Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Bah! Humbug!

My disatisfaction with Blizzard as a company has been slowly growing for several months. This really is less of an indictment of WoW than it is of how I feel about Blizzard executives and developers.

This really culminated with the honor reset debacle. And while that decision has since been reversed, it really shined a light on the lack of respect that Blizzard in general has for players.

It's become increasingly clear that we are cattle, to be herded around and milked.

Perhaps this has always been true, but some part of me always believed that Blizzard was more interested in making the game fun than in simply making a profit. The whole "when it's done" idea seemed to support that concept.

2004 Blizzard is not 2008 Blizzard
Somewhere along the line, Blizzard seemed to lose sight of this idea and has became more in interested in retaining customers. Surely that was always a goal, but when your game is the only worthwhile thing on the market, you can afford to hold onto your ideals.

Now that real competition has shown up, we are seeing how Blizzard responds to threats.

There is perhaps no better indictment of this philosophical change than in the decision to allow PvE transfers to PvP servers. Argue the merits of that decision as much as you like, but the fact remains that it was a 180-degree reversal motivated solely by the desire to retain customers.

The economics of a lost subscription
I've read several articles that assert Blizzard doesn't even notice the loss of subscriptions. The theory being that if they lose 200,000 subs to a competitor, they barely even notice because they have 10,000,000 customers. Heck! That's only 2% of the customer base!

This is a false assumption.

First, most of those 10 million subs are in Asia and are hourly accounts worth significantly less than a US or Euro account. A loss of 200,000 Euro and US accounts more impactful and represents 8% of the more lucrative subs.

Second, each lost subscription directly impacts PROFIT. In a traditional company, if you sell a $15 product that cost you $10 to manufacture, then losing a sale is the equivalent of losing $15 in revenue, but only $5 in profit. In Blizzard's case, the per unit cost of the subscription is negligible, so losing a $15 subscription means losing $15 of profit.

None of Blizzard's other "costs" go down (like development & server infrastructure), so that subscription loss is hard felt on the bottom line. So losing 200,000 units is a loss of $3 million in PROFIT every month, or $36 million per year. When you consider that is PROFIT lost, rather than REVENUE lost, the impact is pretty damn significant.

Lightning in a Bottle
One thing that I absolutely believe is that Blizzard themselves really have no idea what made their game so good. It's like chocolate and peanut-butter. No one really knows WHY it works, it just does.

There are two major reasons that lead me to this conclusion. The first is their willingness to break the game on every patch. Nerf this, nerf that, change this, change that. I mean -- explain to me why they feel it's necessary to reinvent entire Talent trees because they lack the foresight to think beyond one or two patches?

The other reason is that almost every truly innovative idea added to the game in the last several years was borrowed from another game. In other words, they don't know what is good themselves -- so they take what appears to be working in other games and make it thier own.

Borrowing by itself is not a bad thing. However, borrowing when you don't understand what made it good in the first place leads to a poor implementation of the feature. Mark my words, Lake Wintergrind will be a great example of a really bad implementation of a good idea.

WoW is still a good game
It's not without flaws, but it is still a pretty good game. The strong points are the (now) polished UI, the questing, and the instance runs (both raids and dungeons). It still does these things better than any other game on the market.

In other words, the chocolate and the peanut butter.

What the game doesn't do well (and never will) are the PvP elements of the game. Namely, because it's reward driven and culminates in a gear grind. Good PvP isn't about grinding out tokens, it's about competing or making an impact.

The only reason Arena is even mildly successful is because it offers competition as a way of differentiating yourself. However, tying rewards to it that increase your performance (i.e. better gear) simply puts the emphasis more on gear and less on actual skill. Rewarding the skilled with a bigger advantage simply widens the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

I could go on and on, but the simple fact is this: Blizzard doesn't understand what makes good PvP. It's not chocolate and peanut-butter, it's chocolate and peppermint. And as we all know -- chocolate + peanut butter + peppermint is just plain gross.

Jeff Kaplan
The catalyst for this anti-Blizzard entry is this interview with Jeff Kaplan and his thoughts about Warhammer.

The thing that struck me about this article wasn't the comments themselves, but that he seemed disingenous. As he states in the article, he only leveled to 13, but all his observations and criticisms are those of someone who was much more progressed in the game.

I am skeptical that his "observations" are inspired by his actual observations and not the criticism he has read. The comments struck me more as a reaction to a competitor than as an honest appraisal of what he thought about the game.

Secondly, while the observations are warranted, I found the source to be incredibly hypocritical. I couldn't help but think it was similar to a bank robber pointing out that a pick pocket was dishonest because they steal. Nevermind that while they steal wallets, you still millions at gunpoint.

WAR might have some flaws at the moment, but they are nothing compared to the flaws in the WoW PvP game. Kaplan's comments just struck me as exactly the type of thing I am finding so irritating about Blizzard.

NOTE: If it wasn't clear from the above, I am becoming increasingly anti-Blizzard rather than anti-WoW. Criticism of Blizzard is not necessarily criticism of WoW.

1 comment:

ScytheNoire said...

I agree with all of that.

I've been a Blizzard fan for a long time. I own every game they have made for the PC, and in Collector's Edition if they released it.

But much like EA changed over time as they gained more money and power, so has Blizzard. They were once a small independent publisher, with fans always worried about what might happen to them. Now they are a financial powerhouse, an MMO juggernaut, who pretends like their shit doesn't stink and that every one else is beneath them.

Blizzard isn't the same company it once was, not even close. But where Blizzard is losing fans, other companies are picking them up. It's just a shame Mythic had to team with EA, because customer support would be nice.