What can I say about last month? Well, for starters, it was pretty much as predicted. Nothing of interest was released and nothing is expected until Pirates of the Burning Sea comes out somewhere around the 22nd. I haven't tried the game myself but I have heard mixed things about it. Some people don't find anything very interesting there at all, others say the economic model has promise. Overall my outlook isn't positive. There was an open beta for a while but I never got around to trying it out and it appears that the beta has now ended. I definitely wont be picking this one up when it gets released but I'll keep an eye out for reviews and opinion posts to see what people think of it.
A PC version of Talisman is supposed to be out "winter 2007" to coincide with the release of a new version of the board game but I haven't seen any sign of a demo or release so it would appear to be in Limbo for the moment. Space Siege, a sci-fi successor to the Dungeon Siege series will be out around February, Age of Conan will hopefully be released around March, and Warhammer Online sometime this spring.
So, it seems things are going to be a little thin for a while. Luckily(?) for me I've started playing World of Warcraft again so my game time is fairly well occupied. Coming back to WoW after a long break has been an interesting experience. It only superficially resembles the game I first played over three years ago. With the accelerated leveling curve people scoot through the first 60 levels of the game in just a couple weeks. The expansion content makes the game more gear centric than ever and the best gear is obtained not through raiding and teamwork, but by going AFKin battlegrounds and arena PvP matches. The new emphasis on arena PvP pervades the game. Although new raid instances are scheduled for release the ease with which better gear can be obtained through PvP has greatly diminished the importance raiding and extinguished the motivation to raid for many. After all, why would anyone bother to spend hundreds of hours over weeks or months trying to down a raid boss for the slim chance at one or even two inferior, randomly determined items, when spending a couple hours AFK in PvP each week grants you your choice of equal or greater reward?
PvE isn't the only aspect of the game to suffer from Blizzard's new infatuation with arenas. The battlegrounds have deteriorated as well. Ongoing problems of racial advantages and map imbalance have turned the Alliance into sacrificial lambs in many battlegroups. Many people still queue up to join the battles, but rather than join because they want to play, they join because they require marks or honor to buy new gear with. Because both marks and honor are awarded for losing as well as winning many people don't even bother to fight. They join the games and collect their reward for having done little or nothing at all to earn them. This policy of 'Welfare Epics' as it has been christened by the community, although well intentioned, is undermining PvP throughout the game. It has become sufficiently widespread that on some servers people are starting 'AFK Teams' with the specific intention of losing games as rapidly as possible so that they can collect their free points with greater efficiency.
The reason (in my opinion) Blizzard gives rewards to people who lose games seems to be two fold. On one hand they don't want the game to be split into 'haves' and 'have nots' creating an imbalance of older, better geared characters teamed up against those who are horribly under-geared by comparison. This would make the strong stronger and ensure those who play less often, or are new to the game, never have a fighting chance becoming locked into the lowest tier of competitors. By giving people something just for showing up they ensure that everyone can advance regardless of how well, or how poorly, they perform or who they are matched up against.
The second reason, related to the first, is that people who lost often and gained nothing would soon stop playing at all resulting in one side or the other not queuing up for PvP which would cause the battleground system to grind to a halt. This also serves as an easy out for Blizzard. Because the system they built requires participation to advance it doesn't matter to them how badly they screw things up or how imbalanced they become. People will continue to queue, even if they have absolutely no chance of winning, because it is the only way they can obtain upgrades, thus ensuring that there will always be a stable of opponents no matter which side has the advantage or how overwhelming that advantage might be. If they did not reward people for losing then, because players would stop joining games when the system got out of whack, they would be forced to address the underlying problems rather than continue to ignore them.
It seems clear then that Blizzard has no motivation to correct the problems at all. In fact, it would be very much in their interest to see that things continued in this way indefinitely. To correct the system would require that they correct class, racial, and faction balance issues which have eluded them for years. This would require not only a great deal of work, but careful assessment of the principles of balance which it seems unlikely they have ever addressed and result in significant disruption to the game when they failed to keep things in check. If they continue doing things the way they have in the past the game will be largely unaffected despite the many complaints of the community. The system they have developed, much as their PvP system rewards players who do nothing, rewards the developers for doing nothing as well. If they do little or nothing the game suffers but proceeds. If they tried to fix the problems they could create a better game but only through great expense and substantial risk. So, like many of their players, Blizzard prefers to be AFK as the game rolls on around them.
In my opinion, although still better than its competitors, WoW has deteriorated greatly since the expansion was released. Although they continue to claim larger and larger subscriber numbers I wonder if that's due more to the game becoming more widely available rather than because it retains and attracts more people in regions where it has been available for some time. I await the release of Warhammer Online and Age of Conan with keen anticipation hoping that someone can give Blizzard a decent bite in the ass so they stop being so damned complacent and re-asses the direction they have taken the game.