Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Gravitational Pull of World of Warcraft Isn't Good for Gaming

It's been a while since I posted about my time in Azeroth, so here we go. (Also, some more broadly applicable observations thereafter; see below.)

World of Warcraft: Legion is about to hit the One Year mark by the end of this month. That's the de facto mid point for an expansion, and we're in the middle of the midpoint in terms of content. The second raid tier just had its World First race conclude with its #3 finisher crossing the line, so the Tomb of Sargaras is now a Solved Problem for the rest of the game's raiders (which, in typical fashion, will not be properly applied by most because ego). The open world content is getting old, and the recent introduction of a new single-player scenario (where gear is normalized, so only player skill and your PC/network quality matters) has likely run its useful course as an attraction.

In short, we're seeing the usual signs of a content iteration reaching the end of its useful lifespan: more secondary characters being played, more returning players catching up, and more lateral moves within guilds and raid teams as folks swap roles or characters (or both) to keep interested while waiting for The Next Big Thing. The thing that's different this time is that the Public Test Realm for the next patch is not only up, but that videos are being made to cover what's being tested with little (if any) restriction.

That's turning out to be significant. By allowing the community of fan YouTube channels, Twitch livestreams, etc. to do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to hyping the upcoming content the devs slyly retain the attention of many players who otherwise would let their subscriptions lapse in favor of something else. The cycle of class and specialization adjustments get many players to swap what character they make their main, often involving time spent getting that character up to speed for the current content- and information coming out of the patch in development fuels this by allowing players a warning as to what may be the way to go soon.

The combination is a maturing business model focused around subtle retention schemes, and what we're seeing is that things often considered "mistakes" recurring often enough to cast doubt as to either the competency of the dev team or the integrity thereof- the consistent decisions to adjust character performance, content difficulty, and other tweaks routinely delivered with a "Today's (Hot)Fixes" post on the dev blog points to a deliberate policy of doing such "errors" as one part of a greater retention policy.

Which leads to a series of observations:

  • The MMORPG medium, as a viable business model, cannot exist as a Solved Problem state. The reason is that interest falls off once the community no longer perceives that either the content can be fixed (because nothing remains broken-yet-fixable, supposedly) or the available content is no longer deemed relevant. (Consistently seen across multiple games for years on end.)
  • The business model, therefore, has to have a "soap opera" element of Permanent Unsolved Problems that get "solutions" put forth from time to time to maintain audience attention while preventing despair from prompting the audience to abandon a hopeless or boring situation. There needs to be petty drama to keep things interesting as much as there needs to be relevant content.
  • Game designers in other media are picking up on this and attempting to replicate the model in their media, to varying degrees of success, and thereby expose the salient differences in qualities between the MMORPG medium and that other medium. However, this does not seem to have the conscious deliberation of the MMORPG exxample; it seems more like Cargo Cult mentality.
  • The result is that already extant emergent behavior patterns escalate, and no one that ought to be figuring out if this is even desirable are bothering to figure that out. (Hint: NO!) They're just copying the leader, again, expecting the same results despite disparities of circumstance. Failure follows.

When you have people groping about to find a way to make their gaming business grow perpetually, you run into stupidity sooner or later when reality becomes something you have to deny to justify the insanity. Cargo Cult business mentality is one such way this goes down, and it has to stop. Game businesses must accept that there are limits to growth, and stop fearing the stability of maturity- especially stakeholders. To insist otherwise is madness, no matter what the law cult says. Stop aping; start manning up.

1 comment:

  1. Wait, you mean constant editioning and errata turns away players? Just wait til they stealth launch World of Starcraft. They might even intentionally leave a vanilla server running this time. (I'm hopefully joking, I have no knowledge of such and might weep if this becomes true. Poe's Law).