The immediate question in the wake of the news that Microsoft was to buy Activision-Blizzard this week was, “Does Bobby Kotick finally pay?” The answer to that is a resounding, “no, but at least he’ll be gone,” and so then the next question for me was about what that means for workplace culture at Blizzard. The answer to that is…muddled, and perhaps not as rosy as some want it to be, from a cursory look at Microsoft and the reputation some ex-Microsoft employees who went on to Blizzard (and to also be named in the sexual harassment case, interestingly) have. Answers to that one will take time, it would seem, and there are reasons for hope and for pessimism both.
With time being the main factor on the latter question, the next logical question for WoW fans and the one more applicable to the actual, player-witnessed game, is this – what does the acquisition mean for game content and quality? That is the thing I want to speculate about today.
While there are going to be some particulars and details we will dive into today, I want to focus on two topics in the broad strokes – the possibility of a Game Pass future for WoW and the potential implications of a console release of World of Warcraft. We’ll start with console because that’s simpler and wind our way to Game Pass.
WoW On Xbox?
The biggest and most interesting implication of the acquisition (beyond the potential workplace benefits), as I see it, is that WoW has a clear pathway to make a journey to the Xbox platform. It has always been possible in some form, but a port in the Xbox 360 days would have required a fair amount of work, and while consoles since the PS4/Xbox One have been x86 machines just like a standard PC, the question has always been one of audience and value. When ABK was not Microsoft-owned, the incentive for such would need to be sweetened to be worth the effort – a payment for exclusivity or some sort of marketing arrangement to make it valuable.
Now, or rather once the deal clears, Microsoft could very well push to see Blizzard’s whole catalog on Xbox. Most of their titles make sense there, save for Starcraft, and WoW would be the crown jewel that isn’t currently available on console, and there is a not-small part of my brain that expects this will absolutely happen.
What have been the barriers besides porting effort and value for the publisher? The biggest ones are easy enough to see – interface/controls and WoW’s addon support. These are still issues! – but not impossible ones.
Controls and interface are big issues for an MMO like WoW, where the core gameplay has really been built around the idea of a mouse and keyboard. Can you even tab-target if your main interface does not have a tab button? It’s a riddle! However, the simple answer here is that it has already been done and solved for – FFXIV has nearly identical gameplay basics to WoW, and has developed a rather elegant solution in the cross-hotbar and d-pad target toggles, using shoulder buttons to toggle between sets of hotkeys that map to the d-pad and face buttons and toggle modes that allow the d-pad and face buttons to be used for other things when a hotbar is not active. This allows you to theoretically map 4 bars of 8 buttons easily, and you can get crazy with modifiers to allow extra sets from double-shoulder presses, like LT+RT or LB+LT (using the Xbox nomenclature for obvious reasons). The core of these controls work fairly well – they’re pretty solid for most roles and uses.
FFXIV solves targeting with a controller by using an enemy list, and what seems like an oddball design when playing with mouse and keyboard on PC is a godsend for controller – an enemy list means you have a set rotation of enemy targets that can be toggled between with a directional input from the D-pad, and a party listing means healers can toggle between party members using the other two directions on a standard D-pad. Healer play on controller is…an acquired taste and has a higher skill requirement, but you can absolutely get there, and a big part of min-maxing healer gameplay in FFXIV on controller is learning when to use the game’s standard UI options for targeting allies and when to build macros to target party slots so instead of scrolling 1 through 5 via 4 D-pad inputs, you can just hit a “target #5” macro and have it go straight away.
FFXIV does, however, have a core gameplay design that is built to accommodate this. Parties are a max of 8 players, you’re not expected to heal players in Alliances outside your own party, and in most fights in FFXIV, you’re rarely facing more than 5 or 6 targets at once, with most bosses being single-target affairs with no add phases or extra targets to hit. FFXIV’s marginally slower gameplay, with a 1-second longer GCD compared to WoW, helps this as well – by the time you are hitting stuff closer to WoW speeds, it’s usually because you’re doing damage with oGCD weaving on the same target, so you’re not fiddling with the interface to pick a target in that circumstance. WoW has faster core combat, more frequent target switches, and greater flexibility demands on healers for their core healing role – so it would be a challenge.
The cross-hotbar idea, properly stolen, is a solid implementation, and with some finesse changes to targeting, particularly for healers, a WoW on console approach could still work.
Where we run into trouble, however, is addons, and particularly today, boss mods.
WoW’s raiding and dungeon gameplay has been irrevocably changed by boss mods and the expectation that players have them. WoW’s current-tier fights are always dense with mechanics, because the expectation is that players will likely have an addon barking at them for the core stuff, so you need to layer things on to make challenge. While the game has made use of integrated boss shouts and the yellow-text popups to warn you of things a boss is doing, those are not suitable replacements for everything a boss mod does. For a majority of the playerbase, would content be doable without these mods? Absolutely, yes. LFR gameplay doesn’t really need timers and has a relaxed resolution ordering and timing for mechanics, and even Normal raiding is doable without boss mods with some focus. A lot of public indicators and data are that most WoW players don’t even raid, so it is a niche interest, but one that must be accounted for given the game’s design all the same.
But players use addons for more than just boss mods – far more, in fact. DPS meters, quest assistants, RP databases, inventory management, and more are all handled by the myriad addons WoW has accumulated from its long time as the most popular and played MMO in the world. It is rare to see anyone using a full-stock UI for WoW, unless they are very new to the game or have a potato PC that is weighed down by running addons (it used to be a lot more of a thing when system RAM was measured in MB still). One of Blizzard’s common practices per expansion is to take useful functionality from addons and find ways to integrate it into the stock UI, as a means of helping new players get their footing and have more useful and well-presented data at their fingertips.
Could addons work on console? Well…yes and no. Fallout 4 (a game whose developer and publisher are now owned by Microsoft, conveniently!) does support mods on console, through an in-game menu option and the Creation Club, a Bethesda-run repository that enables mods built by the community to be present through in-game menus, enabling their support on consoles. The array of options are pretty wide, and it is conceivable that something similar could be done for WoW.
The question then would be basic to ask but complicated to answer – how do addons on console for WoW work? On PC, you have a patchwork of mods that may or may not be updated for new patches, as developers quit the game and leave their work behind or simply stop updating a given mod. When I was still actively playing WoW, I used an addon called DialogKey that hadn’t been updated since early BfA, and early in Shadowlands, some change made to the game had reasonably good odds of breaking its functionality mid-session, so I’d be able to spacebar hop through dialog prompts and use number key responses instead of clicking, but then the numbers would break, or the spacebar accept prompts would fail, and there was no real rhyme or reason that I could see as a layman – it just kinda happened!
The comparison to Bethesda games with console mod support also calls to mind the fact that those games are very different from WoW – largely/entirely single-player experiences where patches and updates are unlikely to change major parts of the codebase. WoW’s UI options sometimes change patch-to-patch – addons like ElvUI that skin your UI with a visually coherent minimalist theme work decently well, but then you get a new UI window with flashy visuals like the upcoming Cypher of the First Ones in 9.2, a UI element with its own unique code under the hood, and now skinning that element is borked for the addon and development has to be done to fix it. There are a lot of things like this in WoW, where new code and UI changes are made to suit the gameplay, which is fine, but it does mean addon support is more precarious for WoW than it would be for a single-player, offline Bethesda title.
In the long-term, there are also implications from listing addons in-game, the appearance of support for certain addons over others, and what it might mean if an addon is removed from the in-game repository – all of which are thornier questions of process. Configuring a lot of WoW’s UI options with a controller would be…a lot, and the reliance on console commands to call up and work with many addons could be offputting on controller, where you’d either need a USB keyboard hooked up (which many console MMO players do anyways) or you’d need to spend substantially longer configuring things. Of course, the long game would be for addon developers to make console-friendly menus with larger fonts, proper controller navigation, and the like – but at a hypothetical console launch for WoW, it would be a long road towards those things becoming standard.
The lack of baseline keyboard use on consoles brings up a final point – communications. WoW is a very chat-based game, as efforts to launch in-game voice comms have not yielded any substantial uptake. Chatting without a keyboard would be torture, as a virtual keyboard would be needed, and that takes so long to use in any meaningful conversational context, and while there is a case to be made that WoW could be a lot better if your average trade chat trolls had to type everything on a virtual keyboard, it would be a nuisance. FFXIV’s attempt to solve this (and the potential language crossovers that exist thanks to the game having a playerbase that spans the globe all on the same game client version and code) is a set of shorthand commands for in-game communication. These display with a weird arrow framing in the chat window, and the game client auto-translates these to the language of the chat viewer, so that I can tell a Gunbreaker tank to use their Superbolide invulnerability cooldown, and using those macros, it would say (Superbolide) (Please use it.) to me and other English-speakers in the party, but would translate to any of the game’s supported languages based on the client settings of the player. It works, and it isn’t awful, but it’s definitely limited, as it only has game-based prompted (ability names, class and job names, zones, etc) and basic social prompts (things to tell people mechanic handling, basic social dialogue, and the like), so it is a bit like cave drawings – you might convey something, but you’re trying to piece it together from a very strange patchwork. It also requires menu navigation or setting sayings to macros, which then eats into cross hotbar space, and now a problem is brewing!
However, all of that is ultimately solvable in some form, and while some of these present genuine problems to some players, it could be argued (successfully, even!) that the core of WoW’s current playerbase may not run into any of these issues given that the average WoW player, by most public data, runs gameplay where the stock UI is more than sufficient and in line with that, a console port makes a lot of sense. If you wanted an experience with parity in-line with FFXIV, where Playstation users are fully able to participate in the high-end of the game (the Savage group I sometimes run with has a healer who plays on PC…with a controller!), some updates and considerations would be needed. It’s not an insurmountable issue, but one that would take thoughtful consideration.
WoW On Game Pass?
The second concept to tackle today kind of feeds the first – what are the possibilities for World of Warcraft to end up on the Xbox Game Pass service?
Firstly, in case you haven’t checked it out or been bombarded with marketing about it from Microsoft, the Game Pass service is a subscription that is, in a manner of speaking, Netflix for games. Through a monthly subscription, you can download and install a large selection of games – all fully included base games, with titles for both Xbox and PC. Microsoft’s entire first-party library has day and date simultaneous retail and Game Pass release, with some rare pre-release events and beta tests (like for Halo Infinite multiplayer) being made available to Game Pass subscribers. Microsoft’s fully-owned first party content generally stays on the service in perpetuity, with third-party titles being offered on a rotating basis, with a couple months to play through a myriad of non-Microsoft titles before they disappear from the service.
Game Pass is an interesting proposition for WoW. Right now, WoW can be a hard sell to a newcomer, because of the sheer amount of monetization they have to overcome to get into the game. There’s a free trial that is full play to level 20, after which you need a subscription to level 50, and then you need to buy Shadowlands to unlock the full breadth of current content. There’s subscription options for 1, 3, or 6 months, and prepaid game time purchases in 1-month increments. There’s cash shop items, digital collector’s bonuses, and paid services. In order to fact check this before writing, I had to read through two different pages on the WoW site to make sure I had things in order, because the game used to be buy the base game, buy the expansions, pay for game time.
For veteran players, WoW’s pricing and model can be a tough sell in current times as well. When the content faucet is a steady trickle, most are generally quite happy to pay and stay, but in the present era, paying for 6 months and getting a single patch in that entire subscription time (which, in Shadowlands, doesn’t even guarantee fully new content!) feels pretty bad. If I tried to get someone into WoW in 2022, it would be very tough to sell someone on paying $15 a month to do things over and over again on loop with no new content date in sight. It is currently a hard sell even to WoW veterans, many of whom I know have unsubbed to wait for the new stuff or have simply been spurred to move on from the game altogether.
Game Pass presents a lot of possible options in my head for how things could be made better. First, let’s discuss the possibilities and then we’ll anchor it to some realities under current examples.
Firstly, the best thing I can think of is for WoW’s base sub to be folded into Game Pass. The top-tier Ultimate Game Pass, with access on both Xbox and PC, included Xbox Gold for console multiplayer, EA Play access for EA games added alongside it, and cloud gaming, is $15 a month. Hell of a deal compared to one game on one platform for the same price, eh? Right now, subscribing to World of Warcraft is a choice, one with a high barrier to retention in the game’s currently-abundant series of content draughts. It being on Xbox Game Pass would be an ideal state, where, folded into hundreds of other games, suddenly becomes more interesting to a larger audience.
The question in that scenario, then, is more complicated, because you can fold the base game, the base game plus expansions, or all of the above plus the subscription in with Game Pass, so how do you choose? In my perfect world, WoW on Game Pass would be treated like a full game without DLC, so you’d be able to play all of WoW with Game Pass, no extra subscription, and then you’d have the cash shop options on the side in their glory. I think the main objection to the cash shop (it certainly is mine, at least) is that it feels very greedy and bad alongside a game where you have to buy the game itself and pay a subscription. In a world where access is baseline with Game Pass, the cash shop becomes a lot more interesting and feels less predatory in that way. When I pay a six-month subscription for a single game and the only truly new content that releases in that time is a cash shop mount, that feels awful, almost aggressive in a way, no matter how cool the actual mount is (sorry Sunwarmed Feline). If I can keep with WoW at my own pace via Game Pass, and that same scenario happens – well, it might still be weird in a way, but it doesn’t feel anywhere near as awful, because my subscription has many other games in it and there’s still a lot I can do for that $15 a month.
From a game design perspective, there’s space for being on Game Pass to be liberating, too. So many of WoW’s current woes with design – crude and clearly artificial timegates being the biggest one – rest on the fact that as a business, the game has to encourage subscribers to come along and stay there. If something takes 2 months of game time but only 20 minutes per day of effort, for a percentage of the playerbase, that is going to shatter illusions. If WoW does not need to maintain those subscribers solely on its own efforts, however – the design space is open to return to more well-worn design paradigms the game has had, or even something completely new that returns to a respect of player agency and free choice. Of course, they could do this right now…but the current team seems pretty resistant to that idea and intent to force very-artificial restraints onto play sessions that create dragging grinds with little choice or agency other than doing it or not. The perception externally is that the pressure to move in this direction comes from above, from Activision suits who don’t give a shit about fun games or artistic expression, and if that is true, removing them alone will go a long way towards helping this, but liberating WoW from having to be a stand-alone subscription product would help as well.
Even if the Game Pass inclusion is just the base game and subscription with paid expansions, that would work pretty well – better than now, arguably. Game Pass typically offers discounted DLC purchases, and so putting WoW expansions up at a discounted price would be a great idea. Maybe not as ideal as the dreamscape I just painted, but pretty good.
But now we must come back down to reality, and there is a mix of news both good and bad there.
We don’t have to speculate as much about what an MMO could look like on Game Pass, because such a game already exists – Elder Scrolls Online (thank you to Pallais for pointing this out to me!). ESO is currently an Xbox Game Pass title, under circumstances quite similar to our hypothetical – launched outside the Microsoft umbrella, developer/publisher purchased by MS, and then integrated into Game Pass. ESO differs slightly from WoW in that it is, at its core, a buy-to-play game with perks you can purchase or subscribe for. The business model is built on selling the base game and expansions, and then using incentives to convince you to get ESO Plus, their lite-subscription that unlocks multiple perks including access to expansion content if you have not purchased it (save for the most recent expansion, as of this writing).
ESO on Game Pass refutes a lot of the optimistic ideas I listed above. ESO on Game Pass is the base game and first expansion only (the same as you would get for buying the base game on its own), and while it gives you a discount on expansions in-line with the normal DLC discounts on Game Pass, you still have to buy them separately, as well as subscribing to ESO Plus if you want those perks.
If we assume that WoW would use the same model, then, the deal is substantially less sweet. Base access to WoW isn’t really a thing sans subscription – so while you might be able to launch and play the free trial if it mapped identically to how ESO handles the Game Pass, you wouldn’t really get anything new or unique in the business model. They could make it so that you get the base game plus current expansions – but then you’d still need to pay a subscription for the game, and that raises the question of if the Game Pass inclusion is even worth it, not to mention that WoW’s problem is almost never in selling the expansion to existing and lapsed players alike (they happily tout how many copies an expansion sells in 24 hours at each launch, only to never touch on player metric data again short of Blizzard-level MAUs, wonder why?) but in retaining those players past the opening. They could maybe use it to mark down expansion and cash shop purchases, which would be a reasonably good deal, but it still keeps the business model much the same.
Through that lens, the Game Pass talk is far less exciting. There’s little reason to say flatly that the ESO model is the only way an MMO will ever work on Game Pass, but there’s likewise little reason to suggest that it will change, either. If WoW does end up getting ported to Xbox, perhaps there’s some chance they evaluate the model and change it to suit WoW (the ESO model does not neatly map 1:1 to WoW’s and WoW is orders of magnitude larger in terms of mainstream awareness and perception), but that is difficult to predict. I personally think there’s a lot of upside to the idea of WoW on Game Pass as a flat access proposition, with the cash shop running up the numbers, but I am also not a business analyst and I am thinking of the idea from the player-centric perspective – in that regard, I think more people having access to WoW and a chance to try it free of the pressures of it needing to be independently worth $15 a month is powerful stuff, but I could very well be wrong or setting the game on a death trajectory to lose money.
Wrap It Up
Overall, with the time from the initial announcement to now to think on it, I have a fair bit more optimism for the long-term future of WoW than I did even just prior to the news. I don’t think Microsoft automatically fixes every issue (and I think a lot of people are far too optimistic about the implications of this move), but I think that fresh leadership is going to help WoW become something better again. A big part of this optimism is grounded – Minecraft under Microsoft has thrived and grown far more than it ever would have under just Mojang (especially given Notch and his…uh, everything), so it isn’t completely utopian thinking to believe that the change in ownership will impact the game itself, but it won’t be the only thing needed for WoW to dust itself off and get running towards the lead again.
Either way, we have a lot of waiting in front of us before the path becomes clear, and so until then, I guess speculation will remain rampant!