All of us love our games (I assume you do too, and that is why you are here) and most of us want exciting new games to come along. We want them fun, we want them nuanced, we want them polised. Oh, and we want them right damn now. Why does it take so long to develop a game anyway? While I suspect that most of us have ideas why games take so long, I think that most of us don’t really think about some realities that govern whether a game is polished (seemingly a large yardstick for measuring the success of a game), fun, and attractive to us. I don’t think most of us have any idea of the scope of these games or the resources required to develop or operate and manage them.
During AGDC this week during 2 separate events Blizzard Entertainment shared what they think makes them unique in this regard.
The first, a Gamasutra interview with Blizzard lead content designer Kevin Martens is relatively simple: Iteration. Taking something and playing and testing it over and over. Tweaking it and playing and testing it over and over again. I suspect that many of us would expect that this is the essence of “polish”. How can something be polished without lots of testing and lots of adjustments from what you found while testing? Of course all of this iteration costs money, so that excludes some studios who may be operating on a shoestring or are under time-pressure to release a game. It’s also clear that this is why Blizzard takes so bloodly long to get anything out.
When we are talking about the events in MMO history that have caused a company to become reviled among the player base, the Star Wars: Galaxies NGE is frequently brought to the forefront. SOE still hasn’t lived down the whole debacle. It’s not even entirely clear that it was their idea, as I hear a lot of people who should know such things point their fingers at LucasArts. SOE would still be to blame for the timing, just days after an expansion shipped that a large percentage of their player base paid for. SOE or LucasArts, it’s hard to argue against that event being the nail in the coffin of SW:G’s hopes of world dominance.
With that as a background, Blizzard announces this week that they are going to make sweeping changes to their Goose in the hopes that it will continue to lay Golden Eggs at the same or an increasing rate. For the most part, other than the Horde getting screwed with gobby’s as a race when the Alliance is getting effing Werewolves, the player base looks at it and says a collective; “Hells yeah.”
What’s the difference?
Well there are many and fundamental differences. I won’t rehash what SOE did too much other than to say that they changed the fundamental nature of the game, some even say the genre. Blizzard is continuing it’s tradition of changing and rebalancing classes on a continual basis, but overall the fundamental game play will stay similar. There are going to be a LOT of new features in Cataclysm, but most of them are net-new stuff and won’t likely be viewed as take-aways. Blizzard is also giving us something that no other MMO company in my (admittedly faulty) memory has done, which is to go back and try to make the old, tired, and trivial content usable and playable again. I think this makes a lot of sense, because you can redevelop and area and make it good a lot faster than you can go and make new areas, and adding new stuff doesn’t address your abandoned content problem.
I don’t know how the Cataclysm is going to work out. I am willing to be they will sell a ton of it, but it remains to be seen how the whole things comes together. A lot can definitely go wrong. Blizzard’s track record suggests it probably will be mostly solid. We’ll see, I guess.
For now, I have to say that I’m impressed that they are willing to take a chance and do something bold. This is certainly bold, if nothing else. I hope it works out for them. There’s nothing I want more than a dilemma about whether I should be playing WoW or SWToR, or even Copernicus, if that is out during that time frame. Choices are what it’s all about. It’s going to be a while before we find out if this is a good one for Blizzard.
So you have been plodding along playing WoW. You’re over the group that you have been playing with or your guild disintegrates. One of your friends (or a blog writer) convinces you to restart on another server and on the opposite faction. You level that character up, all the way to max or near-max level. You fall in love with the new class you are playing. Then that deal falls apart too.
You get talked into going back to your original faction, but you miss your high-level (insert class here.) Oh, that character also has a few thousand gold. What do you do?
Fret not my friends. Blizzard has sensed your malaise and has offered a solution. According to an article on WoW.com Blizzard will soon be offering a new Faction Switching Service, for a reasonable fee I’m sure, that will allow you to turn your gnome into an Orc or your Tauren into a Space Goat. This wow.com article was derived from this post on the WoW forums, which now has over a hundred pages of responses. People definitely have an opinion on this service.
I opined earlier that a lot of the catering to the user base is bad for the game. I’ve reconsidered. Exploiting a title for all it’s worth is management’s job. So in spite of all the altruistic qualities we gamers would like to see our fearless leaders espouse, at the end of the day they report to their stakeholders. How well they deliver what we want is what is going to drive the revenue to satisfy those stakeholders, so it’s a blade’s edge they walk. This is something at which Blizzard has become expert.
As soon as I brought this up in guild chat, people started thinking and every one of our core players mentioned not one but two high or max-level characters that they would bring over to the guild from the other faction. Myself, I have a Lock and a DK over on Rexxar that I wouldn’t mind playing more. I loved my DK but I haven’t had time to start leveling a new one over on Jaedenar where I play now.
This week, with the release of Age of Conan, we’ve seen what I think is a pretty huge spike in interest for a different MMO. One that is different from WoW. When I talk about “different” here I don’t mean completely different. I mean that it’s just not WoW. Whether or not AoC turns out to gain a sizable foothold in the market, for me, this is one of the first danger signs for the health of Blizzard’s Golden Goose.
Many other challengers to the throne have come and gone since the release of World of Warcraft back in 2004. Some were cast aside because they were deeply flawed. Others have gained a niche and are happily exploiting that, with a respectable subscription base. I think Age of Conan might be the first challenger that steps up and hits the one million sub mark. Is it the mythical “WoW-killer”? In a word, no. Can it dent the seemingly impenetrable armor of the reigning champion of the MMO world? Absolutely.
Is it because Age of Conan is a great game? That remains to be seen. It certainly has potential. I’ll be exploring that more as the days progress. I can tell you one thing for sure. I didn’t expect to be playing it, and I am. Could it be that WoW is beginning to lose it’s mass appeal? That’s a distinct possibility.
I hope that old colloquialism isn’t lost on my audience, but doing that to someone’s Corn Flakes basically means that you set out to ruin their day. It’s pretty evident that even as the pace of development at Blizzard seems to have settled in at a snail’s pace, they still have folks working in Marketing who are pretty aware of what is going on around them.
Not content with having a plus-50% market share of the world-wide MMO market, Blizzard has broken their deafening silence and is starting to announce some of the content and features of their upcoming Wrath of the Lich King expansion. All this less than two weeks before AoC ships. Some of AoC’s perceived shortcomings have been documented here. Blizzard wanted to you think about that, and also let you know that, hey, raiding is more accessible under WotLK! You can read about the shiny new features over at GameSpy.
This is going to be brief because Scott Jennings (Lum the Mad) over at Broken Toys summarized it better than I could ever hope to. Suffice it to say that this is yet another case of the tail wagging the dog over in Irvine.
In the interest of full disclosure, the character that I most recently played as my main was a Lock.
In summary, what Blizzard has done is in response to the calls for the Whaaaambulance that Locks are overpowered in Arenas is to propose a paradigm shift in the class. Been busy itemizing your lock to use STA to build your HP so you could recharge mana and survive longer? Um, yeah. Seems like they think you need to be an INT class now.
There has been a rumor going around, semi-confirmed, that Blizzard is working on a next-generation MMO. Speculation is going wild because no one has really said anything about it other than a couple of references to the fact that it exists. So what is the potential next property from the market leader in MMOs?
According to Massively there is a rumor that it’s a potential blockbuster, possibly Starcraft Online. According to the article this information was leaked through an Asian partner company to Blizzard. Smaller MMO and gaming studios around the world were heard to say; “well, sh*t.”