Blizzard Entertainment isn’t accepting the doom-and-gloom reports about World of Warcraft’s changing subscriber base (and neither is one analyst).
The massively multiplayer online role-playing game has always seen peaks and valleys in subscriptions when a new expansion comes out, but never more so than with last fall’s Warlords of Draenor.
Paying players surged by millions, to heights not seen in years — then plunged nearly as precipitously, leaving the game this month about 300,000 subscribers ahead of its low point in the Mists of Pandaria expansion.
GamesBeat interviewed with lead game designer Ion “Watcher” Hazzikostas to chat about the recent roller-coaster ride, and ended up having a wide-ranging conversation that discussed how in the heck a 10-year-old game still pulls in 7 million people — and what those players have to look forward to that should keep them paying those monthly bills.
He also objected to a popular argument by longtime players that World of Warcraft has gotten easier to play and outlined some things that Blizzard finds disappointing with its flagship game and plans to fix.
GamesBeat: How much do you pay attention to the rise and fall of subscribers?
Ion “Watcher” Hazzikostas: Obviously, it was tremendously exciting to see the reception that Warlords got. It was gratifying for us; it affirmed that we had picked the right idea and the right setting for an expansion and managed to deliver on an experience that really got a lot of people excited about the game. At the same time, we try to be even-handed in how we consider what those subscriber numbers do over time.
Our goal first and foremost is just to make a fun and engaging experience. It’s not about chasing numbers as much as [it’s about] making a fun game. We have faith that the numbers will follow in the wake of that.
GamesBeat: Are people playing differently since the start of the Warlords expansion?
Hazzikostas: We’re seeing more people than ever before doing organized [large group dungeon] raiding, which is really cool and a testament to some of the conveniences and benefits of things like cross-server raiding in current-tier content, flexible group size, the premade group finder, and the more-accessible normal difficulty.
All of those things mean that a significantly larger percentage of the player base, compared to any prior expansion, is actually going in with a premade group and experiencing our raid content. We’re seeing tons of tons of PvP use of the premade group finder as well [to achieve group objectives].
GamesBeat: Has anything about the content in the Warlords expansion disappointed you?
Hazzikostas: There are areas where we’ve seen slight declines, but we attribute that largely to a failure on our part to properly keep them incentivized and interesting.
I think [five-player] dungeons is a great example of a shortcoming there. We created a bunch of new dungeons for Warlords of Draenor, but we didn’t really give much reason to keep running them after the initial weeks or couple of months of the expansion.
In the past, you kept running Mists [of Pandaria] dungeons, which probably overstayed their welcome a little bit, but you kept running them for valor points [which you could exchange for gear] a year-plus into the expansion.
We felt that was a little silly to keep running the same content as you got stronger and stronger and stronger, still getting that reward, which is why we removed something like valor points. But I think we went too far.
GamesBeat: Have the player-created garrison towns in Warlords, which offer missions for followers you recruit in game, changed the amount of time people log in? Players joke about playing “World of Garrisoncraft.”
Hazzikostas: One of the things that garrisons do is give players reasons to log in deliberately in short spurts when they wouldn’t have logged in at all otherwise.
In prior expansions, if you didn’t have a couple of hours to play, you might have not logged into the game at all. Now, it’s actually a pretty commonplace thing to say well, I have my morning cup of coffee, I’m getting ready, I have five minutes. I’m going to log into WoW, collect my mission rewards, send my guys out on new missions, and then log off.
Those login sessions, they’re simply a different type of experiencing the game. I don’t know that those are coming at the direct expense of, I’m going to log on and go do my guild raid, or I’m going to log on and do battlegrounds, or do PvP or whatever else I might have been doing — core multiplayer social functions.
GamesBeat: To what do you attribute the post-expansion drop in World of Warcraft subscribers?
Hazzikostas: Inherently, I think that things are cyclical.
Especially nowadays, players aren’t necessarily viewing World of Warcraft as a year-round lifestyle so much as a game that they love, where they’re going to check in, see what we’ve got, play the content in a patch, go off, play some other great game that just came out, and then come back when we have something new to offer them. And to some extent, that’s OK. We don’t want to prevent people from enjoying the game that way.
Part of the cyclical nature is that, yes, when we have a large upsurge, it’s not surprising that there’s a bit of a dip after that.
But we have an amazing patch in store for players with 6.2 that’s in the works and great things ahead. We are listening and trying to deliver the best experience possible.
GamesBeat: What features of patch 6.2 do you hope will improve the player experience?
Hazzikostas: We’re adding mythic [difficulty] dungeons that allow even players in a group with four of their friends to go through a harder version of some of our dungeons with a weekly lockout, almost like a mini-little five-man raid. It should be a fun experience.
Timewalking is a feature we’re introducing in 6.2 and hope to expand upon in the future. You’ll be able to queue up, and you will get scaled down and placed in one of the five dungeons that we picked as being really representative of [The] Burning Crusade expansion, for example, so either The Arcatraz, or Shattered Halls, or Mana Tombs, or one of a couple of others.
[He told us other timewalking weekends will feature dungeons from the Wrath of the Lich King expansion. –Ed.]
You kind of get to either relive those memories if you played back then, or for many people, see them for the very first time at the appropriate level. Any rewards that you get will be scaled all the way up to your current level, and will be useful for a max level character as catchup gear.
It’s just getting that type of gameplay feeling relevant again. [Group dungeons are] one of the greatest strengths we have in the MMO genre, and it’s definitely a shame that there weren’t as many reasons as we would have liked to do them recently.
GamesBeat: Is there new content in the patch?
Hazzikostas: I think 6.2 is one of the largest content patches we’ve ever released, between the dungeon features I talked about, our Adventure Guide, a raid zone, the Tanaan [Jungle] exterior zone, and the shipyard.
The shipyard is an extension of your garrison, adding a new dimension and one that we think is also going to be a bit better integrated into the world and the content of Tanaan itself.
One of the first things that you do as you make an incursion into the Tanaan Jungle is to build a shipyard, recover blueprints, and build your first couple of ships, which unlocks a whole new follower mission type: naval missions.
You have a new interface that you’re interacting with: It’s more of a 2D map layout rather than just a list of missions. You assign your ships to run missions in certain areas, that will then unlock bonuses to those areas on the actual map in Tanaan.
Ultimately, it’s just another fun way to interact with the game and explore systems that are going to give you new rewards, and you get to build a lot of cool ships.
GamesBeat: What is the Adventure Guide?
Hazzikostas: It is a guide integrated into our dungeon and raid journal that’s designed to point players at content that is relevant and useful to them.
When you get into content patches, I think one of the problems we saw in Mists of Pandaria was that there was a fair bit of confusion about what content a player should be doing. If someone deep into Mists hit level 90, they’d wonder, should I go work on these reputations? Should I do Golden Lotus dailies, should I got to Isle of Thunder, should I go to Timeless Isle? What exactly should I do here, and what should I do first?
Hazzikostas: The Adventure Guide [in World of Warcraft] is designed to look at your item level, achievements, quests, things that you as a character have completed so far, as well as other things that are going on in the world. Like, hey, is it Draenor bonus dungeon weekend right now? You should go run some dungeons and you’ll get extra rewards for doing that.
It uses that to recommend activities for you and also serve as a landing page. Sometimes you can auto-accept quests by clicking a button in the Adventure Guide. Or it’ll take you right to the Group Finder to search for a group for a given activity.
If you’re logging into World of Warcraft wondering “What should I do today that’s relevant to my character,” this should give you a nice array of options.
GamesBeat: How do you determine how much content to add in a patch?
Hazzikostas: Our player base is voracious when it comes to content, and it’s impossible to ever make enough.
We’re always striving to balance between satisfying those who are our most hardcore consumers of content, without overwhelming people who are taking things at a slower pace. And also, of course, allowing us to focus on future projects that are really important.
Ultimately we try to reserve certain types of changes for expansions as opposed to patches. It helps to keep a little of that complexity in check.
What patch 6.2 represents is iterations on our existing systems, polishing things using lessons learned from 6.0, adding new content in that model. But we’ve backed away from doing things like massive class overhauls in a content patch. It can be actually quite jarring for someone who has taken a short break from the game to come back a few months later and finds their rotation is massively different than it was when last they left.
GamesBeat: Has the recent launch of the WoW Token, which allows players to exchange in-game gold for cash-bought game time tokens, affected total subscribers?
Hazzikostas: Overall, it hasn’t been a drastic change in any way, which is great. It’s what we’ve hoped for. There’s no overnight change now that tokens are out there. There’s just some more options and some more flexibility.
GamesBeat: From the day it launched, WoW eclipsed the number of subscribers of other pay-to-play MMOs. What was it about the game that let it jump ahead of earlier MMOs?
Hazzikostas: From the start, accessibility has been a core value of the game. That was one of the things that differentiated it from something like Everquest that came before.
What accessibility has meant to us and the players has changed over time, but ultimately it meant something that attracts a broader audience and offers new and different ways, many ways, to experience the content, explore the world, play the game, and feel like you’re a part of Warcraft.
It was actually revolutionary in 2004 that you could actually play solo and still make your way all the way to max level. You were never put in a position where the right thing to do was mindlessly kill the same creatures over and over again. You had a questing structure that at the time was unheard of, that guided you all the way from level 1 to max level.
At that point, WoW was defined as the most accessible, welcoming MMO in the genre as a whole. We have striven to continue to live up to that value, and to extend what it means and provide as many ways as possible for players to enjoy the game over the years.
GamesBeat: How do you balance that accessibility and keeping the game challenging for experienced or hardcore players? Gamers often complain about World of Warcraft being “dumbed down.”
Hazzikostas: Our classes are probably far more complex than they were back in the day, I think, without exception.
If you look at the so called hardcore-raiding heyday of late Burning Crusade, one of the top classes was the warlock with a destruction spec, who would literally just press shadowbolt all fight long. Literally the rotation was you would keep up this one debuff and then you’d push the 2 key, really hard and really quickly, and you’d beat everybody else.
The game has not in any way been dumbed down from that. A lot of the rest is just about trimming excess and keeping things focused and concentrated. There’s a very high skill cap in the game.
GamesBeat: So what do you mean by accessibility, then?
Hazzikostas: When we talk about accessibility, it’s not accurate always to say that that’s a value for new players joining the game. It’s also just as much, if not more so, for players who have been playing the game for a long time but want to continue to enjoy it in different ways or at different levels of commitment as their lives change.
That’s one of the more unique challenges that we deal with a game as long-lived as World of Warcraft has been. Millions of players have been playing with us since the early days. They started out as students but are now professionals with families, who used to relish nothing more than a hardcore raiding session with their friends, but who are now just trying to sneak in 45 minutes of gameplay after the kids have gone to bed.
They still want to live in the world; they still want to experience it. In that world, accessibility means more bite-sized chunks of content. If you want to devote hours at a time, there are outlets to do that. But it’s not required in any way.
GamesBeat: We’ve seen guilds attempting hardcore Mythic raid dungeons on two nights a week, or even six hours a week.
Hazzikostas: It’s something that we’ve seen emerge. It was the four-day a week guild, then the three-day a week guild.
It’s people who still have that competitive ethos. They’re hardcore at heart and they want to be the best at something. But at the same time, they realize they only have finite amounts of time. They value their time very highly. They’re all about efficiency.
They compete with other guilds that are raiding those same hours. That’s something that wasn’t very possible or even heard of back in the day.
GamesBeat: Speaking of Mythic difficulty raids, are you happy with the transition between Heroic-level raids, which are flexible in size, and the hard 20-person requirement of Mythic contests? Many player guilds are breaking apart on those rocky shores.
Hazzikostas: It’s definitely a challenge. I wish there were a way to make flexible raiding work for all difficulties including Mythic.
I genuinely don’t know that we have the ability to tune it the way we need to be roughly equal for 15 players or 24 players or 12 players. It ties our hands with respect to how encounters can play out in Mythic.
We have the freedom right now to say we want to make an encounter require three tanks. That’s much harder to do in a world where maybe you only have 10 people in the raid. Three tanks is kind of unreasonable at that point.
Or requiring a specific class — like you need to have a priest to mind control to do Blast Furnace [a Warlords raid boss] on Mythic difficulty. You could do that with 10 people, but we wouldn’t feel comfortable saying in a game with 11 classes you must have this one class in your 10-player raid.
There is room to use that structure as guilds are approaching that threshold, to do recruitment to build up to that. No Mythic guild has a roster of exactly 20 people, or at least no long-lived stable one does. You always want some slush so someone can take a night off, or someone has something come up and you’re not canceling your raid.
Heroic being flexible allows you to try out recruits, to have a larger roster, and still have everyone involved a lot of the time as you’re getting ready and gearing up to jump into Mythic.
GamesBeat: So how do you balance the needs of Mythic-difficulty raiders in World of Warcraft with more-casual gamers?
Ion “Watcher” Hazzikostas: In various spheres of the game, we’ve been able to cater to those groups separately. In reality, their desires and interests aren’t in conflict as much as it might seem.
For something like raiding, certainly there’s a different level required to interest and engage the hardcore raider who’s been playing with their guild for years and years and still wants to spend 15-plus hours a week learning the hardest raid encounters in the world. We have Mythic difficulty for them.
On the flip side, if you still want an organized raiding experience, but you’re doing it in a friends and family group that literally are relatives and coworkers and you’re never going to kick anyone out or recruit anyone based on performance, but you just kind of want to have some fun and maybe pop open a couple of beers and joke on voice chat as you raid, well, normal difficulty is great for that.
Seven years ago, if you wanted to experience the storyline of Burning Crusade to its conclusion and you wanted to see [the villain] Illidan, you had to be in this top couple-percent super hardcore. Now both groups can experience the content and still have satisfying experiences that are right for them.
GamesBeat: How has the MMO audience changed since World of Warcraft launched? What are people looking for in an MMO now, versus when the game began?
Hazzikostas: It’s really hard to generalize. People are so different. Some of the people are young students discovering this cool world. In some cases, it’s varying time commitments or flexibility, being able to play the game on their own time without having to lock themselves into a specific schedule.
In a broader sense, one of the biggest changes in how people approach the genre as a whole is just this connected, social media, Internet world in which we live.
When I first started playing World of Warcraft as a player in 2004, it was kind of mind-blowing to me actually that I was getting on Ventrillo for the first time and I was talking to a guy from Texas in my group with a thick Texan accent; at the same time, I had someone who was also in New England who went to school not far away from where I had once lived, and we were chatting about that.
It was bizarre. I was like wow, I’m talking to people from across the country, and that’s a foreign experience to me. The current generation, it’s a given, whether it’s Xbox Live, whether it’s just social media, being on Twitter or being elsewhere. It’s a more interconnected world and the MMO genre itself doesn’t have that element of novelty to it.
But at the same time the types of gameplay and the kinds of things we can do are much richer and deeper.
GamesBeat: Are social ties formed in-game one of the things that keep World of Warcraft subscriber numbers in the millions?
Hazzikostas: There’s no question that one of the unique things about a game like WoW, is that it is a game where you can meet a future friend where you can hang out with, or you can meet a future spouse. There aren’t many genres where you can say that.
One of the things we are proudest of really, and nothing highlights this better than going to BlizzCon every year and seeing the people there, are the connections, the bonds that are formed as a direct result of the work we’ve done and the world we’ve created in the game we’ve made. People are lifelong friends because of WoW.
It’s an integral part of keeping the game an engaging experience.
One of the values that we have is trying to make WoW as social a place as possible. We recognize that over the years, some of the convenience features have eroded a little bit of that.
It was tremendously inconvenient to have to sit in town and spam trade chat looking for a tank for your group to go run a five-player dungeon for 90 minutes before you could do it. But when you found that person you were more likely to latch onto them and look for them again and depend on them and rely on them.
[Now] you press the Looking for Group button, and you’re 5-10 minutes later assigned to a random group. You have a better dungeon experience, but it’s harder to form those social bonds.
Things like the premade group finder that we’ve added in Warlords are an effort to recreate structures and environments where you could actually meet new people. [The group finder allows players to recruit others for help with everything from quests to PvP.]
GamesBeat: So what’s kept the game going? The graveyard is full of games that were supposed to be WoW killers. Is there just not room for more than one big play-to-play MMO?
Hazzikostas: I wish I knew exactly what the magic was — we’d just capture it in a bottle and duplicate it and we’d all be in wonderful shape.
It came along at a time when the genre was ready to explode. It provided a world where people could make all these bonds and connections and friendships in. It captured a place in people’s hearts that brings them back to the world to check out the next thing we have.
I think the other main thing that I attribute our longevity and strength to is just our adaptability, and the ways in which we’ve changed as a game. I think in so many ways, World of Warcraft has probably changed more than almost any other game I can think of.
We’ve viewed other MMOs much less as competitors than as inspirations. We’re all huge fans of the genre. Most of us play every MMO that’s out there. We’re always geeking out over all of them, and thinking about, what are some things here that could make our game better? That’s meant evolution over time, as well as driving the genre forward in new ways that are meaningful to us.
We feel incredible fortunate — I feel incredible fortunate — to be part of this game and this experience. There’s also a tremendous responsibility that comes with that, to keep doing the right thing for our players, and to keep it going for 10 years to come.