The Failure of Cataclysm

This has been cross posted on my blog at elitistjerks.com.

Some people might call this post a troll, but I mean it very seriously. I think by most objective measures World of Warcraft: Cataclysm can be classified as a failure. Not because production value was poor (in fact it was excellent). Not because there was insufficient content. It failed simply because Blizzard has fallen into the trap of trying to please everyone and as a consequence is pleasing almost no one. Since the release of Cataclysm, World of Warcraft has seen its subscription base drop by nearly 1 million users. This is important to note because since its launch in 2004 Warcraft has never seen a net drop of subscriptions until this year. I’ll be covering territory that’s already been covered in previous posts of mine. However, this time I’m going to drill down to what I think the core of the problem is: Blizzard has unintentionally caused a sort of “class warfare” between Warcraft players and as a result of trying to appease both groups neither is content.

To better explain my point I want to reference a two year old blog entry from Blessing of Kings (On Difficulty and Guilds). The essence of the post is that the population (at the guild level) of Warcraft is stratified into five groups with the top most guilds being a very small number of super elites able to clear the hardest content quickly and the bottom being casuals who very rarely, if ever, raid. This stratification has existed pretty much from the beginning and while some people were probably not happy with this system it seemed to largely work for pre-Burning Crusade Warcraft. A creeping problem began to occur though. Even though in the game the most elite player had status (and possibly some fame) in the context of Warcraft, outside the game that player is equal to even the most casual of Warcraft players because both of them pay the same $14.99 every month to play. Casual players make up a much larger percentage of revenue for Blizzard than the core elite players, and early on many casual players have resented the more elite players who have seen end game content and have the gear, titles, mounts, and achievements to prove it. A risk that I think Blizzard saw early was the need to keep revenue coming in and the game growing; thus I believe they felt it was necessary to do something to prevent a possible exodus of casual players.

Before I get to the “something” let me return briefly to the Blessing of Kings post. Rohan breaks down the hierarchy into 5 groups. The granularity of the structure was good at the time though at this point I think it’s possible to flatten that stack and simply say there are two groups: casuals and elites. It’s very easy to delineate between these two groups…

  • Casuals either complain to Blizzard or demand Blizzard to make changes to the game or its mechanics in order to satisfy the “value” problem. The value problem being that they aren’t able to see all the content despite the fact they are paying for it because the casual player is unable to pass the current raid threshold (be it lack of skill, lack of guild, lack of time, etc).
  • Elites desire the opposite of casuals. They maintain that current end game content needs to remain challenging in order to validate the effort and skill of those who are able to clear it. They do not want content “dumbed down” in order to satisfy the desires of casuals. Such a dumbing down, in their minds, reduces the value of the rewards from the content and risks an entitlement attitude when new content rolls in.

At this point I’m going to become biased and fall on the side with the elites. The prime reason being that the “value” argument is a weak argument. On the surface one might quickly agree and say that of course you should be able to see all the content because you paid for it! The problem is though the same argument can be applied to any other video game that  ever was. Warcraft is no different than any other game. You must take the time and effort in order to unlock all that is available to you. The difference with Warcraft is that since it’s a “living” game players know that developers can make changes and adjust the fundamentals of the game world. In Warcraft parlance, patches are not just bug fixes (like they are in the rest of the computing world) they also add content and restructure the game in ways that the developers feel are appropriate. All other non-MMO games are essentially fixed; the world that are you are given will be the same forever and you must contend with it if you desire to get ahead in the game.

The “something” that Blizzard has done has been a series of increasing actions in an attempt to bridge the “class” difference between elites and casuals. Arguably the badge system introduced in Burning Crusade could be considered the first step. Some might argue the restructuring of raids in to the 10-man/25-man model would be another though I’m not sure if I agree with that. Nonetheless, the badge system opened the door to epics for all. The process continued with Wrath of the Litch King. In this expansion though Blizzard went to far. Dungeon and raid difficulties were not on par with Burning Crusade and not long after its launch heroic dungeons and most raids became nothing more than an AoE (area of effect) grind fest. Acquisition of gear was very easy with the exception of only a very few items. Raid difficulty was tuned to allow even the most novice of players to clear end game content. Blizzard had set the bar very low. Unfortunately they only seem to truly realize this at the end of Litch King. The problem is after two years and massive growth the player base was used to this particular paradigm and when Blizzard tried to put the cat back in the bag there was significant push back.

The bottom line is that we want Heroics and raids to be challenging, and that is particularly true now while the content is new and characters are still collecting gear. They’re only going to get easier from here on out. We want players to approach an encounter, especially a Heroic encounter, as a puzzle to be solved. We want groups to communicate and strategize. And by extension, we want you to celebrate when you win instead of it being a foregone conclusion.

We didn’t like that the Heroic dungeons in Lich King and early Naxxramas had become zerg-fests. It made the rewards feel like they weren’t earned.

Finally, the encounters, even the bosses, ended up having a sameness to them because you could ignore their mechanics. It didn’t matter — in fact, you didn’t even notice — if the dragon breathes or silences or drops a void zone. The fights all felt the same.

From: Wow, Dungeons are Hard!

Blizzard realized their mistake too late though. Attempts to raise the bar back to pre-WotLK levels of difficulty was met with a lot of resistance and Blizzard for weeks after Cataclysm released had to explain and calm many Warcraft players who did not like the changes. This did not last though. It’s not clear to me what changed Blizzard’s thinking, but what is clear is that they have once again caved in and nerfed content severely in order to appease the base of players who were not satisfied with the “value” they were getting in the game. Given the recent nerfs to Firelands content it appears that the changes are a response to the speed at which players are leaving the game. I, obviously, do not have access to Blizzard’s numbers directly, but the nearly 1 million drop in subscriptions are perhaps only the tip of the iceberg. Those 1 million are people who actively stopped paying. I suspect there is an equally large group of players who have stopped playing but keep paying. I think that changes Blizzard is making is an attempt to keep those people who are “on the fence” at least marginally interested in the game and paying for it. Unfortunately this seems to be only exasperating the problem between casuals and elites.

I call the conflict between elites and casuals “class warfare” because it’s a paradigm that is not too dissimilar from real world ones. In almost all of written history societies have always had a small prosperous class and a larger poor one, the differences being relative. The poor aspire to move up and become wealthier. What has generally been understood though is that one must earn their way up the social ladder. In very few cases is it possible to move up with little or no effort. Most individuals then must learn to be content that they can only aspire to something that they might never attain. This real world paradigm applies to Warcraft as well. The difference though is that in Warcraft individuals can choose to opt-out by not paying to participate. Blizzard understands this and in a noble attempt to bridge the divide began re-shaping the game to make it more equitable. The result is a disaffected elite who no longer see the value of their efforts and casuals who clamor for more but never seem satisfied.

The one last point I want to make is that I sympathize with Blizzard. I’ve been particularly harsh in how I have characterized some of their decisions but I understand that they are balancing two very difficult things. The first is making a fun, compelling, and long lasting game that appeals to a broad audience. The second is making a profit. Without players there is no revenue, but without a good game there are no players. So despite my criticism I do acknowledge that managers and game designers at Blizzard do not have it easy. They need to make decisions that are unpopular but at the same time insure that the company remains solvent and makes money. What I’ve been trying to do in this post is explain events from my understanding of them with the information that is available to me. I feel pretty strongly that I’ve grasped the larger issues.

So in summary, Cataclysm is a failure because Blizzard attempted reverse course on core game design decisions they’ve been making for the past several years and they found that in reality the direction they chose was really a one way street. The fallout of this is that Cataclysm is now the expansion that marks the point of Warcraft’s decline as the powerhouse MMO of the past decade.

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2 thoughts on “The Failure of Cataclysm

  1. nyxbot says:

    I played WoW in Vanilla and recently returned. It’s really shocking how much the game panders to the casual players, everything is so easy now. To reach the top, a mere gear grind is required. What happened to skill and strategy in determining how good a player was, instead of gearscore and dps?

  2. Nick Izaak says:

    I’d have to disagree with the social ladder aspect. What happened was the game lost its fun and instead became a grind fest of slow and tedious mechanics.

    They changed classes to make rotations far more difficult. Healers had to fight with their own mechanics vs actually focusing on keeping people alive. DPS classes felt the same and started sharing buffs (kings / gift of the wild) and abilities (bloodlust / timewarp / heroism). It lost a massive replay value with alt characters when every class feels and plays the same. What was fun was mixing different playstyles (druid healing vs paladin healing or playing a warlock vs an elemental shaman). Now all healers feel the same, most DPS feel the same.

    And then they added complex boss mechanics to deal with…

    In the past they had a good formula, easy rotations + complex boss mechanics are fun (WOTLK). Complex rotations + easy boss mechanics are fun (BC). Complex rotations + complex boss mechanics is not fun (Cataclysm).

    On top of this, their entire dungeon designs are cheap and full of gimmicks. 5-man’s were way too long (did they not learn from the mess of Occulus?). Raid’s were far too RNG prone filled with gimmicks and cheap damage tactics. Remember that addon they banned (AVR) that drew circles in the game where “invisible” damage zones occur making boss fights fairly simplistic? Now think back… in Ulduar their design was so good that the addon was barely needed. Fast forward to Cataclysm, how easy would the fights be if that addon was usable? I’ve been using that to judge how well their fights are designed… If they have to resort to cheap invisible damage zones to create a sense of difficulty, its a failure and a very lazy design tactic.

    Add in the smaller things like very poor profession development (crafting, fishing, etc), guild perks and extinction of smaller guilds, shared raid lockouts, and its a complete recipe for disaster.

    The thing that irks me the most is beta players yelled and screamed about all these issues, but GC in his arrogance decided no this is FUN and that’s that. Unfortunately, I don’t think they can repair the damage they created in the minds of all the ex-players who tried to enjoy themselves this expansion and who kept hoping things would get better but succumed to unsubscribing due to empty servers, lost friends, and a frustrating playing experience.

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