Why is the B-team messing with your AAA product?

I’m a bit late on this one, but Eric from ElderGame has a long and detailed breakdown of why WoW is currently being run by the B-team, adding his own experience as a former dev on AC2. It’s a great read and is a nice look behind the curtain of MMO development.

It also got me thinking about what other MMO titles saw the ‘B-team’ effect. UO-R comes to mind, as many regard that expansion is the point where UO fundamentally changed from the game it launched as in 1997. Another somewhat obvious release would be ToA for DAoC, which Mythic has admitted as being a total disaster (glad you repeated it with LotD, but that’s another post). SWG of course had its NGE, which might be the biggest mistake in MMO history, at least in regards to how it was received by the fan base at that time. And I’m sure more examples exist, as the MMO genre is ripe with ‘epic fail’ moments.

What confuses me somewhat is WHY a company would place its B-team to take over a successful MMO. I understand from a personnel aspect people want to work on something new, but if I’m Blizzard, would it not make more financial sense to keep those 5 million people subbed to WoW (and bring back the countless millions who have quit over the years) than to risk that at the expense of getting the next MMO in top shape? I mean, best case scenario is Blizzard’s new MMO is as big as WoW right, and I doubt even Blizzard really thinks their next game is going to hit the level of success WoW has. Since those 5 million customers today are paying just as much as those in 2004 (or more given all the extra fluff you can now buy), why would you drop the level of service/quality and basically start the games decline?

One possible reason is that regardless of how great a game is, at some point people simply want something/anything different. As great as WoW is/was for PvE questing, even huge PvE fans eventually want something different just for a change of pace, so no amount of expansions or content increases is going to satisfy them, even if that content is developed by the original A-team that made the game great. But total burnout aside (and the genre has shown that people have a VERY high tolerance for ‘more of the same’ before true burnout sets in), what other reason would a company have to move on from something currently successful and on to something that is always going to be a gamble? (SOE and everyone else thought EQ2 was going to be a sure-fire hit, and we know how that initially turned out)

As with many design-related questions, one answer always lies within EVE. As the only MMO with significant continual growth over a five year period, EVE is a good model on how to keep people interested for a long time, and how best to design in order to stem burnout. All three of EVE’s aspects (PvP, PvE, Econ) are both separate and yet interrelated, which along with its one-world setup keeps everyone connected. Econ guy profits from PvP destroying ships, PvE guy has the money to spend on the market, and the PvP crowd controls the highest-value territory in the game. They might not clash head-to-head often, but each side affects the other at all times, and as each aspect is itself a game within the game, a player can go from being a PvP pirate to a market mogul and find a completely different game while still paying his $15 a month to CCP. For their part, CCP continues to develop EVE as fast today has they did back in 2003 (if not faster), and someone who was big into PvE in 2007 will find 2009 PvE in EVE a totally different experience, again slowing the overall burnout rate.

While WoW is a totally different beast than EVE, I’m sure the A-team that created vanilla Azeroth could create SOMETHING to keep people interested in 2010, without the need to launch a totally different game. How many people would return to WoW if Blizzard updated the graphics engine to DX10 standards like EVE did? How many would return if a 3rd faction was added with a brand new 1-80 experience? Both are more than doable even at Blizzard-dev speed, so why is Blizzard (and all the other companies that move the A-team off a successful MMO) sending in the B-team to initiate a slow death/decline of a game in a genre that is all about longevity?

About SynCaine

Former hardcore raider turned casual gamer.
This entry was posted in Dark Age of Camelot, EQ2, EVE Online, MMO design, Ultima Online, Warhammer Online, World of Warcraft. Bookmark the permalink.

28 Responses to Why is the B-team messing with your AAA product?

  1. Thallian says:

    By all accounts.. it doesn’t make sense.

  2. Yeebo says:

    I wouldn’t care about a graphics update, but a third faction with a new 1-80 leveling game might get me back.

    I think you also failed to touch on another important form of burnout: developer burnout. If Blizzard had kept the same guys working on WoW from pre-alpha until now, eventually most of them would have gotten severely burned out. The kind of person that enjoys the process of creating a new product from scratch is also often the type that won’t do their best work if forced to work on iterations of that product for a decade. Worst case scenario, you risk some of your best talent leaving for another studio if you chain them to one product for too long.

    • syncaine says:

      Very true, but between those that would enjoy staying on the project (perhaps after a 1-2yr break), and bringing in new A-team talent (how many devs would turn down the chance to work on WoW, even now?), a company like Blizzard should have no problem keeping top-tiered talent supporting the game, rather than placing ‘first timers’ in even mildly important roles.

      • Christian says:

        I am sorry, but why do you think the current live team isn’t the best out there? These stories about the “B” are missing the fact that the current “b” team manages the largest MMO, with problems unique to that scale.

        The WoW live team has to deal with levels of complexity far greater than Eric did in AC2, and personally I completely agree with many of the things he is calling mistakes. It is very much the difference between Dev and Prod.

  3. WG says:

    For Blizzard the economics of having a slowly eroding WoW playerbase *plus* a new growing MMO is likely better than a single slowly growing WoW.

    Also, I do think that staff changes are likely driven by very personal reasons similar to what Yeebo mentioned. The designers of a new game are likely not so interested in maintaining the same game. You either give them something new to create or they’ll leave and do it elsewhere.

  4. Matt says:

    Did not the post you linked sufficiently answer the question you’re asking here? You classified it as a long and detailed breakdown.

    It certainly isn’t nonsensical by all accounts.

  5. Tesh says:

    People change. As the gamer demographic changes, the game need to keep up or get lost in the shuffle. Live teams on MMOs can do that, *slowing* the game’s death/decline. We get it, you’re not happy with where WoW is at the moment, but realistically, smart live teams, whether technically “B” (inferior) level or not (whatever *that* means), will keep the game alive far longer than it would be, even in the hands of the original “A” team.

    • Tesh says:

      “longer than it otherwise would if left to cruise on the initial design strengths and weaknesses”, that is. Bleh for multitasking.

  6. skarbd says:

    Yeebo is totally on the ball.

    You work on any project constantly for 5 years and you will royally bored with it, so either your management recognise it and work not to lose that MMO experience, or start a constant swapping of developers.

    Also, if you work on the same project for a long time, you become limited in your thinking about what can be achieved. You know exactley how much work will be invloved with mod x, whereas if you are new and still enthused, you have a more CAN DO attitude, which can drive you through the crap bits of any development, which a longer term developer on the project may struggle with.

    BTW I syncaine I not in agreement with comments on LotD. What exactly do you feel is wrong with it?

  7. frank says:

    A new faction in WoW would be awesome. I guess Blizz is afraid to make changes to ‘what works’ however.

    I’m curious what people expect from the next Blizz MMO?

    Personally, I want the original WoW experience with all the mistakes fixed, fully integrated PVP with zone/city capture, 3 factions, many more classes/races and much deeper customization, and overall a much more horizontal/linear advancement experience. I don’t really want WOW 2, just a proper WOW 1.5-ish.

  8. syncaine says:

    I get that some devs want a change, no argument there. But ‘different’ and ‘B-team’ are two very different things, and as the linked post says, the standard model is to train new people by letting them learn as a member of the live team, mistakes and all. Just seems odd that even given the history (NGE, ToA, ect) companies continue to do this.

    As for LotD, the short story is that much like ToA, LotD killed RvR. The long story is… well long and another post.

  9. Pai says:

    @frank: When I saw the Wrathgate cinematic that was posted on the web before WotLK came out, I was thrilled with the concept of the Forsaken betraying Alliance and Horde and making their own faction. I knew it wouldn’t actually work out that way ingame, but it would’ve been cool if it had.

    To me, BC was a huge improvement over Original WoW, but WotLK just failed completely. I lost interest after a month — as someone who played almost exclusively for 5-mans and 10-man dungeon content, the complete dumbing down of group mechanics ruined the entire appeal of the game for me.

    I’ll be trying Aion out in the fall, but it will be sad for me to leave my first MMO, that I have spent nearly 5 years playing with a great guild of people. But there’s nothing there for me now.

  10. Maess says:

    Two words: cash cow

    They are in high revenue low expense mode.

  11. Matt says:


    Are you are implying that:

    1. The ‘B-Team’ is responsible for most of the major blunders on successful MMOs?

    2. An ‘A-Team’ wouldn’t make those same mistakes or other mistakes of the same magnitude?

    3. History contains no examples of successful ‘B-Teams’?

    If you are not implying those ideas, it seems odd that you find it odd that a ‘B-Team’ is responsible for maintaining a triple-A MMO such as WoW.

    • syncaine says:

      1: Most? Not sure (plus when does the A-team become the B-team anyway, it’s not like the whole team up and leaves on the same day), but by definition the B-team is going to make MORE mistakes than the A-team, yes.

      2: I would hope the A-team does not make B-team mistakes, otherwise why are they the A-team? The WoW examples in the linked piece work well to support this, especially the hunter-related changes.

      3: I’m sure there are countless examples of successful B-teams, just like there are countless examples of horrible ‘A-teams’ from failed games. But the subject here is taking a successful MMO (UO, DAoC, WoW, ect), one with solid core design, and as the product ages a different and ‘lesser’ dev team takes over and lowers the games overall quality. (Which is tough to judge since by nature, the product SHOULD improve due to simply fixing bugs and making changes based on thousands of users ‘testing’ for you, so I guess the rate of improvement would be a better scale)

      My puzzlement is in the potential surrender of profits. If Blizzard made a major upgrade to WoW (both for tech and content), how many of the MILLIONS of ex-WoW players (keep in mind there are more ex-players than current players, so that pool is huge) would happily come back, vs how many MMO gamers are going to love whatever new MMO they are making to the extent that WoW hooked them? Add up the cost of both options, and it just does not add up for me.

      • Matt says:

        How can you take a stance with so little information about the situation? Along with everyone else, you know next to nothing about Blizzard’s next MMO. You have no idea how many ex-players there are, let alone how many of them would return to WoW given a graphics update or this magical un-WotLK-like content update. You have no idea how the cost of creating a new MMO compares to maintaining one such as WoW.

        You discover this notion of a ‘B-Team’, dubiously blame the blunders of MMOs of the past on it, and then feign puzzlement over why anyone would ever think of doing such a thing. Why do you do this? Commenters on this blog, not to mention on ElderGame where the discussion took place, have given several reasons for why a company may want to do this. Are you still ‘puzzled’?

      • syncaine says:

        One of us has little information, but it’s not me.

        I know there are more ex-WoW players than current players (please don’t make me explain that one to you), I know a good portion of them WOULD return to WoW if a major update is made (looking at BC and WotLK releases proves that), and I know that maintaining an MMO is far cheaper than creating a new one, especially the cost/return of maintaining a successful MMO like WoW vs creating a AAA title like Blizzard is working on right now.

        The ‘notion’ of a B-team is nothing new to me, that you just picked up on it is nice, and you’re welcome. And while several reasons have been given, both here and at other sources, the bottom line is a company does not walk away from potential profits to make it’s workers happy. As the piece states, one issue with the industry currently is the value placed on the live team vs the dev team. That the live team is held in lower regard today does not make this an absolute truth, especially in a space as young as the MMO genre.

        The question raised, one that can’t be answered but can be debated, is whether or not the industry would be in a better place if the live team was staffed with the same high quality employees as a good dev team. The notion that a game like WoW is ‘done’ because it has been out for X years is not something that necessarily applies in the MMO genre, as EVE clearly demonstrates.

      • Matt says:

        Wait. So this extra information you have is that there are ‘more’ ex-players than current players, that a ‘good portion’ of them would return, and that you know maintaining an MMO is ‘far cheaper’ than creating a new one? Forgive my ignorance and thank you for belittling my intelligence.

        Come on, Syncaine. You’re making an argument based on numbers that you do not possess. Blizzard likely doesn’t possess all of the numbers necessary to make the determination either, but they’ve probably forecast the risk to far better accuracy than your eloquently stated ‘more/good portion/far cheaper’ formula for success.

        Further, companies will walk away from potential profits when they believe that the profits they’re walking toward are greater. Maybe you feel that this new MMO couldn’t possibly compete with the success enjoyed by WoW, but, as I’ve stated, you know next to nothing about it and the potential profits it brings. But I guess it just *seems* that way, which is good enough for you and Jormundgard down there.

        You’re right that many of the issues within this discussion can only be debated and not answered. However, you’re not debating. You’re taking a stance based on your illogical disdain for Blizzard (and now AAA MMOs apparently), and trying to spin it as some sort of objective analysis of forgoing potential profits. People have laid out specific reasons. You are not puzzled.

      • syncaine says:

        During vanilla WoW, a Bliz employee posted their churn rate, which I believe was somewhere around 15-25% (I don’t recall the number exactly, only that it was a decent number, yet low for the MMO space at the time). Now, even at the very lowest estimate of say, 10%, that still gives us a number of ex-player way above the current 5m or so US/EU players. If you look at the numbers before and after BC or WotLK releases, it’s clear a sizable number of people come back each time, some for only a month, some for 3, others for longer. One of the issues currently with WotLK is that the rate of those players once again leaving is higher than it was for BC, and still higher than the retention rate for vanilla WoW. Just because I can’t tell you the number of ex-players is 8, 10, or 15 million does not mean we don’t know that it’s more than the current 5m.

        As for the profits being greater in the new MMO, while that might be true (unlikely considering only WoW has reached 1m+ subs, but we won’t know until long past the new games release), without doubt the risks are higher. Clearly Blizzard is banking on the new game over WoW atm, but time will tell if moving resources off WoW is the right move. My stance on it is that it’s not, and hence my puzzlement as to why they would give up keeping 5m+ people hooked for years to come, or even attract more of those who quit. Again, it’s a young industry, so even the insiders at Bliz/EA/SOE don’t know the best course of action when it comes to maintaining an existing property over creating a new one. Just because today the live team is not as highly valued does not mean that in 5-10 years, that value will be equal if not switched.

        (My issue with Bliz has little to do with this however, and as for AAA titles, I’m as big a supporter of them as anyone else, so I’m not sure why you got that impression)

      • Christian says:

        Re: churn and retention rates…

        None of us know these numbers. From my own personal experience I would say the exact opposite is true i.e. WotLK is more “sticky” than Vanilla WoW.

  12. Bonedead says:

    Because WoW already won, they don’t need to gloat. Plus they probably plan on most of their WoW players moving to their next big MMO. Just like when WoW came out, every other Blizzard game had WoW ads friggin everywhere (okay just Battle.net, but it was in your game). I’d even be willing to bet that the WoW patcher dealy would have an ad for the new game on it, as well as the main wow site, and forums. I hope they’re done with WoW.

  13. Bonedead says:

    Man what if they do a WoW 2 with like mechs and shit. Ugh.

  14. Dblade says:

    FFXI has the B-team on it now, especially since they started releasing mini scenarioes. They actually farmed it out to Matrix software, which is a 2nd party in an FFXI sense, so it’s one step further.

    I think though that it’s more simply answered:there just isn’t enough A-team talent to work on multiple projects concurrently, and maintaining an existing property should be easier for a B-Team than developing a new one. The amount of changes B-teamers can do is limited, mostly because once an MMO is established, radical changes are harder to implement to existing projects.

    Also you can only upgrade a game so far before people do get bored with it. You wind up with the NGE when you risk radical change, and that limits what you can do to keep a franchise fresh.

  15. Jormundgard says:

    I think that, bottom line, this is a juvenile industry, where the major players still have juvenile desires. “It’s just not fun anymore.” And Blizzard is a cheap company, whose executives also pretty juvenile, so they’re not willing to use salaries to keep people on.

    I’m sure making Coke is pretty boring, but in the end those people are committed to succeeding at the industry. I don’t think I could say the same about the WoW design team.

  16. Draxi says:

    I think that coding wise the B-team is good since no major bugs were injected through the patches so far. On the creative side of things you cannot judge. Who knows if the B-team has had 1-1000 great ideas shut down in some meeting or another? If anything the way they are addressing old problems like all druids looking the same, the totem change etc show interest in the game and creativity.

    There are bad programers out there, there are uncreative creative directors but probably not in WoW yet. What I find in WoW is the willingness to let the marketing department take over and that may work for coke but I have yet to see it produce quality games. In my book the bigger the company the more business like it runs and unfortunately this model can produce blockbusters but nothing that is worth keeping in my hard-drive more that two days. Same goes for music, movies even books.

    But that’s just me. I am probably biased against marketing and working as a programer I also don’t like fingers being pointed towards dev teams:D. BTW big coincidence yesterday I wrote something close to your post.

  17. Speaking as a developer, having a developer working on something they don’t want too is about the worst thing a company can have.

    They will start to care less and less about the quality of the product, allowing more and more things to slip in, not going the extra mile to ensure top notch quality.

    Eventually if the company continues to force those developers to stay on the product, the developers will eventually leave the company.

    From Blizzard’s point of view, it’s in their best interest to allow the seasoned developers move on to something new and different.

    A less experienced developer who is super excited to be working on World of Warcraft is probably better for the game long term than a burned out developer who could care less.

    Passionate developers build great games. If the passion is gone, the product will suffer.

    By the way, this probably applies to designers and producers, not just developers.

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