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No Country for Old Blizzard

One of the more… persuasive talking points when it comes to World of Warcraft is that there is an Old Blizzard and a New Blizzard. The Old Blizzard are the people responsible for the most successful MMO ever created, and the New Blizzard is everyone that is sailing the ship into icebergs. The evidence for such a dichotomy seems almost, well, self-evident:

Whiplash.

Whiplash.

Syncaine, who is much a fan of the two phrases, likes to point out that the breaking point between the Old and the New came in Wrath of the Lich King. From the graph, that is when WoW stopped growing. There are also a few philosophy changes that occurred during that expansion, such as the introduction of the fully automated LFD system, a full embrace of the Badge system, “bring the player, not the class,” and similar things.

Personally, I think Cataclysm marks a much more sensible breaking point, but nevermind.

As I said before, the Old Blizzard vs New Blizzard narrative is pretty persuasive. Which is rather unfortunate considering how it is factually incorrect: Old Blizzard never left. Below are the Credits screens from vanilla WoW and all the expansions, focusing on Lead Designers or Game Designers. I’m formatting it this way because it’s better than a table that won’t fit on the page:

Apologies for the formatting.

Apologies for the formatting.

The source is the Credits screen accessed from within the WoW client (Character Select screen // Menu // Credits), which appears to be the only way to access the names. Luckily, you do not need a subscription to the game to access it. I typed it all by hand after taking screenshots, so feel free to check my work¹. Alternatively, just look at this Google Docs spreadsheet.

Notice anything? Like maybe all the duplicate names? In the spreadsheet, I highlighted anyone credited as a Designer in vanilla or TBC and who went on to be a Designer in any other expansion². Of particular note is the fact that of the 20 Designers of TBC, 15 of them went on to be Designers in Wrath. In other words, 68% of the design team of Wrath came from TBC. This includes Tom Chilton and Jeffrey Kaplan, both of whom were credited as Lead Designers in both expansions (and Designers of vanilla WoW besides).

Now, you may be thinking to yourself, “Rob Pardo is the missing link!” He was, after all, the Lead Designer of vanilla WoW and TBC before seemingly falling off the design map. Well, allow me the distinct pleasure of destroying your revisionist narrative dreams once and for all. See, Rob Pardo gave a rather sweeping interview back in 2009, almost at the midpoint of Wrath. The link points to the 1st page of that interview because it’s still that good, but money shots are on the 3rd page:

We had all these suppositions, and as the years went on and we had more and more experience living with WoW as a live game, we realized that they weren’t just truths. They might affect a hardcore minority, but the people we saw weren’t really as hardcore as we thought they were. If we reduced raids from 40 to 25, we saw, it makes it more fun. You might have some hardcore players who get upset, but keeping people out of content isn’t right for the game overall. We mellowed sometimes, and realized we were wrong.

The other piece is that the WoW playerbase is becoming more casual over time. People who were hardcore into MMOs, they joined us first, but the people we’re acquiring over the years are casual. They heard about the game from a friend of a friend, and maybe it’s their first MMO – maybe it’s their first game. The game has to evolve to match the current player.

And what did Rob Pardo think about the much maligned LFD system?

That segues in nicely to this question: Cross-server gameplay. It’s convenient, but do you think that it runs the risk of destroying server communities?

To be completely honest, [the Looking For Group tool] is a feature I wanted in the game when we launched the game. I was really unhappy when we didn’t have it when we first shipped, so it’s been 5 years coming. Maybe it wasn’t the number one thing I wanted in, but it’s definitely one of the top 5 things that I wanted in the game. It’s actually our third try at a proper LFG tool, and this one gets it right. With the Meeting Stones, we didn’t put enough attention into it, we just tried to jam it in, and people didn’t use it. The second tool, it ended up being compromised feature – we tried to cater to too many different audiences.

As for the community question, I used to … I think that 5 years ago, I would have answered this question differently than I would today. I was all about preserving the small realm communities, but already… Well, look at Battlegrounds, it’s a good case in point, because it doesn’t diminish social relationships that matter on a realm. Sure, everyone can bring up “that one guy” that they know, the ninja looter who stole his stuff. But I think your real community isn’t the whole realm, but it’s your guild and the friends you group with, and the cross-server LFG won’t undermine that at all. The Dungeon Finder – by the way, I think we just renamed it the Dungeon Finder last night – We designed it in such a way that it serves the need for guilds and groups and friends. You don’t have to always [join a Pick-Up Group]. If there are four guildies in a group who just need a fifth, they can do that. You can also use it if even you have a full five-person party.

Or, you can do it if you’re on your own and just want to run something, so I don’t think it diminishes it at all.

*mic drop*

*picks mic back up*

The argument I’m making is not necessarily that there hasn’t been a decline in quality WoW game design over the years. The argument I’m making is that there isn’t an Old Blizzard vs New Blizzard dichotomy. Tom Chilton has been at the head table every expansion. Jeff Kaplan was still Lead Designer for Wrath, and while he was absent after that, it was because he became the Game Director for Overwatch. Rob Pardo didn’t stick around for Wrath… as a designer. Instead, Rob Pardo became Executive Vice President of Game Design for Wrath and Cataclysm. And, don’t tell Syncaine, but Pardo is also Chief Creative Officer and Executive Producer of Hearthstone.

So who exactly is Old Blizzard again?

The alternative title I was going to use for this post was “the M. Night. Shyamalan Effect.” For those that might not know, he was the Director and Screenwriter to an enormously successful and critically acclaimed film called Sixth Sense – it is a cultural touchstone film still used in comparisons today. His follow-ups included Signs and Unbreakable… followed by 13 years of utter garbage. If you choose to believe in a narrative of WoW’s decline from quality, it is this comparison that fits. We would not say “Old Shyamalan vs New Shyamalan,” and we shouldn’t do the same with Blizzard.

¹ The one conspicuously missing name is Greg Street, aka Ghostcrawler. Greg Street is listed as Lead Systems Designer in Wrath, Cata, and Mists, and that role undoubtedly has something to do with design. However, the position doesn’t exist in vanilla, TBC, or Warlords, and there is another “Additional Designers” category I didn’t include either, simply because I can’t be sure what they do. In any case, they always say design is a collaborative process, so even if Greg Street is the cause of it all, that doesn’t get “Old Blizzard” off the hook.

² I have since color-coded all the designers who had carryover between expansions, and the results are interesting. For example, all but one of the designers from Wrath came over into Cataclysm, making up 91% of the final total. This is both baffling and makes perfect sense, assuming The Shyamalan Effect.

More People Equals More Content

While I want to talk more about Hearthstone, I also did not want this particular tidbit about WoW proper to be consigned to Draft Hell:

The team size has increased 40% and another 40% increase is planned, which will hopefully allow for a new content patch every month, a new raid tier every three to five months, and an annual expansion.

Now, this was just unattributed MMO-Champ paraphrasing, coming from some Gamescom interview. I made an effort to try and see if this was an exact quote by watching a few of the Gamescom interviews myself, but didn’t see it anywhere. The statement was, however, “confirmed” in a roundabout way by Nethaera’s response to the thread asking the obvious question of “If more people = faster content now, why not back then?” Neth’s response was basically that circumstances changing doesn’t retroactively make older statements a lie.

That is all well and good, but I seem to distinctly remember Ghostcrawler or somebody saying that more people = more cooks in the kitchen, some problems can’t solved throwing more money at it for everything else there’s Mastercard, and so on. So, after some digging, I dusted off this interview with Ghostcrawler from October 2010, on the eve of Cataclysm’s release:

Slashdot: A lot of players, when they hear you talk about how you didn’t have time to make a feature good, their question is, “Well, why can’t you just go out and hire more people?”

Greg Street: Yeah. The mythical man-month.

Slashdot: Can you explain why you don’t find that to be a viable solution?

Greg Street: The other example that gets used a lot is: if it takes a woman nine months to have a baby, then if you have two women, it’d only take four and a half! Our development process is hugely based on iteration and communication. It’s more important — for, say, class design and item design — it’s more important for me to have a small team that’s totally in sync than to have a large team and have no idea what anyone else is working on. We would end up with Hunter talents working one way, the Priest would work a different way, and it wouldn’t feel polished. It wouldn’t feel good to players. Often, when we say, “We didn’t have time,” players say, “You shipped it before it was ready.” That’s not the way we look at it.

The way we look at it is: we are extremely critical of our own designs. We have very long lists of things we want to fix in the game. Some of these things have been around forever, and some of the things are new that we just added recently. If we waited until we addressed every single one of those things, we would never ship anything. It would be years and years before games came out, and that’s just not realistic. That’s not what players want; they’re not going to wait six years for a new expansion. So, instead, we do what we can and we keep other things on the back burner. We’ve got Paths — this great idea. A dance studio — we’re going to do it some day. Just not yet. We’re saving it for the right time.

It is not quite the smoking gun that I remembered in my head, although perhaps I had a different interview in mind. Or maybe it never existed. Regardless, I still think it is a legitimate question to ask “what exactly changed here?” Are the Blizzard devs less concerned about additional people and faster content leading to less polish? Did Titan getting scrapped free up some additional talent? Or is it simply the case that losing 4.4 million subscribers between October 2010 and today puts things like polish vs actual content into prospective? Given how the status quo a year ago was 8 months without a content patch, I am assuming it’s the latter.

The interesting thing will be to see how “monthly content updates” are integrated with the game overall. Guild Wars 2 has their events every 2 weeks, for example, but I believe GW2 has a much lower emphasis on gear, story, and… well, things one might traditionally associate with RPGs in general. I feel like the dozens of daily quest hubs thing isn’t going to work a second time around for WoW, but neither can Blizzard really afford to hand out gear upgrades mid-tier. Or maybe they will, and simply de-emphasize the sort of full tier/BiS gear game they have crafted all these years.

Either way, WoW is definitely veering off into some uncharted territory here – at least, uncharted for as large an MMO as it still is. I am much more interested in how this particular change with shake out, as opposed to the much more mundane F2P possibility.