Sunday, July 10, 2016

World of Warcraft: The Problem With Time Gating

When I talk about issues related to WoW (or anything, really), while the analytical piece in question may be about something more specific like my numerous articles or suggestions, they often have a goal in mind of fulfilling one of the "core issues" that I added here. However, the issue discussed in this article is so massive that it could probably be a core issue in itself if it weren't for its direct relationship to player retention. In addition, as someone who's done a lot of dailies and other time-gated content as well as partaking in mobile games with similar time gating through their stamina systems, I took the content for granted without considering the consequences too much. What led me to question time gating, then?

I think it had a lot to do with the suggestions I kept making. For example, I had a tendency to focus on solo-oriented "persistent content" that, by my definition of it, generally wasn't affected by time-gating such as lockouts, so a player with lots of time on their hands could enjoy it as they please. In addition, language used in articles like this made me realize more and more that having engaging, rewarding content that players are able to do without pause is typical in most games but is surprisingly lacking in WoW.

I'm aware of the consequences of being incentivized to constantly play the game. However, concepts such as exit points may help to curb addictive behavior as long as they don't lock players out of the game arbitrarily, which can be perceived as punishing. I am also aware of a need to strike a balance that benefits all types of players, including more casual players with less time who are less affected by time gating. These are points I consider when writing up suggestions.

But what's so problematic about time gating like with much of WoW's content? In this article, I will explain why time gating itself can be an issue, then provide examples that show a lot of WoW's notable content utilizes time gating and provide explanations of more specific, related issues when applicable.

The Issue

Time gating in itself isn't entirely bad. It can provide some breathing room for a casual player with less time on their hands to keep up with hardcore players and finishing the content available then having to wait until it's available again serves as something of an exit point as mentioned above. However, the drawback is that players won't be able to do the content again once finished for a period of time, which is essentially manufactured content drought. This means that having too much time-gated content or a reliance on it punishes players who are selective in their tastes or, more importantly, have a lot of free time, which can negatively affect the casual players that time-gated content is meant to be beneficial for. As I will explain further in future sections, WoW has a strong case of having too much focus on time-gated content. For the short version, refer to this chart:
An approximation of wait times from some notable time-gated content compared with "persistent content." Note that active time spent doesn't necessarily equal a good gameplay experience.
What makes this issue particularly egregious is that content release rates, as I've mentioned before, are infrequent for WoW with major patches that contain the lion's share of content often being few and far between. This approach would surely be a strong incentive to keep player interest in mind, but Blizzard's failings in this regard go beyond players potentially unsubscribing during predictable content droughts. Since time gating also causes its own smaller content droughts, player interest may fade over shorter, yet still relatively lengthy, intervals of days and weeks. The result is a mix of frequent, long waits that can cause players to quit.

With the issue of time gating established, what sort of content, especially well-known content, utilizes it and how problematic is it in each specific case? I think it makes the most sense to to start with...

The Lockout Problem

It seems most appropriate to go after raiding first since it's one of the most prominent forms of content in the game and, more importantly, most raids have a weekly lockout. What this means is that each raid in the game can only be completed once a week, with each typically taking consecutive hours to do when in a group. With the number of raids in WoW, players would probably have plenty to do in a given week. However, content obsolescence, either by outleveling or outgearing the content or earning everything associated with the content that the player desires such as achievements and rare drops, means that players may not do every single raid. In fact, most players will likely focus on doing the current raid which, at the time of this writing, is Hellfire Citadel. Even when accounting for multiple difficulties that allows a player to run the same raid multiple times in a week, this is problematic on a few levels.

First of all, assuming a player runs the current raids, they'll likely have a lot of time free, especially when the raid is on farm and can consistently be finished in a matter of hours as mentioned before. In a situation where a player can finish a raid in 8 hours, 160 of the remaining weekly hours are free. Assuming that 75% of those hours are spent on real life-based commitments such as work and sleep, that leaves 40 free hours to spend on the rest of WoW's content, which is a great deal more than the often featured raid content that is considered such a big deal in the WoW community (even if it's memetic beyond belief) that Blizzard even jokes about the loss of raid tiers. While situations between players and their free time differ, the point is that raids seem to encompass a significant amount of the work done on WoW for a low return on time consumed which, while an excellent experience for a variety of reasons, leaves much to be desired with the remaining free time players may have (and want to spend on WoW).

Speaking of free time, raiding typically requires some form of dedication outside of LFR, meaning a player needs a few hours free on their schedule or many depending on whether they're in a progression group learning fights. Outside of casual players who may not be able to meet such a time commitment, this also locks out players with unstable schedules even if they have a lot of free time. Players who meet this criteria include but are not limited to: people who work a job with a random schedule, students, etc. What this ultimately means is that raiding, as time-gated content that I asserted to be favorable for more casual players, is ironically designed for more hardcore players! While it's nice that the latter group of players benefit by getting more content to spend time on, it's likely not fulfilling enough for them (especially nowadays) and the former group now have a demand for content that needs to be met in another way. To be fair, this issue appears to be becoming less and less of one and thankfully, the aforementioned LFR is an option for players willing to tolerate potentially significant levels of incivility.

Finally, having multiple difficulties, while an improvement on the replay value of raids, introduces a different sort of problem that has some similarities with issues associated with time gating. Ignoring the fact that there's no guarantee players will run the same raid on different difficulties due to the aforementioned issue of obsolescence, the following should be considered:

Time gating can be problematic because the time one has to wait is long enough to be bothersome to the player (meaning typical mob respawns don't count), but the waits are frequent enough to the point of being repetitive, which can lead to both boredom and frustration (from the waiting). While multiple difficulties do add some progressive challenge to raiding, the player is left killing the same raid bosses over and over again, just more times in a week. Thus, even with the mechanical differences, the player feels like they're doing the same raid multiple times a week, which is enough to be considered repetitive and eventually, boring.

Raiding as content seems to have the polish that indicates a lot of time was spent on it, which serves as an indicator that it's probably unreasonable to expect visions like the one originally presented back in the early days of WoW to be met especially with increasing playerbase skill and knowledge. The problem is that not only is the otherwise excellent experience restrictive in terms of the players it best accommodates, said content eventually doesn't take much time to do (and fades into obsolescence) compared to the weekly lockout that prevents players from doing it productively again. Trying to bypass the restriction by playing on multiple difficulties may not help fill enough of the void of free time and opens a different path towards boredom through sheer repetition. There seems to be no easy way to solve these issues with raiding content that makes it look like an enormous waste of development time better spent elsewhere. Thus, it may be beneficial for the state of WoW to draw some of the game's focus away from its emphasis on raiding content despite how well said content is designed otherwise. At the very least, raids shouldn't be expected to carry an entire part of the content release cycle, as patch 6.1 showed.

The Daily Grind

Considering the title of this section, it makes sense to open by discussing a popular type of content that has seen no end since its introduction in the Burning Crusade: daily quests. In the past, daily quests were my life and repetition wasn't as big of a deal then since I had fewer characters to manage and the game was relatively new to me. In addition, I mixed up my content consumption with a lot of PvP-related gameplay, which tends to be a never ending fountain of dynamic content (something I've been doing lately as well to great effect through Ashran). As time went on it became more and more apparent that there was something fundamentally wrong about daily quests and content like it (such as Heroic Dungeons, Random Heroic first clear of the day rewards, etc), much like the aforementioned raiding content.

Despite its similar issues to raiding content, there's arguments as to why daily-styled content is different. For example, if one were to refer specifically to daily quests, there's a massive pool of quests to choose from even when accounting for duplicates, quest rotations, and database quirks. While there's also plenty of raids, a day wait is a lot shorter than a week's, meaning that players have a lot of daily content available to do in less time, so surely any issues of time gating are negligible at best. This is true to a point, but let's consider the following:

The pool of quests that players have to choose from is subject to the same content obsolescence problems that raiding has where players may prefer to do current content that's appropriately matched to their level. This isn't even accounting for issues related to dailies having their rewards obsoleted because a player maxed out the reputation associated with it or something similar to the outgearing raids problem outlined above. Such issues mean that there's going to end up being limitations in the daily-related content that players consume.

As for the point of daily content requiring a shorter wait time, daily content may end up taking less of the player's time than a raid during a given day or, more notably, a given week. This is because such content typically has relatively brief objectives compared to downing bosses in a raid. Even if it were more though, having to wait hours instead of days is a small comfort considering hours are still rather lengthy, falling well under the classification of why time gating can be an issue.

Ultimately it's safe to say that daily quests and similar time gating are a lot better than weekly raid lockouts. Between that and several expansions that featured a plethora of daily quests and rewards that increased their relevance beyond limitations such as reputation, it's not a mystery to see why dailies wouldn't appear problematic at some fundamental level. They might not have been the most enjoyable content depending on who you ask, but it was certainly compelling enough to the point that I personally did thousands of them. I also wouldn't be surprised if there weren't others who at least dabbled due to how accessible the content associated with it typically is. In truth, this sort of content probably wouldn't have subject to this criticism if it weren't for...

Warlords of Time Gating

Warlords of Draenor saw a further evolution of time-gated content in the form of Garrisons and a more extensive use of the daily system that builds upon various concepts in Mists of Pandaria. While players don't appear to specifically cite time gating as a major aspect of why Warlords of Draenor was a mediocre expansion, there is criticism that indicates that it might've contributed to the problem. For example, players compared Garrisons to a mobile game or Farmville, both of which tend to utilize time gating to a great extent, as I stated above. It's also a good place to start when considering what's problematic about this next stage in the evolution of time-gated content.

Garrisons were actually problematic in numerous ways that could earn an analytical article all its own, but a summary of its problems outside of time gating consists of the following:
  • Missions involved managerial player interactions that didn't lead to anything strongly strategic or substantial like most strategy games, especially RTS games, would have.
  • Work orders were also managerial in nature and while some required the player to go out in the world and partake in some significant gameplay, capping out work orders often wasn't that time consuming and finishing all the work orders typically took days.
  • Daily gathering activities were an "improved" version of gathering gameplay that I've already criticized and consider to be unenjoyable due to how monotonous and unfulfilling right clicking nodes can get. It can also be completed in a matter of minutes.
  • To put all this another way, some mobile games are actually superior to the Garrison gameplay-wise.
With that out of the way, where does time gating come in, especially as an issue? While it's an improvement to have more dynamic wait times, most of which are less than a day, there's a couple points to consider. The first point is that, as I established in the previous section, hours of waiting is still lengthy enough that the player might as well go do something else whether it's other content in the game or something outside of the game entirely. The second is that unlike most content, the game straight up tells you how long you have to wait in the case of both missions and work orders which is quite transparent compared to how one has to find out when dailies and lockouts reset. The latter point in particular made it obvious how time-gated a lot of the Garrison-related content was, hence the comparisons.

Beyond that, Warlords of Draenor had a slew of other time-gated content, which consisted of at least the following:
  • Endgame rare spawn "dailies:" Building on the Mists of Pandaria system of rare spawns, which had rather short respawn times and drops worthwhile enough to consider farming, Warlords of Draenor took away said worthwhile drops from most rares that could be killed repetitively. In addition, many of these rare spawns can only be killed for loot once per day.
  • Garrison campaign quests: A series of quest chains that unlocked on a weekly basis and is based on its Mists of Pandaria predecessor from patch 5.1.
    • The difference between the two is patch 5.1 also introduced a daily quest hub, while Garrison campaigns seemed to barely be complemented by other content at all, including dailies.
  • Daily bonus objective areas: Bonus objective areas was a concept introduced to Warlords of Draenor that combined quest objectives with rifts from Diablo 3. While some could only be completed once, others could be completed for its rewards once a day in a manner strikingly similar to dailies.
    • Some dailies also sent players to such areas.
  • Weekly events: While most of the weekly events were bonus incentives for existing content, some like Timewalking had content that was at least new in some sense, namely in the case of Timewalking that it effectively added many 5-mans that are relatively challenging for level capped players compared to their original versions. This means that players who enjoy the content may need to wait many weeks.
    • This also applies to the rewards from every weekly event, some of which may be very attractive to players.
  • Mythic Dungeons: These have a lockout much like raids and Heroic Dungeons. However, since Mythic Dungeons require a premade group to enter, their lockout cannot be bypassed like with the daily Heroic Dungeon lockout, essentially making them 5-man raids as far as time gating is concerned.
As I mentioned near the beginning of this section, one of the issues with Warlords is at least somewhat related to time gating. Given the list above in addition to the highly featured Garrisons, it's safe to say there's evidence supporting the theory. However, while it's an issue that contributed to the mediocrity of the expansion, this issue is not exclusive to the expansion. If one were to consider the increasing focus on time-gated content, especially dailies and similar, over the years, there would be a notable trend that, prior to Warlords, ends with people complaining about Mists of Pandaria having too many dailies and too much focus on them. To me, it's no surprise that Warlords of Draenor ended up the way it was in terms of design choices regarding (time-gated) content, but it was bad enough this time to get noticed in an even bigger way and be criticized almost specifically because of the time gating itself, hence why this article's being written at all.

What Legion Brings

Considering the increasing focus on time gating that has been met with a relatively disastrous Warlords of Draenor, what does that mean for the future of such content? Legion, despite being onerous in its lore implications, brings some hope on this front. While there is some time-gated content through Order Halls, which appear to function in a manner very similar to Garrisons, there's clearly less of a focus on it. Raids, as one of the hallmarks of WoW if not numerous MMORPGs (including Old School Runescape soon in a big way) appears to have a big role in providing the game with its content with the usual improvements to accessibility of gearing up through non-raiding content. From this alone, it would appear Legion brings more of the same to the table.

But then I looked into world quests and saw a glimmer of hope that maybe there would be an evolution towards the kind of content Mists of Pandaria brought when it came to content like Pet Battles and its rare spawns. While many world quests are time-gated significantly and behave more like dailies and weeklies, some seem to behave more like what I suggested when discussing the addition of Paragon to WoW. In this suggestion, I delved into the idea of tasks similar to slayer tasks, where players get randomly generated quests that can be done in a never ending chain for relatively minor to modest rewards. This is close enough to the shorter cooldown world quests that it's safe to claim there's progress towards this end goal that I desire, which is not time gated at all.

Final Statements

As optimistic as this outlook sounds, WoW may need something more drastic than this relatively slow progress that seems to make advances with each expansion, especially with this time gating issue gaining more notoriety. Fortunately, the game has has features in place that try to strike a balance between keeping content rewarding enough for a lesser amount of time investment while providing sufficient rewards and content for extended play.

For example, the Conquest cap incentivizes players to play just enough to earn their currency for the week and buy equipment, but ambitious players with time on their hands can grind for rating as much as they want. This is why I didn't criticize some things that could even remotely relate to time gating such as Ashran's weekly rewards. I don't find them problematic so much as a good alternative to the time gating problem so long as the content itself is a mix of compelling and rewarding even in its diminished state without being too rewarding. What makes this idea attractive is that Blizzard could pivot in this direction more without dramatically altering their design philosophy, meaning there's a better chance of more immediate change that the game may need.

But that's only one alternative among many, some of which I've suggested based on the links above. What do you think of time gating? Do you think it's an issue and if so, how should Blizzard address it?

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