[WoW 8th Anniversary Special] World of Warcraft – Crafting a Phenomenon: Part III

Read Part I & Part II. The foundation of World of Warcraft’s choice-based combat system has served it well over the years, but one of the reasons Blizzard has such a long list of incredible games is because of developer’s constant need to iterate and improve. Few are the Blizzard titles that haven’t been altered after release with patches and fixes, and such is one reinforcing reason as to why WoW has remained atop the MMOG totem pole for eight long years. The founding game mechanics served World of Warcraft well in its early years, but it would require a constant flow of new options, mechanics, and techniques to solidify the title’s reign.

Appealing to the Masses with Options & Choice

Barrens World PvPThere is no doubt that World of Warcraft was a great game upon its initial release, but Blizzard wanted a greater audience than just the core gamer. Its colorful style and plethora of humorous inclusions helped to attract new users, but what really kept people in the game was the ever growing list of things to do.

Upon release, there really was one primary objective: Reach level 60. However, if you were brave enough to begin on a PvP server, often was the long, lost art of “world PvP.” From the hills surrounding Southshore to the gates of Blackrock Mountain, veterans will recall the massive, sometimes 100-person, skirmishes out in the middle of nowhere. Horde and Alliance of all levels (yes, before the days of Resilience, lower levels could be useful against higher levels) would push each other back and forth between their towns in a respective zone, falling back when they activated the dreaded “guard trigger.” And for you, ahem, “newbies” a “guard trigger” was when you reached an enemy town and dozens, upon dozens of higher level guards would begin spawning and slaughtering you. Oh, and you couldn’t just group them up and AOE as those tanking them would usually be obliterated without an organized guild group. Nevertheless, it was glorious chaos and many players opted to simply battle it out whenever the opportunity presented itself.

For better or for worse, this PvP option grew it became more popular and the introduction of objective-based Battlegrounds created a phenomenal new game-within-a-game to participate in. From the epic, week-long battles of Alterac Valley to the stalemates of Warsong Gulch, these new modes of play offered something different to do besides trying to put together a 40-man raid. Along with this, came comparable epic rewards as well (mitigating the slow rewards of end-game PvE).

Original Alterac ValleyThis new option of play grew further in popularity, but players demanded more. They wanted to fight more directly. Blizzard heard this and answered with the arena system in which teams of two, three, or five could duke it out in the world of Outland where only the last one standing won. Of course, such did cause a bit of a backlash in regards to class imbalances – which still continues to fluctuate today – but that aside, arena would soon become yet another facet to game play; another option.

Unfortunately, there were still players not enjoying the new PvP alternatives. There were still users that had no desire to raid. For them, what was there? This casual group was still alienated with little to do, and just because they did not want to do something, they felt they could never achieve the heights of others; or even come close. Bit-by-bit, Blizzard worked on ways to appease them through repeatable daily quests, smaller 10-man raids equivalent to the 25-man ones, currency systems for buying new gear (rather than only getting them from bosses), achievements, and even enjoyable mini-games such as Pet Battles.

Through a variety of means, more casual players could hope to compete against the core raiders and PvP’ers. Even though it was painfully slow to acquire, and never quite as good as what the core players could attain, it was sufficient. Sadly, many of the most hardcore users still express dissatisfaction with this closing gap and level of ease, but for them Blizzard still kept end-game difficulty at a high level with Wrath of the Lich King-introduced raid mode, “Heroic.”

A New Storytelling Reward & Growing Technology

Human Death KnightWorld of Warcraft had become a game of options. No matter how one wished to play, there was an option for everyone. However, just adding options to the same old thing only does so much. There has to be something new every now and again, and with each WoW expansion, that has happened. That being said, it was the second expansion, Wrath of the Lich King that stood out most in this regard.

For WotLK, Blizzard introduced an entirely new technology not yet seen in the MMO space with “phasing.” For those unfamiliar with the term, this is basically having several instances of an area layered atop one another and when players perform a certain action – namely finishing a quest – they are moved into a new layer so that they see an altered environment. Prior to Wrath, MMOs were stagnant. It was more or less impossible to really become immersed in a story when turning in a quest to blow up a bridge resulted in the bridge still being there. With an MMO, other players may have to use that bridge, so there was no technology, prior to phasing, that allowed for the player that blew it up, to see the result. The world could only be affected as a whole.

The crowning presentation of phasing came with the introductory quests of the Death Knight Hero class, and it certainly did not disappoint players. This new method of storytelling matured, and though it hindered social play (i.e. if friends aren’t in the same “phase,” they cannot be interacted with), it did make the world a more interesting place to play in.

Wintergrasp Siege TanksQuesting mechanics took on similar changes as well to improve storytelling. In The Burning Crusade, Blizzard introduced a new type of quest: The bombing run. Here, players would hop on a flying mount that flew on a pre-designed path and dropped bombs on monsters. It was simple, but it paved the way to more ambitious designs and WotLK’s new-fangled “vehicle” mechanics.

Here, the core combat system was augmented to spells and abilities attached to something the player was driving or riding, and with it came a whole new era of possibilities. Players could become the gunner in a gyrocopter, ride on the back of a disgruntled giant, or even plow down fortress walls in a siege tank. It offered a new flair not yet seen in WoW and dramatically changed the face of both questing and PvP (Strand of the Ancients, Wintergrasp, etc.) alike.

Playing the Gambit & Expanding Horizontally

As a personal opinion, World of Warcraft hit a high with Wrath of the Lich King. Beautifully crafted, it not only introduced new game mechanics with vehicles and the Death Knight, but it also offered brilliant new technology to put a final punctuation on the story of Arthas. Quite frankly, Arthas was one of Warcraft’s most popular villains and story arcs, and Wrath was exciting to play through for just that (of course, all the new content and features helped too). That accomplishment made for big shoes to fill though with the next expansion of Cataclysm.

Deathwing - Cataclysm

The short story version of Cataclysm is that it took a big risk. Blizzard decided to make the bulk of this expansion expand “horizontally” rather than “vertically.” To define this, a vertical expansion means that new content is added atop old content. The horizontal expansion means expanding old content out. In WoW’s case this was the complete revision of the questing zones from levels 1 – 60.

The justification was that the Aspect of Death, Deathwing burst out from the plane of earth and obliterated most of the world, leaving it in ruins. Blizzard knew that after over five years, the old world was stagnant and cumbersome to work through. It wasn’t fluid, and compared to Wrath quests, not that much fun. Nevertheless, with the bulk of play done at the end-game, it was a dramatic risk to invest so much effort into a revamp that not all players cared to see.

To a degree, the risk paid off, as the new content was indeed better and more fun, which helped to keep newcomers to WoW playing and made alt-leveling less painful. Sadly, many players felt that the end-game suffered. Often was the lull between patches and things to do, and new content was burned through quickly at best. Players became bored. Additionally, as monstrous as Deathwing may have been, he just wasn’t that big of a deal to most players story-wise. He didn’t have the following that Arthas or Illidan had from Warcraft III and became little more than a “big angry dragon.”

Looking for Raid - World of WarcraftTaking all the shortcomings of Cataclysm into consideration, there was a silver lining. From a game play standpoint, it was here that Looking for Raid was introduced. Now, while the debate on whether LFR is good or bad continues, the fact is that it plays into the previously noted accessibility and allows more players to see content they might not otherwise get to see. Additionally, there was one other critical thing that Cataclysm did for World of Warcraft: It clearly showed that Blizzard had the guts to take risks and change the game dramatically in order to make it better in the long haul.

The complete and total revamp of the long standing Azeroth was something that, until then, had been done only in tiny steps. Often, these steps were so small that players did not notice how dramatically the game was changing over time. Think back for a second on how many buffs and nerfs your class has received. Look at all the talent changes, instance changes, new mechanics, new abilities… the list could go on for pages. That is why World of Warcraft is a phenomenon. That is why World of Warcraft is the top MMOG in the world. Blizzard created a great game, based on solid core mechanics, eight years ago, but it did not simply sit back and let that strong beginning carry it.

World of Warcraft now and World of Warcraft then are almost two completely different games. Players of the game rarely need a new one because every couple of months they’re getting one through a patch or expansion, and better yet, they don’t have to start from scratch. Blizzard has allowed veteran players to invest themselves into a game that has lasted them years because the game is always changing. There’s always something new and exciting around the corner, and with the launch of Mists of Pandaria, the losses suffered in Cataclysm are rebounding, new features and story are blossoming, and many more adventures are waiting. What the next year or two will bring is unknown, but one thing is certain, we’ll see you in Azeroth.

Read Part I. Read Part II.


Posted on November 23, 2012, in Casual Games, Core Games, Crafting, Design, MMO, World of Warcraft and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.