|From mutamorphosis.org. Next stop, uncertainty...|
The future of Warcraft is suddenly a lot more interesting than it was a month ago.
Predicting anything is, as has been established in these pages, a mug's game. You're just as likely to get flamed and called a troll as be praised for accurate speculation. The only facts, the intractable truths, are the ones Blizzard actually release in completed patches and expansions. We know it now to be true that in-game transactions will occur in at least one localisation of the game client. We also know that transmog items will be available to purchase for cash at some point in the not-to distant future. A month ago, both of these facts would have been laughed at if you'd suggested them as speculation.
The next question I want to ask is deceptively simple, but horrendously complicated: what's next?
Now we have established that nothing (potentially) is beyond the realms of possibility, where do we go? There's already hugely divided opinion on the possibility of L90 'premade' characters available for sale, but what does generally seem to be agreed upon is that Blizzard are not going to deliberately 'break' the game for the sake of more cash. As has been noted elsewhere by several people, Blizzard's monthly sub has remained constant for close to a decade, so even though they continue to make money from that side of the game, it is significantly less money when placed against the trends of inflation. Bringing in extra coinage from mounts and pets on the Virtual Pet Store has also not changed since it was introduced. The only items that are being added are those that the designers KNOW are items that people want: to make them look cool, and to help them level faster.
What has not as yet been addressed are the endemic failures in the game that stop people remaining within it, most of which for the static playerbase are tied to end game content, player competance and gearing. However, if we look at 5.4 as an indication of what MIGHT yet be to come, we can perhaps speculate on how Blizzard intend to fix those issues too.
1. The Problem of Content and Location.
One of the most consistent complaints I've seen about content is the fact it remains static once played. Zones become 'stuck in time', effectively not moving forward or being permanently encased in the amber, from the moment you last left them. Pandaria has established phasing as Blizzard's de facto method of eliminating this, and as the expansion has played out we have seen phasing used in an increasingly more sophisticated fashion (often tied with solo scenarios). Come 5.4, the Weekly 'Zone' in the Barrens, which would in previous expansions would have remained intact for the rest of the time, will vanish, as is as it should be, because the content is no longer relevant.
This should be the way all zones behave going forward: criticisms that areas like Outland and Northrend are 'old' are valid and you would not expect Blizzard to want to 'upgrade' this content so that everything is consistent. The number of man hours this would take and the undertaking required to produce a seamless and consistent game world would be a serious commitment... so, explain to me again why all those people got pulled off Titan and they delayed the release of the game again? What could those people be doing? Is it possible that old worlds could finally be bought in line with the new ones, allowing Blizzard to start using Northrend AND Outland in the next expansion's grand plan?
The popularity of the Warlock green fire quest in the Black Temple should have sent a signal to the developers: yes, old content is good. People like nostalgia, revisiting old places with a new spin. You can make new content from old places. Maybe it's time to admit that it isn't just about coming up with new continents. Maybe we could have a try at making old ones better again.
2. Learning How To Play a Better Person.
Proving Grounds are receiving universal praise from around the Blogsphere, for a very good reason: every day is a school day. No-one is perfect at what they do, and we could all use practice. This feature allows you to do just that, using the tools Blizzard have established to immerse you in an experience that isn't just fun, it is also educational. Another one of the constant criticisms from the Community has been the lack of education of players who can level fast to make it to endgame with little or no understanding of their class. If people are chugging XP potions to speed their passage, there needs to be a way to give them a taste of what they should do once they make it to the end.
Of course, it isn't just about doing your job, it is about being part of a wider community, and learning that being a good person isn't just a case of topping the meters or ensuring nobody dies. Guilds need to be a bigger part of the experience for lots of players, and not simply those that reward extra XP for levelling or physical perks for reaching a certain 'level'. I feel it is high time Blizzard bought the Guild ethos front and centre again, and that rewards weren't simply based on how many dinners you cooked or what classes you killed in a Battleground. Rewards should be given for the number of times you complete an instance, and XP should be deducted from people who deliberately cause trouble. If there is an algorithm that tracks player behaviour in LFR, then that should be extended to Guild activity too.
Guilds should be places people are proud of and that are nurtured, not that end up being sold as going concerns in Trade to make a quick buck. It is time to put the emphasis back on Community Spirit, and Guilds are at the heart of that. Let's hope Blizzard is ready to make the Guild a place people want to nurture and not simply use for convenience.
3. Gear isn't Everything.
Both proving Grounds and Challenge Modes make use of the concept of gear normalisation: a reduction of your iLevel to a point where you only have your skill and ability to rely on for results. Too often in this game the hunt for the elusive BiS item overshadows people's ability to be useful and contribute in ways that do not revolve around what they are wearing as the first point of concern. The initial Endgame in Pandaria was bogged down by very specific levels of reputation tied to gear, which although worked well as a way to restrict entry to more sophisticated content, ultimately caused frustration and burnout amongst the player base.
It is time, once and for all, to stop making gear matter and to shift the focus back to people actually playing the game. Although a standard level is obviously required, that would be far more satisfactory would be to introduce 'normalised' versions of some encounters and have success not simply based on a bosses' death. Placing other factors into the mix (yes, maybe a timer, there I said it) could allow even those with lower levels of gear a chance to compete. It might be nice for raiders not to feel they had to run four different levels of content just so they had the best chance at a boss fight when if you gave everyone the same gear, it wouldn't be about numbers any more, it would be about ability above everything else.
This one is possibly the most contentious idea of all, but if at new expansion's launch everyone was suddenly at the same level regardless of gear when they encountered the first boss of a new instance... how many people would cry foul at being normalised and how many would consider this an opportunity to step up and prove their actual ability was superior?
We have no idea of what is to come, but now we know Blizzard is not adverse to throwing the occasional surprise into the mix, anything is potentially possible. If only I had a crystal ball, or indeed a working TARDIS...