Failure, Challenge, and the Decline of WoW
This essay is a collaboration between Wowhead CM Perculia and guest poster Hamlet. Hamlet has been raiding since 2005, and is best known as the author of several Druid guides on Elitist Jerks. He can currently be found on Twitter at @HamletEJ.
If a game asks nothing of its players, what’s left of it as a game? It’s a harsh question, but it’s also the most informative lens through which to examine WoW’s current problem. Somewhere along the way, WoW has betrayed the spirit of games, by abandoning the fundamental concept of applying oneself to overcome challenges.
While we were writing this post, Blizzard implemented nerfs to the Firelands content, causing a newly invigorated furor over the appropriate difficulty level of the raiding game. The ideas we’re writing about though have been brewing for much longer, and if anything, we worry that the timing of this post will make it look like an obvious or even trite rehash of the WoW news item of the week. What we hope to express, however, are thoughts on the direction the whole game has been taking for a much longer period of time, at all levels of play.
We can’t talk about this without cutting through a number of well-worn forum tropes, none of which we find informative on any point: “casual vs. hardcore,” “risk vs. reward,” “people want to see all the content,” “raiding is easy” (that one could merit an equal-length post all on its own), and all the others you’ve seen. Let’s simply look at how WoW gives any individual player their perception of progress as they continue to play the game. The players’ perceived progress is the beating heart of the MMO experience. No matter what walk of WoW life you’re in, you log in hoping to add something to your character sheet before you log out again, something tangible when you log in the next time. Though the reward mechanisms vary between low-level and max-level WoW, they all exhibit the same pattern: rewards have become increasingly detached from the player’s ability to overcome challenges.
Background: Yin and Yang
“Games” covers an enormous breadth of media. They can involve one player or more, cooperatively or competitively. They can have a clear end point and a winner (StarCraft, chess) or not (SimCity, World of Warcraft). In all cases though, what defines it as a game, as opposed to a passive medium such as film, is that the player makes choices in an attempt to reach goals. Those goals can be set by the game, by other players, or by the player himself, but in some manner the way the he plays influences whether he reaches them. And yes, sometimes he fails. His StarCraft plans are outsmarted by his opponent and crushed, his SimCity collapses into depression, or his WoW character is overwhelmed and dies. A point to be emphasized early on is that it’s very hard to imagine a meaningful game which is devoid of at least occasional failures. Any chess player will tell you that losing games teaches you far more than winning them. In the case of single-player computer games, nothing makes a game so irrevocably boring as to realize that nothing has a chance of killing you anymore.
RPG’s in particular are driven by the twin engines of progression through content and improvement of your character’s abilities. These are the yin and yang of WoW. Each brings about the other, and conversely, neither is possible without the other working in counterpoint. And when either is missing, the game stops. Steady progression through content rewards the player with commensurate bonuses to her character sheet, and those increases to the character’s power level allow for further progression into increasingly difficult content (without requiring any sudden jumps in player skill). The bulk of this essay discusses how modern WoW has broken away from this bedrock, detaching progress and upgrades from each other. In doing so, they have ousted the player from his position at the helm of his own gaming experience.
The Raiding Game: Progress and Reward
In low-level WoW, progress is given by experience points. This singlehandedly solves the need for tangible rewards from a play session, no matter what activities you take part in. The problems with the low-level game will be discussed below. Once you reach the level cap, however, that all-encompassing incentive vanishes, and the designers are challenged with providing the player an incentive and reward structure to participate in various activities. The first major point is that gear is the only mode of actual improvement of your character. We’re going to put side cosmetic rewards and achievements for now, because they’re a side activity that each player values according to her own idiosyncrasies, but they don’t tie into the underlying RPG engine described above.
Then: If at First You Don’t Succeed
On the scale of one individual player, there is an ideal, natural method for gameplay to progress. That player should master a piece of content, obtain gear for doing so (generally by farming the content for some amount of time) and take her newly improved character to the next piece of content. Each iteration flows from the last in a robust, continuous, organic, RPG advancement. The player has a meaningful investment in the character that grows over time because each step was tied to the last. One point that’s not initially obvious, but which winds up being absolutely critical: after enough cycles of that process, the player finds that something truly magical has occurred. She has learned to play the game better than when she started. That improvement is a slow, inconsistent, and invisible process. But all readers (and there are still some of you out there) who at one point struggled at Magmadar only later to kill C’Thun, Illidan, and The Lich King need no further proof that somewhere along the way, somehow, they got better at WoW.
WoW raiding in years past was far from perfect, but here we want to talk about what it did right. Even though the class balance, encounter design, and surrounding aspects of the game (e.g. consumables) were not up to today’s standards, the game allowed for deeply rewarding experiences because it remained true to the above ideal. Raiding in The Burning Crusade provided a perfectly good example. Freshly capped characters could run Karazhan, Gruul’s Lair, and Magtheridon’s Lair—easy, entry-level instances (putting aside the initial tuning difficulties those fights had, which are irrelevant here). Raiding the next tier, Serpentshrine Cavern and Tempest Keep, required completing some or all of the first tier (initially by attunements, and later simply due to gear requirements—again, details of the implementation are not critical). What matters is that SSC and TK were “open” long before the vast majority of players were done with the starting tier, and each each player (with her guild) was able to move into those zones at a time determined by one factor: when she was ready.
Whether the player was ready was determined by a variety of factors: how much gear she had from the prior tier and how strong her raiding fundamentals were, most importantly. Notably, back then, relevant gear from the boss came from the previous tier (not from 5-mans), and conveniently, farming more gear also caused players to practice their raid skills. She found out whether she was ready for the new boss in a simple way, by attempting it with her raid team. This process required some effort from the players involved, and may have been frustrating at times. But what we want to emphasize is that it was genuine. Bosses provided a ladder of progression, and you prepared as much as you needed in each rung to ascend to the next. Ascension was determined by merit only: the player could kill the next boss or she couldn’t. Some people might need more gear than others, or more time building their skills on easier bosses. Some groups may kill a new boss earlier simply by having the drive to attempt it for longer. In any case, it was always there waiting for her to either kill it, or not. And for that reason, and that reason alone, when she killed it, it meant something.
And if she didn’t kill it? That meant something too. It meant she had to figure out how to improve in one or all of the above ways. How she went about it was up to her and her guild, but when the next tier was up for grabs as soon as they were ready to claim it, there was no incentive but to try to find a way there. This wasn’t even a state of failure—after all, there was always an upcoming boss yet to be killed (unless you were in a tiny minority). It was simply the order of things, and any given time, the goal was use what you had in term of gear and skills to take another step forward. The player described here was having a true gaming experience: each goal was attained whenever she found a way to reach it.
Now: Success, on Schedule
We come now to the thrust of this section: how the current system fails so completely to create anything approaching what’s described in the last paragraph. Our focus here is the lower-end raider, the one who takes some time to work through Normal bosses with his guild, and who is intimidated by Heroic bosses long after the mythical uber-guilds have killed them, and for whom the final Heroic boss of each tier may even be a pipe dream. How can we describe this player’s RPG progression, in the context of the above discussion? New content comes and he clears partway through before it becomes difficult. He gets gear, mostly by running 5-mans for Valor Points every day, time spent not practicing raid encounters with his raiding team. Gear acquisition is steady but slow, mostly unrelated to progression through the content (first red flag). Eventually the content is significantly nerfed, allowing him to suddenly complete some more bosses, progressing through content for no reason related to either character strength or player skill (second red flag). The kicker, though, is what happens when a patch hits and the whole system is blown out of the water.
New content arrives. Valor points now give gear commensurate with the new raid content. The player has a steady income of this new gear from clearing 5-mans and/or older content (now nerfed with extreme prejudice). He jumps into the new content, regardless of where he was in the prior content, what gear he has, or how good he is. He gets new gear steadily, regardless of his ability to master any part of the new content, and certainly without having to master anything more difficult than what he’s done before. In initial 4.3 Valor Point announcements, Blizzard stated that Tier 13 set items would not be obtainable from Valor Points, a hint of a welcome reversal that proved to be a red herring: later announcements clarified that VP can now buy T13-equivalent gear in nearly every slot. Yin and yang have unraveled at both ends—progression and reward neither feed each other nor even pay attention to each other. The player plods along getting gear and seeing content, both at a predetermined rate. And the saddest part of all is what’s not in this picture: nowhere is it the slightest bit relevant whether, from one tier to the next, he improved at the game.
Summary: Heroes No More
It should now be clear how vastly different these two worlds of older WoW and current WoW are. In the former game, the player experienced a game that was ongoing and natural, and most importantly, honest. At each step she succeeded or failed, and consequences flowed from that. She was Theseus, using whatever resources were available to overcome each foe. In the current game, without the chance of success or failure, there is no such drama. Blizzard, in their wisdom, have sought to protect the player from the dreaded nightmare of his own failure. In doing so, they have turned him into Sisyphus: proceeding along ever upwards, but with no ability to influence his own fate.
The Low-level Game: From Quest Progress to Progress Quest
Below max level, WoW is a different game. This is actually the game the majority of players play, and in particular it is of paramount importance to Blizzard, who has to draw new players in perpetually. The problems discussed so far are particular to the raiding game, but we find that low-level players are ultimately subject to the same fate. They have been overwhelmingly sheltered from that green-eyed monster: failure. And the result is the same. Without a chance of failure, there is no challenge. Without challenge, all that is left is a hollow shell that once contained the essence of a meaningful game.
New Cataclysm Quests: Grey and Green
A controversial aspect of Cataclysm was the decision to revamp the level 1-60 questing experience in Azeroth. This new questing experience streamlined the flow of many zones, and in the process, heightened faction tensions and killed off beloved characters. Each zone now provided properly-itemized rewards for all classes, questlines that logically progressed, and minor conveniences such as additional flight paths and mailboxes. These changes were helpful and allowed players to quest without irrelevant distractions. Each zone traces several relevant lore figures with unexpected twists, even in the starting zones, providing an effective narrative as well as decent rewards. The revamp was handled well, except for one part: the XP curve.
This new leveling content is touted as one of the most important parts of the expansion. Players won’t be experiencing it, though, if they take advantage of any XP bonus. Heirlooms (helm, chest, cape, shoulders), guild perks, and zone-wide or holiday buffs are utilized by most players. Gathering nodes provide experience boosts that quickly add up over time, as does Archaeology. Taking a break from questing to run any dungeon or participate in PvP will find the player several levels higher with a mix of grey and green quests in his log. Even without doing any of these, players so far outstrip the quest curve that it’s difficult to complete zones properly. Because of Blizzard’s zeal to make absolutely sure no player following the scripted path will ever manage to encounter a quest that’s even slightly above level, the new zones can’t even be experienced in full without becoming trivial and pointless. The fear of challenge is so extreme that it ruins the content.
Combat: God Mode, or Deal with the Devil?
Even if a player is missing some appropriate-level gear after skipping a few zones, it hardly matters: combat is much more forgiving in Cataclysm. A player wearing imperfect gear and using subpar skills/talents will still not struggle to kill outdoor mobs, and even this is a huge understatement. Better to say, a player wearing a complete mishmash of gear and using clueless skills/talents can pull a large group of outdoor mobs, haplessly slaughter them, and come away completely unscathed.
While instances currently serve as a vehicle to quickly obtain rare-quality loot and complete quests for large amounts of experience, before the addition of LFD, clearing instances with an at-level group required additional amounts of planning. Wailing Caverns and Sunken Temple had additional confusing wings. Deadmines required players to navigate a maze of Defias even before stepping foot in the instance. Everyone has fond memories of aggroing too many trolls on the Zul’Farrak stairs. Something as simple as removing keys from several instances demonstrates how expectations have changed for low-level characters. Instead of preparing for an instance and then learning how to do it better each time, there is now only one requirement for the accelerated rewards given by dungeons: show up.
Two iconic quest chains were removed in Cataclysm: the Hunter and Priest class quests for Rhok’delar and Benediction, respectively. While it may be argued that the removal of these quests was simply an unfortunate casualty of reworked zones, the loss of quests forcing players to sharpen their playstyles has deeper repercussions, than say, wondering where Nibsy the Almighty has gone. These quests presented players with meaningful failure. Priests aiding Eris Havenfire were forced to wait 15 minutes in between failed attempts, and their failure was broadcast throughout Eastern Kingdoms with a yell. Hunters, after being defeated, were unable to fight the same demon again for several hours. This type of failure forced players to read up on strategies, min/max even on solo content, and learn patience. Compare this to current legendaries, which are acquired in roughly the same way as the Molten Front title. Show up daily for several weeks, receive weapon components from ordinary Normal-mode bosses, and have your diligence rewarded with much fanfare.
The cycle of mindless leveling leads to monotony and stagnation, where success and failure are measured in terms of hitting max-level quickly with the proper heroic-level accoutrement, instead of learning how to master a character. Leveling is not an meaningful process for many, but rather an accelerated experience for alts. After a player has finished grinding out Valor Point gear on his main, they are encouraged to buy some BoA gear and repeat the process on an alt while waiting for the newest round of raid nerfs. Much can be written about the evils of maintaining a bevy of alts, but the relevant part is that repeatedly rushing through leveling to endlessly grind Valor Points on each new alt has become the expected mode of progress for many players.
It is tempting to react cheerfully to every new announcement that makes things superficially easier: nerfed content, better epics, a new quest hub with vanity items. Players who are overwhelmed by the large amounts of required daily grinds outside of raiding are only too happy for some temporary relief. But it is important to note that these short-term changes are a result of the game’s current environment: if the existing situation were different, these drastic changes would not be needed. While many view heirlooms as a convenience and may find this section perplexing, it’s really the same principle as the problems with Valor Points: immediate benefits mask long-term problems. It’s a Faustian bargain, where characters easily gain impermanent power at the expense of genuine player knowledge, in a vicious unsustainable cycle.
A Look Back and a Look Forward: Ah, Fresh Meat
The best piece of low-level content ever created by Blizzard is found not in current WoW, nor even in old WoW, but 15 years ago in Diablo. The Butcher.
Every NPC in town warns you about The Butcher before your first trip into the dungeon. In case you didn’t bother talking to them, just outside the dungeon entrance you find the previous adventurer who tried to delve in, bloody and dying. Before killing your first mob, a villain is set up. The first half hour of dungeon crawling goes by uneventfully. But somewhere on the second level down, starting to get a little comfortable with your level 4 character, you come upon a small square room completely covered with blood. Maybe you remember the warning, maybe you didn’t, but in either case, it’s your first time playing and you want to know what’s in there, so you open the door. And you get Butchered.
This experience is hard to convey in text to people who’ve never played Diablo. Ask anyone who has if they remember their first time being killed by him. It’s sudden, surprising, and scary. It’s probably your first character death. He does a huge amount of damage, stuns you, and holds you in melee range. He has a loud yell the moment you open the door, an elaborate bloody apron, and a ridiculously-sized cleaver. You’re mostly likely dead before you take in everything that’s happening. And for some reason, it’s the one moment that makes everyone’s eyes briefly glass over in nostalgia.
Thinking back on this now, especially in juxtaposition with the WoW changes described in the previous section, one thought keeps returning to us: they would never do this today. When it happened to Diablo players in 1996, we laughed, we said “this game is great,” and we resurrected in town. Some people tried it again, maybe with a friend or two. Others left the door of that square red room firmly shut until they’d gained a few more levels. But for all of these people, it brought the whole game to life. And in the world where any chance of player death is eschewed (it’s all too easy to imagine an executive saying, “if you let the player die, it’s just a chance for him to log out and go back to FarmVille”), a new generation of players are protected from ever having that experience.
Similar events have happened on a smaller scale within WoW itself. Perhaps some veterans reading this once had a Hogger experience that’s reminiscent of the above. In all cases, we hate to see the richest and most memorable moments ironed out in the name of the perfectly smooth, straightforward gaming experience. But events that are unexpected, unusual, or or otherwise “imperfect” prevent the game from being sterile. When the game is too perfect, each quest leading to another that you know in advance won’t present any new challenge, you can follow directions and go through the motions as much as you like, but nothing will ever stand out or be remembered.
So where do we go from here? WoW has been amazingly successful at attracting people who have no background in older games like Diablo, instead often coming from free-to-play or casual games. Each of these new players has decided to spend $15 per month on a game (including those stepping up from free-to-play WoW), and as gamers, we want to welcome them. But as gamers, we also know that bringing new people into the nascent gaming culture isn’t a mere matter of having them pay money to Blizzard: what we want is for former nongamers to care about games, experience gaming moments like many that we’ve described here, and move on to other games once they’re done with WoW. If WoW walked the middle ground between the Diablo player’s experience and the FarmVille player’s comfort zone, it might be able to accomplish this, thus truly enriching the gaming community. But moving WoW all the way to the latter end of that spectrum is the easy way out, achieving nothing in the long run. WoW gets the immediate rush of players, but those new subscribers haven’t actually made any lasting jump into the world of games. WoW got their immediate business by compromising whatever was necessary to do so, and we’ve all come along for the ride.
Conclusion: An Exhortation
Without darkness, we cannot know the light. True in games as it is in life. Without the chance of failure, there is no chance of success. Failure, in current WoW, has been twisted beyond recognition as the game becomes an unsophisticated to-do list: failure to cap Valor Points, failure to level an alt quickly, failure to receive loot from a PuG clear. And it can all simply be remedied by logging on another day. The rewards from Valor Points will improve, alts will plow through a few more identical quests, raid content will be nerfed. There is no constructive and useful failure that pushes you to think about how you play the game. And the hidden casualty is even more painful: there are no moments of true victory.
In the end, the only thing players of all types can do is send a message to Blizzard. And the message we exhort you to send is: you have some pride. In order to make a game for you, they do not need to coddle you and make it impossible for you to fail. You are not children who will take your ball and go home at the first whiff of difficulty. You do not want a game which gives you rewards without asking anything of you, stripping them of all meaning. You’re not blindly appeased by content nerfs that give an empty veneer of success. If that’s not who you are, tell them. Tell them on the forums, in feedback on changes to WoW, or by exploring the fulfillment other games can give you. Because if you don’t, they will continue to treat you like the kind of player who needs to be sheltered at every moment. And you will wake up one day and find that, in your name, they have sold the soul of WoW.