Is “catering to casuals” a significant cause of subscription loss?

The short answer is no.  There are certainly some changes I would revisit if I had a position of power in Blizzard and a time machine (Cataclysm raid model, namely), but nearly every change has been made with the right goal in mind.

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything substantial, but I intend to be doing a bit more of it now that I’m not raiding 7 nights a week and the holidays and my birthday are firmly in the past.  As Warlords of Draenor beta gets going and information rolls out over time, I’ll surely have my opinions on a lot of different things.

I may be a bit late to the party with this video, but I only just saw it for the first time today.

For the record, I do not support every word spoken in this video.  There are some solid points, but there are more things that remain unsaid about this topic than what has been said here.

Summarized, the video (made while Throne of Thunder was current) describes an experiment – the path a new player might take through MoP’s raid while being as bad as possible at the game.  The conclusion is, basically, that LFR allows one to see all of the game’s content far too easily, and being able to see everything in less than a day with no incentive whatsoever to play a little better or invest some time into the game is why subscribers aren’t being held.

I think there’s a lot more depth to the situation than that, but I’ll first go over the points I do agree with.  There’s plenty I don’t agree with, so stay tuned for that.

1. LFR is too rewarding.

Plain and simple, LFR provides rewards that are too powerful for the effort required.  Just as importantly, though, LFR gear is too close to Normal and Heroic gear in appearance.  I think the number of rewards has to be fairly high to minimize frustration with bad luck – a player needs to feel like they are making a reasonable amount of progress in whatever they are doing – but the power of the gear is (or at least was) too high, and the appearance of gear obtained in LFR should not be at all similar to or nearly as attention-grabbing as Normal/Heroic gear.

LFR is meant as a way to provide casual players with a way to see available content.  But what it actually is is a method of gearing up that trumps pretty much everything outside organized raiding.  Having LFR strictly as a gearing option rather than a gearing requirement would be a step in the right direction.  In other words, set bonuses probably don’t need to be there, and the quality of gear should be roughly in line with 5-player heroic dungeons.

With LFR offering as powerful rewards as it has historically, it attracts players to it that it isn’t really aimed at, which makes its difficulty dependent on how many Normal or Heroic raiders who overgear it by 10-45 item levels ended up in your group.  (The performance gap between a well geared Heroic raider and a new or returning casual LFR player is also artificially too wide, but that’s another discussion.)

2. There is no incentive to learn.

Unless you’re among the minority that already does Normal or Heroic raiding (yes, it is important to note that if you do, you are the minority),  there is no incentive to get better at the game.  You can spend 20 minutes trying to get 5% better, or you can spend 20 minutes getting a piece of gear that will make your numbers 5% bigger.  Option one can seem an awful lot like work compared to option two, as it may require doing things like reading a guide, adjusting keybinds, running a simulation, or attacking a target dummy while option two has you out killing monsters and collecting loot.

Option one isn’t really work to those of us who are in the Normal or Heroic raid setting, as becoming better is often rewarded with new accomplishments and recognition from your teammates.  These rewards are a lot less tangible than finally picking up that caster sword from General Nazgrim, but they are rewards all the same.  Rewards that rarely exist for the intended LFR audience.  So, as a new, returning, or super casual player with little or nothing in the way of an in-game social circle, which path would you take?

Here’s where game features need to provide that incentive.  Proving grounds is an example of a feature with a great deal of potential.  In its current state, I would recommend spending some time in there to everyone, but in a future change where its existence is made a little more obvious and it provides rewards for those who learn the basics of their role or class by taking part and making incremental improvements, I wouldn’t even need to make that recommendation.  Most who have leveled Monks should be aware of the series of quests you pick up while leveling, quests that teach you to use your situational abilities like Grapple Weapon, Spear Hand Strike and Crackling Jade Lightning, then finally put you into a situation where you need to be ready to use them all.  Heirlooms trivialize this somewhat, but I would love to see this concept embraced by Blizzard going forward.  It’s exactly what the leveling and learning experiences need.

3. The jump into organized raiding is too large

Applying to a Normal, or even worse, a Heroic raiding guild as a new player with no experience in either is like applying to a job you’re extremely underqualified for.  There’s a lot of work involved in making that jump, including many hours, days of education and forming relationships with people to get your foot in the door, and even if you’re a genuinely a great player and you’ve done everything you can to position yourself to step in the door, people might look at your experience and say “nope”.  It’s not an easy gap to jump.

Needless to say, Flex raiding is a huge step in the right direction, and applying the flexible scaling tech into all but the hardest raiding modes should do a lot to shrink that gap, but there are other necessary steps.  One is something a lot of players may refer to as “dumbing the game down”.  Put simply, there are too many abilities to learn how to press, and on top of that, there are too many buttons that convey too much power once you learn to use them.

At one point in this game’s history, not every class had the tools to deal with different situations.  Mages and Warlocks were the only ones in Classic and Burning Crusade who had the ability to deal meaningful damage to more than one target at a time.  A few others could do it, but none could do it nearly as well.  While this means you needed to have Mages and Warlocks for some fights, it also meant that the learning curve for each individual class wasn’t nearly as high.  Where a Mage might need to switch from single target to AoE, a Feral Druid might need to switch from tanking to damage dealing and back to tanking.  A Shaman might be called on to interrupt some spells and cast a lot of different totems.  Your job on a personal level was probably a bit easier in Burning Crusade than it is now, but M’uru was still a pretty tough fight, wasn’t it?  In other words, the pruning of abilities (especially ones redundant across many classes) will shift the game’s difficulty out of learning your class and into killing the boss, while simultaneously allowing gear jumps and class scaling to be reduced, which will bring players closer together when it comes to raw throughput without diminishing the impact of gear upgrades on success rate in the hardest raid settings.

When you don’t have nearly every tool that is ever needed, individuals in a raid group need to rely on each other more.

While this is a pretty significant oversimplification, I hope it illustrates my point.GearSkillImpact

Gear and skill are more multiplicative than they are additive, but the idea is to maintain their value relative to each other and preserve boss difficulty while removing a significant part of the learning required to reach higher levels.  What I’m not suggesting, though, is to remove basic things like a Shaman’s ability to deal AoE damage.  I don’t want to see class design go back that far, but there’s a class ability saturation point that we’re ~about 2 expansions worth of additions past.  If you ever want your class to feel unique again, some pruning is going to be necessary.

What is the video missing?

Well, a few things.  A very common trait among nearly all attempts to explain subscription losses and describe a reduced interest in taking part in the game’s more difficult content is to see the game itself and game design choices in a vacuum.

There’s more to the online social world than World of Warcraft.

In fact, WoW is an extremely small part of it.

Needless to say, a gigantic part of World of Warcraft or any MMO game is the social aspect, so there are other major players beyond the game itself.  The past 10 years have seen major advancements in social media on the internet.  Where 10, or even 5 years ago, players might have played in large part to socialize with others, they are able to get that same kind of online socializing outside of WoW with greater ease.

Just to throw a couple numbers at you, in 2008, Facebook had about a hundred million users.  In 2013, Facebook had over a billion users, or an increase of over 1000% in that time frame.  One might surmise that a huge number of people who once used WoW for socializing on the internet now use Facebook and its games for that same purpose.

If anything, Blizzard should be praised for their ability to adapt to a changing social world and gaming industry.  No game developer has made an MMORPG even remotely as successful as WoW, and the fact that its 10th anniversary is this year while 7 million players continue to play is absolutely amazing.  As the lifespan of games in general has decreased (with a larger number of smaller games being developed every year), they’ve been adapting to player needs to get the most out of shorter or less predictable play sessions.  They weren’t the first to do group finders or have casual difficulty settings and so on, in fact they haven’t been the first to do anything at all, really.  What they have done, though, is everything that everyone else does as well as or better than everyone else does it.  Accessibility isn’t a concept Blizzard adopted in 5 years ago, it’s been a core ideal since day one of World of Warcraft.  Naturally, there are going to be a few missteps along the way (10+25 raiding setup introduced in Cata with no “easy mode” replacement for WotLK 10s added, and LFR still hasn’t settled into its appropriate place), but it’s not WoW that is causing WoW’s subscription loss.  WoW design has improved a great deal over the game’s lifespan.  It’s gaming in general, gaming’s role in people’s lives, and how people play games that has caused it more than any other factor… all of which are entirely out of Blizzard Entertainment’s control.


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