Tobold's Blog
Friday, January 13, 2012
Azuriel is on fire

Azuriel of In An Age posted a long series of long posts about the correlation between WoW's difficulty and subscription numbers. For some strange reason they appeared in my feedreader all in one day, although the previous ones are months old. You can find the latest one here, and work your way backwards. They are very worth reading.

As a scientist I find it particularly noteworthy how Azuriel demonstrates how you can't just take your pet peeve about World of Warcraft and declare that this is why World of Warcraft lost 2 million subscribers in 2011. Otherwise I'd like to join the crowd and state that it is obviously the fact that WoW allows addons that made WoW lose 2 million subscribers, while SWTOR without addons can't be far from having gained 2 million subscribers. You see how easy it is to propose causality when there isn't one?

Nevertheless I would say that Syncaine's statement "WoW is bleeding accounts because people are finally realizing that being handed everything with minimal effort and no risk is, in actuality, not that much fucking fun over the long run." as quoted by Azuriel contains a grain of truth, only that I believe most people are looking at the wrong part of WoW to find it. Everybody is always discussing raid difficulty, and as Azuriel points out, if raids being too easy killed WoW, the timing is curious, as raiding was harder at the time WoW lost those subscribers than during the previous expansion.

However I did notice that when Blizzard remade the level 1 to 60 game in Cataclysm, they tuned it from being very easy to being absolutely trivial. In contrast I enjoyed the significantly more difficult leveling game of Star Wars: The Old Republic considerably more. So why I wouldn't say it fully explains the loss of subscribers, I do think that the lack of any risk in the leveling game of World of Warcraft since Cataclysm is at least one factor to it.

If you want to know how the difficulty of the raiding endgame affects subscription numbers, I'd advise you to wait 6 months. Right now, Star Wars: The Old Republic is really successful. If that changes abruptly after people hit the level cap, we can make a more accurate statement about how the accessibility of the endgame affects subscription numbers.
I completely agree. And I really think it is important - especially for Blizzard - to understand that easy leveling is ok, but extremely trivial leveling is not.

As for Syncaine, well ... Heroic raiding is probably much harder than 99% of Eve Online. But this very fact is then again irrelevant because most players don't raid at this mode after having beaten the encounters at easier modes.
These are the things you can't possibly understand if you haven't played the game for like 5 years, guess.
If you think that levelling in Star Wars is in any way difficult then you are definately doing something wrong.

I hit the level cap last week and can probably count the number of deaths in normal questing on the fingers of one hand. I have had maybe two fights in normal levelling which felt anything like challenging.

One was against an elite at around level 14 of my class quest when I didn't really know what was happening.

The second was at 50 on Ilum where there is an elite which puts a stacking debuff on you which reduces damage done and healing gained.

Levelling in SW is frankly no more difficult than WoW unless you are trying to solo Heroic 2/4 areas.
If you think that levelling in Star Wars is in any way difficult then you are definately doing something wrong.

I refuse to discuss that in absolute terms, because then people tend to pull out their e-Peen and call every game extremely easy, just to demonstrate how great they are. I am talking in relative terms. And if you haven't seen that in relative terms leveling in Star Wars: The Old Republic is less trivial than in World of Warcraft post-Cataclysm, then it is you who is doing something wrong.
My feeling is that it isn't so much about the difficulty as how long it takes people to consume content. Saying "Once people finished the accessible content in WoW they got bored and left" is just another way to rephrase Syncaine's comment but without being as massively rude and patronising.

High difficulty is ONLY one way to extend content, but at the cost of driving off people who don't want to commit to repeatedly wiping on stuff while they learn it. Long but manageable grinds are another way to extend content (and I wonder how WoW's audience responded to the Firelands dailies -- I won't be surprised if for the month after Firelands arrived, population of 80s stayed steady as people took to the daily grind).

There are other ways. PvP can extend content (if you like PvP, I guess). Sandbox style game can extend content, but sandbox games tend to be very unpredictable from the player point of view (ie. you could log on one night and the place is dead, or another night you may get a really exciting battle). RP can extend content for people who engage, but that can be as unpredictable as sandboxes.

Interesting procedurally generated content could extend content, and I'm still surprised that so few MMOs have delved into this. Player generated content can extend content.

Andrew: You're talking out of your arse if you haven't tried every class in SWTOR, because some of them do involve encounters that are genuinely tricky (at least compared to the rest of the levelling content) until you have figured them out.
I think it's also because new players startin the revamped easy zones then move on to BC and Wrath Zones that are painful in comparison. Not hard just much slower. That and a newb has 85 levels to go before they get to actually play much with anyone.
I agree that Andrew is either stroking his non-existent epeen or he was consistently outleveling the content, which means he wasn't challenging himself.

I cannot speak for why others quit wow, many times when small groups of people quit a game for various reasons it causes others to start almost looking for reasons to leave or move on. For me, it was partially for that reason. I felt my WoW journey was over.

Another reason however is that I am no longer an unemployed college student with endless amounts of time on my hands. Blizzard has gotten very good at spitting out large quantities of content in a very short amount of time.

I derived pleasure from the game in being able to pace myself with the content. I know it sounds silly, but in cataclysm sometimes I would log in and feel like there were "too many" things to do in order to effectively max out my character that it made me not want to do any of them.
No e-peen stroking required. Its quite simple, levelling, at least for a Bounty Hunter, has been trivially easy with little to no risk of death.

Now I accept that the BH does have some advantages. Tt brings strong single target and aoe dps, it can self heal and it gets a companion who can heal as its first companion. These are significant advantages in the levelling game and have made the content extremely easy.

As for outlevelling it its quite the opposite. I entirely missed the Balmorra bonus series so ended up doing pretty much everything at or slightly under the required level. I even ended up having to sit and gain some rested xp so that I hit Corellia at 47 rather than 46 (which would have been rather trickier).

Perhaps you could expand on what you find more difficult in the SW normal questing system.
The other thing to bear in mind is the importance of keeping you and your companions gear up to date. I am not sure which options you were taking but if it gave it I would almost always take a planetary commendation as a reward.

Then as you leave the planet you can buy the highest available level of item modifications which ensures your gear is at its strongest for each new planet. Picking barrels/hilts/armourng first alwats helps as they set the effective item level of the piece which determines damage/armour.
We have an interesting case where cata is criticized as being both too easy and too hard at the same time. Levelling was made easy to ensure that new players and alts can enter the end-game grind quickly; the end-game was made hard to extend content. We also know that the novelty of an expansion wears off after a few months and this is normal. Also consider that Rift was released and grabbed a good number of players. If anything, the post-release blues combined with Rift and an harder end-game (less progress) exacerbated a normal drop in subs. (SwTOR does not seem to be a factor in this since they added their numbers well after the wow decline and apparently have gained a lot of net-new players).

Given the above, I would personally disagree with Syncaine's assessment.
@Andrew & Tobold

Having tried several characters, I can tell you it makes a HUGE difference what kind of companion you have. A healing or tanking companion (if you have heals yourself) makes things a great deal easier. Both my bounty hunter and sith sorcerer can solo the heroic group quests with some effort.

Meanwhile, my jedi knight requires a great deal of effort to solo group content. It can not always be done, and essentially requires blowing cooldowns for every fight.

Yet, I would regard my jedi knight as individually the strongest of the 3. He simply doesn't have heals, or a healing companion.
I agree with Azuriel's conclusion, but all we can really do is conjecture with limited information. Which is certainly entertaining, but likely not very useful to developers spending real money.

It didn't take 4 lengthy posts to say that.

Numbers are dropping in WoW. IMO it's just as likely caused by external factors as internal.

The game is essentially the same. Only we have unquestionably changed.

And one of the biggest ways we have changed is that we have to come to believe that we actually have a voice. And that is totally awesome and why I read blogs.

Now, what to do with that voice...
Just an FYI for everyone, including Tobold. The statement quoted by Azuriel wasn't by Syncaine. It was by one of his commenters (me, actually).

a) You're missing the point. What you consider 'easy leveling' is still 5 times harder than what you'd expect from WoW, which is Tobold's point.

b) I have no idea how a Bounty Hunter plays, but my Gunslinger would faceplant in more than one occasions when faced by multiple Strong mobs or during 'boss' encounters in missions. Not always, but a fair amount still. So the difficulty is there, even if you are so 'leet' you coasted through the content.

PS. I also skipped the Blamora Bonus series and 50% of Voss and still managed to overlevel everything past level 30 by at least 1-2 levels. I hit 50 halfway through Corellia.
I need to read through the article series, but I've wondered if anyone has taken heirlooms into account. There's a difference between easy leveling for new players and easy leveling for veterans, not only in skillset but also in the heirloom effect. Not coincidentally, I think, it's the veterans who fuss the most about fast leveling. There's a "uphill both ways, get off my lawn" vibe to much of it.
Wow is losing subscribers because this is what happens to ALL products showing their age.

What is not obvious is the mechanic that caused this bell curve decline.

I trace this back to one event about midway through Cata dev when Metzen left Wow to work on Titan. All of the sudden we got B team junior boy Ghostcrawler driving development philosophy and ... the drop began to happen.

All companies go through this period where they seem to institutionally "forget" what makes people buy their product.

Much like what happened when
Jobs left Apple in the 80s
Gates left Microsoft
Grove left Intel

There is always one or two people who "get" at a fundamental level why people buy... If you lose them you lose your edge in getting customers.

We see it in miss-allocation of dev resources. Wow spent a TON on updating talent trees in Cata... all to find out it's TOO HARD scrap it AND THEN GC comes up with the brilliant idea to do away with trees and do the whole stupid redo AGAIN.

Gee what kind of content would be in Cata/Panda if this rework the talent system crap WAS NOT being done?

Why do companies do this? Because companies don't realize what a Steve Jobs represents in product direction. THEY NEVER REALIZE until the miracle worker is gone.

Psst GC people don't buy Wow because the Talent Tree is too hard right now.

They buy it to kill Internet Dragons.

More Dragons less rework of established game mechanics M'kay?
Well I can't speak for anybody else, but the easy leveling is exactly why I quit WoW. I raided successfully enough into TBC, but gave it up after that. Not enough hours in the day. I didn't quit the game, though, instead I became an altoholic because I really liked the leveling. Then wotlk came, and its leveling was *okay* from my perspective but only just okay. I hoped for more, and cata promised to bring exactly what I wanted, an enhanced 1-60 experience. Sadly it did not--FOR ME. Many people like the approach they took, but I found it all too directed and far, far, far too easy. I'm sure that's not why they lost all those subs, but it's why they lost mine.
Nobody wants a "difficult levelling experience". Nobody in their right mind wants to have to use CC while levelling, use proper rotations, avoid stepping in the fire, etc, when levelling. Why would you? Imagine a kill quest if 12 mobs. You'd have to kill each mob as if it were a raid boss, it would grow old fast.

The other method of adding "difficulty" is artificial difficulty, IE: elite mobs randomly patrolling and killing you, XP loss on death, high gear requirements to progress, etc.

Nobody is seriously quitting because of that. Everquest was a horrible experience in the beginning, very, very few people will be willing to grind for six months or more just to reach level cap.

Leveling is meant to be immersive in the story, and something easy and fun, not a hardcore challenge.

Difficulty boils down to two phenomena: strategic/twitch difficulty, or time-consuming difficulty.

You can make 100 mobs or 1000 mobs needed to level, that is an example of the latter.

For the former, you can make you have to interrupt mob spells or lose 50% of your health, have to use crowd control, have to re-act insanely fast, or, you can make it strategically hard.

You'll have to use for instance a shield against range mobs, have to avoid standing in flamestrike AoE, need to use certain spell schools at certain times, etc.

All of these things would be very tedious and not fun at all in abundance during solo questing.
If you actually had to use some skill and abilities and time, you'd only have to kill ONE foozle-elite.

Quests are designed to take a specific amount of time. I would rather spend a few minutes on a single kill, even if there was a danger of dying, than 12 kills that take 10 seconds each and require no concentration whatsoever.

At least occasionally.

"Nobody wants a "difficult levelling experience". Nobody in their right mind wants to have to use CC while levelling, use proper rotations, avoid stepping in the fire, etc, when levelling. Why would you?"

Because you get to feel clever/strong by narrowly defeating an enemy who is dangerous?
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