The year 2004 was notable in my life for two things. After a long period of trying and coming close to starting IVF, I got pregnant for the second time. However, you’re probably more interested in the fact that this was the year World of Warcraft was launched. What many people forget, however, was that this was also the year that Facebook was founded, and it wasn’t until 2006 that Twitter turned up. It’s taken almost twelve years, but now, finally, my youngest is off to Grammar school in September… oh right, sorry, wrong timeline. It has taken more than a decade for gaming and social media to get together, start a relationship and begin to produce offspring that might actually become viable means of both playing and communicating in the modern world. There’s a lot of cautious optimism for the upcoming expansion: can Legion break the ‘curse’ of social media criticism and finally embrace a range of platforms to make the MMO more accessible to an even wider audience?
Warcraft’s phenomenal success, like it or not, was only in part due to the social side of the Internet. I will admit I heard about the game via LiveJournal, which like Friendster and MySpace were the precursors to the massive social media behemoths we now use as the barometers for interest. However, far more enthusiasm was generated via word of mouth. These were the days I still visited a local comic shop and can recall back then the genuine excitement when I’d go and listen to people enthusing over playing the game in its infancy. I still recall the queue of several hundred people in the local supermarket the night ‘The Burning Crusade’ was released (CD only in those days, kids) and the amazement at the staff of the number of people who wanted to own a copy. That’s when I learned the value of the pre-order, and realized that this game had transcended the normal bounds of gaming interest.
Now, of course, social media has become an integral part of the gaming landscape, for better or for worse, and the collective scoff from certain sectors of the player base when Patch 6.1 of Warlords championed Twitter integration as a ‘feature’ was almost deafening. The fact remains that this game, pretty much since launch, is underpinned by the notion of social interaction. Whether you play with friends, part of a Guild, are 100% solo, or committed to ‘community,’ the game relies on other people to move forward. With the ‘always on’ mentality, like it or not, what people say and do in this game will one day have an effect on how you play it. That means that the move towards genuine social media integration perhaps should have taken place far sooner than it has. The fact it is only now that the true potential of streaming has been realized probably owes a lot to the part of Activision Blizzard’s long term game plan that remains niche. ESports, like it or not, is what has forced the MMO to fully embrace social media’s capacity.
Previously, Warcraft’s experienced a bit of a love/hate relationship with both Facebook and Twitter, the latter especially becoming abundantly apparent during the build-up to Warlords of Draenor. They were glorious times, back when you could ask developers pretty much anything you wanted with not only a good chance of an instant response but your ideas getting an immediate and adoring audience of like minded players. However, the lessons learned from those early days have taken some time to implement: making promises that timetables couldn’t support, providing some players platforms for their own interests ahead of those of the MMO… it is a delicate balancing act to integrate the new and existing into a workable relationship. However, to give the company credit, the last few months worth of Legion build up has been exemplary and show that the lessons learned from Draenor are being not only embraced but improved upon moving forward.
Last Expansion it was blogs that paved the way for the journey to a new landmass. In the last month or so we’ve had a succession of well produced, thoughtful and informative Twitch sessions with senior Legion designers answering questions provided not by the company but by forum and social media users. There’s been no shirking on tricky questions, and the openness and enthusiasm of the team to ‘sell’ their product in a refreshingly enthusiastic manner has undone a lot of the damage that was previously wrought by Warlords. In fact, with this tied to the giveaway of Beta keys by notable streamers, a series of Twitter-based media campaigns, plus a number of cleverly-seeded optimistic op-eds by mainstream media, the approach of August 30th becomes more anticipated as time goes on. The company is going all out to give everybody exactly what they have asked for and more. With the Hero Class becoming available to play earlier than originally advertised on August 9th, it is looking all the more exciting with each passing day.
However, when I wonder can Legion break the ‘curse’ of social media criticism, undoubtedly the biggest problem has nothing to do with what Activision Blizzard adds to the process. Now, like it or not, EVERYBODY is a potential audience to World of Warcraft, but more importantly they have an opinion to sling. Many people use Twitter as an extension of their own Guild or communities, but for some this has become the means by which they can anonymously attack anything and everything bad they see in the Warcraft modus operandi. It appears some Twitch streamers also sell this as part of their ‘personalities’ online to boot… and the Facebook meme or ‘instant video’ brigade won’t stop if they decide that there’s an injustice to champion. That expression that states that ‘everybody’s a critic’? Well, now they are, and if enough of them decide to band together this Expansion could well be sunk before it even gets out of the dock.
Keeping everybody happy therefore seems something of a thankless task. Except, when it comes to Warcraft, that was never a problem to begin with. You see, the reason why all that word of mouth got generated back in 2004 was nothing to do with what was trending in a virtual space. The game became as popular as it undoubtedly still is due in no small part to the range of activities it offered to players, and there was effectively no right way to ‘play’ to begin with. Legion wholeheartedly embraces and returns to the notion that all forms of play style are not only acceptable, but adequately catered for: gatherers and raiders, levelers and dungeoneers, role players and PvP-ers all have a place to go, and not just that. There are rewards and paths, plus that doesn’t even take into account the stuff that’s not been publicly announced or datamined. Add a new hero class into the mix and frankly, if you’re bored of this game three months from launch then you could well be the problem.
The sheer scope of what has been offered is only now beginning to become apparent: every spec of every class has an Artifact quest line, a Class Hall quest line, and Daily/World quests which fit individual play styles. The PvP engine has been redesigned from scratch, raids already look as if they’ll present some useful challenges and if you get bored of all that you can 5 man inside a range of dungeons that will hold weekly changes to difficulty settings. Then there’s professions, a Fishing artifact, the leveling adventures… Honestly, if this Expansion hasn’t a kitchen sink yet you can bet they’ll be considering implementation in 7.1. The memo about giving something for everyone has been read and digested. It is all here. The question now remains whether this is enough for an audience that’s evolved in a different direction to the development of the game.
The early signs, at least from where I sit, are genuinely encouraging. I’m seeing players returning to Azeroth and already changing mains or reconsidering alt priorities based on what the pre-patch is offering in terms of ‘class fantasy.’ Some have already happily decided that Transmog is their future until such times as something better comes along. To those raiders who think they’re getting all the loot they want in the first month? Good luck with that. No, that’s not how this works, but you will now at least have the benefit of every item that drops being potentially a max level item if the rolls go your way. However the odds on that happening are like two bazillion to one, so don’t get your hopes up too much.
Finally, from a personal standpoint, I’ve not been a critic since last August. People have tried to make me one or suggest I can argue a contrary stance based on speculation, but I changed between Gamescom last year and now. I don’t want to be the person who decides they know better. I’ve had more than enough of critical appraisal and armchair arguments. I am genuinely excited for this expansion in a way that has not happened in almost twelve years, and because so much is about to change at once I’m not sure that I’m actually capable of grasping it all at once to begin with. So I’ll be sitting back and enjoying the ride as much as I can possibly manage in the months that follow. For me, Legion has already broken the ‘curse’ of social media criticism because it has altered me from someone who wanted to find fault to somebody who just wants to enjoy the process.
There is no way this will be anything but good.Related: Blizzard Entertainment, Column, MMO, News, World of Warcraft, WoW Wednesday