WoW! Thoughts! — On WoW’s Fundamental Problem

Thoughts on how the recent subscription loss, botting bans, and flying debate all have a common cause.

I’ve stated before that Mists of Pandaria was amazing. In less than a year, Blizzard gave us one of the most well executed expansions possible. Since the release of patch 5.4, World of Warcraft has been suffering, and the majority of that suffering was caused by Warlords of Draenor’s troubled development. Somehow, not only did Warlords launch months later than required (so that the amazing 5.4 content was forced to provide entertainment well beyond its shelf-life), but the content offered by the expansion has felt underwhelming. The end result is that, save for a few months around Warlords‘ release, the player base has been in a constant state of unrest since 2013.

In the last few months, we have seen that unrest take an interesting form. After gaining three million subscribers at Warlords‘ launch, World of Warcraft lost just as many players in the first quarter of this year. Shortly thereafter, somewhere between 100,000 to 200,000 players were banned for botting. Recently, we saw a near riot when Blizzard indicated that flying would not be introduced for Warlords of Draenor nor any future content. Regarding these three incidents together raises a surprising question for World of Warcraft going forward: Do players find the game fun?

Losing three million subscribers obviously seems to imply that those people left because they did not find the game fun anymore. Given that the number seems to mirror the three million accounts that Blizzard gained at Warlords‘ launch, it implies that the majority of the losses were people who had previously left WoW and returned out of excitement for Warlords of Draenor. Once upon a time these players found World of Warcraft fun, and watching Grommash give Mannoroth an axe to the face and then nearly burn in the ensuing explosion as he did in Warcraft III let lapsed players remember the intoxication of experiencing the Warcraft universe. Players returned in November only for that intoxication to expire by March.

Four months was more than enough time to relive past glories and then decide they had had enough. Whatever had drove them from the game before was still present. Perhaps it was a lack of a social network. Perhaps their schedule was flexible enough to level but not to participate in raiding, Warlords’ primary endgame content. Or perhaps that in the face of Blizzard’s awesome cinematics department, memories of dry and dull gameplay were tinted through rose-colored glasses. At its core, World of Warcraft is about pressing buttons to kill dragons and monsters. It is easy to hear Garrosh and think that times do change, but that core gameplay has not, and perhaps it is not as fun as we think it may be.

To find why the gameplay of pushing buttons to complete tasks and perform a rotation to kill enemies would be suspect, one can now consider Blizzard’s massive bans for botting. Tens of thousands of players were so uninterested in pressing buttons to play the game that they downloaded software to do it for them. Or they were uninterested in learning how to execute a proper rotation and risk failure, which is also a major part of the game. These players flagrantly violated the terms of service in order to perform tasks such as crafting, PvP-ing, and even raiding. Unlike the players that left, they still had an interest in the outcome (be it gathering loot, acquiring gold, or witnessing the lore), but they had no desire to play the game as intended to do so.

In some instances, such as PvP, botting was openly detrimental to other players. For PvE content, botters were only cheating themselves. But either way, the decision to bot is an act that states that it is more fun to let a program play this game for me than it is for me to play the game itself. The act of botting is the condemnation of the act of pushing buttons to achieve goals, and a declaration that the core gameplay of a game is no fun. Blizzard was right to deal with the botters, but one wonders if they learned from what the botters were telling them.

Blizzard will claim, however, that they learned from the community when they decided to introduce flying to the community in the forthcoming patch 6.2.x. Yet again, they may not have learned the most important lesson from the various forum comments and tweets between Memorial Day weekend and the announcement of flight’s return. Blizzard removed flight because they felt it made the game more immersive. When flight was introduced to Azeroth proper in Cataclysm, Blizzard made the mistake of allowing players to level from 80 to 85 in zones with flight available. Players were able to fly into the air, soar past the army of mobs put there for them to kill, find whichever specific targets that were required of them, and swoop down, dismount, complete their task, and return to the skies.

It was as if the majority of mobs placed in Cataclysm era zones did not exist. Blizzard and the players saw the mistakes in this decision. When Mists of Pandaria was announced, the claim that flying would be restricted until level 90 received cheers. Yet since then, as Blizzard hemmed and hawwed regarding the status of flying in this expansion, players gnashed their teeth and what appeared to be flying’s imminent demise. It was as if the playerbase felt there was a tacit agreement that we would kill whatever mobs we needed to kill and navigate whatever puzzles we needed to navigate until max level, at which point the challenge of that content was to be removed. Even then, players often complain about out-leveling a zone before completing all the content a zone had to offer, as though the zone existed entirely to provide leveling content and served no further purpose once that was achieved.

If a task does not reward experience, then players do not want the experience. While this understanding allows Blizzard to present a detailed levelling experience, all that content becomes null and void the moment a player reaches max level. More so, many players chafed at having to re-earn flying on their alts. Once content was encountered and no longer new, it holds no value to players. All the mobs placed for players to press buttons to kill were now annoyances. There is no joy in pressing a button a few times to kill an orc when it stands between a player and the desired treasure. The act of playing the game ­­– killing the mob to engage in the world – is annoying the player, and the desire for flight removes that; The endless killing of mobs is what World of Warcraft is based on.

I find myself in the minority for appreciating the simplicity of the assault quests – go to a spot, kill mobs and touch items, and then collect reward; all effectively the same tasks, in the same quantity, that a daily quest hub would provide, yet without the glowing exclamation points explicitly directing players, people were unamused. The core gameplay – press buttons to kill monsters for a reward – was presented in as clean a format as possible and it was utterly rejected by the player base. Players disregarded these assault quests when claiming Warlords of Draenor had no content, and are now forced to visit all of them at least once in order to unlock the much desired flight.

If World of Warcraft is not fun, then why do players play the game? It has often been compared to a Skinner Box, and the reward of virtual loot is tantalizing in context. Azeroth, Draenor, and Outland form a massive world with tons of content to explore and plenty of characters to encounter and slaughter. That is why we all play the game. But if the core game of World of Warcraft was fun, many of the problems seen in Warlords would never exist. Players would look forward to killing extra mobs with no necessary reason, because the fun from killing would be the reward. Pressing buttons and watching what happens would be the reward. That is why flying can be sacrificed during leveling, because every kill provides a reward. At max level, the best reward one can hope for is a pittance of gold.

Prior to patch 6.2, the accepted methodology for developing your garrison followers was to recruit treasure hunters from the inn and use Harrison Jones to expedite the levelling process, so that once a player had a full roster of treasure hunters to amass gold, the player was done developing their follower roster.  Personally, I like the recruiting and development process.  I have countless ilvl 675 treasure hunters as followers, and every Tuesday, I go to the Inn and recruit another.  I maintain my War Mill and Salvage Yard for the express purposes of providing a steady stream of follower upgrades, so I can keep improving this ever-growing army.  Conventional logic says I am doing it wrong; I should have stopped long ago and replaced my War Mill with a Spirit Lodge for the Apexis Crystals and the chance to complete missions instantly.  Yet, because I enjoy the act of taking a level 90 follower and working to get them to max level, I feel no penalty that I am playing in what can be regarded as a suboptimal fashion.  Playing without flying is also such a suboptimal fashion, yet there is little regard for that style of gameplay.

Early in Mists of Pandaria, Ghostcrawler famously tweeted, “I would not have predicted that players would become so focused on efficiency. Not fun or improving themselves. Efficiency.”  This is exactly the phenomenon we are seeing here.  Botting is all about efficiently performing tasks.  Flying is all about efficiently navigating the world.  Players strive for efficiency, but to what end?  If not fun, then it must be for WoW‘s ultimate prize: loot.

So what would happen if Blizzard removed all loot from World of Warcraft? What if players were given a single quest at login each day, and that quest was instantly completed and gave them all the loot they wanted? Would anyone venture out into the world? Would anyone go out and kill the mobs and slay the dragons? The events of the recent months have me worried, because it seems the answer would be no. And that is a shame, because if World of Warcraft is not fun enough to play without needing some sort of loot-based incentive, then what are we all doing?

WoW! Blurbs!

These FIXES are so HOT they are overheating my laptop!  Seriously, Dell Vostros and NVidia cards are a bad combination!


Ion Hazzikostas talks to Wowhead!  Does Ion ask them about why they let Noxychu go?  WAY TO DODGE THE HARD QUESTIONS, WOWHEAD.

Ion Hazzikostas talks to Vanion!  That’s a much better name than Vanhazzikostas!

Cory Stockton talks to The Instance!  That’s a much better name than — OK.  Seriously.  How does Cory NOT say that there’s going to be a patch 6.3 when asked!??!!?!  Ion said as much in the recent Q&A when promising more content.  Especially given the cinematic that was leaking at the same time Cory was doing this interview!  Listening to the Instance the following day when they discuss that, Johnson says he believes there will be a patch 6.3 (enough that I’d wager that Stockton told him off-the-record that there will be but he can’t officially confirm although Ion technically already did…)  Its AMAZING that with 6.2 out, we have ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA what is coming next!  I can’t remember a time in WoW history that this was the case.  Maybe vanilla?  The weird this is that Blizzard HAS to know what is coming.  They were working on Tanaan when Warlords’ released, so they must be working on what comes next…  SO WHY WON’T THEY TELL US?!?!?  I have a feeling the next expansion announcment is coming at Gamescom and NO ONE is going to be expecting it.  Get ready for a summer so hot its going to melt your laptops like they were vostros.

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.

The Latest from Mash