Saturday, 15 November 2014

WoD's Up?: WoW

Watched from the outside, the stuttering launch of WoW's Warlords of Draenor expansion has been fascinating. Despite all the truisms about there being no smooth MMO launches, and even with day-one log-in queues being news on a par with 'dog bites man', I don't believe many people really expected things to be quite this shaky.

My Feedly has been lighting up with dispatches from the front, frequently accompanied with screenshots of a log-in screen showing an unfeasibly large number. Yes, there have been reports of DDOS attacks but when aren't there? Although some delays on launch day are only to be expected there can only be two possible explanations for this kind of chaos:

a) Blizzard are incompetent and have no clue how to run an MMO

b) WoD has brought a LOT more ex-WoW players back into the fold than anyone, least of all Blizzard, expected.

I'm going for b). It certainly seems to be an explanation supported by a quick glance at the almost infinitely unrepresentative pool of potential returnees in this corner of the blogosphere. A few months back I was reading very few posts about WoW. Only a handful of bloggers I follow seemed to be playing it and not many of those played it as their main game. As publicity for WoD ramped up and the launch date grew nearer, though, that trickle of posts became a flood and by launch day itself even some of the observers standing well back from the banks seemed to have been caught up and swept away by the rising waters of the zeitgeist.

Obviously I don't have any screenshots of Draenor
Naturally there were a few naysayers, their attitudes of resistance ranging from amused tolerance to stoic self-preservation or cynical dismissal. Nevertheless, a few dissenting voices aside, the buzz around the launch of this, a mere expansion, has equaled or eclipsed that of most of the launches of brand new AAA MMOs over the past couple of years.

As any CEO would no doubt tell you, if you're going to have problems with the launch of a new product, too many people trying to give you money for it at the same time is one of the better ones to have. That said, there is a danger in getting people all excited and then failing to deliver. The rush of returnees really does need to be accommodated, welcomed with open arms and ushered back into the old, familiar home, not left standing outside the closed and barred gates, imagining the homecoming party in full swing without them.

From my privileged position as a non-participant observer it will be interesting to see where all this goes from here. I'm curious to see whether and to what extent Blizzard is able to retain the interest of these returning players over the medium term. It's also interesting to consider how increased log-ins for WoW might affect other MMOs, particularly those I'm playing, many of which have just or are about to launch expansions and major updates of their own.

Still, you'd have thought I might at least have dug up some old picture of an orc. I mean, that's just a pig in a forest. What's that all about?

My feeling is that the impact on EQ2, GW2 or TSW will be relatively minor and quite short-lived. Liore has a post up in response to Brianna Royce's Massively piece on niche products in MMOs that has some resonance here. It's my feeling that many established MMOs, regardless of the depth and breadth of their actual content, already represent their own niches. Their dedicated playerbases pay little attention to competitive offers within the genre, particularly when those offers are in the form of "come back to a game you already decided you didn't want to play".

In the often-busy open chat channels of the MMOs I'm playing almost no-one is discussing Warlords of Draenor. On the rare occasions it does get mentioned the response is predictably curt. The contradictory evidence of some of the bloggers cited above notwithstanding (the commitment to any genre of anyone who has chosen to blog regularly about it renders them highly unrepresentative of the general consumer in my opinion) my feeling is that most of the people giving WoW another try won't have been playing any MMOs at all in the last few years.

At least this one's sort of the right ominous red color. Sorry about the flying. Didn't mean to rub it in...

I'd guess that the swelling numbers are the result of a particular confluence of circumstances, particularly the strong nostalgic impact of the tenth anniversary of the game, the intense focus of the marketing on core characters with a high recognition factor and most especially of all the inclusion of a level 90 character with the box purchase. The combination of a class reunion, a new episode of a familiar show and being able to jump straight in at the deep end as though you'd never been away would seem to pack a much more powerful punch than either "We've got Pandas!" or "Hey, we blew up your old house - wanna come see the rubble?".

How long will these good vibes last? Impossible to predict. One anecdotal piece of evidence I can offer is this: every day when step out into Tyria or Norrath I hear someone ask a question and follow it up with "I just started again - haven't played for a few years". These imaginary worlds can set their hooks deep. Plenty of people want to believe. Get it right and that loyalty could be lifelong, if sporadically expressed.

On which note I'm off to play EQ2. The Altar of Malice expansion may not be making headlines or pulling queues like WoD but it's shaping up to be the best in a good few years. It's a good time to be playing MMOs, I think, but then, really, when is it ever not?

8 comments:

  1. I just logged in to WoW after a 7 hour 45 minute queue.. with my successful arrival being 5 minutes before the servers went down for maintenance.. :-D

    From what I've gathered, it has been something of a perfect storm. An unexpectedly high number of players, trying to play an unexpectedly high number of hours.. and crashing headlong into some scalability issues around the new content (it seems to have particular problems when thousands of people are phasing in and out of the new garrisons). And then the servers being sprayed by a DDOS attack while all of this was happening.

    Additionally, the server population caps have been lowered in pursuit of stability.. which has resulted in truly epic queues, but my experience has been absolutely flawless once I've managed to get logged on.

    Oh, and of course, epic queues = people refusing to log off once they finally get on, making the queues even MORE epic!!

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    1. It's looking as if they timed it just about right. They got the big publicity hit for the unexpected levels of interest and they got people in and playing before frustration turned to loathing. The next 2-3 quarters of subscriber numbers are going to be very interesting indeed.

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  2. >Their dedicated playerbases pay little attention to competitive offers within the genre, particularly when those offers are in the form of "come back to a game you already decided you didn't want to play". <

    I think your least part nailed it the most. I know many players (me included) of "niche games" who play many games, including several MMOs. While we might play a different game every evening we just found WoW not to be of our taste and luckily there's enough of variety out there to keep up happy and occupied. :D

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    1. I often think that if all MMOs except one were to close down I'd probably be pretty content to play the one that was left, whichever it was. Well, there would be exceptions but pretty much any with diku-MUD derived gameplay would probably be fine. Also it's so much effort to move - it's like moving house. Popping in to another game for a little holiday is one thing but a permanent relocation is just more effort than most people want to make, I think. Much easier to stay where all your stuff is and you know how to get to the bank.

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  3. Reading the comments about the (never DDOS-ed) EU launch,queues and bugs already posted in Beta but never read apparantly (again; one of the reasons I stopped doing Beta/PTR for Blizz, it's simply not worth your time and effort) etc., I'm glad I stopped playing WoW a while ago.

    I find it very hard to fathom how a 10-year old game run by a multi-billion dollar company could fail so hard, especially because it's copying old mistakes (e.g. bottleneck-questing, apparently yet again messing up the gearing for PvP by ignoring the impact of the far-too common Faction imbalances on Realms).

    For what it's worth, the Metacritic Score for WoD currently sits at 3.9 out of 10. Ouch.

    http://www.metacritic.com/game/pc/world-of-warcraft-warlords-of-draenor

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    1. I clicked through that Metacritic link out of curiosity. Only the second or third time I've ever looked at Metacritic, I think. The score has actually dropped a fraction to 3.8 but I would say it's utterly meaningless. That's an average taken from 297 ratings, a number that would be statistically insignificant even if selected through weighted polling, but in this case of course it's self-selected by sufficiently motivated individuals. If you scan through the votes the huge majority are either 0 or 10. Farcical.

      No wonder businesses hate Metacritic and similar voting aggregators.

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  4. Well, you don't need to guess: they clearly stated that while they had planned for a higher number of players, they hadn't planned for THAT much. Which is easy to believe, in a world of "digital purchases", where the number of last-week buyers can climb up much higher than expected.

    BTW "failing so hard" is a bit extreme: on saturday it was definitely more playable than some of the smaller MMOs I tested, and on sunday I had no trouble and only a 10-min queue (I'm on a relatively high-population server).

    It's also a very good expansion (if you like the WoW gameplay). The garrison for example is clearly copied from the housing present in many other MMOs, but it's a lot more polished and interesting than the ones I saw. Questing is less linear than MOP and overall more interesting. Instances are somewhat old-school but with a good balance of thrash-bosses. And the graphics is excellent (which is not really relevant, since ANY recent MMOs has excellent graphics...).

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    1. The digital purchase thing is interesting. Other MMOs have chosen to throttle those sales, both to prevent untenable pressure on their infrastructure and to create demand by limiting supply. That always gets heavily criticized too.

      As for Garrisons, looking at the reports I've seen they clearly aren't anything that I understand as "housing". They don't seem to allow either for personalization or construction in any meaningful way. They appear to be an amalgam of GW2's Personal Instances and STOs Officer Missions with a dab of WildStar's functionality. That's not to say they won't be popular. WoW is the achiever's MMO par excellence and Garrisons look to be 100% aimed at that archetype.

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