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"I don't think the original team that worked on World of Warcraft had any idea it would be going this strong for this long," Street said. "When we add a new class, system, or put out a new expansion we think, 'Well this might last for another 10 years. Is this something we're going to want to support far off into the future?'"
"It's probably going to be designers and programmers that we haven't even hired yet who'll be working on it then. As long as players keep playing it, having fun, and coming up with new ideas I don't think that there has to be an endpoint."
All MMOs have faced periods of dwindling decline, but there are many examples of games that have remained vibrant and rewarding from generation to generation. Part of why Chess and Go endure even today is that they let players take part in both the creation of problems and determining their solutions.
With its MMO, Blizzard has been in the business of designing vast amounts of problems, in the form of new quest lines, dungeons, boss encounters, and raids, for players to help one another solve.
But the tactics necessary to beat a dungeon or a particular quest are relatively fixed and, at the higher levels, exclude huge chunks of the player base from participating because of inadequate gear and attributes.
What if players were allowed to participate in creating their own dungeons, quests, or boss encounters? Or going further, what if the crafting and jobs systems were expanded to allow players a possibility to role-play in ways other than combat? What if FarmVille players could just as easily contribute to a WoW community, managing, harvesting, and trading crops, requesting new seeds from other areas, requiring some neighborly warriors to go out on an adventure?
"It would be a huge challenge to get something like that in place; on the other hand it pays dividends really well because it gives players something to do because they're spending time creating content and playing through each other's content, which is content that we don't have to develop," Street said. "We certainly got an awful lot out of the powerful editor that StarCraft II ships with. I don't know how long it would take us to develop something like that.
"It would be hard, but we have a lot of players that just want to feel like they're a part of the world, spend time in it and contribute to it at the end of the day. I think it would be really popular if that was something we were able to pull off. Minecraft is a great example because a lot of those players are showing off it's actually a creative medium and they're impressing each other with the tricks they've been able to figure out."
The idea of increased player control may be incompatible with certain basic expectations of the combat system, where the tolerance for randomization and unpredictability is low. "The idea of high end content that has a random factor to it, that's really controversial," Thomas said. "There was one boss in Caravan that dropped these big lava balls throughout the battle and they were randomized. I can't even tell you about the amount of bitching and whining from some pretty high-level guilds when confronted with a configuration that was unsolvable."
"They're perfectly willing to accept randomization within certain parameters, like how hard a boss hits. That can be a roll of the dice. Or there can be one of five configurations and you don't know which one you're going to get. That's just five more problems you have to solve and you don't know which one you're going to get. But the idea that there could be some sort of random element -- like life makes things unsolvable or unwinnable -- that is just patently unfair."
Could this aversion to the unpredictable and potentially unsolvable -- like the ever-present possibility of a draw in Chess -- be lessened if the game became less about upgrading abilities, gear, and combat and instead focused more about social role-play? Could WoW live forever if it evolved into not a social game, but a comprehensive world where social ties were the backdrop against which all types of gameplay -- combat, farm sim or hidden object storytelling -- could be experienced?
No, probably not. There's probably less to be gained from fretting about how to make WoW immortal than thinking about how to keep it rewarding for a little while longer. "We keep overhauling it, updating the graphics so it doesn't look too old," Street said. "Will the game still be here in five years? Probably. In 10 or 20 years? That's really weird to think about."
In the meantime, there will be new bosses, new raids, new dungeons, more quests, new loot, adjustments to what isn't working quite so while, and some new changes that will rankle people whole liked it the way before. And the world outside of Warcraft will move on, the people in it waiting for a more persuasive invitation.