This last weekend played out in the Warcraft Community in a manner roughly akin to a Whitehall Farce. Some may genuinely have lost their trousers along the way, but the overriding result of the three day Memorial Holiday for the US was an understanding that sometimes, you can’t just bury a contentious piece of decision making in a larger news article and hope that everybody accepts the move with good grace. You’ll be pleased to know that I’m not going to talk about the more controversial aspects of Flying (or the lack of it) at any length. Instead, let’s discuss how the Community has managed to show both the best and the worst of itself in the last seventy-two hours. The bigger issue to highlight as a result of all this argy bargy is communication, and I’m not just talking about Blizzard’s approach to PR in the last twelve months.
How developers communicate with their player bases is perhaps under more scrutiny now than it has ever has been at any time in gaming’s long and chequered history. For Warcraft, that relationship’s always skirted a delicate line between love and hate for certain groups of individuals. More importantly for this discussion, the game itself came into being as three major social media platforms were still in their infancies: ten years down the line, they’re all largely indivisible as an accessory to gameplay. Facebook was founded the same year Warcraft was launched (2004): Twitter was established in March 2006 and Reddit rose to prominence in October of the same year. These three now are inextricably intertwined with not only how players discuss the MMO, but how Blizzard market it. And on weekends such as the one that has passed, even the lunacy of the Eurovision Song Contest wasn’t enough to deflect certain players from vocalising their ire on any available platform they could capitalise upon.
The immediacy of Twitter as a not simply a marketing tool but an extension of the game in recent months has sent many regular users deliberately ‘block’ their brethren, as Blizzard introduced the S.E.L.F.I.E Camera in the 6.1 Patch. The ability to Tweet directly ‘in game’ is nothing new for MMO’s, but when you have potentially ten million players (at the time of deployment) capable of linking their Warcraft account to the platform and flooding it with pictures of them dancing in Boss Fights or plummeting to their deaths in all manner of entertaining poses…? For some, this was a marriage made in the fiery bowls of Deepholm itself, and a step too far for cross-platform interaction. Blizzard then took the whole process a step further and as of right now have a contest running which allows your Selfie to (potentially) win you an all-expenses paid trip to Blizzcon 2015. Is it a clever tie-in mechanism or is it shameless exploitation of an in-game item? I’ll leave you to decide that one for yourself. The fact remains, Blizzard understand the business of baiting a stick to dangle a carrot better than most.
What is becoming clear from watching the Fly/No Fly debate play out this weekend from both sides of the fence is that the ‘vocal minority’ on social media really don’t represent the majority of the static player-base when it comes to contentious decisions, in the majority of instances except perhaps this one. Blizzard’s choice to maintain Draenor as no-fly and to extend this to subsequent expansions has struck a chord in far more people than I’ve ever seen respond to a game change such as this: you only have to see the Official US Forum Post on the subject to understand the depth and complexity of the objections. At time of writing that discussion was sitting at 511 pages, and actually is worth a look if you have a couple of hours to spare and some flame-retardant undergarments. A lot of the points on offer come from people I suspect would normally never step foot in the Forums, and that says something about what losing flying going forward will mean to ordinary players. However when a very high profile ex-employee of the company pops up on social media and makes his feelings on the subject known, things get rather interesting.
@p_asp_ As a developer, I always applaud bold moves over feeling paralyzed by the weight of the status quo.
— Greg Street (@OccupyGStreet) May 23, 2015
Greg Street may now work for Riot Games, but for a phenomenal number of Blizzard fans he will will always remain as Ghostcrawler, the Dev who many feel took Twitter and made it his own platform for player/designer communication. He has become close to a folk hero for a section of the Warcraft Community, with third party sites reciting his ‘insight’ on gaming almost as legend as to what the Warcraft development team should be saying in response to certain topics. The reason for this is obvious, even from my space way back in the cheap seats. Here was a man who wasn’t scared of taking the communications platforms and literally bending them to his advantage. In the last year, in the minds of a number of observers, Blizzard’s choice of social media marketing strategies has been confusing at best. The final nail in the coffin for many came when the company effectively cut off Dev communication from anywhere but one dedicated account, @WarcraftDevs, which has been noticeably deliberate in what questions it has chosen to answer since the account went live.
Except this weekend, I watched all manner of Devs finally appear from their self-imposed exiles and weigh in on the Flying debate, and frankly it was glorious. Twitter as a medium is VERY difficult to filter and manage successfully, and kudos to all of the people I watched across the weekend at least turn up and show their faces. I’ve talked in various places in a personal capacity on how communication has changed between Blizzard and its player-base over the years, and the one thing that I find myself returning to again and again is the notion of honesty. People can tell if they are being manipulated, and deliberately directing focus to a single point of communication is all well and good if that source is plentiful and constant. The mistake Blizzard made with the lead up to Draenor was perhaps too much water from the wellspring, a fact they’ve clearly sought to try and correct during this Expansion’s development.
During the Beta for Warlords of Draenor, everyone and their mother was on Twitter: explaining their reasoning, apologising for injuries sustained that prevented them working… you name it, it was part of the conversation. For a brief (and glorious in this writer’s mind) period you could get an answer to anything. Hell, even I asked a question or two on Twitter and was lucky enough to have a Dev come along and say yes (and no, as it happens.) However, I’m human and understand that to sustain that level of interaction simply isn’t feasible if you actually want to a) remain sane and b) produce a game. So, it was no real surprise when Blizzard stopped using Twitter as readily for communication. The service now, more or less will see the ‘Official’ Blizzard account stick generic Tweets up at prime viewing times, which means 5pm BST for me. The @WarcraftDevs account will post weekly, and with what is clearly deliberately prepared ‘content.’ And that is pretty much everybody’s lot.
And here I feel I need to stop and look with so much disappointment at those who feel that social media is their own personal soapbox on which they can rant, scream and protest with absolutely no consequence, with a shocking lack of respect for anyone else’s thoughts and feelings. I’ve been forced into blocks and mutes on people that I genuinely used to respect as sane voices in the Community this weekend, and it upsets me greatly. It is as if flying became the overriding metaphor for al the hate and bile that people have stored in the last twelve months: ridiculous arguments, deliberate trolling, name calling and even physical threats over what is only a bunch of pixels and a choice a bunch of people made in a room in Irvine. Reminding people that this is ‘only a game’ seems somewhat redundant this late into a life cycle of a title that should be leading the way in its shows of community understanding and helpfulness.
It is no wonder so many look at this environment as a toxic when you hold social media up as an example of the noise it can create. Fortunately, for those of us who willing to step back and look at the bigger picture, there remains a large and brilliantly un-phased portion of the player-base who are having a whale of a time. For them flying is irrelevant, they’re just enjoying this entire experience for what it is: a game. In fact, part of me would encourage any new players (and yes, they do exist) to avoid social media altogether for the foreseeable future and simply concentrate on the business of playing and enjoying what is still one of the most content rich slices of MMO gameplay on the market [*] I warn you in advance though, your experience will vary. If you can find a friend to play with, so much the better. I began my Warcraft journey ten years ago alone: I doubt if I did the same thing now I’d last in Azeroth very long. However, that’s most definitely a post for another day.
There are lots of lessons to be learnt from the last weekend’s events. The largest one of all is that Blizzard need to re-assess how to better communicate bad news to the Community. Maybe if they do, then the Community can learn to use social media more effectively to explain why they’re not happy with the way things are going with their game.
[*] Well yes of course I’m biased. This is WoW Wednesday after all ^^Related: Blizzard Entertainment, Column, Developer, Expansion, MMO, World of Warcraft, WoW Wednesday