Updated Tue, Feb 22, 2011 by Saia
Like it or not, the post-Cataclysm World of Warcraft is very different to the game I came to love during the vanilla era. The most noticeable change? Hotfixes.
Love them or hate them (mainly the latter) in the past few months hotfixes have become a part of Azeroth. Essentially they allow the devs to upload changes to the current game build without us needing to download and install a patch. Oh and they can - and have been - deployed on an almost daily basis.
Back when I rolled my first toon in those halycon days when it was just Azeroth, no Outland or Northrend, everything was like clockwork. Big changes happened during content patches which were deployed on Tuesday mornings in the US and Wednesday mornings in the UK. That said, you could go months without a class change or problems being fixes. Azeroth literally had to be falling apart for the World Server to be taken down and given an emergency kick up the backside.
And now, well, things have changed and not necessarily for the better. I’m personally and professionally convinced Cataclysm has been rushed through and released a good six months before it was Done™ and that hotfixes, rather than being a positive thing which enhance gameplay, are just a plaster trying to keep a stab wound from reopening.
I’m all for a protean game, an MMO which changes constantly, which evolves and becomes all the better for it over a long period of time. The problem is since being acquired by Activision and becoming the Evil Corporation known as Activision-Blizzard, the focus has moved from the games to the profit. The devs might like to fool themselves that it’s still all about the game but you just have to look at Cataclysm and the speed at which it was released to know something isn’t quite right. And, sadly, hotfixes are the biggest sign of this downward spiral.
Are hotfixes destroying WoW?
You see, rather than shipping the game when it was properly finished, as per Blizzard’s infamous mantra of ‘when it’s ready’, the release date was locked down and, Blizzard became like every other company facing a deadline. Corners were cut, heavily touted aspects of the game were cut out and the ‘finished’ product was shipped to the public and the only way Blizzard could fine tune everything was to begin with what soon became a constant stream of hotfixes. Granted, I expected a few during the first week after launch but it's now nearly March and they don't seem to be stopping. Hell, the devs are even trying to convince us they're a sign of an evolving game and allow them to deal head-on with problems which would otherwise languish until the next big content patch.
Now I’m not saying these are a bad thing, but they have become a crutch. Why finish a game when you can just patch up the bits you didn’t have time to do once the game is live? Some changes have been beneficial but the constant problems, the bugs and the frequent class changes are putting off a massive section of the player base. You can literally log on in the morning and by the end of the day, your class has been tweaked so much your very style of playing has been affected.
While Bashiok maintains that devs are not using the live realms as a lab, I can’t help thinking the opposite is true. The live realms are just a PTR with a lot more people on them and each change made seems to cause ten more problems. That plaster… well soon it’s going to come off and Azeroth will fall apart. Sadly, many of my friends (all of us in our thirties) have already left WoW, either for the real world and adulthood or started migrating to other games like RIFT. I quizzed some of them and while many found their own lives were the cause, for others it was revolutionary content which actually wasn't so revolutionary. For most though, it was alienation caused by the endless changes and even though I play WoW for work purposes, even I find myself logging on a lot less than I used to. Suddenly things just don't feel so easy to learn or as friendly anymore.
Each morning I hunt for interesting news stories and each day I see the growing list of hotfixes and struggle. Some of the changes are reportable but most are just cursory and yet for many people, they’re completely changing how they see the game. That said they just keep on coming and never seem to end. And that plaster analogy just won’t go away, how ever many blues desperately try to convince us of the reason. They might believe what they’re saying but the voices on the forums never seem to get any quieter. Sometimes I wonder if any of the devs can even hear themselves over the din, much less listen to the more rational, calm facets of an enraged and annoyed playerbase. I guess only time will tell.