When it comes to games, there are few companies out there who can match Blizzard’s level of design. World of Warcraft, design-wise, is a brilliant game, there’s no doubt, but the content is finite. It’s actually a testament to Blizzard’s design skills that World of Warcraft has not only lasted for over two years without an expansion pack, but has grown exponentially.
People are fond of calling World of Warcraft an 800-pound gorilla, but I don’t think that really covers it. World of Warcraft is more like a very hungry 8 million-pound gorilla that’s going to rip out of socket the arms of whatever comes near it. How do you even begin to compete with something like that? You don’t, really, but sooner or later the monkey is going to die. That’s a given. The real question is, “when is it going to happen?”
Of course, there’s no straightforward answer because Blizzard is in complete control of WoW’s destiny, but how much longer can it last? Last month, Blizzard released their first expansion pack for World of Warcraft called the Burning Crusade. In the Burning Crusade, the demons who attacked the world of Azeroth in Warcraft III are back and coming through the dark portal to the Orcs homeworld. The expansion, just like every other Blizzard product, is top-notch and well polished, but it was way too long in the making.
With the way people play, the new content is going to be old hat by next month. For now, World of Warcraft is going to stay at the top, but we need to start seeing quicker releases and more mid-level content. What can Blizzard do to not only keep the players they have, but to grow their client base even further? Recently, I took the time to talk to a couple of World of Warcraft players about what they think about the new expansion and where they think it should go.
The Big Seven-O
I suppose I should come clean. I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of time playing World of Warcraft. I was in the early beta stages of the original game’s release, and wrote a review of it a couple of years ago. I’ve played ever since. The guild that I’m in lays claim to having the first player to 70 on our server (in just over a day) and the first Blood Elf Paladin to reach 70 (Blood Elves are one of the new races and have to start from level 1). For reference, this expansion pack was launched less than a month ago. I guess you could call me one of the hardcore.
That being said, slightly more than 24 hours is not an acceptable amount of time for players to go from 60th level to 70th level. I don’t care how hardcore of a player you are, that’s ridiculous. Of course, that player didn’t explore every nook and cranny of the new lands, but he has, at that point, done what was one of the major selling points of the expansion pack. What do you do then?
A lot of players explore the surrounding areas and try to find new items for their characters. There’s always a dungeon to go explore or some enemies to vanquish, but after a while, that gets boring too. That’s when a majority of players will make new characters.
Starting From Scratch
With the release of the new content, Blizzard has also created two new playable races: Blood Elves and Draenei. The Blood Elves are the High Elves from Warcraft history and the Draenei are an alien race that was displaced by the evil Burning Legion. The kicker, of course, is that these races (an ugly one for the Alliance and a pretty one for the Horde) are allowed to play the specialty classes for the other faction. Blood Elves can be Paladins and Draenei can be Shaman, thus leveling the playing field. It’s also a giant cop-out, but we’ll get to that later.
So, when you start one of these characters, you, of course, have to start from level 1 and make your way to the top. No problem, right? Sort of. The new starting areas for the game are very well crafted and move the player along at a perfect pace. It’s even, dare I say, fun to play a low-level character in the new starter areas. Then the rest of the game hits.
“The Draenai and Blood Elf starting zones far surpass the previous starting zones; this is a boon to any first-time player,” said Daniel Pritchett, a long-time WoW player. However, even though he likes what has been done with the newer content, Daniel also touched upon one of WoW’s biggest problems: the neglected mid-level content. “While the first-time experience is more polished now (again, assuming you create a Blood Elf or Draenai character), there are still some painful stretches in the 30-50 level game that do not appear to have been smoothed over.”
Cutting Out the Middle Man
Even though it took 2 years before we saw a WoW expansion pack, Blizzard hasn’t been “just sitting back.” Every few months, there’s a new content patch which adds new dungeons to the game. Sounds great, huh? Well, it is… for the hardcore. Most of the content patches have been aimed directly at the hardcore audience. Each new dungeon, with one exception, has been for a raiding party of 40 60th level characters. Though that appeases the high-end crowd, what does a player do if he can’t get together with 39 of his closest friends for a 6-hour gameplay session? Nothing, I expect.
As it stands now, most players that have been at this for a while completely dread playing their characters between the levels of 25 and 55. There’s absolutely nothing new for them to do. Why isn’t Blizzard paying more attention to the mid-level game?
The Long Haul
How long can the Burning Crusade keep players happy? That’s the real question. “Those people that are truly ‘HARDCORE’ are going to cruise through most of the smaller content and more than likely be in or done with instances that a lot of guilds will just be starting,” Nathan, a long time WoW player and member of a high-end raiding guild, told us. “It’s going to be that way with most things, though.”
The hardcore players are the ones that Blizzard spends the most time trying to please, but, as we discussed, it’s not the hardcore that comprise most of the 8 million WoW subscribers. They are, however, the loudest. If you were to ask the average WoW player if they participate in discussions on the World of Warcraft message boards, you’ll probably discover that they didn’t know that there ARE World of Warcraft message boards.
Most people want to log in, run around collecting things and stab a few monsters. When they reach level 70, what can they do? Not everyone has enough time to join a guild that requires you to play 6 nights a week for 4 hours at a time. Blizzard, seriously: embrace the casual.
Going Horribly Right
Though the expansion pack wasn’t as much of a quantum leap as I had wanted, there are a lot of things that have been done right. The new starting areas are fantastic, the Outlands are fun to explore and there are many more smaller dungeons for the casual player, but there really isn’t anything in there to attract new players. There’s one thing I learned, though, while talking to different players: they all love the new content:
“So far, I like it.” – Shane
“So far, I really enjoy what’s out there and hope that the coming content is fun AND challenging.” – Nathan
“I feel this is a very solid expansion for anyone who already plays WoW and only a minor incentive if you are a first-time WoWer.” – Daniel
As with everything I write, I find it important to play the devil’s advocate. I really like the new content as well, I’m just not sure that Blizzard can keep going at this pace. I want to take a moment and add my comment to the list above.
“Blizzard, I really love your game and want to continue playing it, but I would really like a reason. Please add more content for everyone and release another expansion pack before 2010.” – Jason McMaster