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Pandas As iPads, and Target Audiences

Simply put, I see the sort of backlash against Pandaren the same as the backlash against the iPad, when that was first announced. A tablet computer? Called an iPad? The jokes write themselves. Steve Jobs was clearly out of his mind.

A year later, making fun of the iPad’s name was like making a Your Mom joke.

To be clear, I do not expect Mists of Pandaria and pandas in general to take off and sell 15+ million copies like the iPad; this is not a full analogy. Part of that is because WoW has already peaked subscriber-wise, and it’s tough/impossible to break out of a decline when each lost sub severs social threads that kept people logging in long after the novelty of the game experience has ran out.

That being said, the absolute histrionics going on in the blog world regarding pandas has taken on a surreal, manic intensity. Look at this post over on Wolfshead Online:

If I wanted to kill a serious MMO, I don’t think I could find a better way than introducing a playable race of goofy looking walking bears. Any credibility that Blizzard had in the MMO realm has vanished with this horrible decision. What we are witnessing is the unprecedented transformation of an adult MMO into a children’s MMO right before our very eyes. (emphasis added)

I’m sorry, but if you can write something like that or agree with it without being a tad bit embarrassed later, I have a paper bag you can breath into. Credibility? Here is the credibility Blizzard has in the MMO realm:

WoW subs vs all other MMO subs

That's called expanding the base.

According to MMOData.net, the entire MMO field basically only grew by 4 million subs in the seven years WoW has existed. If even a tenth of ex-WoW players move on to try other MMOs, WoW will have done more for the genre than any MMO, ever. Credibility? Christ, how many times have you described something as an EVE-clone, or a Warhammer-clone? I guarantee you there are some very serious men in some very serious suits over at MMO boardrooms that will be seriously considering iconic animals in the future, simply because WoW is doing it. “Dammit Jim, they usurped pandas! How about… elephants? No, no: hippos! Make it so.”

I get it. Pandas happened. I was utterly convinced Mists of Pandaria was going to be an iOS game, perhaps a combo Fishing slash Archeology slash Sudoku premium app that would interface with the Mobile Armory so that what you caught/found/solved could be redeemed for in-game WoW items. Then follow that up with an announcement of The Emerald Nightmare expansion, which could be tone-appropiate sequel escalation to Burning Legion summoning –> Undead Scourge unleashing –> Corrupted dragon world-breaking pattern of WoW expansions.

Hell, considering the established lore of the Emerald Dream as a mystical pre-Sundering continent, complete with fantastical and extinct species mobs, that expansion practically writes itself. And they could even work in the (leaked) Horde vs Alliance war heating up as fueling the Emerald Nightmare’s destructiveness by the power of unhappy thoughts.

If you think about it conceptually, Mists of Pandaria is doing just that. You have the Sha, which are the physical manifestation of bad things, having hitherto been kept in check by the Taoist Pandaren before the two superpowers came and turned the island into a fantasy Vietnam. They also have the mystical continent with fantastical and extinct species mobs. Having mined the pseudo Gothic/Norse mythology to death, going East was simply a matter of time – even the “generally fantasy” Magic: the Gathering went to Kamigawa (aka Japan) eventually.

And now? They still have Emerald Dream as a follow-up option.

Target Audiences

Before I wrap this up, I wanted to touch on some bloggers’ mistaken notions that Blizzard somehow changed their intended target audience with this new expansion. I am not quite sure how else to put it than this: the target audience of WoW has never changed; you changed.

There is no actual indication that Pandaren are going to be a joke race in the expansion; they existed in Warcraft 3, and would have replaced draenei in TBC had the dice fell the other way. If you want an example of an actual joke race, roll a gnome. No, seriously, sign up for a free trial and play a gnome 1-20. There is no bigger joke race than gnomes, and they have been a joke since Day 1. I would argue that Tauren are also a joke race, but that is at least a case of a joke race with /seriousface lore. Gnomes never had serious lore – even the flooding of their capital with radioactive poison, killing off 80% (!!) of their entire race, cannot be presented without a wink from atop a smoke-belching Mechanostrider.

Don’t get me started on goblins, who deviate from being walking euphemisms for capitalistic greed long enough to establish they got their intelligence from mining rocks and turning it into Coca Cola on a volcanic island (that exploded). Or how about the Taunka, Tuskarr, or Tol’vir, all of whom are so cliche as NPC animal races that it would have been jarring if they did not exist in their respective cliche habitats. Remember the Wolvar and Oracles in Sholazar Basin? 90% of that entire zone was a total joke in a Serious™ expansion.

What I will not say is whether WoW was ever objectively serious or not, because that misses the point. WoW was, is, and always will be taken as seriously as you want it to be. MMO-Champion will be posting world-first T14 hardmode kills and hundreds of thousands of people will care, pandas or no pandas. There will be 6+ year veteran players who declare a Pandaria raid boss as their favorite encounter. Tankspot will likely be posting Challenge-mode dungeon guide videos. Petopia may completely transform into a Wowhead-esque database to handle the influx of traffic from the Pokeman battle system. Some of these features won’t be for you, just like new raids only appeal to less than 20% of subscribers. That doesn’t mean the target audience is changing any more than your mother giving a sibling candy first this time (or at all) means she stopped loving you.

If this is the way you normally act, though…

The ultimate bottom line is once you get past the echo-chamber sticker-shock of OMGPANDAS, a month after the expansion releases the game will be exactly as it is: fun, or not fun.

If fun, would pandas actually stop you from playing?
If not fun, did the pandas actually matter?

If you honestly would not play an otherwise fun game because of its tone or tenor, then ironically, maybe it is you who needs to grow up. Or at least breathe into this paper bag until you stop losing your shit, and remember why you play videogames to begin with.