Let me begin with a brief introduction to what I'm planning as a full series of articles related to the video game industry. Every so often, I like to take a break from writing about politics to focus on other passions of mine. Video gaming constitutes one of my biggest loves, up there in the stratosphere with music, politics, and writing. I'm not writing this series only as a former indie video game designer, but also as a fan of the games and franchises I'm commenting on. Each article in the series will focus on a game franchise, with my ideas on how to improve that franchise. None of the designers responsible for these games would listen to me if I emailed them, so I figured I'd write articles that showcase my ideas, and if those designers ever find these articles, great. Otherwise, consider them little more than game design exercises. At any rate, let's get started!
Saving the World (of Warcraft)
I probably don't need to tell anyone familiar with the world's biggest MMORPG game, World of Warcraft, that the game has been dying a slow death since the release of its latest expansion pack, Cataclysm. Entire guilds are abandoning the game for other titles. On many servers, "trade chat," once thriving with Chuck Norris jokes and links to Thunderfury, Blessed Blade of the Windseeker, is often completely silent in the middle of the day. Players are bored with World of Warcraft, and worse... they're frustrated.
With the release of Cataclysm, Blizzard decided to take end-game content in a new direction, and by "new," I mean "back to the old system that no one liked." Before the Wrath of the Lich King expansion pack, end-game content could only be experienced and truly enjoyed by a tiny minority of the game's players. WOTLK changed all of that. Suddenly, it was much easier to find epic ("purple" or "grape") items, meaning more people could participate in end-game content and enjoy the fruits of the apparant bulk of Blizzard's labor; the company focuses heavily on end-game content, putting little effort toward appealing to lower-level players, who are expected to quest, grind, level, and like it. But when Cataclysm came out, Blizzard made a critical error: they returned to catering to the tiny population of elite, hardcore WoW players, ignoring the masses who can't schedule their lives around a two-hour dungeon. Dungeons were suddenly impossible again for all but the most skilled, patient, and available (time-wise) players. Everyone else? There's always fishing daily quests. The first step Blizzard needs to take in saving their marqee game title is to stop their hemmoraghing of players, and attract some of the lost players back, by completely re-designing their end-game system to appeal to more players. If a person isn't capable of enjoying end-game content, they're going to get bored, and when gamers get bored, they find other games to play.
A significant idea for boosting the number of people who play World of Warcraft would involve the implementation of a new payment system. Currently, the game costs around $16 per month. But there are a plethora of new fantasy MMO games on the web that are free to play, including Dungeons and Dragons and Lord of the Rings. Blizzard could enjoy a tremendous influx of new WoW players by implementing a new tiered payment system. Here's how it could work: You buy World of Warcraft off the shelf, as well as the expansion packs when you get to the point where you need them. There's no monthly subscription to play, but you'll only be able to reach level 84 (the current level cap is 85), and you'll only be able to equip uncommon ("green") items. For $5 per month, you can reach the level cap and use blue items. For $10, you can use "grape" items. For the full subscription cost, you can participate in PVE raid dungeons, heroic raid dungeons, and as an added perk, your in-game bank would double in available size, allowing you to go from using the standard seven bag slots you can use in your bank today, to fourteen slots for bags in your bank. If you want to participate in a raid, but you don't want to go for a full-featured subscription, you could "pay for play" with a microtransaction. You could also buy in-game currency and legendary ("orange") items through microtransactions... take that gold sellers!
Here's a short list of additional ideas that I think would vastly improve World of Warcraft on the whole.
New Mounts: Getting my chopper in WoW was one of my happiest video game moments, right up there with beating Bowzer for the first time and watching the epic final cinematic in Metal Gear: Solid, which left me saying "Fox... die!" for weeks. But where are the cool new mounts in Cataclysm? Oh, that's right... they don't exist yet! Imagine if WoW had airplanes and submarines with single-seater, 2-seater, and 3-seater variations. Imagine if you could buy a wagon or carriage, link two of your mounts to it, and use that to bring your friends around Azeroth? As an added perk, some of these mounts could have internal bag slots, especially the carriages and wagons.
Guild Airships: Are you familiar with the airships in Icecrown? Imagine if your guild could own one! Simply put, your guild could have an airship that slowly flies around, controlled by officers. The guild master could designate different guild ranks as "pilot ranks," allowing guild members who hold those ranks to fly the airship when no one else is piloting them. The airship would have a mobile graveyard attached to it (so you can spawn on the airship and return to the action more quickly), a bank, a guild vault, vendors for repair and selling junk loot, a small meeting hall where guild functions could be carried out, and more. The airship would have cannons that really fire, so long as the guild vault contains ammunition. You could fire on other airships, ram them, and destroy them, resulting in the guild needing to wait through a 48-hour cooldown. Suddenly, you'd have pirate guilds, fleets of airships with new alliances of multiple guilds, and epic PVP wars being waged in the skies! This would add whole new aspects to the game that never existed before, livening up PVP, bringing guilds together in a whole new way, and adding a myriad of new social dynamics. And this would beat the heck out of adding guild halls to the game... a flying guild hall can't be topped!
A "Thinker's" Puzzle Dungeon: Let me explain to you the simple process of running a dungeon for the first time. Someone in your group Googles how to finish the dungeon. The guild chats about the strategy needed, and presto, the dungeon is beaten. How incredibly lame is that? WoW needs at least one proper "puzzle dungeon" for players who like a good challenge... a dungeon you can't simply find a walkthrough for. The dungeon could use a variable-based puzzle system for navigation, requiring players to -- gasp! -- think about what they're doing. You don't just charge through in a linear fashion, toppling one boss after another. In this dungeon, you'd need to actually stop, chat with your friends, and figure out the best course of action, and running the dungeon would never give the same experience twice. I could design a dungeon like that, and if I can, so can the folks at Blizzard!
Casinos: There's absolutely no reason why casinos aren't present in World of Warcraft. You can't say they'd disrupt the game's economy, because casinos are designed to make money, not lose it. You can't say it has something to do with adult content, because I can get drunk in WoW (with on-screen visuals and slurred text), drink potions (drug abuse, anyone?), and run quests with names like "Muck Diving," "Just the Tip," and "Camel Tow." Just give us the darn casinos already. People have been requesting them since the game's launch.
Character Hunger/ Thirst: This might be a little too harcore for the audience of WoW, but with all of the food and beverages in Azeroth, it does make sense: Provide hunger and thirst bars. If they're empty, you suffer a 30% loss to strength, stamina, and/ or spirit. If they're full, those stats are boosted by 10%, plus you get whatever "well fed" bonuses you're enjoying from the food you've eaten. Hunger and thirst would decrease in time. This would give the game more uses for food and beverages, beyond simply restoring health and mana. And on the RP servers, I'd imagine it could help quite a bit as well. Last but not least, it would give warriors a use for all of those darn drinks we pick up in dungeons!