I’m not going to add my voice the current speculation about WoW’s future. There are all variety of analyses available, ranging from the thoughtful to the fantastic. Some of the voices sound so credible that it can be easy to believe them. When I evaluate someone else’s predictions about the future of WoW, I consider two elements:
- it is a game that is designed to appeal to a large number of players with a wide range of attributes;
- Blizzard is a company that must balance producing the best product with the cost of production.
One sign that a rumor is false is that it caters to far too many “player” wishes. There are lots of reasons Blizz wouldn’t go that route. For one, the internet thrives on the fallacy of the vocal minority. An idea gains traction, gets 100 posts, and suddenly people believe the mythical everyone wants it. As someone who doesn’t like many of the ideas I hear, I can confirm that people like me aren’t going to post our dissent. Too much arguing. For another, many of the ideas make the game overly complex, and not in a good way. There’s complexity like we encounter with boss mechanics, then there’s complexity like we encounter with noodle carts. The former makes the game more fun, rewards those who research and practice, and requires skill to execute; the latter simply requires work, some note-taking, and time- skill not required. Game designers are going to favor the former over the latter because the latter tends to drive away most players.
There are plenty of other indicators that a rumor is false (it basically repeats past content or patterns; it draws on obvious possibilities; it is rather shallow in its imagining) but the bottom line is that we don’t know and won’t know. We don’t get paid to collaborate with other creative types on a storyline; we don’t have access to past ideas that were shelved; we don’t know what the overall vision is for the game. Imagining content is futile. However, we can imagine what the future of the game will look like in terms of process.
In the past, Blizzard has shown that it prefers to implement various features slowly, judge reactions from fans and clear up in-game problems, then roll out the full implementation of their vision. We’ve seen such a progression since MoP released, a slow movement toward what is known as “sandbox” leveling. The term is somewhat misused, but it’s the popular one, so I’ll use it. WoW will never be a sandbox in the way Minecraft (or even Skyrim, as I understand it) is, but the trend has been toward less “directed questing”, for good or ill.
If you’re not interested in reading how I came to my conclusions, just go to “The Future of WoW” at the bottom. The next section basically outlines my support.
The Original Quest Line
WoW began as a quest-based leveling process, a “Do This, Get This” proposition that also navigated players (who cared to read the quest lines) through the lore. The player was moving through the game in a manner similar to an RTS, but without control of other NPCs that formed an army. This was a personal RTS in a 3D world that provided two storylines: micro and macro. The micro-quest lines led to other micro-quest lines that told the story of individual zones and the various groups within them. These groups had problems, sometimes with each other, and the player fixed those problems. Thus, players who started out as Blood Elves learned about the troubles of the Blood Elves following the Lich King’s march in Eversong Woods and the Ghostlands. As they leveled up, players began to share zones, and storylines told the story of other groups (a small faction seeking to control and area; a tribe wanting to rid itself of a menace).
Alongside these zone storylines, which were the stories of individuals and small factions, players could go through dungeons, which furthered other stories that connected to larger groups that were (often) connected to the macro-storyline (Burning Legion, Lich King, etc.) in some way. These two levels of storytelling culminated in the raid storyline, which revealed the underlying cause of the small questlines (e.g. Deathwing ruptured the world which led to most of the problems in those smaller stories) and also wrapped up the story.
Changes of Pandaria
Starting with MoP, the format changed a little. Initially, the leveling process was the familiar standard: follow the quests, do the dungeons, get the loot and the XP. But after hitting 90, players had a massive number of dailies that granted reputation with the various factions around Pandaria. While rep grinding has been part of WoW, MoP’s reputations were integral to advacement, including granting small amount of Valor Points.Hitting level 90 didn’t end the questing… it only enabled a player to start a whole new series of micro-stories that were mostly connected to the overarching story.
But the dailies, themselves, were different than they had been. Some reps were vital to the storyline or provided the best gear available for the patch; some dailies could take place in one zone one day, then another zone the next day (Celestials); some dailies unlocked further dailies (Golden Lotus); and some were the traditional dailies (Anglers) and offered vanity bonuses.
Blizz also wanted social gaming to return to WoW. Enter the “world boss” (Galleon, Sha) and “rare NPCs” that provided armor, etc. but were not connected to any questlines. The world bosses dropped items for players once per week; the rare NPCs dropped dungeon-level gear. Not that any of these were totally new ideas, but they did provide a little glimpse of the future: the build-your-own-adventure that required community interaction. In the case of the rare NPCs, though, most players waited until their item level was high enough, then went at them solo, undermining the intent (no community gaming and the gear was useless at that point).
When 5.1 launched, the focus was PvP and the dailies were slightly more of a sandbox, as players could go beyond the dailies to gain Lion’s Landing Commissions, which provided benefits. Joining up with other players made the fighting easier, although as a Prot Pally, soloing the quests was easy enough. It does seem like being a squishy caster would have been difficult due to the sheer number of NPCs running around. There was also the kill-the-huge-animal-with-a-group arena, the name of which has escaped me. So, the directed questing was reduced, but still the central feature.
In 5.2, the Isle of Thunder continued some aspects of these features, but there were clear changes from past dailies. First, the Isle was opened up only as players advanced the invasion- not quite the “player changing the world” sandbox, but a change from the traditional mode. Second, the patch opened up gradually as the server as a whole reached certain goals. Smaller world bosses respawned more quickly and player groups “farming bosses” filled the chat box, while the larger world bosses (including 5.0 bosses Gall and Sha, which respawned more quickly) also saw more action. The bosses served as a way to level alts or for players who didn’t raid to get higher item level gear. The Isle dailies formed a level 90 quest line, telling a cohesive story in the traditional format while directing player actions. Again, the dailies varied and unlocked further dailies, until eventually the player could complete a one-time quest line that rounded out the patch story (outside of the raid storyline).
In 5.3, the action swung back to Durotar as our attention was directed to the brewing revolt against Garrosh. Battlefield Barrens was a weekly quest that encouraged players to group in order to protect a caravan or down one of a number of world bosses that spawned. Players could still complete the quest while soloing, but it wasn’t very efficient, and downing the world bosses required a large number of players. I don’t recall whether tag-to-faction launched in 5.3 or 5.2, but it definitely increased the size of groups attacking bosses. As a tank, it was something of a struggle unless you brought along a healer friend. Healing a group when you’re not actually grouped up is tricky. I’m not sold that BB world bosses was the sort of community questing Blizz would want: it was still a grind, players didn’t interact much, and by the end of the week (just before reset time), the killing was annoying as the higher level mains and hardcore players had already completed the quest, leaving the work to lower level alts and casual players who happened to log in.
And Then Came 5.4
The Timeless Isles have been a mixed bag, in my experience. I’m probably not a typical WoW player (if such a thing exists). I can play an hour, maybe two, a night, and I raid twice per week on my main. I occasionally have time to jump into LFR or a Flex, but LFR is frustrating because of the two or three players who have come in without so much as looking at the encounter notes and Flex is never a guaranteed event, especially as a tank (no one wants to add a third tank but everyone wants to add an extra DPS, QQ). I have one level 90 alt and an 84 I’m hoping will make 90 before MoP is over (I might get a level a week on him, though that should pick up since I remember MoP dungeons very well and will queue up for them without hesitation). With one main and two alts, there is a bottom line: I don’t have a ton of need for stuff for alts. “Gearing your alt” just isn’t a goal of mine. Even if I had more time, I don’t know that alts would matter much to me. I see them as fun ways to re-experience the game, but I don’t care much about their achievements or item level; I’m certainly not running more raids on them. They’re my main toon’s support staff, really, a way to get mats and increase profits, or to enjoy the game when I’ve done everything else for the week. I have guildies who talk about running LFR on their alts, but I can’t bring myself to do it.
That said, all of this means that my perspective on TI is likely to be different from most players’.
I enjoyed the running around, but to be honest, other than Ordos, there isn’t much there for me. Even the Celestial Tournament didn’t offer enough of a reward for me to learn the mechanics, get a group, deal with wipes, etc. I came in with a 528 item level and the only sub-530 item I had was my shield (and guess which item wasn’t available from TI? A SHIELD- Blizz really made shields a ridiculously difficult thing to have until 5.4 raids). It was a nice way to get some gear for my monk alt and for future alts, but the experience of running around looking for chests and killing stuff (on Hyjal, TI was crowded… if you didn’t pull the mob, someone else was going to do it before you could run past it) was lacking for me. I explored the island, killed each of the Celestials, killed the bosses, etc. but then I was done. I doubt I’ll be back until I get the cloak (side note: I stopped playing in July and August, so I’m behind on the damn cloak).
I’m not suggesting Blizz did something wrong with TI (though Theck has a nice essay on the PvP side of it- I’m on a PvE server in order to avoid the complaints he lists), but the reward for the time spent wasn’t enough for me. I can wait for the loot to drop via guild raiding or I can get into a Flex raid, both of which guarantee me more than TI. If Blizz did drop the ball, it’s that killing Celestials isn’t going to reward a high level raider. Even without having done heroics, I came in to 5.4 geared above what the Celestials and TI could offer.
The Future of WoW
I’m not going to speculate on the storyline of the next expansion. No one saw Pandaria coming, as far as I have been able to tell. I doubt anyone will see the next expansion coming. I’m more interested in what that expansion will play like. WoW is at a point at which a choice will be made: sandbox vs. traditional.
When I use the term “sandbox”, I’m limiting it to a WoW sandbox. A true sandbox (e.g. Minecraft) wouldn’t work in WoW because that’s not the experience I come for (nor do I see a lot of people who want that). This is a world with a storyline and I’m here to experience the storyline and take part in making certain events in the storyline play out. I’m also not sure that a more open-ended game is possible financially without losing content elsewhere. For example, say there’s an NPC and now I can choose to help or harm this NPC and my choice leads to consequences down the road… all well and good, but have I really done something to the game world? And does all of that programming and designing take away from the endgame content that I look forward to? I would rather have awesome dungeons and raids, personally.
Would a new expansion done in a TI-style sandbox appeal to someone like me? Maybe. It’s easy to burn out on the old “Do This, Get This”. Then again, what will a sandbox leveling experience look like?
Leveling to 100
Or to whatever the next cap is at. I assume the storyline will still have to be told through NPCs with problems and that the player solving those problems will be the impetus for gaining XP and minor item upgrades. There are other ways of going about it, of course, but WoW is a story-based game. I don’t only want to explore a new land; I don’t only want to level up a toon and go raiding. I also want a storyline that explains what’s going on so that I feel like I’m part of an unfolding event. The MoP release (which was at 2 A.M. my time… I played for almost fourteen epic hours straight before I had to quit because apparently real life has needs) is a perfect example of this: I felt like I was part of this expeditionary force setting out for a new world. (It was also fun to watch the frustration of other players as they didn’t read the quest instructions and their addons (which hadn’t been updated) were broken and unable to help them.)
Would a TI-style leveling process provide me the reward-for-time that I’m lacking at the moment on Timeless Isle? Maybe. Blizz would have to make certain the story is still being told, something that’s been lacking in TI. Maybe that’s part of the problem. I don’t feel like I’m connected to what’s going on. There’s the Emporer; there’s Ordos; there are giants running around alongside some animals; and then there’s the Yaungols. But none of these adds up to a storyline- certainly not on the level of Isle of Thunder, but not even on the level of Battlefield Barrens. Of course, TI is more of a filler, content for players who want to level alts or who are willing to spend time getting every conceivable rare drop. In the future, will TI turn out to be the ultimate way to zoom your alt through Pandaria? If it is, then it’s worth it, I suppose.
So what would sandbox leveling look like? To be honest, I don’t care either way. I’m fine with the traditional quest lines because I understand that this is a game that is also telling a story. In a “realistic” setting (that’s humorous in this context, anyway), that cranky old farmer would not happen to have Leggings of the Cranky Old Farmer or Complainer’s Pitchfork for you to choose from in return for locating a needle in a haystack (or killing ten haystacks for one needle). So maybe there’s a possibility: players choose to solve various problems, earning XP and some coin or reputation that can purchase small upgrades. WoW’s one constant design mechanic has been the “small rewards” for players. Choosing which tasks to complete for various NPCs would eliminate the “quest chain” problem, anyway.
The Real Problem
Most players offer up instinctive criticism rather than thoughtful responses. If there are two main types of dedicated WoW players (lore-lovers and gamers), there are also several subtypes. It’s impossible to appease all of these people. Also, many interwebs posters are teenagers or college students, two groups I know very well. The sad truth is that most of them mistake being negative with being critical. Also, they believe their opinions magically support themselves. This is why you should ignore 98% or more of what you read in forums. It’s like listening to a idiot whose hormones are out of whack yell at a wall.
Case in point: Pandaria was a beautiful set of zones built around an impressive storyline that also offered some great raiding (I can’t find the article that basically provded MoP raids were the most complex- not taking the longest but requiring the most strategy). Despite all of this, people still trolled the message boards, bitching without supporting anything they were writing. While we’re on that subject, if someone complains without supporting what they say, just ignore them. They’ll go away so much more quickly. Obviously, I don’t put much stock in player feedback, so I doubt Blizz does (at least not the unsupported sort).
I would think about how to handle future expansions with these factors in mind:
- The first run-through of an expansion isn’t really a matter of quest-based vs. sandbox. If the storyline is compelling, if the quests are interesting, if the landscape is refreshing and challenging, if the work is challenging but conquerable, the majority of players will be happy. Yes, people will complain. But everyone has to use the restroom after a great meal, right? Thus, leveling the first time through a zone in a sandbox-style progression might be an attempt to solve a non-problem.
- The leveling of alts is the real reason players gripe about questing. I love Eastern Plaguelands. Every toon I have who is above 40 went through EP. But each time it gets a little more tedious, takes a little longer, etc. Trying it with different classes just isn’t enough differentiation for me. Of course, there are other zones at that level, but the basic problem remains: this is old content, I know the story, I saw what happened. I’m on this alt because I’m bored or because I want a level 90 Enchanter or because I want to raid with a caster. The weeks I spend leveling are not enjoyable. (And yes, if you’re a raider with a family and career, it does take weeks, even with BoAs.) Dungeons don’t always offer a great alternative for someone like me- they lock me into 30-45 minutes of playing (so if the kids need me or I get a phone call, I’m AFK) and there’s always the chance I get some bored troll, an elitist snob, or a bumbling n00b.
- World PvP needs to be an option, but it also needs to be balanced. See Theck’s post about it on sacredduty.net. I’ll add this to his thoughts: I don’t even bother to quest flagged because Hyjal is so Horde-dominated that I rarely encounter any Alliance, but also because if I do get attacked, it’s usually when I’m at half-health after fighting an NPC. I get the “I like the realism” of the argument, but truth is, ain’t nobody (in my position) got time for that.
- Players should have to earn their alts. All the XP bonuses are nice, but they’re really just a way to speed through content. They’re not a solution to the problem. A solution would be some method that a player who has completed a zone can access in order to level more quickly without (a) having to wait for other players on their alts to queue up, as in dungeons and (b) having to endure the endless quest grind (which is how the third run-through feels).
I don’t know what the solution is, but Blizz usually (in my opinion) finds good answers. People who bitch about the game are often ignorant, emotionally-frustrated, trolling, or otherwise blind to the reality of game design. One solution might be to offer a set of solo scenarios available to players who have completed all the quests in a particular zone. This would take away having to queue up but it would also require that the player do something to earn the levels.
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