The Game Design Forum

Enduring Impressions: World of Warcraft

World of Warcraft. Blizzard Entertainment, November 23, 2004. World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade. Blizzard Entertainment, January 16, 2007. World of Warcraft: The Frozen Throne. Blizzard Entertainment, November 13, 2008.

World of Warcraft, the incredibly popular MMORPG from Blizzard, is a giant in today’s gaming market. If you have not heard of World of Warcraft (hereafter WoW), you have probably stumbled onto this website entirely by accident. Originally released in 2004, WoW has seen two expansions, and is shortly expecting a third. With more than ten million loyal subscribers, the game is firmly entrenched as the most powerful MMORPG in the world. WoW collects from its players a subscription fee of $15 a month; as such it has an enormous staff of designers attached to it. Consequently there are numerous game design ideas to talk about, all of them on a very large scale.

Note that I do not list “Matchmaking” here. Late in 2009 Blizzard instituted a matchmaking service in the game; this service is incredibly convenient. WoW survived a long time without it, however, so it’s not an essential game concept. Moreover, it doesn’t work for the end-game content, where matchmaking is still a bit of a zoo.

Team Tactics & Team Composition

(These two are fairly inextricable from one another in how they work in the game.)

What separates the most important part of WoW from other rich multiplayer games is that team tactics are indispensible. There is no solo deathmatch game type; as such your ability to play well with a team is almost as important as your ability to play your character at all. It doesn’t matter if you’re an amazing tank if you don’t know how to accommodate the damage-dealers by placing a raid boss in the right spot. Similarly, it doesn’t matter if you’re able to deal enormous amounts of damage if you’re constantly endangering the entire group. This aspect of the game is even more pronounced in player-vs-player combat, where tight team cooperation is the best advantage you can possibly have on the battlefield.

One game design flaw here would be that the process of reaching the maximum level in no way prepares you for what you’ll be doing once you get there (this is less true in PvP). Reaching the maximum level mostly involves small groups whose composition is random, and whose bosses are simple. This doesn’t really prepare you for participating in a 10, 25, or 40 person boss encounter, which is the primary thing to do at the maximum level. To be fair to Blizzard’s designers, I have no idea how they would train you to be ready for the end-game.

A subordinate idea to team tactics is team composition. WoW doesn’t have the extensive variety of roles available in other MMORPGs, but team composition is still fairly interesting. Even though there are only essentially three roles to play in combat, having a large variety of classes is a good thing. Unfortunately this is mostly because each class has some kind of unique power-enhancing buff spell or ability, and not because each class plays very differently on the battlefield. Still, the idea is included, and you don’t want a huge group where everyone is the same class.

Content Updates

A world apart from from Downloadable Content, which is entirely optional and ultimately insubstantial, Blizzard’s content updates are the cornerstone of WoW. From the very beginning there has been a steady stream of new dungeons, quests, and of course entire expansions. A new class and several new in-game professions were added. Class balances and PvP arenas are updated. Of course the principal thing that Blizzard updates is their end-game 10, 25, and formerly 40-man raids. These all come with complex new bosses, dungeons, and new loot.

Overall, Blizzard has paid a lot of attention to content updates, and has done new things with them, especially in expansions, up until now. Blizzcon and posts have revealed the new contents of Cataclysm, but as of this past year, the content has been a bit weaker from a game design perspective. The matchmaking system was long, long overdue. Warping to battlegrounds was a great addition as well, and leveling up from PvP should have been a feature all along. But bits of news from Cataclysm have shown us that the new expansion isn’t really introducing that much. There are no new classes; there are no new primary professions (there is a lore-themed secondary profession); there is no new continent (the old ones are getting a facelift). The most radical change, the Path of the Titans, which would have been an entirely new game design feature, has been cancelled. Still, the amount of content that’s due to come out is going to be very large, and Blizzard has made major game design revisions in the middle of an expansion in the past.

Read more on Blizzard's content reductions and the trap of subscription-based gaming in Going Deeper.

Essential Game Concept: Role Balance

Blizzard has done a fairly good job, at least lately, of making sure that the player’s choice of character classes is balanced. There is no one class that is best for all situations, and most of the time there is no class that is best for any majority of situations.

What Blizzard has done to cut corners on class balance issues, is to create a meta-class balance, the “role balance.” No matter what class you are in the game, you have at most three options of what you can do. Those options are tanking, healing, and damage-dealing. Each class approaches these three roles in different ways, but ultimately you’re only doing one of three things. Compare this to something like Guild Wars or Warhammer Online and you can see how the scope of available classes is a little bit narrow. The benefit of this is that Blizzard can easily assess when a class is too powerful. If a certain class is too good (or too poor) at one of these three roles, it will show up in the raw numbers, and will be easy to spot. As such they rarely have to deliver substantial nerfs that kill a class’s following.

Essential Game Concept: Enormous In-Game Universe

Encompassing an area of three large continents in the world of Azeroth, and another planet in Outland, the in-game universe of World of Warcraft is as big as it gets. Even the most diligent players would be hard-pressed to play through the 50+ dungeons and raids, not to mention the more than 4000 quests. Plus, many zones are now obsolete (Winterspring, Shadowmoon Valley, etc.) with players rushing off to the next expansion.

There are, in my mind, two criticisms of the geographic world of WoW from a design perspective, and neither are particularly severe. The first is that once you get your character past a level benchmark (20, 30, etc), you can mostly forget about the zones you were in before. Considering all the hard work that went into crafting a sense of place and many narrative arcs, this is unfortunate. The second criticism is related, and it is that there are essentially no game-long narrative arcs. What you have changed in the world with your questing is largely forgotten, ten levels later. This is somewhat less true in the expansions, where Blizzard’s Phasing engine is employed.

Phasing is brilliant and ought to be imitated by anyone trying to create an MMORPG world. Phasing is a way of creating individual timelines for a geographic area, making the in-game world seem much bigger than it is by adding this element of time and progression. The locations, enemies, available quests, and even friendly players appear to change in appearance and content for one player or one group. This doesn’t affect other players nearby (unless they’re in your party) because they’re at a different point in the timeline. The sense of narrative progression is unmatched in open MMO zones anywhere else in the genre.

The Bottom Line

The game is unequivocally worth trying; if nothing else, play the free demo. A game as well-developed and influential in its genre as WoW has really never existed before, and who knows if it will exist again. WoW is not perfect; it does a number of things wrong, especially at the end of the game. Still, anyone who appreciates game design should play WoW through to the maximum level cap at least once. The massive size of the game overshadows anything that has ever existed in games.

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