Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

24 October, 2011

Thoughts about WoW and pandas
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 12:37 AM

So, the blogs have been abuzz with the big announcement out of BlizzCon about the “Mists of Pandaria” expansion to World of Warcraft. I figured I’d give my point of view on it, with the usual caveats, of course.

Those caveats

I stopped playing WoW early in “Wrath of the Lich King” and came back briefly for a free trial during the early days of “Cataclysm”. I mostly played WoW to spend time with friends, although I did a bit of raiding, mostly during “The Burning Crusade”. So, I’m definitely a former WoW player, not an enthusiastic current player. But, I read enough blogs and am interested enough in MMOs to have an opinion. I am still a blogger, after all. :)

I’ll also note that I haven’t watched any of the BlizzCon coverage myself. I’m getting my news from second-hand sources, so I could be woefully misinformed. And, of course, details will get lost in the noise. The whole point of BlizzCon is to get people pumped up, so the developers will be long on promises but short on details.

Pandas? Why’d it have to be pandas?

A number of people seem worked up about the fact that Blizzard is focusing on the Pandaren. Taking a look at the WoWWiki page on the Pandaren shows there’s a lot of information there about the new race. For what some people dismiss as an April Fool’s joke that has gone on too long, there seems to be quite a bit of information there. And as a comment author on a site I can’t remember said (paraphrasing), a race of kung fu pandas fits just fine next to the talking cows and space goats with interdimensional space ships.

What I suspect is happening here is that many people are not happy with WoW and are using any excuse to reaffirm their dislike of the game. They’re coming up with excuses why they don’t like the game. What this really means is that they are no longer in the target demographic for the game. Sucks when it happens to you with a game you’ve loved for so long.

It’s interesting, because the word is that Pandaren were supposed to be the Alliance race added during “The Burning Crusade”. Scuttlebutt was that they weren’t added because of issues with the Chinese version of the game. Chinese censorship of games is an old issue, where the government has supposedly restricted the portrayal of skeletons. (Although one source says the delaying of WoW’s “Wrath of the Lich King” expansion was more due to strife between Blizzard and their former licensee than in the Chinese government’s censorship.) But, at any rate, WoW has been changed before to meet the cultural expectations of the Chinese market, so I suspect it will happen again.

Neutral race

From a cost point of view, having the Pandaren be neutral is a great way not to have to add two whole new races. It also seems that one group feels slighted by the new race added in an expansion, so both sides win this time.

But, there seem to be lots of potential problems. Starting with the fact that people who meet in a newbie area might end up being unable to reconnect with a friend who picked the opposite side. Unless the Pandaren can communicate on both sides…. although the re-focus on the Horde vs. Alliance war (discussed below) seems to make that option seem, sadly, less likely. The other problem is that in PvP it’s useful to be able to pick out if that individual is friend or foe by easy visual cues. People complained in “The Burning Crusade” that the “pretty” Blood Elves messed that up, but with the same race being on both sides, things will be even more confused.

Classy monks

I enjoy the Monk class in DDO, it was the primary class of my first level 20 character after all. The description of not relying on auto-attack sounds interesting, again seeing as how that’s what DDO does. We’ll see how it works out, but having a melee-capable healing class sounds like it’ll step on a few toes in the typical holy trinity design. Then again, the Death Knights were pretty overpowered and could do both DPS and taking roles really easily, stepping on the toes of the existing hybrid classes that seemed hobbled in one way or another to “make up” for the flexibility hybrids had. I suspect we’ll see a similar cycle as we saw with Death Knights, where Monks will be super-powerful and have some neat perks and therefore being the flavor of the month for many people. Eventually things will be brought back to equilibrium once it’s no longer a major selling point.

Talent trees pruned

My eyebrow was raised so high it almost left my face and went into orbit when I read over at Elder Game that WoW removed talent trees. The system put in place is interesting. It does seem interesting that the designers are announcing a replacement so quickly after the major restructuring that came with Cataclysm. I suspect this means that the designers see the Cataclysm revamp as having failed, as Eric alludes to, and this is an attempt to scramble to improve it.

It’s a shame, because I like choices and that includes the ability to make the wrong ones. I enjoyed playing specs that leave other people scratching their head at how I could do so well. I liked the ability to customize my character so that I didn’t necessarily have to come out on top of the DPS meters, but throwing around a few in-combat heals might mean the difference between the raid squeaking by instead of wiping. But, this type of choice comes at the risk of others disliking your choices.

The ultimate problem is that there’s always going to be the perception of what’s better or more powerful, and then you get the community pretty much demanding that exact “perfect” spec if you’re “serious” about the game, particularly something competitive. Of course, you could say this is a consequence with the game being so simplistic where one measurement (durability for tanks, DPS for DPS, healing output for healers, survivability for PvP) defines a character so entirely. When everything must increase that measurement in the particular situations it’ll be used (raids, questing, PvP), then you’ll get all choices boiled down to one “perfect” option. Reducing the choices to once per 15 levels won’t necessarily fix this problem, although it’ll make the advice of others easier to follow. I fear it will also take away a little bit of what people feel makes their character unique compared to others, though. WoW has been all about having people make small, frequent choices to keep them interested in the game, so this is a pretty major departure.

I’ll quote Nils here, because I find this insightful:
It baffles me that the developers apparently consider having to look up boss strategies a no brainer, but having to look up speccs worth revamping the talents every other expansion.

My point of view is that looking something up shouldn’t be the default assumption in either place. Let people play the way they like and approach it in their own way.

Diablo III gratis

Honestly, giving out Diablo III to people who sign up for WoW for a year is a brilliant move. It’s obviously intended to puff up numbers for both declining WoW subscriptions and will probably give a nice bump to Diablo III sales they’ll report. It’ll also encourage a few people to sign up for the longer subscriptions, which result in more short-term profit as money is collected up front instead of being spread out every month. This tactic is an indisputable win for Blizzard Activision.

Battle pets

Although I’m not surprised that Pokémon-lover The Ancient Gaming Noob and daughter are happy, my reaction is definitely more “Meh.” Pet battles were an option in EQ2, but I could never find anyone to do a battle with when I played.

I will admit that I was never fond of the WoW pets, they were mostly a grind back when I played. The few I did value were the ones you could get from completing quests rather than praying for a lucky one in a thousand drop by AoE-slaughtering certain creatures. My most used pet in WoW was the Bombay cat (which was easy to obtain), because I’m a fan of black cats in the offline world. (Funny enough, my EQ2 character was a black-furred Kerra… Okay, perhaps not so surprising.)

I suspect this will make the in-game mini-pet market go wild, probably to the detriment of people who like collecting the mini-pets for the sake of having them.

Moar war!

The last bit of news is that they’re going to focus more on the war between Alliance and Horde. My response is a hearty*yawn*. I was never a fan of WoW’s PvP system, and the contrivance of the war between the factions was silly at the best of times. I personally liked the TBC era because both sides were arguably more focused on fighting the external threat from the Outlands rather than trying to thump each other. The inclusion of the Pandaren race could have opened up some interesting diplomatic options, but it looks like that’s being discounted.

Can’t say I’m surprised, though. This re-focus on the War part of Warcraft was also a major part of the Cataclysm revamp. I guess their data shows this was popular, but I’m more interested in social interaction rather than pwning the red side because I happened to have chosen the blue side.


Overall, this isn’t something that will make me come back. I’m not seeing anything so cool or interesting that I haven’t seen in other games before. I played WoW, I enjoyed it, but I’m quite obviously no longer in the target audience anymore.

Reading some of the hate aimed at Blizzard does make me sympathetic, though. I really do feel for the WoW developers as I’ve been in their situation before: working on an older game that most people consider past its prime. You balance between making changes that hopefully improve the parts that need to be improved, while trying to retain enough of the “old spirit” that kept people interested for so long in the first place. No matter what you do, someone will roll their eyes and complain.

So, what do you do? Add stuff and hope you keep your job, pander to the masses and hope the numbers go your way. But, I feel that this is perhaps a bit too conservative for the situation that WoW is in as the not-so-gracefully aging king of MMOs. Then again, it’s not my job on the line, and I know from personal experience that armchair game design or business decisions are easier than being in the trenches.

So, what do you think? Anything in particular stand out for you? Would there have been anything that would have kept you interested in WoW?


  1. I’m afraid the news I’ve seen haven’t made me want to return. Perhaps it’s logically wrong to get worked up about pandas; as you say there are spacegoats and whatnot in the game already. But for me they – and the landscape they come with – are just a bit too childish and too far away from the more traditional fantasy. What’s next? Will people get to play dolphins in the next expansion?

    Sure, there has always been a lot of odd things in the mix of wow but… this Asian flirt is just one spice too much for me, especially when it appears to get so dominating in this expansion. While I’m actually practicing a martial art myself after quitting gaming, I don’t think it fits into WoW. not at all. It’s a different game. They’re clearly changing their target group for the game to a younger audience than the one I once belonged to.

    Anyway – I’m not too sad to spend times on other stuff than playing MMOs. Maybe I’ll return one day. But not for WoW.

    Comment by Jessica — 24 October, 2011 @ 1:09 AM

  2. Since I like furry races, I can’t criticize the addition of the Pandaren. Also, given that they showed up in the previous expansion, they were to be expected as a playable race. People initially voiced disappointment that they weren’t, I seem to recall.

    Other than that, I’m not following the game much any longer. The changes you’ve listed here don’t seem very interesting to me.

    Comment by unwesen — 24 October, 2011 @ 1:53 AM

  3. Honestly? I think that this expansion is just a set-up for the next one. A chance to scale back on the intensity of the story and do some house-cleaning before the grand finale that’ll be the fifth expansion.

    That said, there’s a ton of missed opportunities. I’m surprised about Pet Battles (and expect it to get dropped). I also think the three coding teams need to start talking to each other and start incorporating certain features into their games as standard.

    This seems to be a very Marmite expansion…

    Comment by Gazimoff — 24 October, 2011 @ 2:31 AM

  4. Yum, Marmite!

    Comment by unwesen — 24 October, 2011 @ 2:41 AM

  5. I agree with most of your post, but it doesn’t surprise me that you are unable to understand the uproar about Pandas. You also think that buying armor for $ is a no brainer, so why should playing a Panda next to an undead be a problem? Aren’t undead silly, too? Different people seem to think very differently about questions of style and immersion.

    I see no way to explain this to you. Really. But you have to believe me that Pandas really crossed the line. And I’m not alone. In fact, I think I am with the casual majority here. The hardcore gamers look at the mechanics and the metagame. But the casual folks look at the style and they feel that this isn’t right. About 50% of voters (30.000 by now) dislike the trailer on youtube! Only 1.6% disliked the WotLK trailer.

    Comment by Nils — 24 October, 2011 @ 3:36 AM

  6. Considering you say you haven’t even been following the primary sources, that’s probably the most detailed summary I’ve read so far.

    As I was replying my reply got so long I thought I’d turn into a post on my own blog rather than gum up your comments section with a wall of text. Don’t think the trackback thing works with Blogger so I just put a link.

    On the Pokemon-style pet battles, I don’t really think the EQ2 comparison holds water. When EQ2 was in development they categorically stated that it would not have any PvP other than duels. There was no PvP server at launch. There was, of course, a continual clamor for PvP and the Arena pet system that came with the Desert of Flames expansion was the half-assed compromise they came up with so they could have PvP and not have PvP at the same time. To no-one’s surprise it was a complete failure. No-one used it and eventually EQ2 got a PvP server.

    The big difference as I see it is that in WoW people already have and love their mini-pets. The new system adds functionality to that pre-existing form. In EQ2 no-one had, or probably has even now, any affection for or attachment to their arena pet. Also, the EQ2 ones are largely nasty-looking monsters whereas the WoW ones are cute, cuddly pets.

    Comment by bhagpuss — 24 October, 2011 @ 3:45 AM

  7. To echo Bhagpuss, the EQ2 pet battles were so limited, and fixed in Maj’Dul, that there was little surprise that almost nobody kept at them. I still have one of those pets wandering around in my house in EQ2. But you could only choose from a list of three at the start and there wasn’t much in the way of customization.

    I just hope that Blizz manages to integrate their pet battle vision into the game. I have no use for another game within a game, ala Legends of Norrath.

    Comment by Wilhelm Arcturus — 24 October, 2011 @ 9:22 AM

  8. I’m currently playing WoW and will probably buy the next xpac.

    The thing about the talent tree revamp that struck me is that the new “talents” are either cooldowns or abilities that are now glyphs. Instead of choosing how to buff your character, this iteration has you choosing which cooldowns and glyphs you want. That’s a radically different approach but I think I like it. Definitely more interesting than the option of buffing your main attack by 3/6/9%. Anyway, substantial choice in talents hasn’t existed since Wrath. I think the idea of talent trees was great when WoW launched but the success of theorycrafters and reference sites has largely diminished their appeal.

    I’m OK with Pandas but I wonder if a lot of the dislike out there has to do with them not fitting into a medieval, European fantasy world. Minotaurs are consistent in a way that heavily Asian themes are not. On the other hand, trolls are tropical and WoW has leaned heavily on Egyptian/African themes since the start. What effect has the European colonial experience had on medieval fantasy themes?

    I don’t see a lot of downside to the neutral race option. Worgen and Goblin starting zones are effectively isolated and on rails such that faction affiliation doesn’t matter. They also don’t encourage/reward social interaction so my suspicion is that most people will be whisked through the panda starting zone fast enough that any on-server social ties will come after the faction choice. PvP will be interesting. It’s my main focus these days but I don’t decide whom to attack based on the character model.

    Comment by Michael — 24 October, 2011 @ 10:37 AM

  9. Also on the talent trees, the old model wasn’t scaling well. Adding more and more talents with every expansion created a very bloated tree with lots of uninspiring choices. Adding more talents to each spec meant re-doing key talents so that they were available at the right time to the right people. I suspect they also foresaw exponential spec-balance issues.

    This sounds great from an explorer POV but it did have significant downsides.

    Comment by Michael — 24 October, 2011 @ 10:46 AM

  10. Technically, new talent model allows for much greater flexibility – like finally decoupling feral tank/feral dps specs (so druids are getting four specs).

    This can lead to many exciting (for game designers) models or new unique gameplay styles. Ranged Damage Holy Paladins? Finally true support for Holy Priest DPS? Maybe radical change to anything that is currently represented by low-tier all-spec mandatory talents by making them either unavailable or truly different for different specs?

    Problem is, with whole overhaul thing and rebalancing required, everything shows they’ll be busy transferring current models to new system, as well as toying with classes here and there as usual. Truly exciting stuff might come in expansion after Mysts, by which point it might be too little, too late…

    Comment by Shalcker — 24 October, 2011 @ 11:39 AM

  11. I think hating on Pandas is just an excuse for most people I’ve read. Anthropomorphic cows are dumber than pandas, and we’ve been OK with the Tauren since WC3 (when I thought they were pretty silly, honestly). I just can’t get worked up about another furry race when it seems like they are the majority of humanoids on Azeroth in the first place. If anything, I’d be more surprised to find out that a new race in the game looked a lot like humans (coughBloodElvescough). Thing is, humans are covered, and “race” in the game is more like “species” anyway.

    The PvP profile thing will be interesting, though. I do think they should have done a third faction, though. I know, it’s too late to do that in WoW, but it seems to me that a third faction could open up a lot of design space.

    Comment by Tesh — 24 October, 2011 @ 11:57 AM

  12. Blizzcon 2011 Blogosphere Reactions: General

    [...] Psychochild analyses each major point in turn[...]

    Pingback by MMO Melting Pot — 24 October, 2011 @ 4:06 PM

  13. My take on the whole situation from a business move is that this is a pretty brilliant move not just short term but also long term for Blizzard. That is the D3 giveaway. I detailed why in my blog and as a current player, I can tell you that I signed up for the Annual Pass immediately.

    SWTOR now has to be THAT much better for me to forsake the sunk cost of my year’s subscription and decide to play SWTOR. It’s more of a move to hedge against 2M subs leaving for SWTOR as it is anything else.

    Comment by Derek Licciardi — 24 October, 2011 @ 10:05 PM

  14. “I see no way to explain this to you. Really. But you have to believe me.”

    You do know that that makes you sound like a crazy person, right? :)

    Comment by matt — 25 October, 2011 @ 2:08 PM

  15. Also: really insightful posts from Michael.

    Comment by matt — 25 October, 2011 @ 2:09 PM

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