Alrighty then. It's two days until Blizzcon, time for some hardline predictions, and for me to put my chips on the table.
First off, let's look at the playing field:
-SWTOR is ticking down to launch, apparentlyborrowing a lot from WoW (8-digits of safety is hard to ignore) except the heavy hitting legendary Star Wars IP. They are still a reason for Blizz to up their game, but all Blizz has to do is "something" innovative to counter the SWTOR "threat". The one major "innovation" I have heard coming out of SWTOR is perfectly in line with my major prediction, so keep reading!
-Many MMOs that have innovative (or "new to the foreground") features that WoW does not possess have done exceptionally well for themselves with the minor exodus in the wake of the highly experimental Cataclysm. Blizz gambled on "let's make it hard, because gaming matters", and people who play games for reasons not tied to raising their blood pressure or dealing with a stressed out, abusive community went elsewhere, myself and some of my friends among them. I have no problem admitting that Cataclysm, in taking itself too seriously, was too hard in the wrong ways. Yes, I called for that, I was even eager for it, and no, I did not expect it to do what it did. Blizz and I both gambled and "lost" on Cataclysm. Time for a change.
-And change is rolling into position! Guild Wars 2, like WoW in an EQ-dominated industry years ago, has built itself around "what WoW does wrong" without outright saying it. Attacking every sacred cow WoW holds up out of habit, from guild monogamy to community co-dependence, no one is forcing WoW to innovate and evolve quite like GW2 is. Don't believe me? WoW pretty much swiped GW2's personal customization engine right out from under ArenaNet's nose, and improved upon it before GW2 was even launched. Blizz is watching GW2. While GW2 is free (monthly) and not designed to addict you through continued monetary investment, like the subscription model, let's be honest here, it's the best "catch flies with honey" strategy ever, as gamers only have X hours in a day, and will only seriously commit to one of these two titles. Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free? I do not expect WoW's subscription model to change, but I do have predictions based on this "need to act" position the above scenarios have put WoW in.
Before I get to the predictions, I do feel I have to say that even my own "musts", "needs" and "haftas" are hyperbole. WoW could just add levels and areas and would stay "strong" for years, indeed perhaps even until they were "done". Loud voices would rage and scream, but eight digits take a long time to degrade, perhaps just long enough for "Titan" to show up. That being said, I don't think WoW will phone this one in. Here's what I think *will* happen:
Something for "me".
Blizz is great at putting out stuff for your friends to enjoy together, that's a large appeal for MMOs, but in trying to get folks to return to that "playing with friends" foundation, they encouraged the same "recruit warm bodies" problem that has plagued this stagnating community, and indeed genre, for far too long. Guild levels and rewards are a great idea, and I'd like to think my happy little guild used them right, we stayed true to our core concept, and took progress as it came, like a gift, not a goal, and certainly not a mandate. The problem with guild levels is the same as the inherent "group or you're nothing" element of the game: the competitive nature of WoW. It's a number, to put next to other numbers, and so guilds still expand beyond their "intent", and we're back with the same mess. What WoW needs is to realize the mess they made and throw a bone to the folks that see this happening, and aren't buying it. Guilds, grouping, and playing with others need to go into the "optional" category, so they happen out of desire, not out of competition. The greatest innovation of GW2 is that no one "needs" each other, so every grouping is (in theory) formed out of a sense of "want". If your guild disbands, (in GW2's vision) it doesn't logistically hurt you. If no one is online from your friends list, it doesn't logistically hurt you. You therefore guild and befriend only those you want to, not the ones you "need to". It's time WoW PVE worked away from players playing against each other and toward playing with each other. Do I support rewarding the logistical headaches of group organization? Absolutely, but not to the degree WoW is founded on, it needs to change.
So how do they do this? They make the dungeon finder, raiding, everything group-y, or to put it more plainly, everything in other players' (meaning not the individual subscriber) hands, *optional* to progression. There are many ways to do this. They could capitalize upon their backlogged plethora of instance maps (or just make new ones) to do "skirmishes" better than LOTRO, they could do solo instancing better than RIFT's chronicles. This is Blizzard, if they put their minds to it, it will be awesome. They could have the storyline of their quests continue "beyond" the level cap, make it a personalized quest of progression, loot and character improvement, they could have their "personal story" (like GW2, SWTOR and LOTRO) become something personally empowering up to and beyond the base "now you're ready to group" level. They could also have areas devoted to "you're all grouped, you have no say in the matter, you can come and go as you please, now kill this boss" type content (ala RIFT and GW2), like a PVE wintergrasp. Now you can easily claim that I just described the raid finder, and I acknowledge that, but it's not the same. Overworld, dynamic events with individual rewards are a different animal, and bring together a community that wants, not needs, to be there.
Of course, in doing any of this, they have to go full bore, because if they're going to even start to make the dungeon finder, or mandatory grouping content in general "optional", they need to support it, because we all know that, once you get into the dungeon finder, anything short of "as far as you can get on your own" is seen as a "why are you here on my time" infraction in the "we have to group to progress, gogogo" paradigm. It's not nice, it's not fair, but it's the nature of the beast. If people want to progress in groups, they should be there because they like that experience, not because it's their only choice. Put something soloable or self-motivated in the game, and the only people that will be in queue are the people that SHOULD be in queue: the people that enjoy that content. The biggest failing of the dungeon finder is that this is the exact opposite of what happens. Counter-social "I'm not here to have fun" types queue up for their personal progression, and inflict their mood on everyone else. I would see both the "I don't feel like grouping" *and* the "I'm just here for the VPs, not for you" crowd BOTH funneled into progressively relevant content that doesn't inflict or expose them to things they don't want, that being tight, co-dependant grouping with strangers because their friends aren't online, or don't exist as such yet. EVERYONE wins in this scenario EXCEPT the "if I don't like you, you shouldn't progress" control freaks... and to be frank, fuck those guys, no one's paying them, we're paying Blizzard, and Blizzard needs to immerse players one at a time, not just in groups.
If individuals *want* to be online, maybe they will group. If they do, that's awesome, but if they don't... they will still want to have fun. You can't make a group when everyone's logging out because all the established players are racing around them and the individual doesn't have a team. It makes that individual "conform" to a team, or take their chances in the dungeon finder, sometimes trading in their enjoyment. That is what needs to die, Blizz can't back that model anymore, there are games coming that oppose it, and Blizz needs to get with the program. Blizz needs to stop gunning for your guild's $75/150/375 a month, and start going after your $15 a month!
So that is my major prediction. It's nebulous and lets me say "I told you so!" to many different possible outcomes, but I fully hope Blizzard will surprise me with something I haven't thought of.
Quick list of minor points I think MIGHT be thrown in the pot:
-Model upgrades. Their excuses are running out. Make the new models toggled, (ala EQ) and all excuses are gone. Make it happen.
-Further expansion of personal customization. Perhaps even bordering on "player created". They've expressed interest in player generated content, but a "mission builder" is pretty far fetched for WoW.
-No new race or class, just game-changing features. They spent lots of time on "updating infrastructure" with Cataclysm, it's time to go forward, and races/classes are sideways movement, not progress.
-"Sidekicking". They can't raise the level cap any further without having a way for capped characters to "downlevel" to play with leveling friends.
-Talent restructuring that de-emphasizes "trees" and favors "traits". Make 30 classes for real, fully developed and conceptually set. Let them tweak their look and feel via slotted alterations. At the very least, make this an endgame path after trees are filled out.
-Still hoping for housing. This is one of those "everyone else has it" features that Blizz can't afford to ignore for much longer. This also scratches the PGC itch.
There are two things to be excited about when real competition knocks on Blizzard's door: what the competition offers, and what Blizzard does to counter it.
WoW me, Blizzard.
-Thank you for reading