It’s been fairly obvious as of late that I have been disenchanted with WoW (generating an Eternal Crystal in the process), but I do think there are positive movements worth documenting, both within the game itself and the company at large. To that end, as a Sunday wind-down post, I figured I’d discuss three things from the last week or so that have been positive – one of these still has a downside (I guess two, technically) but overall, represent good movement!
Item 1: Raven QA Unionizes
On Friday, it was official – Raven’s QA team announced that a majority of workers had opted to start the Game Workers Alliance union, after more than 80% of the 34 employees in Raven QA elected to start the union. This is genuinely great news and represents an interesting inflection point in the labor crises currently embroiling gaming as a whole but ABK in particular, a company with particularly egregious layoff practices to hit ever more ambitious share price goals.
I am very much pro-union and believe that the best way for employees to get a fair deal is to be able to collectively bargain, to have the power to grind the machine to a halt if company bosses propose an unfair arrangement (as they so often do), and while it might be easy on the surface to write off a single division of a division of a division of an international games conglomerate as a drop in the ocean, the ripple effect can turn to waves very quickly. Just recently, Starbucks has dealt with a single store electing to unionize, which has caused a chain reaction across the US with many more stores going through the same process. If nothing else, the reaction from management is always enjoyable.
The next step, and perhaps a negative, is that Activision Blizzard must now choose if they will voluntarily recognize the union or force a vote among employees. This process is the one legally allowed by the National Labor Relations Board, but it also serves as a point of friction. ABK can force the vote, which defers the process into the future and allows time for anti-union efforts to take place, and American companies are often scummy with these things, as there’s never really been a truly pro-labor US president, the NLRB often has limited enforcement mechanisms, and the amount of things a company can do to indirectly (and sometimes directly) interfere with the voting process is, frankly, saddening.
Still, this represents a major milestone for employees, and while the likely path is a forced vote (at least that is my speculation), should that vote succeed, it will create a multiplier effect on other efforts to improve conditions in the gaming industry, and that is a net good.
Item 2: Scariizard Starts Talking
Scariizard, a developer on the WoW team, has been taking more of a point role in the forums and community discussions as of late, discussing a lot of the process and goals behind the development of the new tier sets for patch 9.2. He’s been doing this since mid-December, and it has gone a long way towards understanding Blizzard’s rationale on certain design and development choices with these sets and the changes they’ve undergone on the PTR.
While this is a narrow topic to focus on, I’ll remark upon it as an unvarnished good. I’ve made no secret that my favorite era of WoW is when Ghostcrawler was the public face and voice of the game team, because even if I disagreed or thought he was off-base, he at least gave the reasoning behind certain choices and allowed me to better understand them and how it was that Blizzard saw the game developing.
While I am still firmly on the “not coming back for 9.2” train, I will admit that the tier set bonuses have improved a fair bit and understanding what Blizzard is trying to do with them does help me connect the dots more and see the potential in them. I think the goals might be slightly misguided – using them to enhance underplayed talent choices and make them more desirable is a way to help that talent, but making the talent itself more appealing is perhaps the better long-term play in my eye. At the same time, however, I am not a game designer and so I won’t pretend to have it all figured out. I have a perception of the game that sees remarks like this as short-term, nearsighted development that doesn’t fix long-standing and deeply entrenched problems the game has with balance, design, and player choice, but at the same time, Scariizard acknowledges that petri dish nature of design, that changes made through tier bonuses today that players like or that create clearer spec identities could potentially wind their way into the base design in the future.
Either way, while I have my quibbles about some of the particulars, as I did with Ghostcrawler, I can only see more clear-eyed communication about guiding design philosophy being shared with players openly as a positive. Knowing what the team’s goals are helps people discuss their concerns in the same terms, and even if it doesn’t put everyone on the same page, it at least puts us mostly in the same book, and that is a net good.
Item 3: A (Sort-Of) Improvement to Double-Legendaries
The double-legendary system of 9.2 was highly anticipated, until the news broke that the requirement to unlock the belt and corresponding memory to craft in other slots was reaching Revered with The Enlightened, a task which would require between 21-28 days of time-gated, minimal-interaction rep grinding. It was everything I personally have come to loathe about modern WoW – no choice to change the route to one I enjoy more, a strong push outside of the content I enjoy for power in the content I do like, and a poorly-designed route where missing a day just forever put you behind – no catching up, just running X number of days behind if you missed one.
The reaction was pretty cacophonous and immediate – grinding is fine, but very constrained daily tasks that must be done every day until the goal is reached is…not great, as I said in my post on the topic.
Well, late Friday, we got some slightly better news, sort of.
With the uproar, Blizzard has changed the mechanism of one-half of the system, at least. Now, the prefabbed legendary belt with the Covenant-power-switching memory pre-set only requires the completion of the Zereth Mortis story. The memory itself, which is the account-wide unlock, requires both the completion of the story and the Revered reputation.
This change is better, I want to say that first. It represents a much-more player-friendly approach, because story chapters are once per week (save for the first week which is 3 chapters) and have built-in catchup mechanics – if you miss a week, just do what you missed and the next one that is open will be waiting for you. There’s no more missed days issue or tedious, constrained grind.
However, I will say that I do think this still misses the mark on one front, which is the timegate. Players like being able to push towards a goal and get somewhere earlier, and this system still offers no such mechanism for choice. In fact, changing it to story completion actually means it takes longer in real time, as the first possible unlock point for the belt is at 5 weeks into the patch, compared to 28 days in the worst-case, every day grind scenario (itself worse than the possible 21 day grind if you really stay on top of optional extras in the zone). It will be possible (and seemingly likely now) to hit the Revered mark that would originally have unlocked the belt and memory before meeting the new objectives, which feels weird.
Blizzard has stated that their goal with this unlock (timed to line up with the third week of Mythic raiding and the fourth week of Normal/Heroic) is that player power progression is on a planned track from them and they want the second legendary to serve as a soft-nerf that pushes groups past wall bosses. While I know the design of most RPGs has players on a planned progression track (whether the player knows it or not), I think this is overly restrictive still. A big part of the fun of an RPG comes from having a choice to push harder to ride the planned progression track faster – far from being opposed to grinding, I am all for it – if I can dictate the terms and have meaningful influence over my destiny. A big problem WoW has is that it does so much anti-grinding that it means longer gameplay sessions are rarely worth it in a lot of ways. If you like the story, you only have so much of it you can do in a single session/week/month, if you want to gear up, the game uses draconian single kill lockouts on raid bosses and the very-limited nature of Mythic Plus end-chest drops as limiters, the Great Vault only incentivizes a set amount of activity with better rewards, and all of this creates wear as you start to build a sort of irritation with a raid boss that never drops that item you want, a Mythic Plus never giving you that primo trinket, your vault on both fronts, and the questing content of the game for giving you a small selection of same-y quests to play through on a limited rotation.
Don’t get me wrong – I will still say that this change to the legendary system in 9.2 is far better, because the core issue that would have affected most players was the fact that keeping up required some small amount of play every day with no catchup. Does it address the core issue of timegating the content and taking that choice out of player hands? No. Does it make the system far less annoying? Yes, mostly. I’ll give them kudos for listening and responding – normally silently-pushed PTR changes like this are done when they want to slide something under the radar and are intent on keeping it, so making the change is a big positive stride, in my opinion. It doesn’t cover all the ground I would have hoped for, but it is still an improvement, and on Sunny Sunday (I’m not editing the post title for this late revelation title), I’m going to give them a tarnished W for making any improvement to the system at all.