From a NYTimes article:
“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.”
As someone returning to World of Warcraft after a long absence, I find the current direction of the game eminently engaging. As Mr. Chilton said, “We hear from a lot people who used to play a lot that they’re just not at that point in their life anymore, and they want to play, and they want to see the content. But they can’t make the same time commitment they used to.”
What is interesting to me is how they felt that it was realistic in the first place. And the use of “current” audience, with the implication that a prior audience existed but no longer does today. The debate over whether the “more hardcore prior audience” hollowing out was due to lack of attention or was inevitable seems almost academic at this point.
The same MMO with a new community is a different MMO, period.
Game: The Binding of Isaac
Recommended price: $5 (full price)
Metacritic Score: 84 (!)
Completion Time: Technically ~1 hour, or 20+ hours
Buy If You Like: Twisted, roguelike Flash games
The Binding of Isaac (hereafter Isaac) is a game that, strictly speaking, I should not enjoy. Indeed, I did not enjoy it at all the first few times I played it. But I did keep playing it, and once I sort of stumbled my way out of fifteen years of safe game design, Isaac rekindled a bit of that stubborn old-school gamer flame that propelled my younger self face-first into Battletoads hour after bloody hour.
Isaac plays like Smash TV from the olden days, with WASD controlling movement and the arrow keys controlling which direction you eject the streaming tears from your naked body at the merciless demons haunting your childhood nightmares. Map layouts and room contents are randomly determined each time you start the game, with the only consistency being the number of total levels, and there being Item and Boss rooms on every level (until the last few, which have no Item rooms).
As I mentioned, the game did not seem terribly fun the first few times. There is no quick-save, there are no checkpoints, and I got the feeling that I was lucky to even have a pause button. Death is permanent, none of the items you receive are really explained before you use them, many items can actively harm you in some way, some room setups are completely unfair, and it is both entirely possible and very likely that you will get screwed right from the very start with things only getting progressively worse.
Sometime around my fourth attempt, it suddenly all clicked: this is like Solitare. A game you play because you aren’t sure you want something heavier, a game that you don’t have an expectation to beat every time, and yet something you still find fun hours and hours later.
And I have indeed been having fun hours and hours later; 20+ hours to be exact. Although you never carry over items you accumilate, beating the game or getting specific achievements will unlock new items that are then added to the random roster, some of which will radically change the tenor of a particular run. I have a few more specific achievements to grab by beating the full game with different characters (basically different starting load-outs) before getting to the truly ridiculous “take no damage for X levels” kind, so it will be interesting to see if the game is still fun once those dry up.
But you know what? Getting more than 20 hours of game time in a roguelike, a genre that I was hitherto convinced I would despise on principal, is an absolute goddamn steal at $5.
The last time I talked about an Activision Blizzard earnings call, I had just quit the game myself. Now in Q3, you have undoubted heard that a further 800k subs were lost, bringing WoW down to 10.3 million. For those keeping track at home, the last time WoW was at ~10 million was in 2008 right during the release of TBC in China.
While sites like MMO-Champion and WoW Insider are nice for giving us summaries, I’m interested in the nuance inside the earnings call itself. Feel free to read alongside me at home (curtsey of Seeking Alpha).
1. Majority of the sub loss is occurring in the East.
You have probably already read the above bullet-point summary, so I’m here to assure you that Morhaime does not get more specific than this.
2. Implicitly, the difficulty of Cataclysm content was the cause of sub losses.
Feel free to try and read something different from these paragraphs (emphasis added):
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.
Now, the funny thing about this is how Blizzard may have cost themselves millions of dollars in lost revenue by pushing Cataclysm on the Chinese instead of letting Wrath work its magic. After all, Cataclysm was released in China on July 12th whereas Wrath was out in mid-August of 2010, a difference of 11 months. I am not sure whether Cata heroics came pre-nerfed like they ended up in the West, but even if they did it would still be worlds different than how it was in Wrath.
Which, no matter your feelings on the expansion, gained ~1 million subs and largely kept them until Cataclysm.
3. Expect some (more) “aggressive” World of Warcraft marketing.
Specifically: “We have other aggressive marketing plans in the coming months for World of Warcraft, but we’re not ready to share details yet.” Morhaime was then grilled in the Q&A section for further information.
Can you give us some additional color on what’s happening to engagement and subscriber levels for World of Warcraft, particularly following that big expansion pack announcement? Where do you think the subscribers are actually going? And I’ve got a quick follow-up.
Okay. Well, as you know, we don’t provide a forecast on subscribership levels. But I’ll say is that the announcements at BlizzCon were incredibly well received. There’s a lot of excitement around the expansion and the upcoming content in the next patch, which will be introduced in the next couple of weeks. It is currently in test on our public test realm, and we’re very excited about that content. I guess, I can say this, the majority of the declines were in the East. China still represents more than half of our global player base and historically, December has been a very good month for subscriber trends. We have a number of initiatives planned. We plan to be very aggressive in terms of our marketing promotions, and we’re looking forward to the end of the year.
It is an open question what kind of aggressive marketing Blizzard can even do with WoW. If they lowered prices on some of the other services like server transfers or even weekend sales or whatever, that might go a long way in getting me back – I’m not coming back to a dead server and then immediately spending $35+ to move one toon and just 10% of my wealth somewhere else.
Beyond that, what can they do? I doubt something like the cost of the box is keeping people away.
4. Patches are more about recapturing the recently churned.
Nothing ground-breaking, I just find it interesting.
Just out of curiosity, when you’ve had big patches before with World of Warcraft, what type of subscriber uplift do you typically see?
Well, historically, with the content updates that we’ve done, it’s really not intended to go out and drive new user acquisition, that’s a whole other strategy. But it does drive engagement with the game, and so that will impact churn, if we do it successfully and eventually will drive win back, as players tell each other about the content they’re enjoying. We’ll hopefully see a lift in our ability to win back players that may have already churned.
And that wraps up the earnings call.
The perennial semantic debate of the Hardcore vs Casual descriptors has reared its zombie horse head again, and it amuses me somewhat seeing the Rorschach results. My own take?
Casual and hardcore relate to the seriousness in which an activity is undertaken.
Length of time has nothing to do with it: as is frequently mentioned, top-tier raiders can clear 7/7 heroic Firelands in 2 hours and then not play at all for the rest of the week. Compare that to someone who levels alts or otherwise plays for 50 hours a week.
Of course, “seriousness” is somewhat subjective. Then again, there are a few objective metrics in which I believe can determine (arbitrary) positions on the seriousness scale. For example:
- Read forums or Wiki pages. +1 seriousness
- Posts on forums. +1 seriousness.
- Download mods or external programs. +3 seriousness
- Ignored phone calls in middle of the game. +3 seriousness
- Schedule your real-life around in-game events. +5 seriousness
It is important to note that while raiding (agreeing to log in at 7pm on Thursday) does not automatically make you hardcore, it is certainly more hardcore than someone who does not seriously consider convincing their other friends to move Poker Night to Wednesdays so they can make Thursday raid night.
The design of the games themselves absolutely has an impact on seriousness too. To be sure, human beings are 100% capable of making otherwise casual activities the most hardcore thing imaginable – stamp collecting, Lego models, Chess, and so on. However, the nature of the game can also lend itself to being taken more seriously. The difficulty of raiding, for example, is such that a random group of ten people thrown together is not likely to achieve success.¹ That encourages people to schedule play sessions; the social ties generated thereby encourages structuring your IRL commitments around game time instead of vice versa. I absolutely know people that asked for Tuesdays off from their retail work because, well, raids reset on Tuesdays and you would let the team down if you don’t show up.
Difficulty and social ties aren’t the only game designs that skew people towards hardcore-ness. Sometimes the game makes it hard to reasonably progress without a minimum amount of sunk time. I have been playing The Binding of Isaac recently, for example, and much as other roguelike games you cannot Save and quit, death is permanent, and so on; there is literally no point in playing The Binding of Isaac for 10 minutes, because you cannot beat the game, you cannot unlock anything, you cannot really do anything of value. Games based on Checkpoints such as Far Cry 1 also fall into this mode.
I know I mentioned time spent playing is irrelevant, but here is the nuance: if you know you need at least an hour free to get anywhere in the game, and you chose to continue playing, you are more apt to start rearranging your real life around the game life. I am not saying life rearrangement is bad or ridiculous – I do it all the time – but it does indicate you are more of a hardcore player of said game. Compare that with Angry Birds or Plants Vs Zombies or Red Remover which I play only when I am sitting around in a doctor office or at the DMV or wherever and I immediately turn it off when I am no longer waiting.
In any case, that is my contribution to the field of loaded verbiage.
In regards to the topic at large, i.e. for whom was the leveling game changed, I would suggest that leveling was indeed made faster for the hardcore. However, I would NOT agree that this somehow makes the game less casual-friendly. The boredom of disaffected veterans is not analogous to a brand new player of the game – I cannot imagine someone with zero WoW experience complaining about or even recognizing leveling “too fast” or the game being “too easy.” Indeed, a new player more than likely died several times before level 10 and then spends the remaining 75 levels being overly cautious. Or being skilled enough to recognize the lack of danger, which indicates they would have been bored no matter which way leveling was designed.
And besides: the more quests and zones that are skipped on the way to the level cap, simply means the more replayable content exists, right?
¹ We’ll see how Looking For Raid works out, eh?
…here is what you may have missed concerning WoW’s next expansion:
Return of Wrath-era Heroics
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.
Keep the experience short and focused. Dungeons should be short enough to let you run a couple of dungeons when you feel like it, not just one.
As I may have mentioned before, I am a player that absolutely believed it was a mistake to go towards longer, harder heroics in Cataclysm. Not only was that incongruent with the concept of LFD, harder/longer heroics actually removed content for me. Whereas I would routinely belt out 2-3 heroics on different characters as soon as I logged on in Wrath – before I even got started with whatever I planned on doing for the day – Cataclysm meant I had just the one heroic to “look forward to,” as it would likely take 2+ hours assuming we finished it at all. Yes, they were nerfed… three months later. And nothing quite washes out the taste of a spectacularly failed Stonecore run.
A side-benefit of going back to Wrath-era difficulty is I predict the number of tanks will increase as a result. I feel the same way today as I felt back in April when Blizzard started bribing tanks with BoA goody-bags. Hopefully Challenge runs will satisfy the people looking for non-faceroll content (or at least marginalize their complaints) in the same way Heroic raids (sorta) did.
Reduce “the Dance”
The goals for dungeons and raids in Mists of Pandaria are to create epic and challenging experiences, but Cataclysm also helped us learn where we can improve with the new expansion. The Raid Finder will help with taking that first step into endgame content, and it will be available for all Mists of Pandaria raids. Beyond that, we want to create more easily understandable encounters and move away from mechanics that simply set up groups to fail, while still keeping them challenging.
While I suppose that can be read multiple ways, what I like to imagine Blizzard means is not so much that “the Dance” is eliminated, but rather you can choose who does the dancing. The Lich King’s Defile ability sets groups up for failure, because if it targets your weakest player, you are likely to wipe immediately. I couldn’t tell you how many times I /facepalmed in Professor Putricide when someone who couldn’t kite worth crap got targeted by the orange ooze, or when the panic-under-pressure member dragged Omnotron’s Acquiring Target (or Lightning Conductor) through the raid. If you can imagine that the outcome would have been different if a boss ability targeted someone else instead, how can you really say the encounter was challenging at all?
Obviously that logic can be reduced to an absurd degree (if the quarterback threw to the other receiver they would have won, etc). I guess what I want to get across is that I miss epic boss kills like this one. “Epic” in the sense that despite everything falling apart, we were still able to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. In Cataclysm’s raid environment, the guy dying to Mimiron’s landmines would have blown up the raid, or failing to interrupt a 1.5 second cast would be an insta-wipe.
And, hey, I’d also like to move away from bosses that take longer to explain on Vent than they do to fight, e.g. Omnotron, etc.
Probably not. However:
Q: Will you be making any changes to how stats work?
Yes. [...] In practice, this means that upon the expansion’s release, the numbers for Strength, Health, Intellect, damage, and so on will be significantly lower than you’re used to seeing across the board, from level 1 to level 85. It’s all relative, of course — enemies’ and bosses’ stats will be reduced as well, and it should take a level-85 warrior roughly the same number of many sword-whacks and ability uses to kill a level-85 monster as it did before. However, this also means the difference between each level between 1 and 85 will be less significant, so you may find that an enemy 5 or 10 levels below your own will be a little tougher to deal with than it was before.
If grey enemies are “a little tougher to deal with than before,” that is actually a pretty big change. I was looking forward towards a tank with 750,000 HP, but I suppose this will be fine.
Instanced Group Content for ~3 Players
- PvE Scenarios are a way to give new interesting content that doesn’t make sense in a dungeon content.
- Scenarios are more about reusing parts of the world in interesting new ways, and introducing new types of PvE gameplay that we’ve never seen before like PvE battlegrounds.
- They are short instances for a few players, the amount of players can vary depending on the scenario, some of them can be for 3 players.
I am excited for Scenarios in a general sense for that first bullet point, because theoretically it means they could release Scenarios more often. Admittedly, this is Blizzard we are talking about, but I can see some devs whipping up a few extra for when such-and-such MMO gets released without having to bother with justifying it in a lore/progression-sense. I am excited about the 3 number specifically because that was how far my in-game group shrank towards the end of my subscription. We always struggled with things to do other than AFK chat in Stormwind, as LFD with two pugs did not quite excite us in any possible way.
In any case, I think that wraps up my thoughts/reactions to BlizzCon 2011. Now we just have to see how many of them get implemented.
Once you get that knee-jerk reaction out of your system, the design announcements currently going on at BlizzCon are pretty interesting.
Yeah, Pandas. They really did it. I owe someone $20. But what about the rest?
- Every race but goblin and worgen… interesting.
- Does this mean new animations for all those older races?
- GG tank balance, once again. Historically, Blizzard has never balanced tanks correctly, ever.
- “No auto attack! Devs want you to have this street fighter feel where you punch a lot.”
- Seriously, that won’t work. Blizzard has spent years increasing the passive damage of every melee class because front-loading them in actual attacks leads to 3.0-era Ret paladins murdering everyone.
- Nevermind how Blizzard specifically changed Heroic Strike and other on-next-attack abilities to be more normal abilities specifically because warriors were getting carpal tunnel. Now they want Street Fighter?
- Those racials suck. Nothing like how blown away I was at Goblin/Worgen racials.
- Wonder about what their racial mount will be…
- All that aside, I’m one of “those guys” whose overall opinion on the race will be determined by how the females look. My paladin is a draenei female despite it being the worst race in the game simply because I like the look, for example.
- After the disappointing direction of Worgen females, I fully expect to be similarly disappointed here.
Talent Tree Revamp Reaction
- Change is scary!
- Actually, this sounds fine.
- These choices are actually interesting. Some of them will be extremely difficult.
- Here are some examples of good ones:
Those are some interesting choices. The rogue spread boggles my mind with the possibilities, for example. Shadow Focus would presumably let you Sap, use Tricks of the Trade, and so on without any Energy cost. Meanwhile, Nightstalker would also be useful in a more general sense. Subterfuge seems bonkers to me. Can you imagine? You’re healing some dude from the bushes, and all of a sudden you get a Garrote, Eviscerate, and Mutilated before you even see where it came from. And I have to assume that Stealth breaks immediately if you start capping a flag or whatever, otherwise… very OP.
And look at the tanking spreads:
Those… are actually pretty crazy choices. The “obvious” paladin tank choice would be Ardent Defender, but I have never thought it was a compelling button to push every since it was redesigned from its (admittedly OP) passive ability – it was essentially Divine Protection v2, now with triple the cooldown. Now I have choices! Sacred Shield as a Prot tank looks really juicy even with the 60 second internal cooldown, for example. And if I were questing or facerolling through obsolete heroics, Blessed Life would let me unleash some burst DPS with all that extra guaranteed Holy Power.
Here is an example of what NOT to do though:
Yes, I noticed that Repentance technically has no cooldown and is essentially a paladin polymorph. Yes, I also noticed that “Fist of Justice” (lol) is a 6-second stun on a 30-second cooldown, ala early Wrath. Choosing between those two will be absurdly difficult… unless you are Ret paladin, in which case you are just fucked. Holy paladins never could get Repentance, so a “default” HoJ at half its normal cooldown is pure bonus, nevermind the strategic implications of trading it for a spammable CC on a different DR from normal CCs. Similarly, Prot paladins experience pure bonus. Ret paladins though? They lose either their stun or their incapacitate (e.g. their only “gap-closer”), and lose even the lame-ass snare capacity they had previously. More demoralizing is that the mere continued existence of Seal of Justice means there won’t be a snare for Ret paladins for yet another expansion.
There are probably other class examples of options actually being taken away in this revamp, but the Ret one jumped off the page and cock-slapped me. Anyway, back to talent impressions:
- Apparently Blizzard wants you to be able to change talents at any time, ala glyphs.
- Some of those talents are obviously dungeon talents, obviously PvP, etc. Not sure how that eliminates cookie-cutter builds.
- Perhaps a secondary effect of having more difficulty levels in dungeons/raids is that cookie-cutter builds would be less relevant.
- Actually, no, cookie-cutter builds will always be relevant. See: rise of GearScore in late Wrath despite high GearScore being 100% irrelevant to the actual difficulty.
- “Heroic dungeons [in this expansion] 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.”
- Told you so.
- Okay, technically I predicted Firelands would be easier, which didn’t happen. Not my fault Blizzard is so damn slow.
- Told you so.
- Scenarios sound interesting. The lack of a trinity requirement is pretty novel, WoW-wise.
- Hopefully Scenarios will be a frequently-updated feature, since it doesn’t technically need lore or even bosses to support it.
- Dungeon Challenges, eh? Good luck.
- Christ, they put Challenges in the LFD feature?! Are they insane?
- Okay, it only matches you up with other people flagging themselves as Challenge. Not quite as crazy.
- Actually, completing a successful gold metal Challenge run entirely via LFD should be a tier higher than doing it in a premade group, don’t you think?
- I think Challenges are a pretty interesting feature, but what’s more interesting is how they “normalize” the gear. Seems pretty dangerous for a MMO to even tangentially introduce a feature that makes gear progression irrelevant.
- After all, if they can make gear irrelevant there, why not make it irrelevant everywhere?
- Other than the obvious “it removes replay value.”
- “We are currently not planning to have 90 normal dungeons in MoP.” Ballsy. Or lazy, depending.
- That seems like a clear signal to solo to cap, then group.
- Or continue soloing forever, by getting VP from questing.
- Pet Battling = Path of the Titans, Dance Studio. I predict vaporware.
- Then again… they did play the panda card so who knows anymore?
- “Oh my God. I’m back. I’m home. All the time, it was… We finally really did it. [screaming] You Maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!”
- If Pet Battling is real, $10 says the store pets are more powerful than normal pets.
- “Pets will be account wide.” Really? Huh. Then I guess the BoE Disco Cub isn’t such a rip-off than it was before.
- You know there will be pissed-off people who bought more than one to have on multiple characters.
- “The plan is to get people back into the world, instead of having players roam around Stormwind and Orgrimmar all the time once they reach max level.”
- And yet no real concrete plans on how they expect to accomplish that.
- Hell, Scenarios and LFR and Challenges all push people back into instances.
- Maybe daily quests with VP will get people outdoors, but that certainly isn’t much of “out in the world.”
- Interesting how there was no mention of new Wintergrasp/Tol Barad-esque zone.
In any case, that about sums it up for now. While a lot of these things sound interesting, Path of the Titans sounded interest too. Time will only tell how many (if any) of these features actually make it to live servers.
Nils is reaching the end of his WoW rope in his latest experiment, and my response probably fits better in a post than comment. Nils says:
In the past there was a community, but there is no community now. WoW doesn’t actually put you into any community. Everything is random groups. Sure, I could try to get into a guild. But I don’t feel like it. Blame me if you want: I bet I’m no more different than a lot of other players.
WoW has NEVER put you in a community. At all. The most you could say is that in the early days people had somewhat of an incentive to seek out strangers because it would be impossible for them to complete (group) content otherwise – something that sounds more like Facebook games now that I think about it. The “community” could be summed up the sort of proto-typical “LF1M tank H Ramps” spam, where the alternative was having nothing to do. But if Nils doesn’t feel like joining a guild, he probably would not feel like joining a random Trade chat pug either. Or perhaps he is saying that since you can press the LFD button, one has no incentive to join Trade pugs?
Honestly, there was as much community when I finally quit as there has ever been, and I saw people trending towards tighter guild/social bonds than ever before. In TBC, the only way to see content was to “trade up,” leap-frogging Kara guilds into SSC/TK guilds into BT guilds into Sunwell guilds. Choosing friendship and sociality meant you simply dead-ended, unless you won the guild lottery and got into one that progressed. Incidentally, this was my fundamental problem with articles like the one I talked about yesterday, insofar as those never seem to be written from the majority standpoint of raiders whose expansions just end mid-tier because the guild is not good enough to progress (be it skill, drama, or other).
Nowadays, at least pre-Cata, you could have your cake and eat it too, progressing with friends at relatively your own pace without having to worry about people trading up. Yes, solo players have no “real” incentive to join guilds/groups since they can get groups formed for them. Then again… well, as we’ve seen from LFD, some of the groups you get are so horrible that there is every incentive to do LFD runs with as many people you know as possible.
Until next Tuesday, Steam has a deal on Sega games going on. Remember when Sega made consoles? Feels like forever ago. Anyway, as I was browsing through the catalog, I came across the Sega Genesis Classics Collection, which is about 40 Genesis games for $7.49. Among those pickings, what do I find? Lo and behold, a game of my yesteryears: Shining in the Darkness.
I played the hell out of this game for for about two years straight back in the early 90′s, and never did finish it. And right when the topic de jure is the good ole days of challenging content? It must be fate! So yes, Value, thank you for allowing me to make a $0.74 credit card payment for a game by all rights will probably not hold up at all but I’ll slog through anyway out of twenty years of spite.
Your weekend homework assignment is to blog/comment about what game(s) you actually find/found challenging and wish more games were like. This is about challenging games, not necessarily what were your favorite games (see what I did there?). And there is probably a line somewhere in there between challenging and Battletoads, but I’ll leave it up to you to find it.
In the meantime, I need to get some graph paper…