It’s pretty clear that, on inception, Blizzard set out to build a world to live in with World of Warcraft. Yes, even back as far as 2004 the main draw for a MU* was different than WoW. We can provide the detail and breadth that a graphical game simply cannot hope to keep up with. Still, it is fairly obvious that the true grandeur of stepping into Azeroth was the scope of its world and the wonder of exploration.
I don’t think anyone can deny that the mission has changed in the past 13 years. WoW, as it is today, is a far different game than it once was. I’m not want to levy judgement against either approach but in the wake of the WoW Classic announcement, and the popularity of private vanilla servers, it’s worth examining exactly how Blizzard got to this point.
Focus and Structure
Game design has two primary components: focus and structure. The focus is where you direct your development energy on a consistent basis. Are you adding new abilities, classes, and concerned about balance? Are you augmenting NPC interactions and scripting? Are you adding new areas? What level ranges are those areas and what purpose do they server? Your consistent focus directly informs players, even ones not playing your game yet, what sort of world you are fostering. World of Warcraft’s expansions made it blatantly apparent where Azeroth was headed.
The first two, Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King, took players to entirely new zones cut off from the old world. Each of these zones had commingled megacities that were the ultimate hub. You could get anywhere from these two hub cities via portals obviating staying in the old world entirely. To boot each new zone was also strictly for its level ranged. 1–60 was the old world, 60–70 was expansion one and 70–80 was expansion two. There was little reason to be in the old world at all past 60 and there was even less reason to visit expansion one’s zone after leveling out of it. Gear progression made it even worse.
When expansion three was announced, Cataclysm, I actually got a bit excited. They were finally going to pay attention to the old world. Except in the end they didn’t. Flying mounts were introduced in this newly redone old world, inspiring players to avoid almost all of the lower leveled zones in favor of swooping into a point of interest, doing your business, and flying away.
This still hasn’t really changed. They tried hand-waving the problem a few times like the inability to fly until you reach max level in Pandaria, and the gating of flying behind end-game achievements in Warlords of Draenor and Legion. Legion’s “World Quest” system made a bit of a promise to bring more interaction, but in the end it mostly means players show up to a point of interest, do their thing, and zip away.
This is what I mean by focus.
While each expansion of WoW promised things that could have meant increased interaction, they were quickly followed by the real updates; the ones in between the expansion releases. A new dungeon or raid to run, or a new island (like the Timeless Isle and Broken Shore) to do some daily quests on before jumping back into the newest dungeon/raid. WoW’s focus is end game raiding and incremental gear progression is only had via doing more raids. Everyone else gets scraps every 6–12 months in a full expansion, but the real focus is raiding.
The second is structure.
I’ve already spoken a bit on how WoW’s structure changed over the years. Expansions brought a segmented population and megahub cities. It also brought the finder tools and flying mounts. Both of these skewed the behavioral model towards avoiding as much world interaction as you could to maximize your time. The structure of vanilla/classic WoW is a massive world that took time to traverse. The world is the same size but now it’s incredibly easy to get around.
Most MUD’s have an explorative, rooted structure. We dig room after room and connect them, creating a world that takes thought (or at least an automapping client and macros) to walk through. We might have hub-like cities, but I can’t recall a single one that has a room full of portals into every major part of the map.
What is your focus? Is what you’re putting your time into what you want players to actually be doing? If you’re adding areas, what is the purpose of those areas? Are they just containers for NPCs to wander around waiting to be killed for XP and drops? Or are they something more?
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