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I first heard about Blizzard’s decision to not release any new 5-man dungeons this expansion from The Grumpy Elf, and confirmed from this post on MMO-Champion. The interview itself is written in Foreigner, so I will just have to take the translation at face value.

On many levels, Blizzard’s decision makes sense. The revamped ZA and ZG heroics in Cataclysm were (true to title) a disaster, reducing entire tiers of content down to all trolls, all the time. New 5-mans were handled a bit better back in Wrath when integrated into the normal rotation, but even then you could experience wild swings in difficulty depending on whether you got Gundrak or Halls of Reflection (shudder).

Had Blizzard released new 5-mans in Mists, it could have shaken out in only two ways. One: the dungeon(s) still dropped 463 gear, at which point it would be largely irrelevant to everyone. Or, two: it released 476 or higher gear, and now nobody wants to run the obsoleted dungeons again (assuming they wanted to in the first place). And besides, in a world with LFR, there is little reason to double-down on raid catch-up mechanisms, right?

On the other hand… does this not strike anyone as profoundly lazy?

Let it sink in. There will be no new dungeons in 5.3, nor 5.4, nor a potential 5.5. There will be hundreds more garbage daily quests in which the writers don’t even bother papering over the naked time-sinking, of course. Will anyone still be doing Shieldwall dailies in 5.3? Or even in this patch, for that matter? Is all that “content” being obsoleted worse than a 5-man? There are a lot of in-game cinematics and lore going on in Krasarang Wilds, after all. It strikes me as odd that your dailies change from patch to patch, but the daily dungeons never will.

Then, I start thinking about the existence of 5-man dungeons to begin with. Why have them at all? Scenarios offer 50 Valor now (compared to 80 from LFG). And, most importantly, offer DPS players an instant queue. If LFR has replaced heroic dungeons as a raid catch-up mechanism, have Scenarios not usurped dungeons by the same token? The only thing holding Scenarios back is the asinine reward mechanism in the form of a random-stat blue item from the box (when it isn’t empty). Seriously, I got a 2H agility axe yesterday. Neither druids nor monks can use axes, so it amounts to wand with strength on it.

Maybe they're bringing back 2H Enhance Shaman?

Maybe they’re bringing back 2H Enhance Shaman?

Simply migrate all heroic dungeon gear to the random Scenario box, bump the Valor a bit, and now you never have to fashion another 5-man again.

Indeed, from the same interview I referenced before, this paraphrasing emerged:

More scenarios are coming in future patches. We may see very challenging three player scenarios with pretty good rewards.

Speaking of Strength wands, my thoughts then drifted to tank gear. Why should it exist? Blizzard came oh so very close to obsoleting all tanking gear this expansion, probably by accident. Indeed, up until the 5.2 changes, Dodge and Parry were the two worst stats for a Protection paladin. The two worst! For a tank! Since it seems “active mitigation” is here to stay, why not simply go all the way? Critical Strike rating is the only thing that marks something as being “for DPS only,” and it is a simple enough thing to add a passive to tanks where critical hits procs a Dodge buff or something. While there might be an increased competition for gear between tanks and DPS… oh wait, individual loot. Problem solved. And if necessary, Blizzard could keep the gem/enchanting situation the same, so that a tank in full DPS gear could gem for Stamina or whatever to differentiate himself/herself.

I am not trying to craft a reductio ad absurdum here. I am just asking what the actual point of 5-man content is supposed to be under this new “build some once and done” paradigm. Are they necessary for anything anymore? “Practice for raiding?” I don’t know if anyone would agree that they have such an effect, if they ever did. Group content is handled by Scenarios or daily island hellholes stuffed with overlapping elite mobs. Dungeons are almost quaint these days, vestigial relics propped up only by their rewards. If Scenarios offed 80 Valor, would anyone run dungeons? What if the box at the end dropped spec-appropriate gear from the dungeons?

This is how close we are: mere inches. The slightest of nudges, and we could be upon unknown soil. And, perhaps, not even notice a difference.


I have been collecting some of the Ghostcrawler tweets in regards to MoP alt-unfriendliness and the overall Blizzard pivot away from alts and back to mains, e.g. entrenchment of old subs vs new ones.

Q: Is the plan in Mists to have raiders go through each raid and let the new ones pile up or use LFR to leapfrog tiers?
A: Want to err on the side of the former. If you want to do 5.2 raid, you can gear up in 5.0 LFR. (source)

Q: Upgradeable gear is okay for honor gear, but it shouldn’t be for Conquest, as it’ll take months to catch up. Thoughts?
A: Problem with catch up (PvE or PvP) is it encourages everyone to play less. We like playing more to feel like it’s worth it. (source)

Q. is there any point in forcing people to be revered with golden lotus to do shado pan dailies?
A. Didn’t want fresh 90s to have to do GL and K and AC and SP and go crazy, then finish in a month and have nothing to do. (source)

Q. Do you want people to be entertained or do you want people to grind? For many the two are mutually exclusive.
A. Big challenge to MMO dev: players say they want quality but may also unsubscribe if they don’t have enough quantity. (source)

Q: How do you feel about the players getting to 90 just now and not being able to play arena competitively due to being behind
A: We want to reward players who keep playing. Too often in the past catch up was so easy that it trivialized accomplishments. (source)

Q. But you brought this trivialization of content yourselves starting with patch 3.2 >.> … what have you learned since then?
A. We learned not to let players catch up so trivially that it negates everyone else’s accomplishments. (source)

Q. Greg, you need to stop blaming the wrong things for cataclysm failures. Catch up mechanics dont hurt the game
A. We just disagree on that. I understand you have very strong feelings about how things should work. (source)

Q. efficiency is more fun than non-efficiency. non-efficiency = time wasting = frustration.
A. I don’t buy it. Some of the most fun things in life are stupidly inefficient. I think being inefficient in an MMO is a social thing. (source)
A. We call it the Mechanar syndrome. Players didn’t farm Mechanar because it was our crowning achievement in dungeon design. (source)

Q: linear progression was the worst idea you ever could return to.. you leave behind lots of alt-players and returners.
A. We understand that. But the alternative is that other players feel their accomplishments have no meaning if rapid catch up exists. (source)

I am having a difficult time trying to comprehend at which station Ghostcrawler’s logic train got derailed. “Catch-up” mechanics do not invalidate accomplishments; new raiding tiers do. Nobody cares about your Tier N achievements when Tier N+1 comes out, because why would they? Progression and envy are ever-moving targets, so “catch-up” is irrelevant to those desiring one or the other (or both). So we are left with… who? The people disappointed that their hard, planned obsolescent work was rendered meaningless by the next patch but “oh wait, at least I can try the next tier right away so it was worth something“?

No, it just doesn’t fit. What fits is that in the very nervous design meeting that took place two years ago when Cata was hemorrhaging players, it was decided that every goddamn trick in the book to extend playing time was tossed up on the Mists whiteboard. Burning Crusade slideshows were dusted off and replayed. “Things for Player to Do at Cap” was underlined, twice. Removing catch-up mechanisms does, in fact, “generate” several additional raid playthroughs that would not have existed otherwise. But in that TBC playbook, Blizzard glossed over the postmortem section that warned “You can never go home again.”

Raids (etc) have shelf-lives independent of their necessity for linear progression; old raids become mentally reduced to roadblocks, just something you have to endure on your way to where you actually want to be, i.e. with everyone else. It’s tough being proud of accomplishments nearly everyone else achieved months ago, nevermind how the first boss of the next tier has drops that blows your endgame gear out of the water. And this is besides the fact that the longer the raid has aged, the smaller the pool of people willing/available to run it. Queues go up. Mistakes are less tolerated. It becomes a vicious, decaying spiral… which is precisely why the “Current Tier” model of Wrath and Cata was the better design.

I get that people are sad that raids like Ulduar become irrelevant in mere months. But that happens even in linear progression models! Ulduar ceases to be Ulduar when the people zoning in are just there to get a high enough ilevel to unlock ToC. The magic of these places is not wholly contained in the encounters themselves, but in the Time as well. Being there when the whole server was struggling to defeat the same bosses, congratulating each other on loot, and knowing that each gear drop was the best in the game (at that time). That was when Ulduar was Ulduar.

You can’t go home again.

So, yeah. I don’t buy it, Ghostcrawler. Even if the devs truly believe they are going back to linear progression out of deference to the high school quarterbacks of the moot accomplishment world, they are going about it in the wrong way. iLevel gating was a huge improvement over attunements precisely because it was more flexible. Removing or reducing the catch-up mechanisms is simply bringing back the Keys, complete with all its (alt-unfriendly) baggage. If Mists does not lose players over this – relegating the new player or recently returned to the back of the bus under mountains of required, outdated content – it will be because other areas of the game improved enough to compensate.

That Panda Trailer


Why must you make it so difficult?

From a technical perspective, the Mists of Pandaria trailer was good. I even laughed when the human handed the orc the spear. But like Rohan, I was left confused as to its purpose. The Pandaren are not a third faction, and all the Pandaren that would be joining the Alliance or Horde are obviously not fighting for “harmony.” I am already sold on the idea of the expansion and the lack of a unifying, spotlight villain. But this trailer… does not excite me in any way.

Just take a few minutes and watch the original WoW trailer again:

I have not watched that in 3+ years and I still got chills from it. Same with the TBC trailer, especially with the WotLK cinematic, and… well, it is still kinda cool how the Cataclysm trailer presented the whole “welding plates on a dragon” thing, even though I cared not for Deathwing himself.

I dunno. As mentioned before, I have nothing against pandas, Pet Combat systems, or anything that comes across as overtly “childish.” I mean, c’mon: gnomes.

But I am also acutely aware that MoP is going to be fighting an image battle for its entire duration, regardless of the merits of the actual game itself. And more to the point, people playing MoP are going to be the ones fighting that image battle alone, if this cinematic trailer is any indication. This expansion is going to be filled with bloody, Horde vs Alliance massacres and betrayals, and Blizzard reinforces the stereotypes at the tips of everyone’s tongues the moment they hear the words “panda” and “monk.”

This is either going to be a long two years, or a short one.

WoW Loses Another Million+ Subs

That is right, kiddos, WoW is down to 9.1 million. It hasn’t been this low since January 2008.

In what must only be completely unrelated news, WoW has shattered all previous records for “longest time without a new content patch.” No, seriously. Dragon Soul was released November 29th, 2011. It is now eight months later. When I relayed this to my friend, he didn’t believe me. The gap between ICC and Cataclysm felt like more than a year. Well, I said, let’s look at the timeline:

  • December 8th, 2009 – ICC released.
  • February 2nd, 2010 – final wing of ICC opened.
  • June 30th, 2010 – Ruby Sanctum released.
  • September 7th, 2010 – the gnome/troll world events start.
  • October 7th, 2010 – WoW hits 12 million players (!).
  • October 12th, 2010 – Patch 4.0.1, with all the new talents/class changes.
  • November 23rd, 2010 – The Shattering, all new 1-60 experience.
  • December 7th, 2010 – Cataclysm launch.

So, yes, in a strictly literal sense it was a whole year between ICC release and Cataclysm launch. Looking at that list though, shit happened. There was a filler raid, there were world events, and I always have a blast when we get to toy around with the next expansion’s talent changes early. In between TBC and the Wrath launch, I remember soloing most of heroic Underbog on my Ret paladin to cap out my Sporeggar reputation, for example.

Now look at Cataclysm:

  • November 29th, 2011 – Dragon Soul released.
  • August 3rd, 2012 – I wrote a blog post.

I mean, come on. A $300 million MMO was released, floundered, and went F2P in that same timeframe!

Only Blizzard gets away with this shit. Good lord.

Scroll of Ridiculous Value

Obviously there has been a lot of talk about the Scroll of Resurrection‘s instant level 80 character thing. But equally fascinating to me is all the other value-added things they stuffed in there. When they took the Scroll down the first time, I assumed it was because Blizzard was seeing people being Scroll’d and then defeating Deathwing via LFR before the week(s?) was up. Now? This is what you get:

  • Upgrade to Wrath. ($19.96)
  • Upgrade to Cataclysm ($26.99)
  • 7 Days of game time. (~$3.50)
  • Server Transfer. ($25.00)
  • Faction Transfer. ($30.00)
  • Free level 80 toon ($X)

Total potential value: $105.45 + $X.

When I quit WoW ~6 months ago, my criteria for ever returning was basically “when they started discounting server/faction transfers.” The game itself had not stopped being fun, it was the gradual bleed of friends that made me question the subscription. Even if I resubbed tomorrow, I would still be on the same shit low-pop server, stuck with the same inverted community. I have five level 85 characters and 400k+ gold that I’m not about to let rot, but neither am I paying $50+ a pop to save them. Simply put, there is a pretty severe barrier to reentry at this point.

So when said friends hit me up on Vent yesterday to chat, I knew the Scroll pitch was coming. And in some ways it was very, very tempting. The mental scenario played out like this:

  1. Friend rolls level 1 Horde toon on healthy server, sends Scroll.
  2. Accept Scroll.
  3. Delete an unused character, roll level 1 druid.
  4. Get the druid to level 80 instantly.
  5. Load druid up with 50k gold (the max transfer limit), other items.
  6. Free Server Transfer + Faction Change the druid.
  7. Paid Server Transfer + Faction Change for main.

That would get me a decent fraction of my wealth onto a new server, plus the ability to perhaps LFR Deathwing in that free week, plus a level 80 version of the only class I never played before, and technically a server/faction transfer at 50% off.

There are some unknowns, of course. Would I have to do the Server/Faction transfer immediately, or could I delay it? Are you leveled to 80 only after you move? Can someone send a Scroll from a level 1 character? Do I really want WoW back in my life, now, when there is probably another 6 months of just Deathwing?

The funny thing is… maybe it doesn’t matter. Even if I simply accept the Scroll on my main in order to just get the free server/faction transfer, maybe that’s enough. Log in, move the one toon, screw around for a week, let it expire. Then wait for the next promotion. By the time Mists finally rolls around, perhaps I will have moved several more toons somewhere else by using Scrolls every 3 months.

But OMG instant level 80 WTF?

It may be my relative distance from the game, but this does not strike me as particularly controversial or counter-intuitive as it may seem.

First, the Scroll can only be used on paid accounts created before March 4th. Brand new players are not getting level 80 toons right off the bat.

Secondly, and more importantly, nobody is really “skipping” the revamped 1-60 Cataclysm content here. If you were a veteran, you either saw it already or don’t exactly care about the questing your alts do. And if you do care, well, just don’t accept the level 80, yeah?

If you were someone who quit before Cataclysm, say at the end of Wrath or TBC or even vanilla, you are already past the revamped starting experience. This piece of the promotion is about skipping TBC and Wrath leveling, not 1-60. And if you are making a level 1 toon to take advantage of the instant leveling, then you have already decided that the new questing experience isn’t worth your time.

Does this set a troubling precedent? Well, maybe, maybe not. Death Knights are instant level 55. The Recruit-a-Friend promotion grants triple XP to both characters, and the referring account gets free levels to apply to toons up to level 60 – back in the day, I “recruited” myself to dual-box a rogue and priest to 60, then gave my level 28 hunter the free levels until he was 58. Nowadays, the triple XP lasts until level 80, and you can grant a total 40 free levels.

The one argument I am sympathetic towards is the lack of veteran rewards. If you have been dutifully playing and paying WoW all this time, you have gotten nothing. Sure, you have had the enjoyment and wonder of playing the game for the last X years, but you have paid for it in cash and tears. Promotions like the Scroll are great for people like me who might not have ever been tempted to hop back on the train, but it also makes the calculus of bothering to tough out the dry spells awfully fuzzy.

If I do end up pulling the trigger, I’m definitely letting the sub lapse again later. Because… why not? An unstable subscription is apparently worth more to Blizzard than a stable one. It sounds backwards and dumb, but it is perfectly rational in its own way. I paid $85 for a game (ME3) on Day 1 when I could have gotten that same game for $50+ less a few months from now. The people already subscribing/buying Day 1 are money in the bank; they need no convincing.

Moral of the story: it pays to play hard to get.

Of course, that probably works about as well in the long-term as it does in real relationships.

Established Fact

In one of Syncaine’s latest posts, a commenter made the claim:

WoW is bleeding accounts because people are finally realizing that being handed everything with minimal effort and no risk is, in actuality, not that much fucking fun over the long run.

After I presented the counter-argument that it was established fact that increased difficulty was principally the cause of WoW subscriber drop-off, Rammstein “countered” with this:

Anything that Chilton says to the New York Times is “established fact”? LOL. You never considered any of the following?

1. He could be lying.

2. He could be wrong, which looks more likely when you consider he is part of the design team responsible for the drop.

3. He could be both lying and wrong, the most probable scenario.

4. He could be right. In this horribly unlikely case, what he said is STILL NOT ESTABLISHED FACT, as that would require something establishing it as a fact besides someone just saying it to someone else.

Syncaine agreed with Rammstein and made another post highlighting it. So… let us give these arguments the gravity their authors did not.

1. He could be lying.

Sure, Tom Chilton could be lying to the New York Times. But… to what end? His specific line is:

“What we’re trying to do now is figure out what our current audience wants,” Tom Chilton, World of Warcraft’s game director, told me by phone last week. “It became clear that it wasn’t realistic to try to get the audience back to being more hard core, as it had been in the past.”

Is that supposed to be less embarrassing? An admission from the game’s director that they don’t know what their present audience wants, in an article about the release of Star Wars: The Old Republic? What could they be hiding that is worse? Assuming Syncaine and company are correct vis-a-vis lack of difficulty being the cause, it would be far, far easier to admit that WoW had deviated too far from what “made WoW great” and that Cataclysm was the first step in the right direction.

Except… Cataclysm clearly wasn’t a step in the right direction because it was released with a higher difficulty and 2 million people left anyway. So how convoluted does your difficulty argument have to be to still remain valid? That people hated the ease of Wrath, burned themselves out, got served a difficult expansion, and then quit 2-3 months later after getting exactly what they wanted/needed? The nerfs did not occur until after the loss in subscriptions, after the 50+ minute LFD queues. Or is the argument that the hardcore center hollowed out in Wrath? In which case… who were the 2 million who unsubbed in Cataclysm?

Even if we assume that Chilton was lying to the NYT for whatever reason, for that argument to hold you must further assume that it was not just Chilton, but the entire damn company. Here was Mike Morhaime in the November Earning call:

That said, we know there are improvements that we can make in gaming content. The level-up content in Cataclysm is some of our best works. But it was consumed quickly compared to our past expansions set, Wrath of the Lich King. Once players reached max level, the end-game content in Cataclysm is more difficult. Balancing this content for our diverse player base can be very challenging.

Our development team is constantly analyzing the game, and we’re continuing to explore ways that we can adjust the game to better satisfy both hard-core and casual players. To that end, our next free major content update for World of Warcraft is already in testing and will be available for players in the coming weeks.

I could post more. In fact, I did post more… back in March of 2011 as I put the backpedaling on a timeline starting from January 7th’s “We don’t think it was a mistake to start with the difficulty we did” to February 3rd’s “On the other hand, maybe things have come too far in the other direction.” The whole gang is there: Zarhym, Daxxarri, Bashiok, Ghostcrawler. Were they just repeating Chilton’s lie for the past 12 months?

Not only were they lying with words, they also had to be lying with deeds. Consider the LFD Luck of the Draw buff that rolled out not even two weeks after Ghostcrawler told everyone to L2P. Consider the absolute bevvy of heroic nerfs, the T11 nerfs, the ZA/ZG nerfs, the 4.2 nerfs before the end of the patch (!), and finally the implementation of LFR. And let us not forget part of the Mists of Pandaria announcement:

In Cataclysm, Heroic dungeons were intentionally designed as gear and difficulty checks on the progression to raiding. In Mists of Pandaria, the Raid Finder will be the appropriate transition from running dungeons to Normal raids. Heroic dungeons will largely be tuned to be about as difficult as they were in Wrath of the Lich King, allowing players to fairly quickly down bosses in PUGs and hit their Valor Point caps. Valor Points will follow a new philosophy with 4.3, as a parallel way to gear up alongside the Raid Finder, but not as a fill-in for boss drops.

Which leads us to:

2. He could be wrong.

I am actually much more sympathetic to this argument, simply because we do know not just by experience, but by admission that designers (or at least the people that manage them) frequently have no goddamn idea what they are doing. Even in Blizzard’s specific case, Chilton is admitting they are still trying to figure out the current audience wants, which becomes more and more bizarre the longer you think about it.

That said, while I am sympathetic to this argument, it is also extremely weak. Blizzard is privy to 100% of the statistics that we have to crudely extrapolate from either Armory information, or from websites that have not been updated since October. And even the statistics we have access to can be incredibly misleading. I have always said that arguments based on total subs is asinine, because who knows what the churn rate is, what the concurrent users numbers are doing, and so on. Only Blizzard does, and we only know what they have said:

Are you basing this conclusion [heroics too hard] off of forum posts or in game data?  I hope it’s the latter so you get a truly accurate picture.

That’s an analysis pulled from hard data. We always try to base improvements an accurate overall picture. (source)

The Luck of the Draw buff, however, is being made in response to the feedback we’re seeing on the forums, as well as the statistics we’ve been reviewing which reflect all types of dungeon party trends. We feel it’s a good way of closing the disparity between the success of pick up groups and the success of preformed groups, without trivializing the content for some players to appease others. (source)

By looking at actual stats, actual progression, time spent playing, where, and to what extent, we can see that most people are looking for more accessible raid content, so yes, we absolutely are able to tell without a doubt that the plan we’re enacting is actually what players playing the game want and need, and are not just listening to people on the forums. (source)

So the “He could be wrong” counter-argument essentially comes down to “Blizzard is wrong about why they experienced a loss in subscribers because I said so without any objective evidence other than total sub numbers.”

Could Blizzard actually be wrong? Sure. Maybe they actually lost 2 million subs because of the alignment of Praxis-12 Prime with the center of the Andromeda galaxy. But given the incredibly consistent (since February 2011), highly publicized direction shift when it comes to difficulty, it is beyond all reasonable doubt that Blizzard as a whole believes the Cataclysm drop in subscribers was due to Cataclysm being too hard. With the release of LFR and all information revealed about Mists of Pandaria thus far, it is similarly clear that Blizzard is literally betting the $1 billion farm on an easier, more accessible WoW experience.

Consider this fact established.

The Pre-4.3 Numbers

As I did back in June – has it really only been five months? – for posterity’s sake here is a screenshot of WoWProgress’s Firelands numbers as they stood on Tuesday, November 29th, at around 2am:

Since there is no 100% boss (but Shannox gets close), a little reverse-engineering results in a total of 45,839 guilds having killed at least 1 boss this tier. I would do a further breakdown as I did last time, but what’s the point? About 71% of every guild that started Firelands in some fashion finished it. Unlike last time around, Blizzard rolled out the content nerf before the patch hit, which obviously influences the completion rates in this bizarre way.

Speaking of last time, there were 62,405 guilds that downed at least one 1 boss in T11 content. Compared with today, that is a drop in activity of 26.55%, or 16,566 guilds that fell off the grid.

As always, the numbers get a little fuzzy if you want to look at the number of players instead of guilds. If we assume a generous 18 raiders per guild, 825,102 players have killed 1 boss in Firelands, down from 1,123,290 killing 1 boss in T11. Back in June I had what I assumed was a reasonably accurate count of all non-Chinese subs (i.e. all guilds WoWProgress tracks) at 6.5 million, but obviously that has changed in the midterm. Back then, it meant only 17.28% of players raided. Today that would be just 12.69%, but only if the overall population had not decreased as well.

To understand exactly how generous I am being vis-a-vis the 18 people per guild estimate, WoWProgress says that only 4934 guilds killed Shannox on 25m, compared with 39,861 10m kills. In other words, there are over eight (8) times as many 10m kills of Shannox than 25m of the same. That 8x figure is fairly consistent across all bosses until you hit Ragnaros, interestingly enough. In fact:

Boss 10m guilds 25m guilds Difference
Beth’tilac 39,165 4,821 8.12x
Lord Rhyolith 38,122 4,704 8.10x
Alysrazor 37,086 4,467 8.30x
Shannox 39,861 4,934 8.07x
Baleroc 38,320 4,574 8.37x
Majordomo 37,619 4,516 8.33x
Ragnaros 27,595 3,991 6.91x

If those 25m numbers don’t seem jarring to you, perhaps this will illustrate it better:

Boss 10m guilds 25m guilds Difference
The Siege of Ulduar ??? 31,993 n/a
Beasts of Northrend 86,187 58,801 1.46x
Anub’arak 84,044 52,903 1.58x
Lord Marrowgar 84,136 59,356 1.41x
Lich King 48,523 11,567 4.19x
Magmaw 60,390 4,395 13.74x
Nefarion 39,390 4,580 8.60x

I was not actually aware of the Magmaw discrepancy until just now, but… wow. Assuming that Blizzard making it difficult to differentiate between 10m and 25m kills achievement-wise doesn’t impact the accuracy of WoWProgress, this seems an armor-piercing argument that the merging of lock-outs (and possibly of gear) is not just killing 25m raiding, but driving it before us, while we hear the lamentation of its women.

While I understand the LFR system may address the casual PuG content gap, these numbers cannot bode well for the future of 25m raiding. Less than 5k guilds running normal 25m content means all that content is being made/balanced/tuned for the entertainment of less than 90,000 150,000 people. There will likely be three two times that number of players engaging in Pet Battles at any given time of day, let alone overall.

Hmm, perhaps the decision to include that as a major feature is not so incongruous after all.

OT: Subscription and Correlation

Did you know that ice cream makes it more likely you will drown? It’s true. When ice cream sales increase, so do the number of drowning deaths. Clearly linked! Speaking of spurious correlations…

I fully expect Rift to now follow in the footsteps of WoW, in that it will decline. Vanilla and BC days had challenging content, and it’s not a surprise that sub numbers grew. WotLK made things ‘accessible’, and surprise surprise, the response was pretty meh (sub numbers dropped in the US/EU, but were offset globally by WoW launching in new regions, hence the overall stagnation). Cata tried to play both sides of the fence, but a combo of too little too late, a gimmick of progression (hard mode rehashes rather than straight-up new content), and a one-track, insult difficulty 1-85 game did it in. With no new regions to offset things, subs are dropping.

(SynCaine in the post “Accessibility killed Rift“)

World of Warcraft’s growth rate went from a perfectly stable 2 million subscribers per year during 2006 to 2009, to zero during WotLK. This was exactly the time when Blizzard changed the character progression mechanic.

(Nils in the post “Smoke and Mirrors“)

“If developers design a game which requires too much effort from the average player for too little gain, the average players will start leaving the game. “

This is the part I strongly disagree with, and WoW’s sub history does as well. Vanilla/BC, which had a MUCH harder end-game that fewer players saw to completion, saw massive growth. WotLK/Cata, with raids being cleared by all who stepped inside, have brought decline.

(SynCaine in a comment on Tobold’s post “Syncaine on Accessibility“)

The reason I bring these examples up is because this type of thinking (or lack thereof) is what I consider one of the most pernicious, asinine fallacies in any discussion of World of Warcraft. It is intellectual laziness at best, intellectual dishonesty at worse. Before I begin in earnest however, here is a slightly augmented graph from MMOData that most people refer to when they talk about WoW subs:

1) Correlation does not mean causation.

Standard preface to any claim that X means Y. Ice cream and drowning are only “linked” because there is a third factor involved.

2) Even if correlation did mean causation, why this particular correlation?

This specific point is the reason the argument is intellectually lazy. When you look at the graph, it is true what Nils and SynCaine said about there being a relatively rapid period of growth during vanilla and TBC that was not apparent after the release of Wrath. However, tying that solely (or even partially) to accessibility/character progression/difficulty/etc is a completely unsupported leap of logic.

There is zero evidence given by either author as to why it was “existence of more challenging content” and not, I dunno, the introduction of the PvP Honor System and BGs in the summer of 2005, which coincides with a 500k sub spike in WoW-West on graph. Or the release of ZG in September of that year, also suspiciously near another 500k sub bump. Or if I looked at WoW’s overall numbers like Nils does with his “2 million per year growth” argument, perhaps I could argue Patch 1.12 with it’s wildly successful:

The stage is set for intense, objective-based land battles as Horde and Alliance vie for control over important strategic positions and resources around Azeroth. Head out for Silithus and Eastern Plaguelands to engage the enemy on the field!

…was responsible for the corresponding bump of 1 million (!) subscribers. Clearly, clearly, more things like Silithus and the old Eastern Plagueland towers is just what WoW needs.

3) What does endgame accessibility/difficulty have to do with anything?

This is another intellectually lazy part of the argument that the authors never bother to address. What percentage of the playerbase ever actually makes it to the endgame, and is this percentage big enough to even impact subscription growth? That is an open question.

The best metric that I can come up with is to look at the number of guilds who killed Beasts of Northrend in 10m ToC after two years of it being out (86,187 guilds), multiply that by something charitable like 30 players, and then divide by the approximate population in the graph above while only taking into account the regions in which WoWProgress collects data (~6.5 million). The result is 39.77% of players killing the easiest boss in the easiest tier of which we have data (something like Noth the Lootbringer from Naxx 2.0 would have been better, but alas…). That actually sounds like a lot of people, and 19.88% assuming only 15 raiders per guild is not too shabby either when referring to raid content.

That said, there is no evidence whatsoever from those two that difficulty-related gyrations amongst the top 1/3rd of players doing raiding content has a meaningful impact in comparison to whatever the remaining 2/3rd non-raiders are doing. Between 2005 and 2009 the subscriber base was growing at ~25% per year. Is it even remotely likely that the top 40% had anything to do with a meaningful drop in growth rate?

4) Growth, or lack thereof, does not really mean anything other than what it is.

What I mean by this is that you cannot simply look at growth as anything other than what it is: growth. It does not mean anything else without further information. For all the talk about growth rate percentages and “the design decisions that caused them,” look at the pink line for a moment. That represents subscriptions in NA alone. Unfortunately MMOData stopped tracking that information individually (or perhaps Blizzard stopped giving it out), but the whole of TBC resulted in ~650k more subscriptions in NA over a two-year period.

Is 325k sub growth per year more than the apparent zero sub growth in the year of Wrath? Sure… but we have no real way of knowing why that growth was occurring. Was player churn less of a factor in vanilla and TBC? Was the growth simply due to the release of WoW in additional regions? Does market saturation have any impact? Do we simply ignore, I dunno, one of the worst global recessions in world history?

Oh, wait a minute… early 2009 was when the markets were at their worst? And yet WoW subs were relatively stable in most regions during that entire year? Clearly Wrath’s accessibility and stress-free raiding were the only things stopping WoW’s overall decline in a tough market, as evidenced by Cata’s increased difficulty leading to subscription loss once markets improved. QED, amirite?

The bottom line here is that you cannot use WoW subscription numbers as evidence of a claim without first proving said numbers have anything to do with said claim. Did World of Warcraft gain six million subscriptions worldwide in its first year? Yes. Was that because of the strength of its class balance? Its risk versus reward structure? Its accessibility? No one can really say; all of it would be conjecture.

Personally, I believe the initial rush was due to the strength of the IP – I know I certainly gave WoW a shot because of how much I enjoyed Warcraft 3 – and also due to the strength of the Blizzard brand. The designers also got a lot of things down perfectly that I feel other MMO designers stumble across to this day, such as letting characters jump, making solo-play possible, having quests with interesting plots, getting the reward faucet just right while questing, and so on. The tone and tenor of game balance has certainly shifted quite a bit from when I began in TBC, but where I disagree with Nils and SynCaine is that I feel that Wrath was actually a step in a better direction in most (not all) ways. Unfortunately, until the duo, and others who believe as they do, let go of the absurd notion that “the numbers” support their conclusions, it is impossible to have any rational discussion about it.

There is a separate argument as to linear raid progression vs episodic progression, but that is an OT for another time.

OT: What Players Actually Want

If you come across anyone on any forum related to WoW exclaiming that Blizzard is nerfing content “because of the (baddies/Wrath babies/etc) whining on the forum,” you can correctly call them morons. This quote from Bashiok officially dispels such nonsense for what it is.

Blizzard, you do how little people post on the forums yes? how about doing some in game polls to really see what people want, and not what the idiots on the forums want

You want them to not be nerfed, you’re on the forums…

Just saying.

By looking at actual stats, actual progression, time spent playing, where, and to what extent, we can see that most people are looking for more accessible raid content, so yes, we absolutely are able to tell without a doubt that the plan we’re enacting is actually what players playing the game want and need, and are not just listening to people on the forums.

No reading between the lines is necessary, but let me emphasize this again for posterity:

By looking at actual stats, actual progression, time spent playing, where, and to what extent, we can see that most people are looking for more accessible raid content, so yes, we absolutely are able to tell without a doubt that the plan we’re enacting is actually what players playing the game want and need, and are not just listening to people on the forums.

“Want and need.” Blizzard’s words. I sketched the writing on the walls way back in March, and nothing has changed since that time… well, other than even more players leaving for lack of content tailored to their skill level. That is why Morhaime’s investor call comments are so thinly-veiled:

As our players have become more experienced playing World of Warcraft over the many years, they have become much better and much faster at consuming content. And so I think with Cataclysm, they were able to consume the content faster than with previous expansions.

As of this writing, WoWProgress states 55,797 guilds have killed Magmaw, among the NA, EU, KR, and TW population it tracks. Looking at MMOData’s WoW sub numbers, there are ~6.5 million non-Chinese accounts. The average raiding guild probably has 15 members killing bosses (most WoWProgress kills are from 10m), but let us also be charitable and also use 30 member guilds. Plugging in those numbers results in this:

55,797 * 15 / 6,500,000 =12.87%
55,797 * 30 / 6,500.000 = 25.75%

Cataclysm has been out for 6+ months and at best ~26% of the population has downed a single raid boss. The comparison is not entirely fair since not everyone is even interested in endgame raiding. Then again, I do consider it a fair question to ask how many of the 74% would be interested in raiding if things were not being designed around catering to hardcore players and/or being difficult out of principal. Only Blizzard knows for sure, but the answer appears to be “enough to matter.”

OT: By The Numbers

It is old news by this point, but I wanted to talk about the 600k subscription drop and what that actually means in the scheme of things. To be honest, my first reaction was “I told you so!” but without an actual breakdown of those 600k accounts no one outside Blizzard really knows what kind of people left – if the unsubs were from people who never zoned into a heroic dungeon let alone a raid, for example, then difficulty obviously would have nothing to do with that. Well… maybe they never zoned in because they were too difficult, but nevermind. In any case, here are some things to keep in mind:

Point 1: The numbers are actually significant.

The reactions among a lot of blogs and forum posters seemed to be almost dismissive of the numbers. “It’s only 5% of 12 million, /yawn.” While technically true, it is pretty inaccurate. Take a look at the following graph, which is a slightly modified graph you can see at MMOData:

The first thing you should notice, of course, is the huge dip that represents when WoW was banned in China for several months. It is worth noting because it indicated there are ~5 million WoW “subs” in China alone – the ~1.75 million subs still on the blue line represents the remainder of WoW East, which includes Korea and maybe Taiwan (the “does Taiwan count as China” deal is tricky business). With that in mind, here is Michael Morhaime:

Looking at the World of Warcraft side of the business, we were pleased to see record sales following the Cataclysm launch in the United States and Europe which helps drives growth and subscribership. During the first quarter of 2011, as players have eagerly consumed the new content, we have seen subscribership return to prelaunch levels in the West. We finished the quarter with more than 11.4 million subscribers worldwide. Moving forward, our objective is to continue delivering new content to players in all regions to further energize our community.

Key words: in the West. As in, that red line in the graph that has been largely stable since the release of Wrath. Now, there is nothing in the call itself that specifically says all 600k subs were solely from the West, but if they were, the drop suddenly goes from 5% to ~12% of anyone you or I could possibly be grouping with. Which leads me to my next point.

Point 2: WoW is not dying, but that is largely irrelevant to your individual experience.

I strongly believe people understand this point on a gut level, but sometimes get caught up in “logical” arguments over the internet. So picture this: did your daily WoW routine change at all when 5 million Chinese players suddenly could not log on? Assuming you are not Chinese, probably not. Ergo, anytime someone talks about 12 million 11.4 million WoW subs, they are really only talking about ~5.15 million WoW West subs that could possibly impact them in some way – using the bigger number just makes you feel better by identifying with a larger group, as opposed to it meaning anything in-game. It should even be broke down further into NA and EU, but that level of data is sadly no longer being kept by the MMOData people. A rough extrapolation from the chart would probably be ~3 million NA subs total.

And so that is the rub. If WoW lost, say, 2000 subs… but they were all from your server, that suddenly is a (personal) disaster. You either have to fork over some cash to transfer to other servers, or probably just quit the game. I do not know how many servers there are across NA and EU, but if we assume 400 total servers and 300k subs down (it’s possible the 600k drop came from post-peak Wrath launch in China), that still equals out to be 750 accounts per server. Drop in the bucket for Mal’Ganis with its 10k+ population, but a bigger deal on Auchindoun with our maybe 4k population.

Bottom line: any drop in your region is significant. WoW does not have to be dying overall for it to die for you.

Point 3: Ignore the vapid “there are always post-expansion peaks and drop-offs” argument.

It is literally true that more people buy the game/re-sub after an expansion is released than will be still playing the game several months later. However, I have seen this argument bandied about as if the exodus between Cataclysm’s release to post-Cataclysm was par for the course. Do I really need to remind people that Blizzard did not get from 0 to 12 million 11.4 million by having a 100% oscillation? At some point over WoW’s lifespan, it retained more players than it lost. Right here we have evidence that Cataclysm failed to retain as many players than it lost in the entire West region, e.g. where Cataclysm was released. Vanilla retained more players than it lost. TBC retained more players than it lost. Even Wrath retained more players than it lost. Cataclysm, thus far, has failed to do so.

That essentially sums up what I think about that.

A transcript of the Activision Blizzard investor call is available on Seeking Alpha for free, and I suggest reading it for yourself. Among other things, it has Michael Morhaime mentioning things we are starting to see now vis-a-vis even more “premium services” for WoW. For the record, I do not care that cross-realm RealID LFD groups can be formed for $3/month or whatever it ends up being. What I will say is that it is dangerously close to crossing into the Uncanny Valley of F2P-esque cash shop design where features that would have been free now suddenly cost extra money.

Calling it now, though: tri-spec and Dance Studio will cost $3/month. On the plus side, maybe that would get them to actually finish the latter. After all, we sure as hell get new $10 companion pets pretty regularly these days.