Thursday, June 16, 2011

When Team B took over

Once again a WoW post. I'm sorry for the readers who aren't interested in it, but I find the question of why WoW has (had?) almost more players than all other MMORPGs combined too interesting to ignore. Eventually I'll blog about MMORPGs in general again; don't worry.

As you might be aware, there are two teams that worked on WoW over the years. Team A managed classic WoW and TBC and then moved on to Titan. Team B created WotLK and Cataclysm and is still in control. During classic and TBC the subscription numbers grew to over 10 mio. They abruptly stopped to grow in early WotLK when most players had finished raiding Naxx.

Therefore, being in Team B might not have been all that much fun during WotLK, anyway. But when sub numbers suddenly started to drop by 5% after Cataclysm was released, you can bet that Team B got nervous; as was whole Blizzard. Looking at the forums, the blue posters are irritable. Everybody there wants to know what went wrong; as does Trion or every other copy/paste company, by the way!
The question of why WoW suddenly stopped to grow, and now even declines, might actually be as interesting for the industry as the question of why it was as successful in the first place.

The WoW that was developed by Team A had specific ways of character advancement and loot distribution. Both were subject to severe changes by Team B.

The character advancement developed by Team A (copied from other games), included several raid tiers that required to be run through sequentially. First, players ran Molten Core, then Black Wing Lair, then An'Quirai, then Naxxramas. Several smaller dungeons and raids were available on the way.

The raid tiers were available to everybody as soon as they were developed. But if you started a new character you had to run through them in that order again - unless you wanted to be carried. Being carried, usually, was quite possible in 40 man raids.

The random loot system used by Team A allowed players to become well geared relatively soon. But getting the last final piece of gear could take for forever.

Team B, when they took over, were very enthusiastic. Who wouldn't have been? They took over the fastest growing money-printing machine in the industry's history. The genre was developing fast and many things seemed possible. In fact, the new neam planned to do a 7-chapter epic WotLK expansion.

In the end, not even half of that made it into the game. Did they just want too much? Did Activision later tell them that doing less would be more profitable? Who knows.

What we do know is that Team B set out to change the game to the better. Ghostcrawler started to communicate on the official forums extensively. Class revamps happened whenever feasible. The relentless focus on arena in TBC was scaled back. Most of all, raiding became more accessible.

For a long time players had complained that the classic:Naxxramas or later TBC:Sunwell raids were a waste of resources as only a few players would access them. Also, they had complained about the slow pace of completing a set. This was a (intended) consequence of the random loot system.

Most of all, there was the ever-present question, of how to make the endgame more similar to the leveling game. To understand the appeal of this question you must know that the leveling game works miraculously well. Even the WoW clones were easily able to provide good leveling games. But it also was quite expensive. Of course, Blizzard could easily have created a virtually endless leveling game with the one billion profit they made a year, but the management didn't want to reduce the return-on-investment down to the industry standard. So the designers tried to find a way to make the endgame more similar to the leveling game.

One way were daily quests. Another way was to increase the speed at which players got new items. The new raid-advancement mechanic would allow for that: Players would focus only on one raid at a time. They would chain-run dungeons to update their equipment accordingly. The Dungeon Finder would help them do this. By using a badge system, instead of random loot, players would not need as long to complete their sets.

Team B had only the best intentions. Everybody always has. And still they messed it up. Here's why:

Next to the phenomenal technical and artistic qualities, the central reason for WoW's success was that all players could always advance their characters by experiencing interesting content. That means that the content the players experienced was at a reasonable challenge level and happened in a pleasant social environment.
Since players are differently motivated, invest different amounts of time and maybe even are differently skilled, the game was flexible.

A player who played less often would experience the content at his own pace. If finishing a raid tier took him a year, then it took him a year. If it took him a month, it took him a month. All he needed to do was to find a compatible raid group or re-join one when he came back. Since raid groups were hard pressed to come up with 40 players and there always was somebody who couldn't make it that evening, random players would be invited. Part of the server community was built this way. It was how I got to raid the first few times.

The random loot system allowed players to get many items relatively fast. But even the players in the raid group that were most active, still had something to get from the lower-tier raids. In a way, random loot is evil and ingenious.

The change Team B brought along had a few advantages: Since everybody raided only one raid tier at a time, a large pool of players was available. This had been a constant problem for advanced raid groups in the old system. They often had problems finding replacements for doing advanced raids.

Also, the new system allowed players to replace items faster. Since this was more similar to the leveling game, it was considered a good thing (note: I disagree).

But the new system also had several disadvantages compared to the old one:
Since, at all times, all players raided the same raid tier, its difficulty had to be rather low. Otherwise, a lot of players would not have been willing (=able, if you insist) to do it. The new Naxxramas, consequently was rather trivial.

Since a lot of advanced players, who had superior network effects on the community, didn't like that, Team B had to create additional difficulty levels: heroic raids. These heroic raids, however, always felt highly gamey and artificial. Moreover, they were rather boring to complete, because players already knew most of the encounters. In contrast to what you read on forums, nobody plays MMORPGs for challenge alone. If someone just wanted a challenge, he played Mikado. The setting and the simulation aspect are important for MMORPGs.

Players who needed a year to complete content would suddenly not complete raid tiers ever. Players who completed raid tiers in a month would suddenly find themselves out of content.

Blizzard had always thrown away old content when they made an expansion, even Team A. Team B, however, even threw away raids in the same expansion: Since dungeons were much more efficient at providing better gear, players skipped older raids. The only saving grace were achievements. Most players, however, ran older raids only when they were seriously bored.

In combination with the Dungeon Finder and the daily dungeon quest, the dungeons became a grind in its purest form. While they did become more accessible, they also turned from a pleasant social experience into a boring, un-immersive, anonymous and at times asocial MUST. I'm sure it was easy to misinterpret the statistics. But trust me: nobody looked forward to do the daily dungeon. The pleasant social and reasonably accessible content that dungeons had once been was removed from the game.
The only reason to run dungeons was to later take part in raids. And since these raids were very accessible and relatively enjoyable in WotLK, sub numbers didn't drop. The rapid growth, however, stopped. Many players accepted the new dungeons and suffered through them to experience the story of World of Warcraft in the raids.

At the end of the WotLK expansion, Team B was mildly optimistic. Sure, their own expansion had stopped the rapid growth of the game, but they were about to change some things back to how they were. They would put back the challenge into the game! Unfortunately, they hadn't understood a thing.

Team A's WoW wasn't successful, because it was challenging. It was successful, because players advanced their characters while experiencing content at a reasonable challenge level and in a pleasant social environment. It was successful, because the game offered content for everybody to advance his character: from the most hardcore to the most casual.
Players were not herded together, but would play the game at their own pace.

To be able to make the game more challenging, Team B needed to make internal compromises. Being already in a defensive frame of mind, some developers sought support from the statistics department. There was a strong negative correlation between player deaths during leveling and the probability of re-subscription. Moreover, a vocal minority of players had loved to do the Loremaster achievement, which meant doing outleveled content. Nobody had the courage to argue against this. Consequently, the leveling game was made beyond trivial.

Maybe some developers still insisted that they needed an introductory raid, like MC, UBRS, Zul Gurub, Karazhan or Naxx. But being short on time and overstrained already, it was decided to skip it for now.

Heroic dungeons were designed to be very challenging early on so that they would still be challenging when players got better equipment. Unfortunately, this meant that shortly after Cataclysm's release the average player found himself confronted with a very trivial leveling game and very hardcore heroic dungeons that had often to be completed in an unpleasant social environment. And all this was necessary to start raiding which was rather hardcore and as such inaccessible for many of them.

The result was a 5% drop (after creative bookkeeping) in subscriber numbers shortly after Cataclysm had been released in Europe/NA and WotLK had been released in China.

To combat this drop, Team B, now 'supported' by several other teams, decided to get out more content faster. As a first measure the Zul'Gurub and Zul'Aman raids were modified and re-introduced as heroic dungeons. The player base complained, but overall this was mildly successful.

Moreover it was decided that an introductory raid was needed. The existing tier of raids was severely nerfed as the new tier was introduced. Unfortunately this didn't work out so well, because the then old raid tier competed with heroic dungeons. One lesson developers have learned by now is that players always prefer the easy and fast way to advance their character to the fun way. This usually also means that they quit soon after, complaining that the game is not fun. That's how players are.

In the end, there is only one thing developers need to do: They need to provide reasonably challenging content that players can experience in a pleasant social environment at their own pace. And they must do this for all players; from the most hardcore to the most casual.

Herding players together at one difficulty level by requiring them to regularly experience trivial monotonous content in an unpleasant social environment is the wrong way.

You're welcome to read the following posts on this topic where I switch from story telling to dry analysis. (1), (2).


  1. A problem with your suggestion is this: for most players, it means they will not finish the raid content by the end of the expansion. Look at what fraction of players finished Naxx in original WoW, or Sunwell in BC.

    If the raids are being used to tell a story, this means most players don't get to see the end of the story when it's relevant. As soon as the players get the expectation that they won't be finishing the raid content, the story loses its ability to keep them engaged and motivated. From there, it's a short step to asking why they're raiding, and from there a short step to asking why they're playing the game at all.

    WotLK may have been seen as easy, but even in it most players did not finish the raid content. This ultimate failure of WotLK -- easy content for much of the expansion, then pulling the ball away at the last moment -- would have instilled the notion Blizzard wasn't going to let them finish the story. And when Cataclysm came in even harder, that impression was intensely reinforced. So why play at all?

  2. Was the "Team B" ever confirmed? Or is that just a theory because it's obvious from looking how the game evolved?

    The only place where I disagree with your very good post is that TBC never had the spirit of vanilla WoW. Back in TBC I was quite sure that Team B did create TBC. TBC added a lot of good things to the game but the world started to fall apart with TBC.

    - They've added the portal hub, which was more than a small step from the "painful" travel between main cities in vanilla.
    - They've added the portal hub conveniently in the center of the world.
    - There was no "artificial stretching" of travel time with things like continents.
    - The TBC world was very small and replaced the whole huge vanilla world. It wasn't an EXPANSION it was a REPLACEMENT. Vanilla on the other side was created to keep endgame things scattered all over the world.
    - The TBC world was ugly and created without love. Everything had a purpose. There was not a single bridge without use who was just there to make the world look immersive.
    - Everything was flat and looked artificial.
    - There was no Azshara who was just there to create the illusion of a mystery.

    Then they did all this PvP crap (from a PvE player PoV!) like arena. Vanilla was mostly a PvE game.

  3. Forgot the most important thing.

    - There was never grass under water!

  4. There's a lot of truth (and other good stuff ;)) in your post. Well done.

    One thing I'd like to point out is that I'm almost sure that the people that were responsible for the creation of Vanilla WoW were not, by and large, in the live team that took over operations after launch. At least that is the way the MMO industry usually operates, to my knowledge.
    Kaplan might have stayed, but I'd bet that a lot of the rest changed.

  5. I agree, Neowolf2, but there are better ways to solve this problem. For example, Blizzard could transform raids into leveling dungeons when an expansion hits.

    I could also think of several other and maybe better ones, but that's too much for a comment .. ;)

    Fact is, the current way to fix this problem introduces a lot of other issues and doesn't even solve it.

  6. For example, Blizzard could transform raids into leveling dungeons when an expansion hits.

    In that case, if you want to see the story, you see it at the start of the next expansion.

    And then after one or two months you unsub and wait for the next expansion.

    So, no, that doesn't work as a way to keep people sending the company money for 2 years.

  7. Kring, there was a movement of employees from WoW to Titan at this time. It has been confirmed by Blizzard. It may not have been of a deciding magnitude or whatever, but it did happen.

    Of course, my post doesn't rely on this fact. It just uses it as a rethoric instrument ;)

    On classic being 'better' than TBC´.
    I agree on a personal level with all you say. From a business PoV, however, WoW continued to grow during TBC and only stopped with WotLK.

  8. Neowolf2 if you want, just make the entire last expansion superfluous like today. Solves the problem.

    But don't introduce badge/point-loot, and don't herd players into one single raid tier.

  9. @Neowolf: But how many players actually care about the story that Blizzard is trying to tell above anything else? I mean, it's a nice bonus, but on the whole I don't play an MMO to be told someone else's story - books and films are much more suited for that kind of storytelling. Playing an MMO is about creating your own story, and whether that involves killing all raid bosses or no raid bosses doesn't really matter that much as long as you've got something to do to progress your character.

  10. Doesn't it feel like wow is a machine that's been meddled with so much it never get back to functioning smoothly

  11. Another item to look at is player capability. For a very large portion of vannila WoW players, it was their first MMO. After they either mastered Vannila by achieving raid status or just questing/doing profesions, they carried it into BC. But by then they were joined the SW:Galaxy hold overs, EQ and Ultima cast offs who already new the MMO scene. They lost the shock value and had to start cranking out shit, regardless of quality because they now had to pander to a large group of ppl who expected more more more. Think of it like a kid who wants popcorn at a movies.... but then he needs a drink to wash it down... then candy to counter act the salt. Wow's early success simply set the stage for building an Army of players who not only wanted so called "bigger and better things to do".. they demanded it.

  12. Kring already asked about the "B" team. I doubt anyone will find a better confirmation than the rather soft statement by Zarhym. I actually agree, there was a massive change between TBC and WotLK.

    Jeffrey "Tigole" Kaplan left for Titan and Greg "Ghostcrawler" Street suddenly appeared with DK's and WotLK. Tom "Kalgan" Chilton remained from the old team. Personal bias now: I think he ruined UO and he did nothing good for WoW either.

    I waited for WotLK and farmed raids and dungeons till release. Within 1 month after release I was through Naxx and quit.

    Something - or rather a lot of things - changed with this "patch 3" or whatever it was called a few days or weeks before WotLK went live. Paladins got much needed love, but in general they dumbed down everything. Even my buddy Andre who always slacked and quit could suddenly raid successfully.

    But he quit as well. I think raiding for everyone did not make the world better. They made the world worse and raiding stopped being the carrot but became a standard activity.

    I find Kring's thoughts on the nowadays much hated Outland (or TBC? both terms get often muddled together) very interesting. I think flight should have stayed in Outland, there it made sense. I think Azeroth would have been better off without flight.

  13. Posts like this make me cringe.

    They are all over the blogosphere, they all the say that the grass was greener in the past, they all ignore the changes which took/are taking place in the gaming world, they all provide useful suggestions on how to make the game better, which are muddy, unclear and impossible to apply.

    Face reality: It'll never be like the first time. There's no way to turn back time. You'll never feel again the same sense of discovery and exploration.
    Assuming Titan is completely different, there is hope there.

  14. Helistar, with all due respect: have you really read the post?

    Posts like these are not all over the blogosphere. I give a detailed description as to what changed over the course of the expansions and what influence these design decisions had. I concentrate on just two desing decisions and give reasons as to why they had such a major impact.

    Assuming you agreed, I also provide very useful and specific suggestions on how to make the game better:
    1) Don't herd the players in one raid tier.
    2) Don't (mis)use dungeons as grindy and socially unpleasant content to herd players.
    3) See point (8).

    This post has nothing to do with nostalgia.

  15. On these teams:
    While I use this Team A and B mainly as a rethoric intrument, it is not totally without evidence.

    Here you can read an interesting interview with Shane Dabiri who was WoW Lead Producer until TBC and then moved on.

    Can we talk about the team a little bit? After The Burning Crusade, you moved on to work for a different team here -- what do you miss about working with the World of Warcraft team?


    Here Blizzard CPP Paul Sams is interviewed by Gamasutra.

    He says.
    "I believe [Titan] is the most ambitious thing we've ever attempted," Sams said. "And I feel like we have set our company up to succeed on that. We have some of our most talented and most experienced developers on that team. Many of the people that built World of Warcraft are full time on that other team."

    That expertise in working with the most successful MMORPG in the world for the past several years will prove vital for the success of the new MMO. Sams assured that World of Warcraft is still under the watch of experienced staff, even though key members are moving onto Titan.

    "We've spent a lot of time over the last number of years transitioning those people off [of World of Warcraft], and having great people below them that were trained up by them to run World of Warcraft," Sams said. "Those people have been doing it for the last couple of years without the assistance of those people that created it."

  16. With a nod in the direction of neowolf2's comments:

    If a player never experiences the beginning and/or middle of a story, but skips right to the end, would you still consider the story "finished".

    Is it more important to see the end of the story when it's relevant, if that means they skip past the beginning and/or middle when they are relevant?

  17. Masterlooter, I am not certain I understand the connection to the blog post, actually ;)

    Anyway, I think that players try to experience a story as soon as anyhow possible. As long as they have fun doing to, the developers did everything right.

    When players skip parts of a story, the story is either bad, or the gameplay incentives motivate the players to do this. Both is a problem and should be dealt with.

    There is one exception: You want your MMORPG to really appeal to all kinds of players - including those who never care about any story. In that case you should allow them to skip it. But be careful that this 'skipping' doesn't introduce an incentive to do so for those who actually would like to experience the story.

    As to Blizzard's current policy:
    They throw away all raids whenever a new tier comes out. I think this is not optimal. Especially considering the fact that they have a problem with too little content, which is what their CEO recently used to explain the 5% drop in front of shareholders.

    This, however, is not the topic is of this post.

  18. After taking the time to read Neowolf2's comment again, please accept my apology. You fear that having succeedingly hard raids will prevent players from reaching the last one in an expansion.
    In classic/TBC this was certainly correct.

    Now, I think you can fix this by having these raids not actually require skill, but gear. In some way Blizzard already does this. An option is to use 'horizontal' progression, like MC did with resistances.

    Additionally, I already suggested to tranform old raids into accessible dungeons when an expansion hits.

    Now, as Neowolf2 points out, players could unsub and always wait for the end of an expansion. But they could already do this. Sunwell was trivial when WotLK gear, Naxx was trivial with TBC gear, I was there.

    But that's not a problem, because player like to see content as soon as possible and will try to do so. They won't just unsub and wait for the next expansion.

  19. @Nils: your analysis forgets one major detail which I mentioned: TIME. Time has passed from the 1st, to the 2nd to the subsequent expansions. The landscape has changed, the amount of people available as players has not increased as much as it would have been necessary. The fact that still today WoW has a huge market share shows that the initial growth could not have lasted.

    As for your suggestions:
    (1) changes nothing, it's just that instead of normal dungeons + heroics + raids, you add one more stepstone (= more grinding to access the "high tier").
    (2) get your numbers right: the "grindiness" of dungeons was high in Wrath, it has been/is being decreased in Cataclysm. As of 4.2 it'll be possible to reach the emblem weekly cap with 7 (seven) dungeons per week, and this is for a player who is not raiding at all. BTW this suggestion does not change at all with (1), which would just mean herding players in the 1st raid ties instead of the dungeons. In any case we'll see, this additional raid tier is exactly what will happen at the 4.2 patch, we'll see how it works out.
    (3) i.e. (8) is the kind of "general and vague suggestion", I'm talking about. How would you implement it in detail? The "social environment" in particular....

  20. ..the central reason for WoW's success was that all players could always advance their characters by experiencing interesting content..

    I don't think you could write a more incorrect sentence about "the good old days."

    Look, I was a 40-man raider back in 2005, and I loved it. But the actual fact is that the vast majority of players simply could not advance their characters at all a short time after reaching level cap.

    40-man raiding was not accessible. It's nice that you got invited to join other guilds' raids because they were short of warm bodies, but that didn't happen on all servers, it didn't happen on most servers. Raid groups were far more insular then than they became later.

    The PvP honor system was so far beyond inaccessible as to be a total joke. The most anyone could hope to achieve without making it their life's pursuit was a few mediocre blues.

    Look, I loved those days, it's true, but I can't pretend that it was great for everyone. I know that I was in the narrow demographic that "Team A" targeted.

  21. Helistar, you write

    The fact that still today WoW has a huge market share shows that the initial growth could not have lasted.

    That is a hell of an assumption. At best I'd count this as an 'indication', not as evidence. I could just as well argue that the sudden stop atfer a rapid growth shows that 12mio isn't the theoretical optimum.


    (1) Adding step stones is not a grind, but content. This is a wide-spread misunderstanding, really: Content becomes grind when it is highly-incentivised and not fun. If content is fun, it is not a grind.

    (2) I think what Blizzard intends to do right now is going to be good for the game in the short run. I'm not so sure about the long-run. We will have to see. Anyway, they haven't done it yet and I didn't comment much on it in the post.

    The additional raid will be useful, but not highly so. As long as heroic dungeons are the fastest way to the highest item level, players will use them towards that goal. Even if they are unfun. In that case they are a grind.

    (3) Point 8 mostly describes what was wrong in WotLK. Blizzard used highly incentivised content (daily heroics) to herd players into a specific raid tier. This content (daily heroic) became a grind, because it was socialy unpleasant and had to be run very, very!! often. Thus players did it although it was boring as hell.

    I don't really complain about the difficulty, btw. You can't have a daily LFD that pushes players through difficult content. That was the worst mistake in early Cataclysm. It is the reason Rift nerfed its dungeons the moment they introduced the LFD.

    The social environment in dungeons is better if you don't incentive players to run them as often, and especially if you don't use an anonymous LFD so that do run them very often with people they'll never meet again.

    I think a anonymous LFD could have its place in WoW. But at least the daily quest should be removed.

    I can't tell you how I would implement anything 'in detail', because I am not the responsible designer. All I can do is tell what's the problem and I can hint at characteristics a solution would have.

  22. I'm not so much fearful of players missing content because it's inaccessable to them for any reason. I agree with you that each raid should be slightly harder than the last (within an expansion) - otherwise we're just doing the same things with different graphics and gear. Even if that means players will not be able to do content because it's too difficult for them.

    I was more hinting at why is it bad if players don't see the end-most end-game content (Sunwell/Black Temple, level 60 Naxx), but not bad if players don't see other similar end game content?

    PlayerA raids Naxx (level 80), and clears it with his guild. They try to do Ulduar but they realize it's too hard for them - they continue to do Naxx and/or do other things. They never enter ToC, nor ICC.

    PlayerB does heroic 5 mans until he is ready for ICC. Finds a guild, and clears it. He never raids Naxx, nor Ulduar, nor ToC.

    In both cases each player only saw about 13 bosses and only about 1/4 of the total available raid content. In both cases, a player missed much of the content Blizzard had designed for them - and thus much of the story. I would argue neither "finished the story". But for many players the PlayerA scenario is "bad game deisgn", whereas the PlayerB scenario is fine, because "everyone should get to 'finish' the game".

    I don't think that's a good counter arguement against seperating players in content - as I don't think players are actually finishing it.

  23. Carson 63000, this is not a post about the good old days. I agree with you that many things back then were bad. I do think that the vast amount of dungeons back then and the fact that the world was new in combination with 40 players that were required for MC, gave players more content to do that was 'reasonably challenging' for them. Especially if they entered the game a bit later and didn't play from the start.

    Maybe classic WoW was not accessible for some. But I think this problem was not immanent in the system. It had had been easy to implement another raid dungeon that's easier than MC.

    You write
    Look, I loved those days, it's true, but I can't pretend that it was great for everyone. I know that I was in the narrow demographic that "Team A" targeted.

    I argue that classic WoW was more accessible than modern WoW!
    Not Naxxramas of course. When I say accessible I mean that player found enough interesting content (=reasonably challenging).

    Classic Naxxramas was accessible to only a few percent. But the smaller raids (UBRS, ZUL, AQ20) and countless dungeons were accessibke content for many other players. Even the gold farming was accessible content back then; although you can argue that it was a grind.

    Players weren't incentivised to run daily dungeons back then. They did it when they felt like it. The random loot system made sure that they would gain a lot of items early on, but always had a few items that just didn't drop. Thus, this content was fun and felt meaningful for a long time.

  24. I'll offer a different perspective on Vanilla WoW. There were a huge number of players for whom raiding was basically impossible, due to the time and staffing commitments required. I quit WoW the first time once I came to grips with the difficulty of coordinating 40 person raids. My conclusion was that the game designers were insane to expect 40 person raids to be practical. I spent months at level 60 and only downed a few of bosses in Molten Core and Zul'Gurub.

    I came back in TBC, leveled a new character and stopped playing the day I hit 70, after deciding that raids weren't for me.

    I came back in WotLK and enjoyed leveling to 80. Once at 80 I did some occasional raiding in Trial of the Crusader and Icecrown Citadel. Didn't see much of Ulduar, but managed to complete Naxxramas 10 while wearing much better ToC & badge gear. Quit again due to frustration with guild & raid logistics.

    Naxx 10 is the still the only raid where I've killed the final boss.

    So for me, I enjoyed WotLK the most because I liked Northrend and got more out of the endgame. Then vanilla, at least while leveling. I didn't like TBC; except for Azuremyst Isles leveling to 60 was mostly a repeat of content I'd done before, and I didn't like Outland or Shattrath City.

  25. Stratagerm, in my opinion Blizzard never really understood the brilliance of the classic/TBC system. That's why they had no clear introductory raids. Even though Karazhan and MC became it later on. During classic a lot of other content was introductory, too.

    I understand that many players quit when they didn't find anything to do - in any expansion. That's exactly my point! The developer needs to offer 'reasonably challenging' content for all players at all times.

    WotLK did it for you and many others for a while. But the herding of players into one single raid tier that has only one difficulty is bound to be no reasonably challenge for many other players.

    Moreover the way the herding worked (grinding anonymous heroics) was terrible and actually replaced another feature that had been the old dungeons.

    That's why the classic/TBC mechanic was superior. But Blizzard didn't understand this! That's why we had no real introductory raids, no really challening dungeons and that's why WotLK turned out to be the way it was.

  26. @Nils: Ive been making posts about the difference between vanilla and all the other expansions since at least January. These posts may not be all over the blogosphere, but like you, some bloggers are also trying to bring some awareness to the evolution of the game. Some readers may not appreciate it, but I hope they understand we aren't attacking the game so much as pointing out that the design philosophy is night and day ...and well, we miss a lot of the old things that were REALLY good.

    This is an excellent post, as usual. I don't agree with every single point, but they are all pretty strong arguments that I find hard to disagree with.

    For one thing, heroics were created to be an alternative for those who didn't raid. They weren't strictly just to vary difficulty. They were a means for those who didn't raid to acquire epic quality items. Second, I don't think I agree that Team A discarded old content at all: a look at 1.0 shows definitevely that they tried always to refresh old content if anything at all. BC slackened up a bit, but they tried it there too. Reference a recent blog post I made on this very topic which points out why:

    I'll get lost in my thoughts trying to respond to the entire thing without taking up an equally large amount of space as the original article so I'll link my thoughts. I'd love to hear more of your opinions on this topic.

  27. masterlooter: are asking why is it bad that customers who come into an expansion late see less relevant content because they skipped the earlier raids?

    The reason it's perfectly acceptable is that they have sent Blizzard much less money. So of course they get much less relevant content in return.

  28. I understand that many players quit when they didn't find anything to do - in any expansion. That's exactly my point! The developer needs to offer 'reasonably challenging' content for all players at all times.

    Nils: you may be assuming that most players want reasonably challenging content, tuned for their level of competence. This may be true for top players, but I think it's much less true for average players.

    This is really the big open question that's being tested by Cataclysm's two-track raiding scheme. I suggest it will fail, if the people who were targeted by the last-tier highly nerfed raid are not actually looking for appropriately tuned content, if it means being seen to be in a short bus bracket.

  29. Thanks, Red Skies.
    I've just read your linked post and agree with many points. I might make a post about that eventually. (Perhaps I already have one? damn, I need to index those).

    When I said that 'team A' disregarded content I was talking about the classic raids (MC, BWL..) in TBC. They didn't disregard content within those expansion.

    I'm perfectly fine with blog posts as a response. Some things are too difficult to properly discuss them in comment sections.

    Neowolf2, agree. It's fair and acceptable that latecomerss don't see all the content. But it is not smart!
    The content already exists, why should the company not use it? Besides, if the world has a story this content might be helpful for understanding that story.

  30. Neowolf2, my bad that I didn't define 'reasonably challenging'. My (probably lacking) definition is: "Content that is interesting to do for a player."

    Most players can do much more than they want to do; and that's perfectly fine.

    Content that is too hard is inaccessible and bad.
    Content that is too easy is boring and, too, is bad.

    "Too hard" and "too easy" are things that vary from player to player and also depend on the situation of the player. At first a player might just want to take a quick look at the game. You better make sure to not shock him with the need to read up on thearycrafting!

    Later he might come back and reads up all that is available on the internet. Now you better make sure to not bore him to death!

  31. Nils: the point I'm trying to make is that this isn't a "linear" system. You can't add two solutions and get another solution.

    If a game that has content A would satisfy player X, and if a game that has content B would satisfy player Y, it's not necessarily the case that a game that has content A and B will satisfy both X and Y.

    Maybe a player would be happy with raid content tuned at some level, until he notices that his level of comfort is down around the 20th percentile of the player population. Or maybe his friends would play with him in that kind of content, but if harder content came along they'd ditch him because he's not good enough for the content they want to do.

    I think a game with content tuned precisely to the challenge level each player would (by themselves) enjoy would end up being a social disaster.

  32. What's a better measure of success:
    A) A world that greatly appeals to a targeted demographic of say, a couple million players, but which persists for a decade.
    B) A world that moderately appeals to many demographics and has spikes (12M) in subscriptions over a decade, but with an overall average of a couple million players.

    From a business perspective, it's probably World B, since you sell more boxes (+ expansions). Although it could be argued that sustaining World B is a lot more work (customer service, content demand) and definitely more cost (infrastructure/bandwidth).

    However, from a gamer's perspective, I think we'd ALL say World A, assuming we were in that targeted demographic.

    My point is that sometimes I think we use the wrong measure of success. And so does Blizzard. Anyone in politics knows that you can't please everyone, and games are no different. I think as soon as a game developer (Team B) tries to do that, is when they will run into trouble.

    Put another way, I think that WoW's popularity was a huge contributor to it's so-called decline. "B Team" tried to please everyone, which when there's that much of a playerbase, was doomed to have problems.

    You hit on a lot of good specifics, but in all reality, I'm not convinced the "A Team" would have done a whole lot better.

    Good post today. I enjoy reading your well thought philosophical perspectives -- even if I don't always agree. :)

  33. @neowolf2

    I'm not talking specifically about any type of player, but all players in general.

    My "PlayerA" and "PlayerB" examples above happen with brand new players, and those that have been around a while, but haven't raided for one reason or another.

    There were a LOT of PlayerB type players in WotLK that had played since TBC.

    Either way, a player is going to miss content - I think we can all agree on that. What I'm asking is this: Why is it bad if they miss the top-tier content (the end of the story), but not bad if they miss the bottom and/or middle tier content (start/middle of story).

  34. This is a great write up. Bliz's number of social engineering ploys to appeal to the masses may be regeted when legitamate competition shows up but i guess while they own the field they cant do wrong. Article could use greater mention of item inflation and the pvp changes and philosophies.

  35. I basically agree with what you said.

    To avoid being redundant, let me make two points.

    1) WotLK subscriptions dropped the day when a couple of million Chinese were no longer allowed to play the game. Exclusive of China I always assumed WotLk was the peak subscriptions. I feel it is the 1337 players who make the "subscriptions are down because it was too easy" argument that led to the disaster that was Cataclysm.

    2) I am not sure if I see it nearly as obvious as you that extra Blizzard money should have been spent on WoW.

    Clearly the A team should go to Titan. That is the future of the company. Getting WoW wrong leaves some money on the table in not getting enough sales as the product sunsets. Getting Titan wrong jeopardizes the company.

    Would giving this B team more money be that great of an idea? Blizzard, like many industry leaders, does not have a shortage of money. What they have is a shortage of talent; skilled employees. ( Managers as well as mere game designers. ) So giving this team an extra hundred million would have helped a bit and made the game better. But I am not as convinced as you it would have been cost effective for Blizzard.


    I doubt Blizzard formally set up an "Island of Misfit Toys" and told everyone they were the B team. But I think anyone with ambition within Activision Blizzard is pushing to work on Titan.

  36. Hagu, thanks for dropping in.

    (1) The biggest mistake of Cataclysm certainly were the frustratingly hard heroics in combination with a daily quest to do them, the anonymous LFD and an expectation to be done in 30 minutes or less that has been nurtured in WotLK.

    (2) I agree with you that it had made no sense to spend more money for game designers. But Blizzard could and should have spent more money on content. You can have many, many art teams work in parallel. You need to make sure that the art style stay consistent, but that's a manageable problem. Cataclysm also suffered, because there just wasn't enough end game content.
    Seeing you talk about a couple of hundred million more, I'd like to remind you that the full development of a game like Rift took $50 millions. So, we are not talking about hundred of millions that would have been subtraced from the 1 billion annual profit.


    Of course, Blizzard didn't tell anyone that they are the 'B team'. That's why I call them 'Team A/B'. I could just as well have called them 'Team 1/2'. Or, perhaps even better:
    'The guys with design philosophy 1/2'.

  37. While you make a compelling point by looking at the overall subscriber numbers, if you change it from a single number to 2 numbers, new subscriber and attrition %, you get a different perspective.

    Pulling numbers out of thin air, what if the subscriber numbers is actually they have say 10 M new customers a year (now), but they lose 50% of their customers a year?

    If we say for the first year of vanilla they had 5M because they were just ramping up, and every year thereafter had 10M new customers, it still takes quite a few years to reach the 10M equilibrium point.

    If this model is somewhere close to the truth, then to pick up more subscribers during Wrath would have required an incredible pickup in either new customers, or a huge reduction in loss rates.

  38. T, this is possible, but I think it is unlikely. Look at the graph of how abruptly WoW sub numbers stopped to grow. If it was an equilibrium you would exspect a smooth curve.

    between 2006 and 2009 they added 6 mio players! That's 2 mio a year!!
    And then they suddenly added 0 and even lose a few.

  39. I totally agree with this post.Thanks for this, I was reading it and in my mind was memories of my 5+ years of wow.

    I never show classic: Naxramas and never saw black temple and sunwell but believe or not I was happy with the game..I never complained!because as you said

    I had reasonably challenging content that I could experience in a pleasant social environment at my own pace!

  40. Neowolf2, agree. It's fair and acceptable that latecomerss don't see all the content. But it is not smart!
    The content already exists, why should the company not use it?

    Of course it's smart.

    The company is making it better for its customers to subscribe continuously, not take breaks. It's against the interests of the company to provide fully satisfying ways to consume all the content of the expansion if you subscribe only at the end.

  41. it's not just Nils' assertion that the B team is in charge: Eric over at The Elder Game made this observation nearly two years ago in a post entitled "The Warcraft Live Team’s B Squad", and has been developing the point ever since - if anything, Nils is a bit late to the party :)

    even as a simple observer, i think it's clear that the development philosoph for WoW has changed - and whatever the *reason* for the change, the *destination* of that change is not leading anywhere good.

    certainly, the Titan team won't have to worry about competing with WoW, when they finally launch, if WoW keeps on as it's going.

  42. Hehe, thanks Seanas.
    I am certainly late to the party. But then, so is 99% of the community.

    My main point, even in this post however, wasn't that the design philosophy has changed, but what the deciding changes have been and how they affected subscription numbers.

  43. Dear all:

    I'm not an native speaker, first apologized for my poor English.

    Here is my two cents about the Catalysm fail.
    My conclusion is : Blizzard designer destroy the pyramid of raider by share 10/25man raid cooldown, and make them have the same drop list. It decrease the number of raid held each week. In woltk, every guy can join 10man / 25man raid ICC every week, in 10man mode, it is more easy, experience player can help the newbie or less skilled player to grind the equipment, and because 10/25man raid have different drop list, especially some very good trinket, the experience player have to run 10 man raid every week. But in catalysm, experience player only need run 10 man raid in hard mode every week, the newbie /less skilled player have no raid to run. And because the raid difficulty increased so much, it is impossible to invite an new guy to your raid without wiping an whole night to teach him how to defeat the boss.

    So I think the problem in catalysm is there is not enough raid for normal raider, and after the normal raider quit, the exp hardcore raider have difficulty to find replacement for retired hardcore player.

    Catalysm ruined the whole system of raider. When hardcore player/normal player can find its position, and have enough raid to play every week.