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World of Warcraft and Life After Cataclysm
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World of Warcraft and Life After Cataclysm

August 31, 2011 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

One of the ways to counterbalance this growth in familiarity is to gradually layer in new mechanics that extend the player learning curve. In some ways, this is the subtlest and most essential conflict in MMO design, to perpetually refresh the game's systems without altering its core.

"To entertain players and make them feel like there's reasons to keep playing we've expanded the systems, but those aren't free in terms of player comprehension," Street said. "You know, what does Reforging mean? What are Valor Points? What are Rated battlegrounds? What are Glyphs? We have all these new systems and sometimes we have to get rid of one system to make room for new systems."

"The achievement system we added in Wrath of the Lich King was huge because it gave us the ability to add a lot of new content that didn't directly compete with existing content. It wasn't necessarily another way to gain player power, and it wasn't a huge commitment for our artists to have to deliver more rewards or armor. But at the same time it gave players a lot of things to do."

The class system is another area where Blizzard has had success staying ahead of players while giving them interesting new problems to experiment with. "We're really happy with what we did with classes in Cataclysm," Street said. "We have 10 classes in the game now, but because each class can fill three different roles, it really feels like we have 30 classes."

"Some of them hadn't had attention in a long time and didn't feel right particularly at a low level. If you wanted to be a Retribution Paladin instead of a Holy Paladin that really didn't come into play until pretty high level but with the Cataclysm changes, right away at level 10 you can decide how you want your character to be and have him or her play the way they'll play later on pretty quickly."

Changes to classes also affect the social elements of the game as players not only have to readjust to their solo play but understand how it affects guild dynamics. "If you take the time to research the right build/stats/rotation and put a bit of effort into it, most players can play their classes pretty proficiently," McClanahan said.

"Raiding skill is a bit trickier because mechanics are constantly changing, but researching encounters also goes a long way, and having good reaction speeds and the ability to split your attention are also skills that get better with time and practice."

With so many different variables to worry about, Blizzard is in a strange position. After seven years of variation, adjustment, and new content is there a point where there are simply no new tweaks to add? Has player familiarity reached a saturation point?

"You're on an exponential curve in terms of learning, which means unless a challenge is virtually impossible you're not going to really be challenging your player base very much anymore," Thomas said. "I think there is a kind of asymptotic function happening at the very top end."

The End of the Expansion or The End of the World?

600,000 stopped playing World of Warcraft in the spring and another 300,000 have gone so far this summer. "I think a lot of people get bored quickly," Thomas Debeauvais, of UC Irvine's Department of Informatics and author of the paper "If You Build It They Might Stay: Retention Mechanisms in World of Warcraft," said.

"Even the most casual players will just raid a few times to try it, or maybe do it once a week. It's much more like companion playing. As far as the mechanics, they will eventually begin to lose interest, the problems stop feeling interesting or different, and they begin to stop caring."

Debeauvais's research was conducted in May 2010 and consisted of a survey of 2865 World of Warcraft players from the U.S., Europe, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. Almost all of the respondents had been playing WoW for at least one year and more than 70 percent had played for at least three years, itself a testament to the long-term commitment the game has inspired.

Debeauvais found that 75 percent of his subjects had stopped playing WoW for at least a month during some period of their play, and 40 percent had stopped for six months or more. "The funny thing with people who stopped playing [for more than six months] was that only half of them stopped paying for their account, even though they hadn't played in six months or a year," he noted. "I think there are many millions people fewer playing the game at any given time than the total number of current subscribers that you see talked about so much."

Blizzard has been sanguine about these player departures, attributing the issue to frequency of patches and new content. "For a long time now we've been trying to get to a place where we can release content a lot more frequently, that's something we've been working on for literally years," Street said.

"We think that instead of ebbing and flowing it keeps players more engaged because right when they're getting bored of old content we've got new content for them. We definitely know that three or four months after a patch comes out players feel like they've seen it all and they're ready for something new. We just haven't had time to crank that stuff out yet."

Some people are skeptical about this explanation. While there has been a traditional drop in player numbers following each WoW expansion, the period of decline has lasted longer and been larger following Cataclysm.

"There's something going on with the game," McClanahan said. "There isn't a lack of content in Cataclysm. The problem is the lack of strong appeal for anyone in particular. The gear doesn't carry enough psychological weight for the hardcore players, and the raids are too difficult for more casual players, especially relative to the rewards they provide. The last raiding tier was significantly nerfed in 4.2, but its rewards are now behind what casual players can acquire by doing 5-mans, so there's no incentive to raid older content beyond doing it once or twice just to see the new bosses."

For years, the strongest tie to WoW was a social one. For high-level players it became a kind of IM with avatars, a place where the relationships built over months and years of planning, learning, and achieving together could be give some ambient comfort. Five years ago the world of social networking was a relatively broad but shallow place, but things have deepened over the years and many of those bonds are now diffused across Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ is waiting in the wings.

"People play to be in contact with other people; doing something in the game is just another pretext to socialize," Debeauvais said. "Whatever the mechanics are in the game, the bigger draw is the guilds and the social network. It's like Facebook and Google+. Right now everyone's friends are on Facebook, but if your friends start moving to Google+ then you'll eventually move too."

If WoW's mechanics are at a saturation point where adding variety doesn't add new complexity, and its charms as a social network are waning in comparison to other platforms, is this the beginning of the end?

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