Working As Intended: Change for change's sake in World of Warcraft

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Working As Intended: Change for change's sake in World of Warcraft
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MMORPGs struggle to meet two contradictory goals: They want to provide stability, permanence, a world you feel you can always come home to, and they want to provide dynamism, change, a world that always has something fresh and new. Lean too hard to one side -- change too much or too little -- and the backlash from fans and former fans and future fans can be overwhelming.

That's something Blizzard has never learned. With World of Warcraft, Blizzard is constantly chasing different demographics to maximize its playerbase, and those different demographics typically want different things out of the game, be they veterans or returnees or hardcores or casuals. Most of the game's expansions have retooled combat and classes and specs in some way, but in Cataclysm, and now again in Warlords of Draenor, the class revamps have been so far-reaching that they actually manage to turn off both veterans and returnees. Gamers, it seems, are willing to tolerate only so much dramatic change to their precious characters before rebelling.

This is a lesson City of Heroes could have taught World of Warcraft had Blizzard been listening.

City of Heroes was for many years bound by what one developer jokingly called "the cottage rule," a name that stuck and defined the game's design plan from then on. See, Paragon City's superheroes were the combination of their powerset and power selections, and the developers were extremely reluctant to change the core concept of any power after it had been introduced, even if that power was terribly underpowered or turned out to be ineffective within the game's meta. It'd be unfair, the devs said, to change such a power because the players who'd selected it expected it to work a certain way, and they wouldn't want to log in one day and find that their fiery fireball power of doom instead now summoned a cottage.

Of course, this rule never actually stopped the devs from changing things they really wanted to change. It just provided them a convenient excuse to use whenever they didn't want to or didn't have the resources to change or fix something. That was their prerogative, but it did mean that a lot of powers and powersets were backburnered for a long time (like Gravity... ug!) and all but the most stalwart holdouts ignored them in gameplay. Eventually, Paragon Studios started moving away from following the cottage rule because fresh blood on the team recognized that designing the game for a small handful of veterans was counterproductive to smart game design and to attracting new players, but the game's run was sadly ended before all the old problems could be fixed.

Blizzard has clearly never heard of the cottage rule. Blizzard will throw out the baby with the bathwater, along with the rest of the bathroom, in the pursuit of what often seems to normal players to be change for change's sake. Consider the recently released Warlords of Draenor alpha patch notes, the notes that inspired this very topic. They number 33 pages, a significant portion of which are dedicated to explaining sweeping changes to how stats, healing, and tanking work, almost a decade after launch. The largest section details the many nerfs and ability deletions and skill do-overs coming for all of the classes, which is what sent so many active players and potential returnees into convulsions.

This isn't a new road for Blizzard. My eyes were first opened to the studio's willingness to tear up the rules and start from scratch in spite of widespread player protest when Cataclysm arrived. I never had a problem with the streamlining of the talent system, but when Blizzard gutted my Shaman's totems, I was furious and despondent in turns. I loved how totems used to work. I loved stomping them out and watching their glowy magic swirl around my group and provide them an anchor around which to fight. I didn't like seeing any of them be deleted and turned into short-term, annoying, weak cooldowns. It wasn't that I didn't want to learn or experience something new; it was that I really liked what I already had, which was why I picked the class that played that way to begin with.

The thing is, Shaman totems weren't "broken" before Cataclysm. They weren't in terrible shape like so many of the powersets and powers that the City of Heroes team once refused to alter under the shadow of the cottage rule. Totems didn't need a fundamental revamp; swarms of players were not calling for them to be rewritten from the ground up. But Blizzard did it anyway, and it was a huge turn-off for folks like yours truly, who struggled returning to a game they wanted to like as a class they used to love but no longer played the same. That's exactly what the draconian cottage rule was meant to address, even if it was applied haphazardly, but Blizzard didn't learn that lesson, not from City of Heroes or from Cataclysm itself.

And Blizzard isn't alone. I can rattle off several examples of MMO changes both mechanical and graphical that were not broadly desired but that developers bullheadedly charged ahead with anyway: Star Wars Galaxies' NGE, EverQuest II's SOGA models, and Ultima Online's plethora of failed 3-D clients all come to mind. Each of the studios behind those games was chasing a different playerbase from the one it already had, and each of those studios suffered for it. Blizzard, by contrast, seems to be changing World of Warcraft for change's sake and chasing no one at all... and who wants to play a game where no one is happy but the devs?

The MMORPG genre might be "working as intended," but that doesn't mean it can't be so much more. Join Massively Editor-in-Chief Bree Royce every other Friday in her Working As Intended column for editorials about and meanderings through MMO design, ancient history, and wishful thinking. Armchair not included.
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Working As Intended: Change for change's sake in World of Warcraft