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World of Warcaft's Fundamental Flaws

Preamble 

I've mentioned on my twitter a few times that there are some problems with World of Warcraft. That for all intents and purposes I just can't just look beyond at this point. I'm not going to say any MMO honestly does things in a better way, but I think it would be foolish to believe that the formula that blizzard has applied is working at the moment. That having been said, I feel it's also a bit of a stretch to pretend like there isn't any valid and active competition to WoW these days. No longer is it simply WoW, Everquest, and Ultima. We've had nearly 20 years to work on this formula and see what we can get out of it.

To start, lets acknowledge what World of Warcraft has done well, as well as what it got known for.  WoW came out during the height of the Everquest and Star Wars Galaxies days, and defined itself quickly thanks to a number of factors. First, WoW has and always will be "The Casual MMO", despite beliefs to the contrary. When compared to the likes of Star Wars Galaxies or Everquest, Warcraft was far more aimed at the casual player. This has been the blizzard formula for nearly 20 years now. They take an existing game and to polish it while making it more accessible to the general public.

They did this with Heroes of the Storm as compared to Heroes of Newerth or League of Legends, or Overwatch as compared to Team Fortress. Hell one could even argue that Hearthstone is simply the blizzard polish and adaption of Magic the Gathering. In each case they have been a thriving success most of the time.

WoW, now at nearly 15 years in age, stands as one of Blizzards oldest continuing properties, beating out Diablo, Starcraft, and others as the near defining game of the company. It's roots were based strongly in the Warcraft RTS's lore (that's important and more on that later), and the elements of DoTA (Defense of the Ancients) gameplay that Blizzard found appealing. You see between everquest and the (at the time) wildly popular DoTA, blizzard realized that their players were interested in playing a hero, to focus on that unit and to level it.

Combine this with a lot of the formulas that were used in Everquest for raiding and the like and you end up with the  pretty solid platform, and from that one of the world's most successful MMORPG's was born. But as time soldiered on, where WoW was once the innovator (Instances), it has now become the product lagging behind.

As the years have gone on, we've seen any number of products coming on to the field, be it  Warhammer Online (A game that Warcraft shares more of it's lore with then perhaps it would like to admit), Everquest 2, The old Republic, Black Desert Online, Rift, Final Fantasy XI and XIV, Elder Scrolls Online,  DDO, Eve, Wildstar, Guild Wars and so many others. The list grows longer by the minute, and each has had their own sort of unique "Gift" to the MMO community

But as more feature rich MMO's emerge, and the technology to make a truly living, breathing dynamic world comes closer, WoW remains the king despite in many respects failing to adapt. I don't make this post because I have some hatred of WoW or her developers. If anything they have my undying respect for the creation of a platform that has managed to enrapture millions and provide them with a rich universe to grow and expand. As one of those fans; however, I feel it would be  distinctly foolish of me to ignore where one of the things I love is failing.

I should probably get out there that I've been playing WoW heavily since the Burning Crusade, and have spent the last 7 or so years Role Playing my druid Alnarra (Where do you think the name and pictures came form anyway?). So I do this out of love, not spite.

Features 

WoW introduced instances, no one will argue with that. The concept of world bosses that was introduced with the Everquest was toned back and made easier to manage. The talent Trees that diablo made so very famous were pulled in and helped establish the identity of the various classes. But as it has aged, it has not done so gracefully. What so often happens is that WoW's developers realized that they had to make the game more player friendly to keep it attractive to the audience. Common player complaints regarding quality of life were addressed 

Quest were trimmed and contained so that the player didn't have to cross the planet; pets were no longer hungry;scaling difficulties were added to allow players of different skill levels to truely test their limits; Talent trees were thinned out to better address the seeming "Illusion of Choice"; Raids and Dungeon queuing was automated to avoid the 8 hour waits for a simple 5 man, but... has this really solved the problem? Most of WoW's "Features" often come at the compromise of peeling away her RPG elements. While the game is arguably in one of it's most playable formats, it feels barren and stripped while at the same time lacking some of the things which define other MMO's 

Player Housing, Greater Customization Options, Neutral Factions, A wider variety of well known races, and to some extent even more experimentation with professions. However; instead of bold experimentation with the wide variety of features introduced in similarly positioned MMO's with everything from the Family System of the Old Republic, the Fates of Final Fantasy XIV, the dynamic combat system of ESO, or even the skill based CC counters in Wildstar, Warcraft has instead opted to simply streamline it's existing features

And now with the features so stripped and barren, the issue becomes clear, all the innovation, the changes in gameplay, the streamling and clean up. They haven't added to the game, if anything they have subtracted from it. 

The promised dynamic content of the Island Expeditions pales in comparison to what was supposed to be delivered. The supposed RTS elements of the Warfront system make it seem like little more then a glorified scenario. Mythic+'s now supplement a crafting system that is near without content, even removing an entire core profession because... streamlining? 

Talents, Pets, Quest, Dunegons, Raids, they have all been stripped of their adventure. They have been so finely processed and digested that the mystery is gone and the confusion of a new adventure is robbed. While there is still a story wrapping the game together, it has become little more then a dungeon crawler and team death match simulator with goal post in between. 

Lore 

WoW was never favored among it's fans for its in depth or take on lore. In fact even from the start many decried the game for softening the relatively strong lore that is developed in the RTS. MMO's by their very nature make it difficult to establish narratives, often times, because the narrative of a good story relies on the existence of a single hero or heroine that acts as the protagonist. In an MMO, the role of the protagonist must be shared equally among all the players lest the narrative fail. 

This is exacerbated by World of Warcraft's choice to simplify the adversarial nature of the warring races of Azeroth to little more then a red team, blue team dynamic. From the notion of a game play perspective this helps to invigorate the player into one of WoW's core features, Player Versus Player; however, from a narrative perspective it robs the subtly of a story in favor of an explanation that works equally for both sides. 

Such a thing is made all the worse when there must be 3 distinct factions, the "Good Guys", "The Good Guys we fight", and the "Actual Bad guys". In each of WoW's expansions justifications must be made for why the two factions would continue their blood feud in light of the overwhelming problem of greater existential threats. Everything from an assault on the Lich King to the Mad Titan himself have had to squeeze bloody faction based conflict into the narrative of attempting to simply save Azeroth from destruction.

With each expansion the explanation for this rather strange dynamic has been watered down further and further, even now where more avid pacifist like Anduin sit on the throne of what is arguably the commanding force of the alliance. Yet this is in many parts at odds with the natural evolution that one might expect in such a fantasy settings and can thus be rather jarring.

In Legion the player was made the commander of their Class; yet, at the same time expected to engage in combat with the horde even if they were also "members of the same class". To a logical extent perhaps this makes sense,  but on a larger scale it serves as a way to break immersion. Video games, due to their very nature, often must do this. Of MMO's though,WoW's is perhaps the worst offender.

While the old republic may have framed the narrative around the player character and the "Class story" or Wildstar explained that the reason you could rerun a dungeon is because it was actually a form of simulation, or Final Fantasy addressing the fact that the hero of light could not possibly have fought the primals on their own being a matter of the hero of light simply having friends. WoW chose to  engage in no such narrative overlays to hide the gameplay as a story element.

These tiny narrative pieces better serve to insulate the player from these moments of broken immersion; howerver, Warcraft makes no such concessions, instead tending towards favoring the gameplay in the face of lore. No where has this been made more clear then Battle For Azeroth, in which a contrived faction war exist to deliver yet another "Greater" threat, because as it turns out once you've beaten the God who commands the demons there aren't many places to go.

The fact is, players know this, everyone and their mother is confused at this point to some degree on the roll  their character still plays. The roll that the player character has on the overall conflict has been muddled, and even the RP communities have a harder time rectifying the often shark jumping moments that now plague the modern lore landscape. This is made worse by the diverse cast of characters that could serve to build the world (which is as Metzen himself put it, is the actual main character), are instead relegated or forgotten in favor of single, focused narratives on non player individuals (Sylvanas, Jaina, Nathanos, etc.).

In such a system where so much of the world has been chipped away and degraded the binding that hides the treadmill starts to fall apart, and the immersion that helped to mask what has always been a rather complicated skinner box fails. You begin to feel more like a crewman watching the bridge crew take on the Borg, then Mr. Worf or Mr Data. 

The Third Party Delimna 

Did you know that Final Fantasy XIV's developers have a problem with DPS meters? Well.. warcraft certainly doesn't. It's wide allowance of interaction and data mining has in this author's opinion, degraded the mystery and thus removed yet another layer that would normally help to hide the otherwise elegant coat that protects the skinner box inside. As someone on Reddit's forums so succinctly put it, "I care more for my Raider.io score then anything else", and on some level that resonated with me

Ultimately your "Skill" or "Worth" as a player is measured entirely by third party parsing tools. In order to "Achieve" you need to do X amount of DPS, or have this high a raider.io Score. While I certainly understand the want, and even desire to have this information, part of me wonders if these third party overlays don't deaden the experience. I think a competitive atmosphere is healthy and can add life to a game; however, the shift from an RPG that happened to have competition has changed rather into a competition wrapped in an RPG

I log on and my thoughts don't drift to a cool quest or piece of gear, but rather which ways mathematically I can improve myself be it farming or some other dull and uninspired task running the same dungeons again and again with slightly different affects and bigger numbers. To me, that doesn't make content, it simply makes additional work

In introducing things like Heroic, Mythic, Mythic+, and the like they have effectively removed the player's ability to "Exit" the game. I've always liked Extra Credit's take on this with the nature of humane design. It is the notion that you should give the player a point of "Completion" or lay out achievable goals in order to ethically allow the player to exit the game without feeling as if they owe more. By WoW's very nature as a game which must retain subscribers the continued design implementations reflect not a  substantial attempt to ensure that the player is the ultimate final goal, but rather a financial to retain users incentive seems more clear.

I don't think this matter is aided by the likes of WoWhead or MMO champion which go to great lengths to understand large swaths of the game prior to release, creating an environment which almost demands players remove the mystery from the content in order to not fear being able to play with others. I will always remember walking into the Eye of Azshara in legion for the first time (Mind you within 72 hours of the official launch of the game), and having a tank frustrated with me because I didn't know the dungeon.

The community doesn't invent that sort of attitude on it's own, it is a culmination of the expectations that players will dispense with their notions of surprise in favor of attempting to learn mechanics, best in slot, or other such matters ahead of time. The mystery of the game is robbed by the very services that perhaps make it the most user friendly and understandable. The posting and dissection of PTR content, and the rather public nature of the beta which is more akin to a product demonstration than any manner of player feedback mechanism strikes me as off-putting and in many ways upsetting.

No more then the average person doesn't wish to know the ending to a book or movie, knowing everything about a given item before it's release is in some ways damning to the final product. Perhaps even more sadly, it is not as if players can simply avoid this content either, in a land where there is an almost hidden need to be aware of it so guilds can prepare and adjust as needed to tackle it.

Gamewhat?

Beyond all this is a yet continued degradation of game-play if it be the trimming of abilities or the general "dumbing" of a given spec. I will at the very least concede that in all things gameplay is perhaps the only element of WoW that is not so far gone as to be unrecognizable. A lot of the modern elements of the game for the most part do feel smoother and I am often dismissive of the notion that certain specs or abilities are inherently broken.

I don't subscribe to the theory that the GCD broke the game, or that Shamans and Shadow Priest pulling lower numbers is inherently a bad thing. If anything I blame the latter more on the inherent nature of third party dissection. Instead I will credit that WoW is RELATIVELY bug free expirience compared to previous incarnations (not being able to loot corpses for nearly a week was pretty not cool), and for all the complaints that the game feels like it's still in beta, I'd be hard pressed to argue that the quality isn't AAA.

The problem I think is that the very core of the gamplay (specs in large part having their overall utility merged, the drive towards more ranged DPS on almost any given occasion, etc.) This inherent issue where you need a rotation to be manageable in a situation where there are near constant and unforgiving mechanics in some ways destroys those very rotations.

I've played feral druid since the days of Wrath, and to this day (perhaps blinded by my nostalgia) the Armor Penetration + Mangle etc rotation is still one of my favorites. I certainly wasn't very good at it, but even a minuscule understanding of it gave me some form of mastery. Now, if perhaps because of my age or WoW's one, I feel more like a professor reading the same tired and understandably dull script back to the class.

The newness or mastery is no longer in the class itself, but rather the fights, and I'm not sure who to blame for that. I certainly don't think a class should be flipped on it's heels every expansion so that it can have some new flavor, but when there are abilities simply removed from the class I think it damages us all.

All Engines behind 

I would be amiss if I didn't address the elephant in the corner, that being of course the very engine that WoW runs on. Talk to any developer for World of Warcraft at lengths and you'll begin to understand that the codebase at this point has become a non maintainable monster. When things that should be relatively simple (the adjustment of the base numbers across the 120 levels) result in cascades of unique situations and one off scenarios it may be time to consider a revision to the very heart of the beast. 

WoW is an old game, and I doubt very much that it's core didn't share some of the codebase with The Frozen Throne or Warcraft 3. The models and texture work are often times... poor at best and not due to any lack of work on the part of the artist. Rather it is because in large respects the models are inflexible and the physics which the game relies on don't support modifications that would otherwise allow it to explore interesting and new ideas. 

One only need compare it to Heroes of the Storm or Overwatch in terms of engine capability with regards to things as simple as rendering or model work to realize that we're very much hitting a road block that even Warcraft's stylized environment can't handle. The fact that increasing the player's starting backpack size is difficult, or the beyond limited number of customization options with the player character, to me, speak volumes of restrictions that echo throughout the platform. 

What could be done

I'm obviously not a game designer, just a nerdy ass cat who likes to play Video Games, but I feel that the only way to save Warcraft might very well be to clear the board. To take a look at the game and franchise as a whole and consider for a long moment the possibility of re-imaging it from a modern perspective. The problem of course is that World of Warcraft is a AAA title which for many years served as Blizzard's flagship product, and I can assure you that in a business of that size enacting change on that scale simply isn't possible. 

So for now the best thing to do may simply be to let it die and wither, and hope that in the future someone picks it back up. The amount of effort required to make a game with the same level of content would be virtually impossible for anyone but blizzard at this point, save perhaps Final Fantasy. There simply aren't any MMO's on the market which have the staying power or community size to remain an effective form of competition to drive change for World of Warcraft, and with no need to innovate the product will continue to stagnate. 

Perhaps I have simply grown old and stodgy, but I am at some level forced to believe that the near future for World of Warcraft, even as patch 8.1 looms on the horizon, is not a positive one. So, for someone who's online avatar is a Night Elf Druid, that makes me sad. 

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