Tobold's Blog
Thursday, April 16, 2009
 
Yet Another Patch

So patch 3.1 finally came out this week for World of Warcraft, and there was much excitement and rejoicing. Not from me. All I see is Yet Another Patch (YAP), of which the main feature, Ulduar, is something that should have been shipped with the Wrath of the Lich King expansion in November. For me that is pretty much the same as Mythic cutting 4 character classes from WAR at release, and then making huge publicity about the patches that put those classes back in.

Don't get me wrong, I am looking forward to playing Ulduar and the Argent Tournament. I just don't think the new content will be enough to last me, or even the average player, until the next content patch. Clearing Ulduar might take longer than clearing Naxxramas, just because Ulduar is harder, but that doesn't really increase the amount of new content delivered per patch. It's a crutch, you stretch the little content on offer by forcing people to repeat it more often before succeeding.

If I look back at The Burning Crusade, including all content patches, I still maintain what I said at the time, that this isn't enough to keep people occupied for two years. And if I look at Wrath of the Lich King, patch 3.1, and the previsions for future patches, I have the impression that this expansion cycle offers even less content. Unless a miracle occurs and Blizzard takes significantly less than 2 years to bring out the next expansion, there is simply no way to avoid large numbers of players becoming bored as early as this summer.

Not that I predict a mass exodus from WoW, as there is basically nowhere to go yet. But it seems as if Blizzard is operating on a schedule of expansion - YAP - YAP - YAP - expansion, with roughly 6 months in between each step, plus a couple of minor patches. They are feeding the players the minimum required for them to not completely abandon World of Warcraft. World of Warcraft is essentially their cash cow, maintained with minimum effort, and milked for maximum profit, which is used to finance the 5 projects rumored to be currently underway at Blizzard: Starcraft 2, Diablo 3, the third WoW expansion, the next-generation MMORPG, and a super-secret fifth game for which the only indication is some job postings on the Blizzard site.

That makes me wonder if Blizzard is operating on business model of built-in obsolescence for WoW. Which might not be such a bad idea, considering the alternative: EA twice announced and then abandoned sequels to Ultima Online, because of fears that the new game would cannibalize the original. By not developing WoW further to a degree which would be in line with its profits, Blizzard has more manpower and money available for their future games. By already operating WoW on a minimal life-support cycle, Blizzard can maintain that rhythm for WoW, even after their next MMORPG comes out. The disadvantage for the players is that there will be some boring periods between now and the release of that next MMO.

It is disappointing to hear Blizzard talking about the total development cost of World of Warcraft having been $200 million, and comparing that to their annual profit of $500 million. I don't buy the story that Blizzard couldn't possibly invest more into WoW, because that would dilute quality. There would certainly be diminishing returns, but other companies have clearly demonstrated that one can release quality expansions once per year or even faster, not just once every 2 years with a couple of YAPs thrown in to keep the player base from starving. If you compare the quantity of content in a typical Blizzard patch or expansion with that of a patch or expansion from other games, 30 times smaller, why is there barely a difference?
Comments:
I'm usually cynical but I find it hard to see these patches as "minimal life-support". It is quite a lot of free new content. If it doesn't last as long as content used to that's because by popular acclaim the game has been made a lot easier.

Don't really see how you feel you should have a claim on their profits. If WoW were less successful would the amount of free patched content be enough? Does that mean flops like The Matrix Online would be adequate with one Kill Ten Boars quest per year so long as they aren't making much money?

Anyway they seem to be plowing those profits into other games which we will all no doubt try. More WoW Yaps plus the next expansion plus 5 other Blizzard games is quite enough content from one company.

WoW is fine and if we get bored there are other games. I'm seriously considering trying Vanguard casually while maintaining my raid character in WoW. I'm trialling VG at the moment and it looks quite fun although still somewhat buggy. I'm content to keep my WoW sub active while not playing the game 12 hours a day nowadays, in fact it feels a more positive move
 
I really don't mind the rate. This gives people time to get to see everything. Sure some people fly thru any content released, and are bored with it. That will happen no matter how fast they release content, or how big the patches are. Fact is some people are going to blow thru anything and miss the fun of playing. If content comes out much faster, there will be a lot of people who never finish what is currently out there before the next thing is out. Yeah, I'm not in one of those guilds that will whip through every challenge, but we tend to get stuff done eventually, and if 2 or 3 months go by and already another dungeon/raid/whatever comes out the older stuff will never get finished. I mean we were just starting to progress in BT, and sunwell came out. Noone ever wanted to do BT anymore. And to try to get a group for the eye or SSC? Forget it. Even though a lot of people never sawa those thru to completion. Granted, yes the LK release could have probably used one more raid or this patch a tad earlier, I personally didnt see a lot of people quitting or not showing up because they were bored. I mean we already have a ton of fairly well designed content that never gets played going back to the lvl 60 runs and now BC runs.
 
These patches are not life support. These are significant content. Players chew through content far faster than it can be developed, at least while maintaining the quality that Blizzard maintains.

"It is disappointing to hear Blizzard talking about the total development cost of World of Warcraft having been $200 million, and comparing that to their annual profit of $500 million."

Is that really their annual profit, or just your estimate? They have a huge CS staff supporting WoW, as well as splitting some profits with their Asian partner. Regardless, they are also funding four new games in development too, and Blizzard spends more per game than probably any other studio. We get very polished games from Blizzard. I don't want them changing their formula and hurrying out new games and content.

Anyway, the thing that will save Blizzard with bored WoW players will be the release of their new games. Most of us will play Starcraft 2 and Diablo 3, so it's not like we will abandon WoW for another MMO. Chances are we will give WoW a rest to play a new Blizzard game. It's really hard to think of abandoning WoW completely. It's more like at worst we will play another MMO for awhile and then come back to WoW.
 
Is that really their annual profit, or just your estimate?That is really their annual profit, unless they are lying in their annual report, which would actually be illegal for a listed company. In the financial year World of Warcraft made around $500 million profit, on revenue of $1 billion. The cost of the huge CS staff, amortization of servers, and their partner companies is in the $500 operating cost, the difference between revenues and profits. Operating costs are separate from investment, of which Blizzard stated that their total investment in World of Warcraft was $200 million.
 
The whole design is flawed. "EverQuest" basically. But they cannot generate content fast enough. They could make the game much more difficult and add more veiled grind mechanics, but this would not change the problem.

It is really time for their NextGen MMO: The virtual world that keeps us entertained besides fighting and raiding, because it is a world, not a game. Ultima Online tried to achive that. So I hope Blizzard steals some ideas from Ultima Online or they come up with something totally new in MMO design. Or just another guided bus tour by Jeff Kaplan, with achievements and raids being the game?

I hope Diablo 3 will be released and keep me entertained till then! :)

For new players, WoW is still a very cool experience. There are thousands of kids growing up and sucked into WoW. But for those who play it for years, 2 expansions by now, I see little hope.
 
Don't expect developers to keep their passion for the product for more than 4 years fiddling with it. That's not gonna happen ever. Same thing happened in EverQuest where the tipping point was the Luclin expansion. At that time EQ launched a full blown expansion almost every 6 months. Imagine that for a second. Measured by the speed of development, the new content was pretty good until A-Team left and B-Team took over. Same thing happened and happens with WoW right now, but instead of breaking the product they even slow it down further to secure a certain standard. Let's be honest. Ulduar bosses again raise the bar for PvE raid content. I raided yesterday and even the vehicle boss really is fun.

Blizzard claimed that WoW dev numbers are higher than ever and i don't doubt it, but this is the C-team. A-team left before the BWL-patch. B-team (Tigole) jumped the boat after Lich King shipped. Now C-team is split between live and 3rd expansion. We're not talking about the poster guys here, but your average nameless developer that is doing the actual coding/art/editor work. This is the only ressource Blizzard can buy with money, but those won't perform with A grades from the first day.

It's obvious that the focus shifted from WoW to other products. It's the first time this studio has to handle 5 projects at the same time and it's still the first time an MMO with this scale and quality, is aging towards its 5th year.

I'm happy actually, that i don't have to beat 4 tiers of raid content every 6 months. I could do it 10 years ago, but i can't do it in 2009. For me this slow pace of updates isn't the end of the game.
 
I think it's pretty evident that Blizzard have wound down the level of resource going into WOW, which is instead going into new products in development, not least of all their new MMO. WOW is going out to pasture; lots of players are bored of WOW, particularly those that have played since launch and as Tobold points out, credible alternatives are thin on the ground.

I think the market is ripe for the seeds of a successor to be sown and I'm damned sure Blizzard want to make sure it's their next MMO and not someone elses.
 
@stabs I'm quite enjoying being able to keep up with the raiding without having to commit to really heavy raid schedules. But I'm finding it harder and harder to feel that WoW is worth the subscription fee. I'm really wishing there were different fee schedules so I could more easily justify the amount I play -- because I do still like it as a game.

Not complaining about this patch (although it took too long) though. Definitely some of this stuff should have been in at release though, dual specs in particular. What I saw of Ulduar last night was very fun indeed, bugs and all.
 
Spinks I guess it's a matter of personal disposable income. I've rationed myself to strictly one MMO for years. With a new job I've now decided to up the ration to two. That's still not a great deal of money,god knows how much I spent on Magic or collecting AD&D modules before.
 
I'm not all that excited about this patch. What does it bring?
-> A new instance. Well, TLK shipped with 0 new, full instances. I already did parts (around a third) of Naxx in vanilla WoW and even though it's fun to see the old content again, it's not the same as a new raid instance. TLK should have shipped with a new instance.
-> Dual specs. Another thing that should have been in the original expansion but didn't make it due to time constraints. And even though it looked like a lot of fun at first, I'm still trying to figure out how having another spec is gonna make things more fun. I'm not yet sure it will. DPS/Tanking? I'm never tanking and we already have too many tanks without hybrids filling in. DPS/DPS? Yeah but I'm pretty sure that a spec A will become dominant anyway. As it is now, It looks like a fun way to try out new builds while still keeping my backup spec for the important fights.
-> A bunch of nerfs/buffs. Much needed to bring everything in line. But it's mostly cleaning up the mess.
-> Argent Tournament. I'm gonna spend some time there and try to get one of those pets. I hope I can get some fun here :)

But I'm not worrying. I'll enjoy Ulduar twice a week. And if I really get bored, I'll just stop playing WoW... untill the next expansion (or maybe content patch).
 
The sad thing is there's so much in WoW's Old World that was never built upon. Just take a walk around Ironforge and see how many unoccupied 'houses' there are. Why aren't there Dwarven families living in any of those? Imagine following an Ironforge guard around only to see him slip into one of those houses where he sits down to lunch with his wife and kids before heading back out on his rounds.

What did Blizzard plan to do with Old Ironforge? It's been a while since I went down there, but I don't believe they took it out of the game. If they had no plans for it, why didn't they just replace the door with an impassable wall texture? Why didn't they remove it altogether? Old Ironforge should have been the Alliance version of RFC but I doubt Blizzard would add a lowbie Instance this late in the game. And they certainly can't make it into an Endgame Raid accessible to both Alliance and Horde, not with King Bronzebeard sitting right over it.

Old Ironforge is just one more of those grand intentions Blizzard had for WoW that got lost along the way.
 
Interestingly, the rate of the 3.1 release was just about perfect for our 10-man guild. Our players reached 80 at the end of december, finished heroics and started Naxx-10 at the end of January, and defeated Malygos at the end of March. And that's the "fast-leveling" team. Our more casual "second" team defeated Kel'Thuzad just the night before patch 3.1.

So yes Ulduar is "yet another patch", but that's OK with me. How fast you chew through it will depend on how much you play. I'm hoping that it will keep my guild occupied as well as the last patch did.
 
Tobold's Blizzard profits are from 2007 from this SEC filing http://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/718877/000110465907086657/a07-30510_6425.htm

The 2008 numbers are burried in Activision's 2008 SEC filing here: http://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/718877/000104746909002015/a2190811z10-k.htm
 
Regardless of whether or not the pace of content is faster or slower now than it was in vanilla/TBC, WoW is still a great deal in terms of entertainment/dollar.

Let's say that a typical traditional video game is $50, and provides 75 hours of play time*. In terms of hours/dollar, that's 1.5 hours per dollar spent. You spend $15 on WoW monthly, so as long as WoW provides more than ($15*1.5) 22.5 hours/month of fun gameplay, it's a good investment. Furthermore, when you realize that you spend $10 for movie tickets (2-2.5 hours = 0.2-0.25 hours/dollar) or $40 for a TV season on DVD (16 hours - let's say watched twice = 36 hours 36/40 = 0.9 hours/dollar), WoW is technically a better investment even if it's only 10-15 hours/month of content. The average player (according to the WoW Businessweek article from 1/09) plays for 23 hours per week (nearly 100 hours a month). At that level, you're paying under 20 cents/hour.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that at some level, running out of content is inevitable. The question is "how many hours/month do I have to play to go through all the content each patch?" At 40 hours/month (10 hours/week), that's 240 hours per patch. At 60 hours/month, it's 360 hours/patch, and at 80 hours/month (20 hours/week), it's 480 hours per patch.

With 6 month content cycles, if each patch contains more than 180 playable hours of content, it's still a good deal.

* - Yes, I'm aware that something like Halo3 or Super Smash Brothers is virtually infinitely replayable. But most games in stores are good for running through the main campaign, and then some multi-player, and then you've seen everything.
 
I find Blizzard's WOTLK content-throttling approach much more honest. In WoW 1.0 it was prohibitive difficulty levels and bugs that held players back from conquering all the dungeons immediately (Naxx released later). In TBC there was that godawful attunement tree (with BT and SWP released later). I think Blizzard realized the simplest way to keep people from blowing through content without all that nonsense is just to hold dungeons in escrow until they feel everyone who will see a dungeon has seen it, then release the next one.
 
I think the assumption that the average player has allready beaten all the end game content (excluding new 3.1 stuff) is a gross overstatement. Perhaps the average raider has but from what I have seen there is a very large number of new players who haven't done much in the endgame despite hitting lvl 80. The game's player base is still expanding and those new players aren't seasoned veterans who are slaughtering their way to 80 and then beating the content in a week.

I have beaten the content and have multiple 80's but have been playing on my lower level alts and have met a large number of people who haven't hit 80 and weren't raiders during BC. As the experienced players finish content quickly they have a tendancy to dismiss new players as bad players or M&S. For them this is all new and exciting... untill someone in full tier 7.5 tells them they suck and l2p and kicks them out of the group. Blizzard may be dumbing the game down a bit but when veterans don't pass on their knowledge to new players there is still a barrier and since Blizzard wants more people to raid the only way they can do that is to lower the difficulty. Which of course makes the expereinced player less likely to help because its so easy a caveman could do it!

Blizzards gradual realsing of content isn't for the bleeding edge hardcore raiders. The raids are stepping stones for newer players so that they can develop their skills overtime because not everyone has had the last 4 years to do so. There will still be a Naxx 40 or Sunwell that few people will see, but hopefully everyone will see Naxx 10/25 and most will see Ulduar.
 
As I didn't yet manage to get more than 2 toons to 80, I can't really say it was overdue very much.
Maybe I'm hating change as well :P
I would've been happy with getting all the Naxx achievements done, because we missed too many.
Had the same feeling when WotLK came, we were very close to get RoS and Bloodboil down, far from being finished.
 
Tobold, this post is barely a level above the worst cynicism of the nastiest trolls on the offical forums.

The only thing it has going for it is is that its spelling and grammar is accurate.

I just stopped by to see if you would be complaining about how Blizzard screwed up, once again, with this patch. You're not exactly doing that - but you betray an enormous naiivity if you think Blizzard operate this way.

Oh, not naivity, actually. Cynicism. I already used that word. Its a lot worse than naivity. Its ugly, aggressive and deeply victimized.
 
So, if a company charges you a certain amount for a service, and you find that 50% of that charge is pure profit, and you demand that this company invest more in the service instead, that is cynism? I'll inform the better business bureau that they are just a bunch of cynics then. Kiulia, I think your comment reveals the worst kind of fanboi'ism, the one where Blizzard can't do anything wrong, and everybody who criticized them is called a troll.
 
Ooops, forgot the link to the article on the Better Business Bureau chiding Blizzard.
 
fanboi'ism? Hardly, I'm just an adult with a proper job and a life outside gaming :)

Quality wise, wow is heads & shoulders above other products in quality. Who are all these other companies producing so much more content and similar levels of quality. Oh, and why doesnt anybody play them?

And no, you cant just throw money at an issue like this. More developers, more content, more classes, more everything, higher quality and so on. It just doesnt work that way. They already (probably) have many more people working together on a single game than any other game company. If that's not pushing the edge of what's possible, I dont know what is. How you can you just blithley demand more? Have you ever worked at Blizzard? Do you have inside knowledge of their slackerism, lack of initiative, and profound conservatism, bowing to the gods of the dollar in the upper offices?

Re the BBB: You've got to be kidding me. Are you aware of the quality of the comments that are not responded to on the official forums? Have you any idea who Blizzard have to deal with on a daily basis? Have you ever marvelled at the grace and maturity they express when dealing with some of the most bitter, spoiled and foul mouthed detractors? Many of whom would have to reside in the cesspits of america's most self-indulgent youths?

Re cynicysm: you seem to assume that profit drives the company. Creativity? Passion for games? Love of lore?
Every heard of those concepts? Every suspected in your most uncynical moments that this is why the game is so beloved by so many millions?

Of course you have, its just that you're choosing a narrow, hackneyed and ugly interpretation to make yourself a blogpost. That's what cyncial people do.

The other thing is that when people dont really do much off their own backs, they attempt to create greatness for themselves by pulling other people down. As if somehow assulting some successful entity gives them a measure of credence in this complicated world. Your creation of the acronym "YAP", and subsequent gleeful usage, is just a tiny example of how you attempt to do this.

Do you think if we took a break from gaming & blogging, and went out and got some excercise, you might just cheer up a bit?
 
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