The Shifting Vision of WoW – As Told By A Former Team Member

Today, I didn’t expect to actually have a WoW post to write, as I’m just holding out for the Shadowlands launch next week. But a story popped up on Wowhead that caught my eyes – 13 year Blizzard employee and WoW team member Chris Kaleiki has left the company and made a video discussing the reasons why with some reflection. Here is that video:

So with that there now, I feel like it is worth talking about this content because I think it drives at what has been a debate and discussion among the community, really since Classic was announced, but for a longer period of time.

I’d encourage you to watch the whole video, but I wanted to recap my key takeaways from it and discuss the big revelation from the whole thing.

Class Design Team is Small: We as a community have always joked that the team at Blizzard must surely have a designer per class or something similar. Nope! Chris recounts how, when joining the team in 2007, he and one other developer worked on class design for Wrath of the Lich King, for a team size of 2. A lot of people are really honing in on this point negatively, but I think, logically, a smaller design team is better – you can have a clearer, more coherent vision without as much gridlock and argument over design elements. Likewise, it allows you to better coordinate role design – making sure tanks and healers have parity with each other and the like. Sure, it doesn’t always work out as ideally as I’ve described – but theoretically, I think people like this point because it sounds worse than it is. Hearing him describe it certainly made it sound really good – there’s a lot of emphasis on cohesion and thinking about the big picture of how specs and classes play in each setting.

Chris was also the main monk designer for their implementation in Mists of Pandaria, and describes Mistweaver as his ideal healer. As someone who really enjoyed Mistweaver in MoP, that is a fun tidbit.

Plays and Leads a PvP Guild: I thought I was going to have more than two points for this, but here’s the second one – like a ton of Blizzard employees, he was and still is a WoW player. Someone who led a PvP guild working on design is probably a good thing, and it seems to shape his impressions of the vision of the game.

So having said that…let’s discuss the meaty center of this video

WoW, Vision, and Lack Thereof

The biggest issue Chris discusses in the video is his reason for departing Blizzard after so long. He views the game through the lens of Classic vs Modern and establishes it thusly – Classic has a clear design vision with solid pillars that shine through all aspects of the game. The world is a character, the players and their stories are the content, and the game exists to facilitate this. By contrast, he laments that Modern WoW, insofar as it has a vision, is muddled and unclear, even to the developers. Some developers genuinely believe the vision remains the same and has not changed, others believe that the modern game is a conscious choice of new vision and has shifted purposefully towards it, and others still believe as Chris does – that the game is muddled, unclear, and doesn’t purposefully fit itself to a vision so much as sort of landing there from changes made for player interest. A great way of characterizing it that he set out is that the modern team focuses on tasks more than an overarching goal – rather than building a sailboat as means to explore, the team is building a hull, sails, etc.

Chris is a classic MMO sort of player, and notes that his interest is in virtual worlds and what drew him to WoW is strong core MMO systems – guilds, players being able to affect the world around them and the social cohesion and intrinsic rewards that carries. In particular, he calls out that Classic required guilds for much of the endgame content, basically needing a group of players to tackle the challenges posed, and that the social component of the game created the success that WoW experienced by making players dependent on each other to be successful. He noted (rightly) that this is a point of friction with the playerbase, in that many players pushed for solo play, which he notes is fine and fair enough, but that as the game has drifted in this direction more and more, the character of the game has changed.

Likewise, he notes that the story of WoW was once a byproduct of player activity, and that players defined the journey of the game in their own individual spheres of influence, rather than the top-down storytelling of today. Again, he remains positive that the current storytelling focus isn’t “bad” or wrong, just that it changes the character of the game. In the older eras of the game, you had more room as a player to create moments that people would remember, and he specifically cites how his PvP guild would troll to prevent players from turning in the Onyxia head for the buff, which would create gameplay friction among players and a story for later.

Lastly on the game, he talks about rewards, and how the focus has shifted, perhaps too much, towards extrinsic rewards and progression systems over sound, fundamental gameplay focused on the pillars of the game. He notes the team has shifted focus too much towards engagement over those core features of an MMO, and it is a big part of the game’s identity crisis.

He closes by saying that he loves Blizzard, the company, while it has grown and feels fundamentally different as a result, is largely challenged by scale – no longer being the scrappy entity it once was and instead requiring meeting the challenge of its own size. Overall, however, he notes that the company is fine, WoW will persevere – but that while he believes WoW is still the king of virtual worlds, he no longer believes it will stay that way forever and a part of his goal professionally is to find the next big virtual world to lend his expertise to.

“The real world sucks in a lot of ways…” – Chris Kaleiki, 2020

My Take

To me, this video was a genuine surprise, but a pleasant one of sorts. I’ve met Chris before at Blizzcon (in passing) and when he’s presented at Blizzcon or discussed the game publicly, I’ve generally found him to echo a lot of what I feel about the game. Obviously, leaving your job of 13 years is tough, and I find his reasoning sound and am sure that decision was impossibly difficult to come to, given how much passion he clearly has for it.

His revelations of the state of the WoW team do make a lot of sense, and contextualize something we’ve all been discussing in the blogosphere for months now, particularly as regards Shadowlands – the game does seem to be more of a narrative RPG focused on systems and rewards over meaningful social engagement. To speak to my own experiences, I think the points about social cohesion and interdependence are well made and received – server community no longer really exists as a thing and players often can evade their reputations, while outstanding players no longer really get promoted as members of a community. I remember in Wrath of the Lich King, when I would often PUG bosses or whole raids prior to having a raiding guild home, and I got a pretty good reputation which led to whispers and invites. I remember building up my social capital with my guild at the time and getting to be one of the few non-officers in our 10-player officer raids. That social capital later made me the de facto guild leader when the original one left for Rift (remember Rift?) and then raid leader when I worked to split the responsibilities with a player from another group of real life friends, keeping the peace and improving the guild’s cohesion.

Modern WoW doesn’t really have that, but it still sort of does. Like, for me as a Heroic raider, I do mostly need a guild to make serious progression – if I ever left my current guild, it might likely signal the end of my time in the game (a topic which I’ve discussed before), and while yes, I know PUGs exist and a ton of players progress Heroic through them, it has never been my style. On the other hand, I am one of those players who enjoys and is grateful for the solo progression and systems available to me so that when my social batteries are drained, I can still just play and enjoy the game. What I took away from the video is that Blizzard has sort of internalized their core design pillars, but hasn’t really adapted them and created a fresh outlook on the game, which is a dissonant sort of idea – the game is dictating the vision to design rather than the other way around. The way it sounds to me is that the game could have a clear vision and have arrived at the same point in a better, more structured way, designed to enthrall players like the original so clearly did. Instead, the game has sort of sleepwalked into its current position and design and that lack of forethought and meaningful choice towards that path has made its arrival there lacking.

Ultimately, like a lot of long-term creative projects, it has suffered from a lack of a meaningful, focused refresh – the original design was strong and had a clear focus and identity, but the team has not appeared to recalibrate on that identity and instead has let it sort of drift onwards – which is something many of us have intuitively felt from the outside, but it is nice to see that confirmed internally as well. The way he paints the contrasting ideas for the game is interesting to me too – the team itself seems to have different ideas about what World of Warcraft is in 2020, but most people are too locked into a task or designing and implementing a sliver of that top-to-bottom product to really be able to stop and look at the larger picture. I think that is something that does tend to shine through externally as well – many aspects of the last several expansions have been great in isolation, but often struggle with the big picture. In many ways, it sort of answers for me why things like Azerite have been so divisive – there was probably a designer who worked on traits and that design, and then the rewards team has to tie it in to different modes of play so that it works, but the vision of traits gets unclear when mapped to raid gear and tiered rewards, the leveling mechanic breaks down when there are so many ways to progress and the game has to be designed to put a soft cap on progress on a weekly level, and thus the whole thing feels disconnected and janky.

Carrying forward into Shadowlands, what I find fascinating is that the game has a lot of elements like this despite being lighter on borrowed power when compared to Battle for Azeroth or especially Legion. Legion’s BP systems had a tight integration with one another for the most part – the Class Hall had a strong lore reason to develop, which made the gameplay systems coherent with the world content and story, which made Artifacts feel significant both in lore as well as their massive shadow over gameplay, and all of that fed forward into Legionfall and how things worked from patch 7.2 onward. Legendaries were sort of an odd-man out scenario, but everything else felt pretty cohesive. BfA lacked a lot of that – Azerite was an important lore element to the main story, but the zone stories and continent stories lacked a lot of tie in to it, so it always sort of felt like Azerite was a thing that was bolted on and didn’t really fit. With Shadowlands, in some ways, I feel like the Covenant system makes sense (soulbinding to a partner, building power to help right the path of the realms of Death, everyone working together towards a shared purpose yet one that each realm serves in its own unique way) but in other ways, it remains disconnected (how does a race of angelic creatures have a mastery of shadowy or demonic magic?, why are these Covenants both intrinsic to the defense of the Shadowlands and yet also wary and untrusting of each other to the point that I cannot join a new one without being questioned?). There’s this jarring line of story and gameplay, and I think when I put it like this, what I really enjoyed about Legion (despite its glaring BP problems in retrospect) is that it all felt like a whole thing that was cooked up and conceived by a shared team with a shared vision, while BfA and now Shadowlands feels the opposite – disconnected, disjointed elements of design and development mashed together in a way that targets making me want to play while making that play feel intrinsically less rewarding.

And the reward emphasis in this video is the last thing I want to analyze. As someone who enjoys power creep and climbing the item level ladder, I don’t mind extrinsic rewards. However, I do think Chris’ broader point is absolutely a key element to why the current game has a muddled vision. The original game through a lot of expansions has extrinsic rewards that are focal to the game – getting gear, climbing item level, feeling more powerful – all of those are things that feel good and are core to the design of WoW, in my opinion. In modern WoW, however, loot is just one piece of an overall reward ecosystem – you need to build borrowed power, push a myriad of systems through a progression chain, and then also get loot. Of these, only loot actually matters long term – as everything else is diminished in value by the time the next expansion rolls on. We’ve talked this point to death in the past, and I am feeling vindicated to see that the team (well, certain members/past members of it) also see that.

Overall? I’m equally optimistic and gloomy about the future of the game after this video. Why?

Optimistically, it tells me that there are people who identify with the players in the audience and are struggling to put the game onto a righted path with a clear forward vision, one which, while different from launch in several ways, is codified and detailed as a map to success. While Chris is speaking in the video only for himself, the ways in which he describes things makes it clear that there are people who remain on-board in the same boat, pushing the team to recognize a shared vision.

Pessimistically, I worry that a 13-year veteran of the game leaving while accurately calling out many points of failure in the game and noting that WoW will one day lose its virtual world crown while also expressing profound desire to see it better means that people fighting to bring the team to a shared vision and a unified forward path are losing that fight. Ultimately, game development is done by people as a job – and while I certainly believe that the developers I’ve seen at Blizzard have a passion for the art of gaming and what it can be, it is ultimately a job. At Activision-Blizzard in 2020, it is a corporate job – one ruled by accountants, shareholders, and a need to return value to them due to fiduciary responsibility, and a job that I am sure wears thin for many over time.

Either way, I am fascinated to see what comes next, because I do think that we are on the precipice of a moment of reckoning for the WoW team (that is a very fluffy combination of words and I am leaving it and this self-note in the post), where I think the team can take a path forward that is closer to a unified vision, or continue down their current path. And, outside of Blizzard, who knows what virtual world is going to surface to kick WoW off the throne?

For that reason, I will be watching where Mr. Kaleiki goes with some interest.

7 thoughts on “The Shifting Vision of WoW – As Told By A Former Team Member

  1. Guy’s got opinions, fine. Have an opinion. Not hating on that so much, but the concept of “WoW ‘classic’ had a vision and now we don’t” really sounds like someone that never worked on WoW until, I dunno, Cata or later.

    I mean, if you wanna go watch vids, go watch vids of the OG designers of WoW “vanilla” and bask in the glow of their “we didn’t expect WoW to take off and had NO PLAN for future expansions” statements. Does that sound like they had a plan? I mean, beyond Naxx? Not to me, but it’s possible I don’t know what a plan looks or sounds like in the long run.

    They DID eventually come up with a plan, and that got shed once it became common knowledge because nobody hates having their roadmap revealed more than Blizz, apparently.

    Dude has his reasons, I’m not sure he’s being upfront about them, but a lot of things are 100% perception so I’m bailing on beating him up over it.

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  2. I agree with a lot of what he says, emotionally, but I think Grimmtooth is right to point out that there’s quite a bit of retconning going on there. WoW wasn’t developed in a vacuum. It was a reaction and a response to a pre-existing environment in which there were numerous virtual worlds, particularly EverQuest, which many of the developers played in the way Chris had been playing WoW before he became a developer. If vanilla WoW had a plan it was to be a more accessible version of EQ, which was widely seen at the time as extremely unforgiving. The social structures he talks about in WoW, the interdependencies and reputions, were all intentionally softened up and made more palatable when compared to the models from which they were taken.

    Chris correctly identifies WoW’s ongoing shift towards more solo play and less reliance on socializing to be a product of player demand but he both underplays that heavily (it was probably *the* key player demand, not just in WoW but across the mmorpg genre for many years) and omits to mention its key role in the development of WoW from the beginning. That’s not to say it hasn’t gone too far, nor that the pendulum of player demand hasn’t swung the other way in recent years, but where WoW is now in that respect is entirely understandable and predictable from where it began.

    For all that, I think it’s very true that WoW these days feels like a game whode designers don’t understand very well, but I would say that about almost all long-running MMOs. Even CCP, often held up to be one of the most focused developers in the genre, frequently comes under criticism for not understanding its own game. I think it’s an all but inevitable function of the chronology. These games evolve and change to the point where they can almost turn into something else entirely. The ones that don’t stagnate and fade.

    I think he’s done the right thing in leaving. A new game, a new virtual world, has the opportunity to start clean while there’s little or no chance of turning the WoW ship around at this stage. Of course, his new game, if he finds one, will most likely take the same trip but if he gets another decade of good work out of it, that doesn’t much matter.

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    1. @bhagpuss – something you said rang some bells from the dawn of WoW – One of the bloggers I followed back then was just gushing about the innovations of WoW, much to my annoyance as I was not a WoW player at the time and felt that WoW was kind of cheating … taking someone else’s concepts, finding their weak spots, and improving in those areas.

      Thus, for example, this guy was just gushing at how there were NO transitions between one zone and another (other than between continents). You could fly from Stormwind to Lakeshire, for example, **without seeing a loading screen**. If you recall, back then, going from one zone to another in EQ presented you with a loading screen and, possibly, your death if you zoned in in the wrong spot.

      At the time I felt like Blizz was cheating, in that they took the EQ template and then polished those rough spots. Of course, now I know how many of them were FROM EQ playerbase, and thus had a lot invested in that.

      It highlights one of Blizz’ hallmarks, in that they in a lot of cases don’t invent something new, but make something else better. Looking at EQ in 2005 is almost like looking at a first draft design document for WoW, but with post-it notes saying “fix this”.

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  3. I liked the bit where he said that Classic has design that allows for the creation of interesting drama… indeed it does, and many people hated that back in Vanilla! I do think Blizzard’s continuous attempts to remove anything that could potentially cause players to have an even slightly uncomfortable interaction with another player has definitely contributed to the blandification of retail WoW (in my opinion), but it’s definitely something that many players actively wanted. I’m inclined to believe that for positive interactions to be meaningful, there also needs to be the option for bad things to happen… I mean, maybe it’s possible to design a game where player interactions can only be positive and are still notable as such, but retail WoW ain’t it.

    Anyway, thanks for linking that video, it was very insightful!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think there’s a lot to that notion that is worth exploring – because I definitely agree that a part of why WoW can feel bland is because the edges are all sanded off of social interactions.

      I think that gameplay friction between players is necessary – quests being competitive for mob spawns, resource nodes being one gather and done, and other various modes of player competitiveness. The example he gave of the Onyxia buff denial is actually something that I think the modern game needs more of, because seeing an opposing-faction player now is much more of a momentary nuisance rather than an actual opportunity for gameplay interaction.

      I think what I see often is that Blizzard sometimes takes feedback too far, in that, for example, wanting to be able to quest and play solo in the world means I never want to build a friends list or have group content, and I think they could do much better at finding a better line to draw on that feedback. It’s fine if I need a group sometimes, and in fact, that’s sort of the point. Modern WoW feels a lot like playing with AI, and some of that is down to social norms in the game, but a lot of it is that every dungeon, LFG group, and raid outside of a previously-established social framework is transactional – we’re all here to do this content and then leave, so who cares about cohesion or socializing?

      I do miss having a friends list that isn’t just people I know well enough to have on Battle.net – but rather, a list of like “that one tank I ran some dungeons with one time” or “that amazing mage who solo killed a boss at 3%” or things like that. In the current social mode of the game, you almost never get a chance to build that without having to commit to a much larger engagement (I don’t want random WoW players to see when I play other Blizzard games or invite themselves to my Diablo III games). Some of my guildies that stream have strong Mythic Plus communities from that, but they’ve built that almost completely outside of the game, and the actual gameplay is almost an afterthought.

      And every time I log in to my old Priest, I see a friends list with people I just met in dungeons and raid groups and played with here and there outside of us being guilded together, and I think that was a fairly big part of what made the game work as well as it did!

      Also, if you liked his video, Kevin Jordan (the guy he mentioned as the other class designer) has a YouTube channel and Twitch stream and I haven’t watched a lot yet, but it seems really interesting!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I was actually already subscribed to Kevin Jordan before this! He has quite interesting thoughts on a lot of game design (for which I can ignore the occasional stupid dudebro joke).

        Liked by 1 person

      2. @Kaylriene – there’s something to the drama aspect. Anyone remember the weekly column “Guildwatch” on the-site-formerly-known-as-wow-insider? Very entertaining. Does anything like that happen anymore?

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