24 October, 2011
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?