Over the last few months, I’ve written quite a bit about becoming disenchanted with World of Warcraft (generating an Eternal Crystal in the process). The game was my first major MMO investment and is a game that I played happily for almost 18 years before giving it up in December 2021. Most recently, I spent a week or so writing about the game – what led me to leave it behind and what would bring me back, and then I swore off of writing about it for a time, until this day came.
So today is the big news day, where we finally see our first real glimpse into 10.0. There has been a healthier-than-usual “leak” season as people have cobbled together their wishlists and more people than usual have reason to want a wishlist, as Shadowlands and the news around Blizzard has led to a more visible than usual exodus of players from the game. The leaks over the last day have looked more and more likely (there is a talent tree floating around for Druids that has multiple screens out there with different path selections and it looks just believable enough for me to wonder about it), but for this short post, I want to talk about something that isn’t the game itself or the leaks or even a wishlist of content and systems.
I want to talk about approach.
Blizzard has a really bad habit of saying that things went well and all according to plan publicly when they clearly did not. Shadowlands went exactly as we planned it (two major content patches nearly 9 months apart, minor patches with no new content, clear cuts and changes, are you sure about that?), the locked Covenant experience of launch was an enriching experience that gave players appreciation of the story being told (are you sure about that player?), Azerite will work out well when you see it in action on live servers (we all know what happened next), and of course, Shadowlands resolves the story set into motion with Warcraft III. It is obvious from the outside that none of these statements made by Blizzard are true, because the feedback was given and ignored, or acknowledged and powered through. Everything is so PR-massaged and removed from the reality we can all observe, and it becomes a part of this very valid perception that Blizzard themselves are removed from the reality in which they find themselves.
Now, on the one hand, I get it to a point – a corporate PR office is not going to let the developers of one of their cash cows, no matter how disgraced, go out and admit that they fucked up. There are very few ways in which a team can deliver that message that would meet with the approval of your average marketing person. The company has a fiduciary responsibility to shareholders to keep value high, and a part of that is ensuring that the ship always appears to have sound steering – even if personal perception challenges that. Investors often aren’t involved in the minutiae of every product and its critical reception – they care if it hits the bottom line, but we all have watched as ATVI has climbed in stock price right up to a buyout, and short of a dip after the news of multiple governmental workplace investigations, nothing else has really hit the bottom line in any meaningful way.
On the other hand, I think that contrition would be the biggest and best thing the WoW team could have right now.
Shadowlands is a part of a string of missteps and missed shots from the design team on the game. It doesn’t take a lot of skimming to see that while opinions vary, Shadowlands has been one of the most viscerally negatively perceived expansions in WoW ever, and I think it’s not solely on its own merits, but rather coming as it has after other disappointments – BfA being what it was, Legion having some sore spots in an overall good expansion, and Warlords of Draenor having been one of the major points of contention on the game’s quality. All of that feels worse when you see the team shying away from any critique of the game – the response has been fewer and more filtered Q&A sessions, less public availability of developers, and a general feeling of combativeness with those developers. A mantra of Blizzard that I’ve heard a lot is “no negativity in the dojo,” and that leads to an insular response where player feedback is often discarded if it challenges the game as designed. Even when relenting to player feedback, the tonal shift in blog posts and interviews is noticeable, as though Blizzard had a master plan that just happened to finally align with long-lived player feedback, as was most recently seen with the removal of several cross-faction limitations that is coming in patch 9.2.5.
When Blizzard tells players that they planned things the way they turned out, and the way things turned out is bad, then it sends a message that is, perhaps, not that great!
More than anything else, I want a contrite Blizzard on the stream tomorrow. I want to see designers acknowledge player feedback, acknowledge that over multiple expansions now players have made correct calls on features in-development that went on to be problems, and to state that they will work to fix those things before they reach live and become problems. I’d like to see a Blizzard that believes in their vision but invites players into it, creating a collaborative work that echoes player wants and Blizzard’s vision at the same time. I don’t think this is an easy task, nor do I think that they can do that entirely in the context of a single livestream – but I would like to see them make an effort in good faith to do so, to start on that path.
Over the weekend, FFXIV had a new housing district open because of the patch, with the first housing lottery in the game. The lottery was a broken mess that labeled the winner of a fair number of plots as…no one. Players were and still are pissed, and rightly so, as it wasn’t an across-the-board bug but a set of smaller bugs which meant that some players got houses as expected and others did not. In the early hours of Saturday in the US, so late that night in Japan, the game’s director put out a player communication apologizing, admitting error, and committing to fix it. His wording was open to interpretation, so he put out a second communication explaining what happened in detail and apologized again, and then finally a third one with specific causes mentioned and the beginning of a path correction. This isn’t anything groundbreaking or massive, mind you, but coming from WoW, it was such a breath of fresh air because it didn’t feel massaged, passive-aggressive, or like YoshiP wanted to blame the players. It felt open, and sure, that is certainly because a PR person helped with the draft and crafted it that way, but such a thing in WoW would get a weasel-worded blue post without an apology or without the detail of what happened. Do I need to know the specifics behind every mistake or design vision? No, of course not, but when something goes wrong, it is nice to understand the process of how it landed there, both academically as someone interested in the process but also as a customer/player and someone who shares news and views about the game that reach a fair number of players.
At this point, it is fine if things didn’t go your way with Shadowlands. I think we all can see clearly that the expansion sort of got away from you and the design vision didn’t hit, and that is fine if we can see that you know that and want to change it. If you give me the notion, even vaguely, that you know that and want to change it for the better in 10.0, I think a lot of people would be onboard for that.
For me personally, I actually don’t much care what the next plot thread is or what the setting is, to be frank. I do care about those things individually, but they alone will not sell me an expansion. What I want most is to feel that the development team is listening, is willing to act on what they hear, and is going to be a more active participant in the community conversation, willing to step in and state when they hear us, what they will and will not change, and how things will move forward. I want to play WoW, genuinely, but I racked up a lot of burnout over the last few years from watching the team stubbornly stand their ground, unsteady foundation and all, and then had to watch in disappointment as they’ve stumbled and fallen.
To undermine this whole post, while I have not returned to WoW (after my recent posting spree about the game, I wanted to, but there were social factors that made me think a return was unwise and I’ll probably write about that at some point soon), I am a sucker for new expansion hype, and to be honest, new expansion time is the best of WoW while also being the worst of WoW. The classes are in weird states of balance, the early raid and dungeon encounters have rough edges that get sanded off slowly as the team observes, and the direction is often unclear and muddy, but then it’s also generally the level-up stories that are WoW’s best, there’s a large array of new things to see and do, and it is the most bustling the game ever feels these days. There’s a reason that launch day is almost always an announcement of new record day 1 sales, and this period a year or two out from launch often has far fewer players – nearly 4 million people bought the expansion day 1, and around 1 million characters are currently active across the board in the game.
For me, I will probably, despite my disagreements with the game’s direction, end up buying the expansion with 10.0. I wouldn’t even say it will be the last time I do so, because I don’t know what the future holds and even if 10.0 is bad content, bad systems, and a self-assured team striking out for the third expansion in a row, WoW is comfort food in game form for me – it’s nostalgic and hearkens to younger days. Whatever specific objections I might have to whatever is in the livestream today, I’ll probably still pony up to check it out and see how I feel.
But what would assure me that the investment is worthwhile is a team ready to address criticism head-on, to acknowledge the failings that have plagued the game for years now and to work together with players to course-correct. There are signs of that in the air – 9.2 improved a lot in the PTR process from player feedback, and 9.1.5 was a QOL patch that I am often quite harsh to but it did make a lot of strong, meaningful changes to the game in Shadowlands. If we get that Blizzard, I could be a WoW fan again and would probably wholeheartedly buy it and get on board for that.
More than any content or wishlist, that is what I want.