UPDATED 16:18 EST / NOVEMBER 14 2014

What a long strange journey it’s been: 10 years of World of Warcraft user experience

warlords-of-draenor-logoWorld of Warcraft has released its most recent expansion Warlords of Draenor, making yet another milestone of this game’s ten year tenure on the market. In that time, Blizzard Entertainment (a subsidiary of now Activision Blizzard, Inc.) became a focal cultural phenomenon for the entire industry of online games. The expansion represents a new era for the game and for massively multiplayer online (MMO) gaming in general and continues a long term trend of Blizzard taking cues from the rest of the industry.

Throughout World of Warcraft’s (WoW) history Blizzard has tended to take what user experience mechanics other games did well and incorporated them into their own games.

Warlords of Draenor is no exception to this trend, but it might be worth a retrospective in how Blizzard has shaped WoW to remain the dominant online game.

Garrisons in Warlords of Draenor

The most recent example of WoW participating in taking cues from the rest of the MMO industry is from a feature baked into Warlords of Draenor: Garrisons, or better explained as player housing.

Player housing is something surprisingly missing from WoW since its inception and it’s taken ten years for Blizzard to finally implement some form of it. Housing has been a mainstay of the social fabric of most online games since the days of Ultima Online. So housing coming to Warcraft is actually a big deal, but it also comes with something else: Followers.

To sum it up, followers are rather like friends of yours who come over, crash on your couch, and eat your pizza, but unlike your friends they’re willing to work for their room and board—they’re also usually heavily armed. You can send your followers out on missions to collect goods, beat up bad guys, and even hire or rescue more followers.

This system is extremely similar to that from Star Wars: The Old Republic, in which players sent companions (who hung out on their ship) out on missions to collect resources and craft items. Although in SWTOR this also doubled as the crafting system (WoW has its own crafting system already.) And in Star Trek Online duty officers aboard the player’s starship follow an extremely similar role of being assigned to missions where they explore the galaxy, assist in research, do diplomacy, etc.

The World of Warcraft version takes the concept and simplifies it to a recognizable Blizzard interface, offers the player a set of missions and followers and off you go to the races.


The Reagent Bag

When Guild Wars 2 first game out it promised to be another interesting addition to the MMO industry—water colored, action-oriented combat, but it also had a button that read: “Deposit All Materials.” Selecting this button would clear out any crafting materials from the player inventory and move them into a special crafting item bank (accessible while making in-game items.)

In many MMO games inventory is a constant problem. In part because equipment, crafting bits, and trophies from within the virtual world begin to pile up—and some players (like me) happen to hoard unique items. In most MMOs crafting materials also take up a great deal of space, especially so because some items may take 3 or 4 other items to make just one of. So a button that clears the inventory of those items felt like a huge weight taken off my back (pun intended.)

Warlords of Draenor saw the addition of exactly this feature. It continues a trend of WoW simplifying the interface and collapsing collectables (by taking them out of the inventory.) Previously Blizzard added a mounts and pets tab with patch 5.0.5 during September 2012 as part of preparing for the Pet Battle System (aka Blizzard adds Pokemon to World of Warcraft.)

Outfitter and the Equipment Manager

People who play MMORPG games such as World of Warcraft often come to identify with their avatars in these games. Many players enjoy dressing themselves up, picking outfits, forming an identity and a “look” and this is so prevalent that many games can be described as “Pretty Princess Dress-Me-Up” when looking at the expansive wardrobe options available to players.

Once upon a time, WoW had an add-on called Outfitter. Add-ons enable development-minded players to write UI modifications that can change the look-and-feel of WoW and can basically entirely change how players interact with the game. Outfitter is one such add-on. It took the innate desire of most players to be able to build, save, and swap-to different outfits and gave it form. This add-on is so beloved that it is still maintained and updated.

Blizzard added an Outfitter-like UI mechanic called the Equipment Manager during patch 3.1.2 in May 2009. In essence, it gave the rudimentary functions that Outfitter provided to players—the ability to save, edit, and swap equipment sets.

The addition of this functionality is largely a quality-of-life improvement that didn’t change WoW’s gameplay at all; but it did change how players are able to approach the game. Aesthetically it’s nice because players can switch easily between different “looks” should they choose, but mechanically different outfits in WoW can provide different stats or capabilities and players may want to switch between them in order to take advantage of different game effects.


UI improvements lead user experience year-over-year

World of Warcraft has changed significantly since its launch in 2004, call Vanilla WoW by many of the veterans, and this is especially visible in terms of how gameplay has changed. The game has slowly gotten easier, more casual friendly, but also bigger in terms of world and stuff to do. In 2004 the highest level achievable in WoW was 60, now that cap is 100. Vanilla WoW consisted of two continents with approximately 40 zones, now there are entire new worlds to visit and almost 90 zones.

As players approach World of Warcraft there is a staggering world to explore, a full decade of content, and a history behind every rock. Quality of life improvements to the user experience by making the UI more accessible have followed the game’s trend towards being friendly to incoming users by getting complex weirdness out of the way, providing easier navigation, and easing the game play experience.

Garrisons using follower-based missions, the addition of a reagent bag, uplifting Outfitter’s capabilities to the UI—all of these examples show how World of Warcraft often takes the best user experience examples from the rest of the industry (or its own players) and incorporates them for a better in-game experience.

Image credit: (c) Blizzard Entertainment, http://us.battle.net/wow/en/warlords-of-draenor/

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