Let’s chat a bit around the fire shall we? There’s an old saying that goes “Do not raise your children the way [your] parents raised you, they were born for a different time.” I think that applies extremely well to gaming and even more so to MMOs. A gaming generation lasts about 5-7 years. The last console wave was on the tail end of this. The general point of this is that the strategy applied at the start of an MMO needs to change over time.
In IT design there are two portions of a service that are often classified as above and below the waterline, like an iceberg. Only a very small portion is ever seen by the user (above water) while an inordinate amount of time is put on the back end items (below water). So whenever you see a patch/expansion, figure the amount of time it takes for you to consume it and multiply that by at least 100 to get an idea of the amount of effort it took to generate it. So, if you get 60 hours of gametime, likely it took 6000 hours (which is a ~month for 30 people) to create it.
Suffice it to say that IT developers strive to find economies in the below water systems in order to maximize the amount of content delivered in the least amount of time. Agile development! The older the system, the harder this is to do. Microsoft famously stated that the average Windows coder during the XP days, only ever put in 1 line of code per day due to historic content. IE had the same problem up until version 9, which explains why it still fails the Acid3 test. In order to move forward, sometimes you have to rebuild the foundation.
Today’s world is run through agile development, meaning that changes needs to be applied quickly and for lower cost. This is done through service oriented architecture. Think of it as Lego blocks. If I wanted to build a boat without Legos, it would take a heck of a long time – wood, nails, etc… If I built it with the blocks, then I could get a boat built in 10 minutes. StoryBricks (for EQ Next) uses this model. So does the Foundy in Neverwinter. GW2 is able to release new “living content” at a quick pace because of their toolsets. SWTOR seems to have an update every other month. TESO and WildStar are both promising something similar, with a quick dev cycle to justify the subscription cost. EvE does a decent enough job too.
The outlier for years has been WoW. Their patch cycles aren’t the worst, a few months between but their expansion windows are simply ridiculous. There was a time when “soon” meant quality. It does for Starcraft. It did for Diablo3 once Jay left (that game is barely recognizable now). It has not often meant it for WoW. The MoP expansion, outside of new art, introduced one new mechanic – pet battles – and that took 11 months. Flex Raids, arguably the 2nd best thing to come out of MoP, took much less time. WoD looks like we’re going to see at least 14 months with no new content.
Now, there are a couple of possible reasons for this. One, Blizzard is exceptionally greedy and wants to milk the user base for all their money. I doubt this when MoP launched, it was the lowest rate of sales in their history. The next quarterly review is expected to show another drastic drop, likely hitting the 5-6 million user level. Second, Blizzard only runs 1 development team that changes in size based on the content being developed. This seems highly probable as it ensures quality development and a lower bug count but not having multiple source codes running around. Old code needs to be stable and the toolsets must be ancient. The WoW ship is massive and even a little tweak can have massive repercussions. There is tons of evidence that raiding is at an all-time low, somewhere near 15,000 guilds total raided in SoO outside of LFR. Servers are being connected (merged without some of the hiccups) continuously, with only a dozen or so that are not slated. When people are leaving en-masse for “greener pastures”, it puts the fire under the designers to keep what you have and get people back. Pressure, in design, often leads to very bad ideas or impractical ones (such as the Path of Titans which sounded amazing).
I am not saying Blizzard is closing WoW or that it’s failing. Just that the statistical anomaly that existed for ~5 years seems to be returning to normal. Players have realized that there are plenty of viable options on the market. It’s just surprising that with all the change that has happened on the market, that Blizzard hasn’t made a more concerted effort to change their design practices.