Slow and steady won the race. World of Warcraft is the most critically and commercially successful MMO of all time and Blizzard has achieved the feat with a merciless and measured quality control philosophy. Content is either excellent or not fit for release.
But the games industry is slowly deserting the subscription business and the attempt to win customers through undeniable quality. Blizzard may be king, but the tribe is going elsewhere. At an increasing rate, MMOs are being published unfinished, often playable at no charge, and rapidly updated and improved based on fan feedback.
Particularly in Asia, the established MMOs are updated on a weekly basis with new rules, items and challenges available. The value of this model is that player retention tends to be far greater when updates occur so rapidly.
World of Warcraft, which once had more than 12 million subscribers, is gradually declining in popularity. Players surge back into servers when the yearly expansion comes around; they gobble up the content, but then they leave again.
Blizzard's best chance to retain players is to create content much faster, but with its peerless standards for quality, can it even achieve this? Can Blizzard rush art?
We speak to John Lagrave, Blizzard's lead game producer, and lead encounter designer Ion Hazzikostas, to debate this issue.
CVG:You're raising the cap in World of Warcraft to level 90, though people are consuming your content faster than you are creating it. What sort of design challenges does this present?
LAGRAVE: Oh lots. We have both ends of it; on one hand the majority of our population is on Level 85 and they are going to race through to 90, and you want that to be a meaningful experience for them. On the other hand, you have to look at the person that's never played World of Warcraft before, and they have to climb up ninety levels; that's days and days and days of work, so what do we need to do to make content from level one to 85 that's reasonable for them?
So you still focus on developing content for potential new customers?
LAGRAVE: Oh absolutely. In this expansion we have introduced the Pandaren who have their own new starting zone, and we want to tell their story, but we also recognise the fact that some people may have never played this game, so we have to factor that in too. In fact we have tweaked a lot of the tutorial for new players to understand the basics better.
There are obviously a lot of MMO studios, particularly across Asia, that take a completely different approach and provide weekly, sometimes even daily, updates to their games. Do you think this is ever going to be a route that Blizzard will go down?
HAZZIKOSTAS: We are committed to trying to release updates more frequently than we have, though I feel that it's possible for content to come too frequently. First and foremost, content has to be of the high quality that we set for ourselves and the players. That requires time, iteration, testing, refinement and polish. That's not something you can short-cut.
Also, the model for our game is generally progression-based; you are upgrading your character and you're improving your gear. If you release content too quickly you make your older stuff obsolete before players really have the chance to fully experience it.
Not that we ever could update quickly, but supposing hypothetically that we did update content every week, I don't think that would be best for players. I don't think that's something to get the most enjoyment out of.