Blizzard's vision and player choice

Scott Andrews
S. Andrews|06.29.14

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Blizzard's vision and player choice
Temple of Karabor assaulted
This past Thursday, Cory Stockton (aka Mumper) answered a simple question on Twitter. He told players that the faction hubs would no longer be located in the Temple of Karabor and Bladespire Fortress, but on the island of Ashran.

The firestorm of controversy that followed seemed to take Blizzard by surprise. Lore took to the forums to explain the change. He gave Blizzard's reasoning, including the lore explanation for the new hubs. Far from mollifying the player base, it only served to inflame those who disagreed with the shift in locale.

My response is this: Why not both? Why must one city or the other be the One Hub to Rule Them All? Why can't we, the players, choose which city to bind our hearthstone to -- without being punished for it? Why does there have to be one "right" answer on such a basic quality of life issue? Let us choose and use phasing so we only see our own choice as a hub.

Although I don't condone the extremely negative way that some reacted to the announcement, the anger didn't surprise me at all. It points to a problem that has loomed over WoW for a long time: lack of player options and personalization.

The single vision

Part of what makes WoW and other Blizzard games so well designed is the that the developers have a boatload of talent. You can't deny that. Look at any game Blizzard has made in the last 15 years+ and you'll find gorgeous art direction, addictive gameplay, and stunning music.

But has that success come at a cost? Has Blizzard become too certain of their own choices? Too tight-fisted when it comes to player-driven options? Too stuck on an attitude of "we know better than you what's best for you"? Has Azeroth become a nanny state, where anything Blizzard can't fully control is taken away?

The Ashran controversy is a decision that Blizzard has made without input from the players. Instead of offering us a choice, we're told that this is Blizzard's vision for the expansion. You must use the Ashran cities for portals and vendors. They do listen to feedback, and they may reverse this decision. But that's not my point here. My point is, why does there have to be one choice? Why should it be Blizzard's choice or ours? (Not that every player even wants the same thing...)

In a subscription-based game, why not accommodate more preferences? Why not both?

Compare the Ashran situation to Mists. The shrines worked out just fine, and I don't recall anyone complaining about their location. Even so, why is there only one hub in Mists? Why can't I choose any one of the various beautifully designed locales in Pandaria as my base of operations? Any of the four temples would have worked just as well as the faction shrines. Since they are geared toward the four combat roles, they could have offered a little bit of personalization in hub choice. But the portals, banks, dailies, etc. are only at the shrine, so we've been stuck there for two years.

These game objects and NPCs would take little time to populate elsewhere, along with the appropriate phasing so everywhere you go doesn't look like a hub. It's not the development time. It's that Blizzard only has one vision. The shrines were their vision of hubs for Mists, just as the Ashran cities are for Warlords.

Their vision, our appearance

Blizzard's vision extends to every aspect of WoW, even our own "custom" characters. Part of why transmogrification is such a big deal in WoW is because the game utterly lacked any meaningful way to customize your character's appearance for so long. The fact that the system exists at all is still kind of amazing to me as a player since classic WoW. Then, you had a few options at character creation and that was it. This was true for seven years.

Yet even now, within that system, Blizzard's vision limits our choices. We can't quest in a tuxedo. We can't raid with our Warglaives or PvP with a fish. (At least, not without gimping ourselves...) Those things don't match Blizzard's vision for the game. Left to our devices, we would ruin their vision. That's the message, implicit or explicit, in such restrictions.

That's why we only get big shoulders. Big shoulders are Blizzard's vision for the game. If you want realistically proportioned shoulder armor, you won't find any on Draenor, I can promise you that.

Sure, silly transmogs can be distracting. And some have a gameplay impact when it comes to PvP strategy. But this is another area where players lack choice. What if I want to see what players are really wearing at all times instead of transmogs? Why isn't there a toggle to always show the actual items?

Adventurer in tuxedo
Transmog is 100% a step in the right direction. But there are so many things in WoW we still can't really customize. Spell effects. Mounts. Totems and elementals. Druid forms. Hunter pets, death knight summons, and warlock demons. Companion pets. Glyphs like Glyph of Felguard and Glyph of Spirit Raptors have given us a few options in this regard, and those are very welcome, but they are few and far between.

It's a somewhat personal issue for me. The druid class that I play could offer limitless possibilities, but it feels incredibly limited. I can't change the look of my forms aside from a handful of color swaps. Why can't I shift into a hyena, crocolisk, or raptor if I want to? Why do I have to be a back-heavy bear if I want to tank, instead of a rhino, kodo, elekk, or ram? Why can't I fly as a moth or a nether ray?

I'm not asking for fully designed race-specific models, animations, and sounds for all of these forms. I'm not asking for new icons or spell names. That's the way Blizzard would want to do it, to go all in on it the way that they typically do, and their intent is noble. I argue that ten "good enough" choices (all models already in the game) are better than one fully developed druid form that a person may or may not like. A choice would feel like my druid form, not theirs. But that one form is Blizzard's vision, so that's what we get.

Case in point: Garrisons

When there are any custom options at all, they are usually from a short list of Blizzard-approved selections. Garrisons are a prime example. Instead of the deeply flexible customization of housing offered in other MMOs like Rift and Wildstar, we can only choose from Blizzard's list of garrison buildings, all designed top to bottom by Blizzard. We can't choose different looks for those buildings. We could select the zone for our garrisons, but that choice was taken away too.

The way garrisons ended up makes me feel like a kid whose dad buys him a LEGO set. When I go to build something with it, dad tells me I'm doing it wrong. He puts together all the parts himself while I watch. I can pick which pieces to play with after he's built them all, but they don't feel like my creations.

You could argue that creating the toolset for garrison customization would take longer than Blizzard making them by hand, but I'm not so sure. Given how obsessive Blizzard is over details, meticulously designing all of the content themselves might take longer than giving players a long list of options and letting us go to town. Sure, our own garrison designs may not be as awe-inspiring as the developers' will be, but they'd feel so much more personal. We'd have millions of garrisons of our own, instead of their single vision.

Their talents, our gameplay

One of the rock solid choices made by Diablo III 1.0 was the ability to customize your character's spell bar beyond the template Blizzard gives you. Sure, you have to dig in the UI for that toggle. It has a vague name (Elective Mode) and many players don't even know it exists. But it is there, and once you make the switch it opens up a whole new world of build possibilities. It gives you a way to make your witch doctor or crusader feel like it's your own. (Heck, in adventure mode, you can even pick your own hub. I prefer sunny Caldeum.)

Elective Mode
WoW, on the other hand, has deliberately eroded those kinds of gameplay choices. The wide-open talent trees of classic through Wrath provided options. Granted, most of the options were bad. Almost any build but the cookie cutter was not optimal for PvE -- but you still had the choice. Sometimes players did things that broke the game, and those things had to be nerfed. That's the risk -- and the thrill -- of letting players put their own stamp on something.

Blizzard took away most of those talent choices in Cataclysm, including the ability to make hybrid builds, and removed many more in Mists of Pandaria. We have more viable choices now, but they are strictly controlled by Blizzard's talent template. Players have no room for creativity or expression here. You can no longer have your own vision for what your paladin or your shaman is. Those original talent trees, based on Diablo's method to personalize your character, are long gone.

The tyranny of lore

The faction race restrictions will almost certainly never be lifted. You can't be a tauren who's so appalled by your faction's atrocities that you seek a new path with the Alliance. You can't be a straight-backed Zandalari troll who makes common cause with the hunching Darkspears. You can't be a gnome with an affinity for beasts who becomes a hunter. You can't be a worgen who has more innate skill at the peaceful gathering of herbs over skinning a dead carcass.

Why not? Lore, we're told. I respect the lore of the game. Mists of Pandaria had a great story that drew me in like no other expansion's lore to date. But if real history tells us anything, it's that nothing and no one is ever an absolute. Every religion has its heretics. Every nation has its defectors. Every stereotype about race, gender, nationality, or orientation has endless exceptions. That's what makes life interesting.

Giving players more nontraditional choices would make Azeroth more interesting, too, and more immersive, rather than less. But it doesn't fit the developers' vision. Invoking the lore is just a gentler way of saying that.

Why not both?

Some argue that WoW just isn't that kind of game. It's not meant to be about personal choice or expression. It's a game about Blizzard's vision of Azeroth, and we have the privilege to explore it. Maybe that's true, and maybe WoW will never allow such wholly personal choices. But I think many players would like ways to express themselves more, to have greater freedom to choose, even if those choices aren't perfect, or entirely what the developers had in mind.

With other MMOs offering so much player-driven personalization, WoW is starting to feel overbearing in its lack of options. The developers' vision for the game is often massive in scope and brilliant in design, but that doesn't mean everyone in the game agrees with it. A single vision can only ever please some. An array of choices will almost always please more.

Azeroth is, at its heart, a virtual world. Living in a world, any world, is about choices. The choices you want to make, regardless of what someone else thinks you should make. The freedom to be who you want to be, no matter what someone else thinks you should be. Their feral cat and my feral raptor. Their loyal Horde tauren and my Alliance defector. Their Ashran hub and my Temple of Karabor base. Why not both?

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