WoW! Thoughts! — On the (Convenient) Timing of Alpha

Thoughts on how Blizzard responded to the launch of Wildstar and whether it will impact the competition.

“Flat out: our production schedule & milestones are far more important than whatever else is happening in the industry.” — Zarhym, World of Warcraft Senior Community Representative

I wish I knew what was going on at Blizzard.  It is now early June, and the community finally began receiving alpha invites in the last 48 hours.  I wish I could say this was unexpected, but cynical Blizzard observers have been expecting something like this to happen around this time — I did not agree until the Warlords of Draenor patch notes appeared the weekend of The Elder Scrolls Online launch.  What is concerning, though,  is that Blizzard sent the invites out on June 4th, when Wildstar launched the day before, and early access had been open for even longer.

Perhaps Blizzard waited a day so that they could plausibly deny their counter-scheduling to their harshest critics.  Perhaps Blizzard’s internal milestone just happened to coincide with a competitor’s launch.  (Then again, perhaps that milestone was not specified until after Wildstar’s release date was made public…)  Blizzard is the 800 pound gorilla in the MMO sector, and for them to openly admit that they are reacting to other games would convey weakness.  Yet a spade is a spade, and this is twice in the last three months they have seemingly reacted to something “happening in the industry.”

Blizzard’s other (not-at-all-suspiciously-timed) counter measure last week was the temporary Heart of the Valorous buff, which conveniently preceded Wildstar’s early access by a day and runs through that all-important MMO-launch week until June 10th.  Perhaps Blizzard believes this one-two punch of easy valor and alpha hype will distract players from their competition.  It seems unlikely, though I will concede the buff convinced me to hustle and valor cap an alt (who luckily was still completing A Test of Valor).  That said, I have played Wildstar and came away unimpressed.

The Heart of the Valorous buff is an interesting, yet impotent, countermeasure.  While it is helpful that players can now reach their 1000 valor limit in half the time, this also means that players can now spend half the usual time playing WoW to get the same rewards.  If a player was debating checking out Wildstar, they can now earn their valor in half the time, and then they are free to adventure on Nexus with the remaining time that would otherwise be spent on Azeroth.  At the very least, Blizzard should have doubled the valor cap for the week as well – basically let everyone follow their normal routine, but grant them 2000 valor instead of 1000.  This would still draw the attention of players who would appreciate the boost, without rewarding them with the opportunity to drift away from the game.

It is possible that players might use the extra time to explore Azeroth further and pursue tasks they otherwise may have been too busy to tend to, but given that it has been nine months since patch 5.4 went live, players have already had plenty of time to do that.  All the excess valor accomplishes is to accelerate the rate at which players are purchase the new upgrade levels for their gear, as released in patch 5.4.8.

Blizzard has never attempted anything quite like this before in World of Warcraft – there has been an experience and reputation bonus buff granted during the anniversary celebrations, but a seemingly random buff made available to the playerbase is unusual.  They recently toyed with adjusting the legendary drop rate in Diablo III, and that was so successful the buff became permanent.  Perhaps something similar could happen here as well, especially since, at this point, valor points have pretty much served their purpose for the expansion.  The somewhat twisted logic would be that anyone still capping valor weekly is going to burn out on whatever they are doing (even though, to Blizzard’s credit, there are so many ways to earn valor).  At least by minimizing the “required” amount of time to play the game weekly, Blizzard can extend the freshness of their content slightly further.  That said, at this point the bread is already stale, so cutting the slices smaller won’t make much help with the longevity.

I am slightly disappointed with Blizzard, and not just for their apparent dissembling.  Blizzard failed to release the alpha invites on Tuesday, Wildstar‘s launch.  As much as it would have been an explicit sign that they are concerned about Wildstar, it would have at least shown that, on some level, they have a plan and are sticking to it, especially the anti-competitive parts.  Given the current small scope of the alpha, and the restrictions to just playing Horde in Frostfire Ridge, it seems like there is a distinct lack of content available.  This may simply be how an alpha progresses, and Blizzard is more interested in testing just that area and the related content.  However, if the goal is for players to hype Warlords, only showing a single faction seems weak.  The concern is that Blizzard spent Tuesday agonizing that the alpha was not ready for the Alliance content, and finally had to pull the trigger for the Horde content Wednesday.  Even assuming that 6/4 was the internal milestone date all along, this appears concerting.  It will be interesting to see how quickly new zones are unlocked for the streamers to experience.

For NCSoft and Carbine, this is a boon.  They could not have been luckier by launching their game in the middle of what will surely be the longest content lull in WoW’s history.  I have no idea how their schedule was decided, but if they looked at Blizzard’s 2012 calendar, when players spent all summer languishing through the post-Cataclysm drought, they could easily have figured history might repeat itself. Even so, they still have a chance to beat Warlords of Draenor by a full six months.  WoD alpha and beta will call to any players who happen to be caught between the two games, but Wildstar has a strong opportunity to establish their game on their own, and hopefully get enough hooks in players to retain their playerbase.  Then again, when your ten year old level-90 character  is calling you to a new continent, it can be hard to stick with your new character of only a few months.

Carbine did a great job of swiping at Blizzard by emphasizing their player housing, a feature long-requested in WoW and only partially delivered on in the forthcoming garrisons.  They also copied WoW’s cartoony graphics style, so the game looks amazing without being too graphically taxing or realistically detailed.  WoW’s base graphics have served it for ten years and are only now being replaced, and Wildstar seems to appreciate the benefits of that.  In many ways, Wildstar is trying to scratch the same itch that WoW alleviates, and it has an unknown number of months to tend to that itch with WoW barely scratching back.

It’s going to be interesting to see how the next few months play out.  Presumably, Wildstar will enjoy a post-launch boon and then eventually players will leave, the game will go free-to-play, and then it will settle into a comfortable niche while WoW’s numbers drift downward until WoD launches and they climb back up ( climbing higher or fall back down depending on the strength of the expansion). Until Warlords launches (I’m guessing 11/4, because that’s the Tuesday right before Blizzcon and the worst possible time for me, personally), it’s going to be interesting to see how the MMO landscape changes.  We might be watching a new king ascend to the throne, or we might be watching the deck chairs being shuffled on the Titanic as DOTA and Minecraft are where the action is.  Regardless, it’s going to be an exciting summer.

WoW! Blurbs!

Azeroth Choppers is over!  The real winners are the fans who can stop complaining that the Alliance bike looks Nerubian.–6-5-2014

Blizzard released part 1 of the garrison preview.  There won’t be a part 2 because no other MMO’s are launching soon. 

The Guardian Cub pet is being retired to the Blizzard Archive.  When I was a kid, pets were just sent to a ‘farm upstate.’

Spirits of Harmony will no longer be soulbound in Warlords.  Blizzard already reversed this and then changed their mind again while I was typing this.

Ben Foster is playing Medivh in the Warcraft movie.  I look forward to the exciting battle-chess scene!

A new Dev Watercooler went up about the changes to secondary stats.  Readiness is gone, which makes sense, because I stopped being ready for Warlords of Draenor months ago.

Nick Zielenkievicz
Nick Zielenkievicz
Nick Zielenkievicz

Senior Producer

Host of WoW! Talk! and The Tauren & The Goblin. Sometimes known as the Video Games Public Defender. Wants to play more Destiny and Marvel Heroes but WoW is all-consuming. Decent F2P Hearthstone player. Sad that he lost the Wii that had Wrecking Crew on it. Would be happy if the only game ever made was M.U.L.E. Gragtharr on Skywall-US. Garresque on Ravencrest-US.

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