +20 grind in Mythic Plus for teleports, but that is 3 people out of ~36. Most of the rest simply log on for raid if at all.

9.1.5 may bring some players back, as it brings soloable, easily obtained goals into reach – simpler Legion raids, BfA legacy loot rules, and cross-Covenant transmog. However, most of those players are likely to either burn out on those goals, or to pace through them smartly, as there is nothing about the majority of them that requires an immediate response.

This problem is exacerbated by…

Low Content “Content” Patches

The Blizzard launcher, in the corner of my eye on display 3 as I type this, tells me that the 9.1.5 “content update” is coming November 2. Great! However, calling this a content update is, perhaps, misleading.

The issue I think many of us, certainly myself, take with Blizzard is that their content patches are rather content starved in even the best of times. Most of what we get is around 2-4 hours of new story and questing gameplay, a new raid and/or dungeon, a new grind in PvP, and an affix for Mythic Plus. These are all usually tied in to a new zone to play in, and that usually entails a new set of daily and/or world quests, new rares, and some catchup mechanics to bring an alt into the endgame with relative ease. This is fine enough, but Blizzard uses mechanisms to pace this content artificially, which is supposed to make it feel longer and more fulfilling but in many ways actually peels away the veil of time gating. 9.1 seems like a huge patch to many, until you realize that the questing is around 3 hours total (I did it in one shot on two alts recently including letting cinematics and voiceover play out in full to test!), the raid is longer but padded with long runbacks, annoying trash pulls, and other such chicanery, and while I enjoy Mythic Plus this season, the new affix has ultimately been solved for a long time and there’s little choice or element of newness to the dungeons past those initial runs with fresh routing.

Calling 9.1.5 a content update is technically correct (content is being updated!) but also sneaks the word “content” in there, which is simply false. I don’t intend to denigrate the developers who made these things, and I appreciate Legion Timewalking for what it can be, but it isn’t a reason to come back, especially when it will be around long-term for years to come. Blizzard has generally played fast and loose with what constitutes content in a content patch, but at least in BfA, the x.x.5 patches included new story quests, while in Legion, the x.x.5 patch generally opened a raid – Nighthold, Tomb of Sargeras, and Antorus across the full 7.x.5 cycle.

Again, to be clear, I think that there are things to be happy with in the 9.1.5 update, but calling it “content” stretches the bounds of credulity just a smidge too much for my tastes.

Lack of Developer Communication

This one is both simple and yet difficult. What I can say confidently is this – Blizzard lacks meaningful communication with players and has for years. Cataclysm marked the start of the decline, with Ghostcrawler fading into the background before eventually leaving in 2013. In Legion and Battle for Azeroth, there were at least developer Q&A streams with regular question taking, and while the questions were submitted in advance and obviously heavily cherry-picked, at least they were trying. Shadowlands has been just a big black hole of silence – with only 1 post-launch Q&A during Blizzconline 2021. There has been no developer AMAs, no livestream Q&As, and only a small handful of Blue responses on the forums and developer blogs stating the intent of changes coming to the game. The preferred format the team has adopted is interviews with friendly media, which has also dwindled – moving away from content creator interviews and more to media interviews with big-name gaming sites and channels, most of whom are not super active in WoW and usually only have one or two staff that even play the game in any manner.

On the one hand, I get it – players of WoW are often pretty mad at the developers and that engagement can be toxic and unfulfilling. On the other hand, I think that letting it out and getting more active in responding to and interacting with players can be valuable. Ghostcrawler did this frequently, and while he’s not anyone’s perfect developer (especially given his connections to the Cosby Suite news…) he at least made an effort to engage with players, to tank the vitriol that could come his way and redirect it, and I have always maintained that the game was its clearest and best defined with him handling player comms. Obviously, players go too far (death threats, overpersonalization of attacks, etc) but at the same time, a majority of the playerbase just wants more communication.

On the FFXIV side of the fence, the communication is largely one-way and heavily controlled – but it is regular, consistent, and meets the mark of sharing details about upcoming content. If Blizzard just flat-out stole the Live Letter format from YoshiP, I don’t think anyone would be mad and instead I think it would be exciting to see.

The other problem with developer communication is that individual developers do go out of their way sometimes to be passive-aggressive to players. Twitter comments from Jeff Hamilton were making the rounds about Asmongold, and here’s the thing – I agree with him largely (Asmongold the personality sucks ass and his community is a toxic cesspool) but at the same time, players are always going to feel different ways about that. Likewise, the writers on the team (Christie Golden gets called out on this a lot) tend to respond through strawman tweets, propping up an exaggerated criticism of their work and dismissing it as trolling. And like, I don’t think it’s a good use of time to police an employee’s social media, nor do I think they should be disallowed from venting there – but players are going to see it and process it however they will, and in the cases where you disagree that the work you did was bad, I think there’s value to addressing that criticism in good faith and engaging with it to improve the work done in the future.

To tie all of these thoughts together, I think WoW needs a comms plan. It doesn’t need to be fancy or huge, just a simple, straightforward way to discuss the game with players. Regular communication, consistent communication, and an outlet for player questions and feedback that feels fruitful.

Insistence on Lengthening Mechanics

Blizzard loves timegating stuff, we all know that, but Shadowlands has exposed it at it’s most craven and awful. Renown as a system is literally just a timegate, it serves no other purpose and has rewards backdoored in to make it less obviously bad. Blizzard could have put the rewards and unlocks tied to it on flat timegates and it would have been better, they could have simply made them quest rewards, but they insist on doing this timegate where you both have to wait and then have to complete filler content via weekly quests in order to unlock the next story chapter, the next conduit slot, and the next transmog appearance. Nothing about this approach makes logical sense in the story or lore of the game at this point – you could argue for Renown a smidge in 9.0 as you built your relationship with the Covenants, but now it just is this wart of bad design.

Blizzard also does this with release schedules. Sure, 9.1.5 itself is not releasing as counter-programming to Endwalker, but the Legion Timewalking event is being slow-stepped seemingly as a deliberate counter, and also as means to get an extra month’s sub out of people. They’re asking players of both games to make a choice and I don’t think that’s going to turn out well for them. I know for me, I was so excited for Mage Tower until they announced it was not coming with the patch launch as was perceived from the initial talk about the celebratory launch event. Once they announced it would be in December, my thought immediately turned to ignoring it to just play Endwalker some more.

Again, the contrast with FFXIV could not be sharper here. The team at Square Enix releases the patch content all on day one, right there and open for you to play. You can sprint through all of it, take your time, or save things for later – the developers have confidence in their content and the willingness to make the game around enjoyment rather than time spent. They lay it all on the table and if you sub for a patch or expansion, finish what you want, then back off, they are fine with that. Because they do that, it makes subscribing for downtime feel worthwhile because they also put long-term goals in like Relic weapons and various other grinds that you can tackle at your own pace and comfort. I’ve been subbed to FFXIV for all of Shadowbringers and there have been whole months I haven’t logged in, but I’ve never found myself wanting to unsub because I want to support the development that allows me that choice while allowing me to stay competitive.

And I know that the devs on WoW will insist up and down that they don’t design anything with the intent of taking long enough to extend subscriptions and MAU metrics, but I’ve lost my trust in them on that one. Renown is nothing but a pure timegate, designed to take multiple months per content drop, and there’s no reasonable justification for players not being able to smash face against it and stack it immediately if they want. In the past, I found myself agreeing with the idea that you don’t want to design systems that encourage players to grind a lot, but Renown is not like Legion’s artifact power – there is a set endpoint in waiting that you can reach easily if the game got out of the way. The design is in the way, however, and it is tailor-made to be in the way. For once in recent times, I would love to see Blizzard release a WoW patch with no timegates. Just let us do everything day one and see what happens. I bet you’d be surprised in a positive way!

Lack of Responsiveness to Player Feedback

Players called out the Covenant systems as creating issues, and were largely ignored save for a small tweak to switching between them. Players pointed out that Azerite was not a fulfilling system and were told they didn’t understand. Artifact Power was pointed at as an excessively grindy thing where players willing to put in a limitless supply of time would be rewarded with more power, albeit very, very slowly.

All of these were ignored and then later revised and changed without a direct acknowledgement of player feedback having played a role in these changes. I could go on and on about things like this, as could many long-time WoW players, so I will say this – as the trend shows no reversal in recent times, I would like to see Blizzard grow more responsive to this feedback. They don’t always need to change things – in fact, you could change almost nothing in the game – but if you respond to players and meet their challenges to your systems and design, it would be markedly better for the game.

Closing Thoughts

A common refrain from a lot of people I discuss the game with is that WoW will never truly die at the hands of another developer or game, but that Blizzard will be the ones to kill it – whether consciously or through passive mismanagement leading to a decline. I think we are there now. Not that WoW will die today, or tomorrow, or in a year or two even. But it is on a long-term trajectory towards failure, one that has been set by Blizzard continuing along a set of practices that cause players to question their involvement with the game. All of this doesn’t even directly account for growing competition or the various reputation hits Blizzard has taken in recent months!

Death is rarely fast, whether in games or living beings. We often fall not because of a sudden incident but because of gradual, unchecked (or uncheckable) decay. In the case of a game, there are lots of chances to course-correct, to reduce the damage or even undo it.

An album I have been enjoying (in a sense of the word) a lot lately is The Caretaker’s Everywhere at the End of Time. The album, at a lean six hours and thirty minutes, is the chronicle through audio of the mind of a dementia-sufferer. Warm, hazy memories with just a hint of distortion give way to the realization of decline, to horrors and distortions as the mind of the sufferer grows aware of the condition they suffer while losing all else, before having a final moment of clarity and then a full minute of silence as they pass away, no longer burdened with the condition that marred their last hours on Earth.

WoW is in that middle-stage in my estimation. The game can turn around, can be something more than it is today and do a better job of providing players with meaningful, fulfilling gameplay free of the shackles the game currently suffers from – and the developers seem at least slightly aware of that.

Will it turn around?

Well, that’s not up to me, but I sure hope so.

8 thoughts on “World of Warcraft’s Long Decline

  1. In addition to the issues you’ve mentioned here, there’s the direction of the narrative within the game (which you have commented upon at other times). For me, this is the second expansion in a row where I’ve looked at the initial premise & content reveal and thought “meh, not so interested in that… I’ll wait and see what comes next”. I’ll probably play WoW 10.0 if only just to say that I played the game all the way through to 10.0 — but if the narrative of 10.0 also doesn’t really engage me, that might just end up being the point at which I drift away from the game.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. From the outside looking in, it’s been sad to see WoW go out like this, even as great as I’ve heard Legion was, I just had no real ability to play it at the time, so, I never got to play while it was new. So, I feel like Cataclysm was the beginning of the end, even if Mists and Legion did stem the tide a bit.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. As you said: “The willingness to make the game around enjoyment rather than time spent.” And this is what makes me want to spend time in FFXIV. Recently I can’t play much, but I log in, water my garden, practice some songs on my BRD (or my rotation outside on my training dummy). Then I log out or stay there while I read or work because it’s just an enjoyable place to be. Enjoyable, imagine that.
    I did the Mage Tower back in Legion. There was some fun in it, but I wouldn’t resub just to see it again. I am sorry for those who were looking forward to it and now find Blizzard once again playing the FOMO card.
    I don’t think Blizzard will recover now that NA and EU players see there is another way to make an MMO that can be competitive but offers the player freedom. The difference is in the core vision. It is ironic that here in the west where we talk to so much about freedom we make games that restrict the player at every turn, while in Japan which we stereotype as being disciplined, restrictive and even conformist, they make games that allow the player so much freedom.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. “No King rules forever, my Blizzard.”

    I think they could recover, but it would take a self-awareness of the team and a corporate resolve that we’re not likely to see any time soon. I feel like the Wow team is more likely to circle the wagons and resist even more feedback. Until their subscription numbers are consistently below a million subscribers or the amount of money they spend on making content is more than they bring in, the team isn’t going to changed. Change is going to have to be forced on them, sadly.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. > Death is rarely fast, whether in games or living beings

    It can be slow, then very fast. At some point the game’s decline feeds on itself and everything seems to fall apart at once. So I would not assume WoW has much longer to live (although it may).

    Like

  6. Pallais wrote: I think they could recover, but it would take a self-awareness of the team and a corporate resolve that we’re not likely to see any time soon.

    In today’s corporate world, I doubt it. That would take an investment of time –and especially money– that Activision-Blizzard would rather instead put into another golden goose for maximum profits. Taking a product that had fallen on hard times and exerting a lot of effort to turn it around is just not in a lot of corporate DNA right now. I see A-B more likely to sell WoW to some third party and washing their hands of the game rather than spending money to making WoW a good game again.

    Like

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