World of Warcraft: A Case Study in Design Focus


With a peak subscriber rate of twelve million players and a rotating, on-and-off player base, it’s hard to imagine that there are many video gamers left who haven’t at least tried Blizzard’s magnum opus, World of Warcraft. After all, it’s got so many games in it, so much content! It’s got something for everyone, so how can you go wrong?

Turns out a lot can go wrong.

Turns out that when you try to make the omni-game, when you try to have “a little of everything,” you end up with a lot half-baked ideas and broken systems; that when you try to please everyone, you don’t really satisfy anyone. Turns out that you can’t just mix everything together at the WoW All-U-Can-Eat buffet and still expect to have something good in the end.

A Game System at War

To understand how much this system pulls itself apart, we have to understand what each of the branches of World of Warcraft is trying to do – and how they fundamentally conflict.

Let’s look at the highly popular structured PvP experience in the battlegrounds. Players are divided into equal teams to compete with each other in a completely fair and balanced… Yeah, I think by now everyone knows what’s wrong with this picture: levels and gear. The problem is that no matter what tier you’re playing on, there’s always going to be someone who is arbitrarily weaker or stronger than you, whether it’s his less shiny equipment or his grind-certified privilege to higher HP totals and larger DPS potential.

This is not an accident or oversight. This is a consequence of the PvP game having to coexist with a leveling grind and a loot machine. This is the game designer saying,“Well, I’d like for this to be a fair experience, but I’ve got other priorities, so this is what you get.” Just imagine if Street Fighter did that. Should the amount of damage you do be contingent on the number of CPU opponents you’ve beaten?

How about an experience that is less rigid and structured? Let’s talk about world PvP. You have this whole world to run around in and take all comers! Stake a claim in an area and fight for control! It sounds really exciting, but again, you’ve got all these ulterior motives yanking back the other way. Now that everyone in the whole world is participating, the power scaling problem is even worse. If you thought fighting that fully geared max level player was hard in battlegrounds, try doing it with a level thirty-eight nobody. Before you get a fair experience, you have to earn it, by god!

On top of that, the world is completely determined to not give a damn about your efforts. The questing system requires that all the leveling players always have access to their quest NPCs, so no matter how much you occupy Goldshire, you will never take it over. And the whole situation forces questers and PvPers into the same space, people who aren’t even playing the same game, and whose interactions are doomed to hard feelings.

Alright, so PvP is hosed, but what else can we do? What other experiences are there to be had? There’s always the open-world exploration part! Climb mountains, explore swamps, traverse snow fields, see the rich bounty this world has to offer! Just be ready for the moment you step off the beaten path when an improbably strong bird flaps over to one-shot you for having the gall to want a closer look at those ruins. See, in World of Warcraft, you have to go to places in order, and when you do find a new place, you have to stay there and do labor for a few days before you’re allowed to see other interesting areas.

The potential novelty of all sorts of new sights and sounds is paradoxically unlocked by the tedious repetition of the same task you’ve done hundreds or thousands of times. Minecraft didn’t make you kill a hundred zombies before they let you go underground and fight spiders. At least Castlevania: Symphony of the Night had the decency to lock areas you weren’t ready for behind impassable barriers. Not World of Warcraft! WoW not only gates exploration behind insurmountable power differences, but also lets you go to places that will unquestionably murder you! Fortunately, the leveling grind was kept intact, so I guess that’s supposed to be our consolation.

Well, if we have to kill mobs to have fun, maybe we can try the raid content. Gather together your buddies for the most challenging PvE fights of all! Finally, something that World of Warcraft is suited for! After all, it uses the combat and movement mechanisms heavily. The dungeons are hard enough that they require very specific group compositions, thus reinforcing the role-based social aspect of the MMO. It’s perfect, right?

Wrong. See, you don’t even get to do the raid content until you’ve done your time in the quest grind. If you’re missing a critical role from your raid composition, you can’t even substitute a spare player into that role without doing the entire leveling grind yet again. Team Fortress 2’s Man versus Machine mode didn’t do that. Its challenges were specifically tuned for a group of any six players so long as their composition had a strategy behind it, and if they felt they needed their pyro to switch to a medic – they could just do it. It might mean starting the level over if the player had invested too much of that game’s score in the pyro class, but it sure beats kicking your friend out of the game and dooming him to another thirty hour grind.

Also, because World of Warcraft is gear-based, the stat progression turns into gear progression at the raid level. So even when you have the composition you need, if not enough of you have completed an earlier raid that you’ve already mastered (or even if you’re just getting bad loot drops), you’ll all be stuck going back to old raids. Maybe it’s not just you that’s bored – maybe your whole group is bored with the old raids, but a handful of you are fresh out of the level grind on their second characters and need to climb the gear ladder again. The stat-based RPG system inserts a power curve progression into otherwise finely tuned encounters. It artificially gates your progress based on your stats more than your skill. It makes you replay through older stuff you’d rather skip and keeps you there far longer than is reasonable or necessary. And when a few players want to move on to the harder raids and ditch their guild to do so, this dynamic even breaks up the very social groups that MMOs are purportedly all about.

What about a less popular activity? Let’s roleplay! After all, roleplaying is an officially Blizzard sanctioned method of playing World of Warcraft. Maybe all these oddities produced by the leveling power curve are forgivable from a realism point of view. After all, maybe I should have to train up my character before I stand a chance in Blackrock Mountain. Realism it is! Until, that is, you find a very nice looking pair of pants you can’t wear because it’s “too high level.” That edgy leather vest? You must be this tall to ride. It doesn’t matter how well it fits the fashion sensibilities of your character, you haven’t sworded enough dudes to warrant clothing that manly. Or even worse, what about a mage who wants to put on a leather belt? Clearly he is of too frail a constitution to bear the weight of it even for an instant. Turns out realism was never the goal of World of Warcraft at all – really it’s fulfilling its obligations to the PvE and PvP aspects, and the balance of those systems dictates that leather is off limits to 33% of human beings.

Even if you forgive that, there’s still the fact that in the theme park that is World of Warcraft, everyone is there for a different reason with a different purpose of play. Since roleplaying isn’t enforced, even on servers dedicated to it, your realism and immersion are broken still further by all the people who just aren’t doing it. When your character is delivering an epic speech to rally the troops for a final assault on the enemy capital (which you will never actually take over, recall), and a random night elf starts dancing and spamming “lol,” it’s pretty frustrating. Your druid’s efforts to preserve the wolf population will be for naught the moment an allied player with a quest to kill wolves rolls up and gets on with the questin’. Without a system of rules to enforce consequences for in-character actions, roleplaying is a fruitless endeavor, and Blizzard would rather that people play however they want. So the dream of a server full of nothing but roleplayers just goes out the window.

So far we’re not doing very well. Every activity we’ve tried to do has been undermined by some other part of the system. Nothing is playing very nicely with anything else. There’s got to be something that isn’t being messed with. Let’s take the base experience – the leveling grind. I call it the base experience because it’s the one activity that everyone must participate in. It informs every aspect of the experience – everything launches from this central hub. Surely such a basic part of the system couldn’t be too bad!

Yet even the leveling grind isn’t free from disruption. The inspiration for the World of Warcraft leveling paradigm is unquestionably Blizzard’s own Diablo series. Kill hordes of largely non-threatening foes where the only part of strategy is optimizing the efficiency of the grind. But to justify World of Warcraft being “open world”, you have to spend loads of time traveling from place to place, whether you’re walking from a mob spawning grounds back to the quest giver or if you’re sitting on your hands and watching a meaningless flight path. Diablo 2 wasn’t like that – Diablo 2 was fast! Use a town portal to go back to town any time you want. Use waypoints to travel to any area instantly. Why are these missing in World of Warcraft? Because WoW is “open world,” there’s a weird motivation for the designer to artificially increase the amount of time you spend grinding – by way of holding the W key.

It doesn’t stop there. Because the world PvP game exists, people can at any time interrupt you from out of nowhere and completely overpower you from many levels above you, and since the world is filled with friendly players whom you can’t ignore either, you can have mobs stolen from you and entire areas depleted of mobs, forcing you to waste even more time waiting for respawns. In order to satisfy the roleplaying/realism aspect, we get cities and settlements that are basically sprawling menu systems that take ages to navigate. Even this primary activity is demonstrably made worse than a title that preceded it, made by the same company.

So really, no parts of World of Warcraft are unmolested – everything suffers from the inclusion of something else somehow. And these are just the fundamental parts of WoW, present since release. We haven’t even begun to go into the way that flying mounts allowed people to bypass the world PvP game, the way vehicles messed with tiered raid progression, how the Cataclysm expansion messed up lore traditions in favor of race/class combinations, the way the format of the theme park MMO prevents players from actually impacting the story, how the inventory system serves no purpose whatsoever…

A Vision of What Could Be

At this point, it might be tempting to say, “Well, that’s just how it is. We may as well enjoy it as it is, because WoW can’t really do anything about these problems.” Well, yes and no. Indeed, the problem is that in World of Warcraft’s current state, as it tries to simultaneously support a myriad of completely different systems, it literally can’t make improvements to one part without having serious side affects on some other part. That doesn’t mean we can’t make improvements. It’s just that if we hope to make some gains, we’re going to have to cut some losses. Something’s got to give, or in this case, something’s got to go.

Sound extreme? Turns out there’s a whole gaming culture centered around this very idea, and the results are surprisingly good. I’m talking about World of Warcraft private servers. Yes, the self-same ones that are technically against the EULA and whose legality are endlessly debated on endless forums. Think what you will of them, but there’s something that a good number of private servers get very right: design focus. The deceptively canny thing about the culture of private servers is that many of them take a single aspect of World of Warcraft and center the entire experience around it. Consequently they can make a much more streamlined experience when they don’t have to worry about breaking any other part of the system.

For example, let’s say there’s a server that’s focused on level 70 Burning Crusade patch 2.4.3 PvP arenas. That is a razor-sharp focus – they don’t even have to worry about balancing the PvP battleground experience for levels 10-69, whose balance on the official servers has always been dubious at best. What can you do when the only thing to do is arena battles? First of all, you can cut out the level-grind nonsense and start everybody off at level 70. Is your class not working out for your team composition, or maybe it just isn’t your style? Change it. You no longer have this ulterior motive to keep banging your head on a PvP experience you hate just because you don’t want to level up all over again.

The next thing to do is to make sure people’s gear is on the same playing field as well. That’s easily done by making the appropriate tier of PvP gear available for free on nearby vendors. What about glass cannon burst teams who rely on using PvE gear? No problem – make the PvE gear available, too. Raiding isn’t a concern for your game, so why not? You can also make all the relevant stat upgrades available, from gems to gear enchantments to engineering items. Consumables like bandages and water are free as well, which makes sure you never feel like you have to conserve resources in PvP for arbitrary monetary reasons (i.e. grind considerations). While we’re at it, we can throw in some other quality-of-life features: let’s give players any mount they want and free social items, like fireworks, for downtime between matches. On top of it all, we’ll group all of these vendors, along with the arena team maker and arena matchmaker, all in the same place at a unified character creation start zone.

But really we’re still thinking small. If we’re creative, we can make a lot of other less obvious improvements. We’re no longer slaves to Warcraft’s story and lore, so we can allow players to form arena teams cross-faction if we want to. We could allow groups and entire guilds to be cross-faction, and we can even remove the artificial language barrier. That way, teams who want to organize a tournament or a grudge match don’t need an outside chat service – they can just, y’know, talk to each other. If we still want highly rated teams to be able to show off, we can put score rating requirements on cool looking mounts. You could put in teleporters to the actual world locations of the arenas for people to stage mock or training matches. If your purpose of play is arena battles, there’s no limit to what we can do to give you an unequivocally better arena experience. We got rid of the limitations when we got rid of everything but the arena.

What can we do for roleplayers? Plenty. Let’s not mess around – first thing to do is to give everyone customer service GM powers. Of course, with great power comes great responsibility, and while some players will surely want to go crazy with the GM powers for the novelty of them, let’s assume competence on the part of the roleplayer and instead imagine the possibilities unlocked by such freedom. For instance, now you can teleport anywhere you want, teleport other players to you, and generally not waste time traveling unless the story calls for it. You can fly anywhere with no restrictions from area, mount, or being indoors, perfect for getting just the right angle for your machinima video. You can instantly call any item into being at any time for purposes of costuming or use as roleplaying props – no need to grind for it or wait for it to drop from a raid boss that only spawns once a week. You can change your appearance to any character model in the library and turn off monster aggro for your character. Just imagine roleplaying a pit lord with a demonic army and having players fight you!

Even that’s still thinking inside the box. One roleplaying-focused private server went so far as to grant players the ability to create and manage their own phases of the world. Yes, the same phasing technology introduced in Wrath of the Lich King. Now any player can make their own version of any area, and add, remove, or rearrange the inhabitants Garry’s Mod style. Then they can password protect it and invite only the players they want in it.

The opportunities this opens up are vast. You could essentially make a D&D module by setting up several phases of a single area and running your players through them sequentially, simulating a timeline of your story. You could set up warring NPCs in Stormwind to set the stage for an invasion brought on by one or more players’ narratives, and you can restrict it solely to those players. You don’t have to worry about other people stumbling across it and wondering what’s going on, rejecting your canon, or setting up dance parties in the middle of the melee.

Here at last is the excuse to drastically alter lore, and nobody else on the server ever has to see it or deal with it. The roleplaying population can collaborate as a whole or segregate into isolated groups as much as they wish. Remember, this is not hypothetical – this actually happened on a real roleplaying private server, and it happened because they weren’t subject to the whims of “game balance.” They completely threw game balance out the window to focus entirely on a single experience, a single purpose of play.

I keep using that phrase, “purpose of play.” It represents a central message in all I’ve said – that whatever you’re doing at the moment is fulfilling a need or desire that you sought out to satisfy. See, maybe you like one or more of these activities. Maybe you like many of these activities – maybe you’re a generalist. You still can’t get away from the simple fact that, no matter what your tastes are, you’re never playing more than one part of World of Warcraft at once. The presence of the other activities in the virtual world makes them no more available to you than other titles in your Steam library (which, in fact, are maybe more available – just quit and launch a new one).

It’s completely fair to compare the various aspects of World of Warcraft to other more focused titles – as far as the immediate player experience is concerned, all of its activities are just self-contained games. So, if you’re only engaging with one activity at a time, wouldn’t it be great if that activity was the best it could possibly be? That’s the sort of experience you just can’t get from a product that’s trying to be so many things at once – you can only get it from a game system that totally commits to the idea it’s trying to express.

Excuses for Mediocrity

There are all sorts of excuses people make for this kind of design. They appeal to the social aspect with the usual cries of “Don’t split the player base!” completely ignoring the fact that the “player base” is by nature fractured and often opposed by design. For as long as World of Warcraft has existed, players have complained about PvP balance changes affecting PvE performance and vice versa.

It’s the same dynamic that also defeats the argument that implores you to just ignore the parts of the game you don’t like. You really can’t – the different parts of WoW are so wound around each other that the lingering presence of one part is always affecting another, even in more subtle ways. When something happens in the PvP arena metagame that warrants the nerfing of a spell or ability, that same nerf also occurs in the PvE milieu. If that’s your main focus, maybe your only focus, then a game you do not play and may never play has infringed on your territory. Why should that be? And moreover, is it any wonder that such players might feel an animosity towards their peers in the “player base?” Those players have no more to do with the others than they do with someone who plays League of Legends.

Sometimes the WoW apologist will praise the title for giving you a lot of options in one product. “Yes, it’s true the games are sub-optimal,” he will acknowledge, “But I’d rather have a lot of games in one space than just one game, no matter how good it is!” The critical flaw in the claim is that it sets up a false choice, that our only options are that we can have either one good game or several bad ones. But really we can have as many good games, as many fun activities or creation engines, as we want. There’s no reason at all to shackle them all together in a single title for the sake of giving players a 10-in-one funpak! And in the case of World of Warcraft, you can’t even appeal to monetary value, since the amount of money spent on the mandatory subscription fee alone is greater than almost any other title you could name.

Really, the reasons for designing it this way come down to one thing and one thing only: marketing. If you can just get everyone in the door by having the biggest menu, what does it matter if nothing on the menu is good? Players will spend all their time trying out new things and switching activities any time the unavoidable flaws frustrate them. The novelty and excitement of changing to a new diversion pulls most people through the experience moreso than the actual quality of the experience.

A WoW apologist once told me that, “Making the ultimate game takes guts!” He told me releasing a product with so many experiences balanced against each other takes a lot of courage that it will all work. But really the opposite is true. It takes courage to release a game that does just one thing, even if it does that thing very well! You have to have faith that your limited market will like your title for what it is instead of relying on a buffet-type of experience. If your target audience doesn’t like the thing you did, that’s it, it’s over! It’s a big risk, focusing the design, but it’s the only way to make a game that is truly great, one that doesn’t compromise the experience to pay lip service to variety. Releasing something like World of Warcraft is the opposite of courage. It’s not even really a game idea – it’s a business model.

What’s the Point?

So what’s the point of all this? It’s certainly not to thumb my nose at popular stuff. It’s not to say that no things can ever be mixed. It’s not even to say that World of Warcraft is bad – in fact it could be good, as evidenced by the private servers. The point is that we really can’t be so careless with our game systems. We need to understand what makes them function and boldly state what the most important part is. We need to protect the integrity of our games instead of just whimsically adding onto them.

See, I’m not just plucking the low hanging fruit by picking on World of Warcraft, a title that few would dispute has become over-bloated in the course of its lifespan. There are plenty of titles before WoW and since that pull themselves apart, and contrary to what you might think, they don’t always come from the AAA developers. Double Fine’s Brütal Legend couldn’t decide if it wanted to be single actor tactical game, a real time strategy game, a Grand Theft Auto clone, or a Jack Black movie, and it ended up being none of those things. Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale, made by a Japanese indie group called EasyGameStation, couldn’t decide if it was an economic simulator, a dungeon crawler, or a JRPG, and it ended up being flat on all fronts. And I haven’t even started on the “genre” of WoW-clones that shamelessly copy the WoW model verbatim.

We have a nasty habit of doing these “mashups,” of taking design elements and smashing them together just to see what happens. We stack uninteresting systems on top of each other instead of making actually interesting systems. We press for quantity of activities rather than quality. This leads us to some very questionable design scenarios, even when we’re conscious of the conflicts.

When Guild Wars 2 equalized player level and gear for their structured PvP matches (though not for their World versus World PvP, mystifyingly), it seemed like it would’ve solved the problem. But the PvE and PvP systems are still linked inextricably together, and the designers are still faced with the constraint of making character abilities that are relevant to both systems. They’re still faced with opposing motivations of making sure all the classes can grind at roughly the same rate, that they all have relevant dungeon survivability, and that their PvP performance doesn’t completely outclass everyone else. Their design ideas need to satisfy all three criteria, and some truly creative ideas for each will doubtless be thrown out for failing that test. It’s a balancing act that limits the quality of the title in a more subtle and intangible way, and it’s especially tragic given that it’s a completely artificial constraint that was taken on voluntarily.

On the other hand, titles like Super Meat Boy are focused to a fine point: reach the end of a 2D obstacle course. Every aspect of the design points to that goal. The built-in timer and leader boards reward you for dexterity and ingenuity and let you compete with others. The collectible bandages serve as alternative (and often more difficult) challenges in the very same levels. It’s a design with no ulterior motives, no conflicts of interest, and nothing to dilute the intended experience. It doesn’t try to trick you into liking it, it just is. If it’s not your thing, that’s okay – there’s plenty of room for other titles, for other experiences. But whatever is your thing, let’s make it the best thing it could possibly be. So really, Super Meat Boy is the point. Awesomenauts is the point. Spelunky is the point.

The point is focusing to that fine point.

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