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A Former MMO Addict's Musings About World of Warcraft's Player Decline

My thoughts on the player decline in WoW; more specifically from a player's perspective on motive to play, factor of "gear" and what it has on player retention and other ramblings from someone who played WoW pretty hardcore and why I ended up quitting.

Ed Alexander, Blogger

May 13, 2011

11 Min Read

This post started off as a comment to Greg McClanahan's post "Logic vs Psychology in World of Warcraft's New Gear Advancement System" but turned out to be something more worthy of a blog post...   mostly because of the scope of the response I suppose.  What can I say, I tend to get a little verbose when I'm talking about something I'm passionate about, and MMOs are something I've been passionate about, borderline "addicted" to, since 2000.

Multiple times throughout Greg's article, I had to resist the urge to start skimming so I could quickly get to the point where I offer my thoughts in a comment.  It was pretty exciting to see a piece done by someone I don't often feel has a "fully developed" perspective which instantaneously grips me as "more credible" than many of the articles that I've read.  Through reading this article it was apparent to me early on that Greg *got it*.  That he was a seasoned vet who put in his time and could speak from deeper experience in the trenches than most.  He didn't just play World of Warcraft, he played World of Warcraft.

The biggest point he made and the one I truly feel is vastly under represented in the majority of posts about WoW (or other MMOs) is the psychological one - everything is a perceived value to the player.  This, I truly feel, is what makes a player stick around with an MMO for a span of months to years.  They have to feel accomplished in their journey and their time spent in the game.  There needs to be a continuing desire to keep playing and participating in the game, and every person perceives value and worth from an MMO differently.

In stark contrast to WoW is EverQuest before it; the game that shaped the modern MMO in its own image.  It was very far in the exact opposite direction in terms of difficulty/accessibility, raiding, gear and so on.  Raid gear was, comparatively through WoW's definition, insanely hard to get.  It wasn't uncommon to wear certain pieces of gear for months to years, with "loot droughts" that could last for months at a time.  (Yes, you could not upgrade a single piece of gear for months.  *gasp!*)

But the satisfaction of getting a single upgrade was exponentially more rewarding because it was hard to replace items.  (If you thought having full Tier set of gear in classic WoW was impressive, you should have seen the kowtowing that happened in EQ when you had a full set of gear that visibly matched and a weapon with particle effects... well, before you could dye your armor to custom RGB values, anyways.)

There were no raid instances and every boss was contested by several raid guilds on the server and those juicy, loot-filled bosses would take a week to respawn in most cases.  And if you did manage to get the boss before the other guilds, you were never guaranteed to get the item you wanted to drop.  And if it did, the raid sizes were typically 40-70 in most cases, with some raiding guilds/alliances topping 100, so you would have inter-guild competition across multiple players who also want the same piece of gear.

It was tough.  It was the school of hard knocks alright, but that doesn't mean that the experience was as dreadful as one might suspect.  The rough times were definitely made up for by the exuberance of acquiring your new upgrades.  It became difficult to fathom selling or destroying a piece of loot because you remembered what went into acquiring each piece.  As Greg pointed out in his post, when your gear mattered to you, you intimately knew everything about it.  (Then again, I technically am a pack rat-type!)

You knew all about it because it was important for you to work towards it and systematically acquire it.  Gear could occupy both the short term and long term goals for a player as, whether you personally agree with it or not, a lot of players derive more satisfaction out of what gear they have than most other aspects of gameplay.  Having an alt of every class at level cap was something of note and considerable respect to most, but it did not mean you were a better Priest or Shaman or Warrior for it.

At its base, gear is a very key defining factor to a player's enjoyment in an MMORPG.  It is the main source of the stats that statistically makes a player stronger, which is a core fundamental of virtually all RPGs.  It is a unit of measurement and also a symbol of status.

While there are games out there that put the player in a state of constant state of disempowerment, RPGs are about empowerment and progression, so while you may have started as a serf, you ended up as a king.  Gear, how often you get it, how hard it is to acquire, the quality of it, how it looks and how badly players want it are very important to a player's perception of its worth to them.  Some gear you want, but sometimes you need it.

There are often progression gates where skill isn't enough.  You need to be yay-tall to ride this particular ride.  Some raid encounters are gear checks where, even if your raid is typically organized and capably skillful in the execution of many fights and mechanics, you could get stuck at a certain point in progression until the tanks have better mitigation and survivability, the healers have better mana regeneration and efficiency and the DPS could push their overall damage higher and faster to kill the boss before one of the other pillars crumbles and falls.

The biggest attributing factor to me, my guild and pretty much the top 10 server guilds of our server all crumbling and quitting during Wrath of the Lich King came from our perception of value and reward from raiding, which is closely tied with gear distribution.  There were other factors, such as "too many good players quitting and not enough good players to replace them", but I feel that is a byproduct.  (Yeah, many would call us 'elitist pricks', and that's fine.  I just say we cared more about being better players than most.)

We typically felt that loot was being given out at too great of ease for the risk involved.  We were pretty hardcore about raiding and conquering content, so there was an individual and collective pride we had.  This pride was outwardly expressed by some things like most members never running pick-up groups, instead opting to either run together or with selective friends whom could "run" with us.  (Do we sound like elitist pricks yet?)

But the main facet that outwardly expressed who we were and what we were capable of was our gear.  Most players go to MMO-Champion and gawk over the new armor sets and how awesome they look, how incredible their stats and bonuses were, but those are all something you have to earn.  Or used to have to earn, as we felt as morale with the game began to decline.

People who work hard jobs and make a lot of money often have parallels as an example.  It isn't uncommon to see people who are financially well off to drive a BMW, Mercedes, Acura or Lexus vehicle because of the perceived value and status symbol that is spoken through the vehicle.  Often the source of the wealth is a job that was difficult to obtain and typically difficult to perform, requiring unique skills that most don't have the ability to perform or perhaps even learn.

It was probably a lot of effort to go through the schooling and job searching and ultimately job performance that got them to where they are, so it is a constant treat to drive a sexy new Beemer.  It is a symbol of your wealth and success to others and a constant source of satisfaction to have, even if they are expensive to maintain (because you have the wealth to maintain it, right?).

But what if Oprah subsidized a brand new BMW for everyone in the world who could afford to pay or finance $15,000 and she would see to the maintenance of it so you could drive it until the next year's model came out?  Would the young lawyer who spent hundreds of thousands on his education and works 70-80 hours a week feel his BMW is worth less to him because it does not carry the same stigma, despite being no different than it was the day before Oprah became everybody's Daddy Warbucks?

During Wrath of the Lich King, every gear set, whether 10man or 25man was just a palette swap, so everyone began looking the same regardless of raid progression.  New fights were receiving nerfs to make them able to make it more accessible to players, so everyone began pushing further through progression and acquiring the better gear.  The symbol of status was continually diminishing because of the lack of exclusivity.

The magic was fading for a lot of raiders in WoW.  The people who benefited from these design changes endlessly mocked those who were steadily having their sense of reward watered down, and understandably so.  "They" were many and the beneficiary to the changes, their overall play experience started improving while ours declined.  "We" knew they would one day suffer the effects from this new "Everybody deserves to see and do everything!" design philosophy.  It took about 2 years and another expansion with different design philosophies to maybe realize it, but it looks like that time has come.

It will be interesting to see what Blizzard does in the future to counteract their drop in player base.  Mike Morhaime has stated that they will see to releasing content faster, but is that really the best thing for WoW and the declining interest from the player base?  I do not work for Blizzard, so all of the trends and numbers are not visible to me, so really all I can do is speculate and provide my own opinion on it.  But as a long term player who played the game to a much more "hardcore" degree, I firmly believe that the shift in design philosophy is at the heart of the issue, not the pace at which content is released.

Blizzard began, instead of adding new content in to diversify the raiding tier progression, straight up replacing the content.  When Ulduar was nerfed far from its beginning state of balance, and Trial of the Crusader comes out and releases equivalent or better raid gear to the masses who never need to set foot in a raid zone, what does that mean for Naxxramas?  Will players still see Naxx or will they skip straight from Heroics to Ulduar and beyond?  What could they gain that was really worth the time and effort in Naxx?

Whether Blizzard knows this or has the counter proof , I don't know.  I wish I worked at Blizzard to better understand this situation from their perspective, though.  Despite having moved on and feeling honestly a little butt hurt about how the game treated me through all of their changes post-Black Temple Burning Crusade, I still care for World of Warcraft.  It's a little akin to an ex; sure you both went your separate ways, but in some circumstances (that usually don't end in a giant, flaming, spectacularly dramatic explosions) you can still genuinely care for them and wish them well.

I liken every MMORPG to an ecosystem.  In a natural state, things have already worked themselves out.  It is once you start interfering with that balance that things can go south.  What if you listened to the plight of the mosquitos and removed the spiders from an ecosystem?  What would happen to that ecosystem in a day, a week, a month or a year later?  Would it still exist?  How would it adapt to those changes?

At the very least, I think we'll see an important lesson learned from the decline WoW is experiencing currently.  It may be that the ol' girl is past her prime.  Nobody lives forever. At some point the ride comes to an end.  Or perhaps my favorite metaphor, to quote Robert Frost, "Nothing gold can stay."  We don't really know as the story isn't finished yet.

Regardless of whatever has caused this decline, World of Warcraft has proven itself to be a god amongst men in terms of success and this couldn't be disputed by anyone logical.  It is something to respect, admire and learn from, and I'm sure in the end, whatever happens with WoW will shape how MMOs in the future develop.  Even if the lesson really is "As your players age in your game, they will devour content faster and you need to keep up with the pace at which need new content"... we've reaffirmed something.

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