I lurk in a lot of online communities, some of them not even gaming related, and whenever a thread on WoW crops up my ears perk up and I slide right into the thread to read what people are saying. As someone invested in the game, it’s always interesting for me to hear what people who just started playing or have only lightly touched it think.
Before I go on I want to preface by saying that all the things I say in this blog post are my opinions based on observations, estimates, and speculation. The only people that know anything about Blizzard’s player numbers, funds, budgets, etc. are Blizzard themselves. So the things I posit here are all my own thoughts which have been proven wildly wrong before but oh well, here we go again.
When you sit at the level cap of a current expansion for a long time, it’s easy to forget about new players because unless you’re in very specific areas you will never, ever see them. A brand new player isn’t going to make it to Dalaran and they may not even make it to the faction capital cities because they may not know what they are. There seems to be this implicit assumption that people picking up the game are probably gamers so they can probably follow along with the beginner quests and find their way around. For the most part that’s true, but in some cases it’s not. It takes me 5 minutes to get through newbie zone quests and out to Stormwind or wherever. But for a brand new player it may take hours, if they even get there. So they may go that entire time just out at Northshire abbey killing wolves or whatever trying to get a sense of their surroundings without anyone except veteran alts and NPCs around them.
A running theme I’ve seen among newer players giving feedback, including some I’ve introduced to the game like my own brother, is that they’re entranced by the initial portions of the game, love it, rave about it, but eventually fall off around level 20-30 and leave and don’t come back. That’s not even halfway to the level cap. WoW is to the point where it’s going to have ONE-HUNDRED AND TWENTY LEVELS soon. The truly dedicated stick it out to the end. But should a requirement for playing the game be that someone needs to be ‘truly dedicated’ to catch up to everyone else? Streamlining the leveling and exp process doesn’t solve the issue of how daunting that is on its own. And free boosts aren’t the answer either. Some specs take time to learn, so shoving brand new people into positions where they are at cap and expected to know what they’re doing is a terrible situation all on its own. Yeah, stick someone who is brand new and just boosted a disc priest into a leveling dungeon with all these big dick tanking heroes who like to do m+ pulls in level 103 darkheart thicket and ask that new healer how they feel when they get booted from the group. Does it sound like it’s a good look for the game?
So here’s the rub. The questing in WoW is superb, some of the best in the genre. The leveling is not. The zones are disorganized and don’t follow a single storyline. Hell, some of them aren’t even in the same timeline or Universe as the rest of them. Depending on the time of day you can walk into Orgrimmar and interact with one of three different Warchiefs. The quests do not exist in a bubble. Someone can have a great time getting to level 20 and then realize that holy crap, they have another hundred levels to go. Is it worth sticking around? Especially when their friends are already at cap doing stuff without them, and there’s not really anyone else around them except people leveling alts who aren’t interested in talking?
So yeah, there’s a ‘new player’ problem in WoW. I don’t mean the players themselves. I mean WoW’s seemingly complete lack of interest in both attracting and keeping them.
But what about programs like recruit-a-friend, right? Okay one – how does that help brand new players that may not actually know someone playing the game already? And two – an exp boost is not a replacement for a genuine new player tutorial experience. The idea that a friend would help the new player is fair, but that puts the onus of solving the issue on another player rather than the company that created the issue themselves. It’s a workaround, but not an actual solution. Especially when you go to places like the WoW subreddit and see entire threads of people talking crap on ‘friends’ they don’t consider to be ‘good enough’ at their nerd hobby.
But, then again, how much do the higher-ups really care or want to attract new players? That’s a good question too. WoW used to have advertisements on TV, everywhere. Nowadays I don’t really see them at all. I see more ads for Hearthstone than anything else, and I don’t even play Hearthstone. One could argue that the market for MMOs is tapped. With a peak playerbase of around 12 million people, it’s hard to find anyone who hasn’t at least tried the game if they’re into MMOs and video games. Or at the very least it may be hard to find people who still want to try out a 10+ year old game.
But I don’t think it should be a lost cause.
When companies create budgets for departments, particularly marketing and retention areas, they calculate the costs and benefits per new customer vs. the costs and benefits per returning customers. In almost every single industry’s case, it costs more to bring in a new customer than it does to keep a returning customer. The reason for this is purely the cost of marketing. Google adsense, short codes, email campaigns all cost money. Lots. And Lots. Of money. The company hedges bets on investing in new customers with the hope that they come and stick around and keep giving them money. It sucks to spend 2 million on a marketing campaign and get a yield of new customers that amounts to maybe $500,000 in future revenue because they all leave after trying your product. This is also why so many businesses will absolutely bend of backwards for their veteran customers. As far as they’re concerned, they’ve invested in you already, you’re paying them back by being a returning customer, so giving you that $50 refund for the power cord you blatantly rolled your chair over and broke is worth it if it means you keep coming back and spend $100 on your next trip. I won’t get into the specifics of things like brand loyalty, but that’s the long and short of it.
I don’t doubt that there are number-crunchers in Blizzard’s marketing and budget departments that calculate these kinds of things every year and likely determine that it’s the cost of investing in new players that isn’t worth it in the long-run. And that’s probably why we’ve seen the advertising for WoW drop off in comparison to easier to pick up, casual games like Hearthstone and Overwatch. (I say casual in the sense that anyone can play them easily, I’m well aware of the hardcore scenes in both. But those are not the majority of the players.) However, the subscribers that come back are what is keeping the game in the green by a significant margin.
So not only does that mean that newbie QOL changes largely fall by the wayside because there’s not enough budget to pay people to do much except nebulously ponder the issue and say, “Well if we had the funds we could revamp it.” But it also presents a unique issue in that when you have the same veteran old farts playing a game for goddamned years, there IS NO INNOVATION in the feedback. People suggest the SAME things OVER and over again. The same complaints every patch cycle. The SAME complaints when an expansion launches. The SAME system suggestions that boil down to, “We want more dungeons and stuff I guess.” No new blood means that the old blood just keeps circulating and gets dirty and full of fart air and trash as it just keeps going through the cycles over and over again and eventually bleeds out.
I. Hate. That. I despise it. I hate it the way I hate departments at companies that are run by the same 10 people for 15+ years and answer every new suggestion or QOL change with, “But this is the way we’ve always done it.” so you’re stuck using that legacy software that can’t even connect to a database or CRM that’s been developed within the last 5 years due to syncing issues.
So ranting aside, what can be done? It seems like a monumental issue to try and tackle and yet we already have examples from other games that at least make attempts to rope new players in via mentoring systems. I’m not saying the mentoring systems in games like FFXIV and Guild Wars 2 are perfect, because they aren’t, largely because they aren’t monitored in any way. But at least they EXIST. Take a page from their notebooks and set up a basic mentoring system in WoW. But dear God, don’t make the same mistakes of having it be purely automated. There needs to be a human touch with these things or you end up with the FFXIV mentoring channel with everyone going, “OwO whats this?” around new players who just want to know where to access the culinarian job quests.
For starters, the main capital cities on old continents need to be more appealing besides just auction houses. It’s not right to assume that all new players will make it to Stormwind or Orgrimmar, but having veteran players there helps. You want people to afk more in the old world cities? Give them an incentive. Rest exp is nice but does nothing at cap. Have each minute spent idling in Stormwind/Org count towards an overall weekly tally towards an extra bonus roll coin each week or something. Watch how fast Ironforge becomes a hub again in the case that there’s an actual, tangible benefit for being there. One extra bonus roll coin a week isn’t going to break the bank for casual or hardcore players who probably spend a significant amount of time idling in the current expansion main city anyway.
Secondly, the chat channels need to be combined into one and freaking monitored/moderated. If it’s too much to have GMs in every servers’ chat channels, combine them more. Nobody uses trade chat for trade anymore anyway. General and trade are the same thing so just take them and world defense and put them together and have people keep an eye on them to mute consistent troublemakers. OR, have a mentoring channel that new players are automatically put into when they make a char that has vetted players in it so they can ask questions. This is the tactic FFXIV went with except it became flooded with terrible, terrible people because it wasn’t actively monitored.
The less the playerbase has to be relied on to help new players, the better. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a valuable resource as well. The signal to noise ratio is really high, but there’s still potential there. But you should not ever, EVER expect players in a game to take the place of someone you’d actually pay to do a job. That means players should never have access to administrative features like banning, etc. But if you can hand-pick the good ones and tell them they are a great help and let them do their thing on a voluntary basis, A-ok. But for players to want to care, Blizzard has to care too.
For new players to want to stay and slog through 120 levels worth of questing and grinding, they need to feel connected to the game. Right now the servers are splintered into different shards with only alts out in zones leveling, dungeons are either silent or full of people gogogoing with heirlooms, and the chat channels are either abandoned or brimming with political trash talk. Tell me which part of that would appeal to a new player? And where are new players going to pick up on the other aspects of the game like professions, pet battles, etc.? Outside of min-maxing, someone shouldn’t NEED to search for an outside resource on their own time to figure out core gameplay aspects of a game they’re paying for. That is a design flaw. It was acceptable back in the day when games had storage limits so you had to figure out how to pick up your sword and run to the right side of the screen pewpewing. It’s not so much acceptable now. It doesn’t need to be overkill like the Pokemon Sun/Moon tutorial, but by God it needs to at least EXIST.
I want to be able to proudly introduce people to this game and not feel like I’d need to be there all the time to answer constant questions about aspects of the game that should be explained through the course of them playing. I do that now because I desperately want them to stay, but again, that it shouldn’t be a player’s responsibility. I also don’t want to have to say, “Just wait, it’ll get better. Just wait, I promise. Endgame can be really fun.” while they’re leveling, only to see them go idle for 2+ weeks into forever after they hit level 22. And I ESPECIALLY don’t want to have to break out WoWpedia to explain the whack quest lore to them.
WoW is a behemoth in the industry. It is what most MMOs aspire to be. Which is why it boggles the mind that new player attraction and retention is in the state it is now. If I sound heated about it, it’s because I am for the reasons I gave above. Issues and problems don’t get solved by ignoring them, which seems to be the tactic used here for the last 4+ years. But I digress since I really want to go do something else. If you’ve introduced someone to the game, what were your/their experiences? I’d really like to hear feedback, especially if it reinforces my own already biased views of how things are. (At least I’m honest ayyy.)
If I had to think on it, I would say Blizzard sees and knows exactly what you are saying. New players get to 20-30 then look at the slog ahead and go find another game to play. And I have to wonder. Maybe that is the real motivation for them to roll out Classic WoW. If you can make it to 30 you’re half way there. And I will say right now, if Classic is at least moderately successful? They will continue it on to BC and Wrath. I think at this point they know fairly well how much time people are willing to play before they get bored with an expansion.
Taking it beyond that? They could flip the whole franchise over where the Alliance were the initial invaders and the bad guys invading Draenor. Fleeing Azeroth because it was a doomed world.
Very thoughtful – and passionate! – article. A bit late to the party, but I’ve posted a blog in response/reaction if you’re interested: http://galumphing.net/2018/08/11/training-wheels/