I’ve been doing this gig for eighteen weeks now, and I’ve finally reached the point where current news has failed me. Blizzard are using every trick they can, utilizing the family of playable games they possess to try and distract people from the fact that there’s no news on Legion. It’s not like there’s nothing going on, oh no. I see Warcraft employees at work early on their Twitter feeds, and working late into the night, but what they’re actually doing? Nobody knows. After the blissful and often overwhelming process of stage managing every development stage onto social media with Warlords of Draenor, shutters are down. The company is deliberately silent, unwilling to commit to any confirmation of intent until they are confident that they can produce the goods in reality and not simply in testing.
That makes slim pickings for those of us whose job it is to write about Azeroth. I could ‘cheat’ (as so many websites, podcasts and streamers have been forced to of late) by recycling fluff, op-eds on the failings of Warlords and vastly fanciful predictions of what might actually be in the pipeline. I see even grey items this morning are considered fair game as basis for discussion. However, all this media flailing does Blizzard a disservice, and is only symptomatic of a wider malaise in the gaming industry where it has become almost as popular to second guess developers as it is to actually review the product they’ve made. As soon as a new title is announced, there’s a collective jump onto the bones of the product to build your own dream game on top. However, what this leads to is players designing completely inappropriate animals of their own devising, and when these bear no actual resemblance to the finished product?
It’s no wonder Blizzard are keeping their cards so close to the collective chest.
So this morning’s discussion is on collective responsibility in Warcraft. Yes, THIS MEANS YOU.
Okay, so there’s already somebody complaining at the back there that I can’t blame players for Blizzard’s reticence to discuss their intentions before the product is ready, that making it their fault is ridiculous and stupid. Don’t Blizzard produce this game for people to buy, and doesn’t that as a result demand that it’s actually playable? Well yes, it does, and there’s a fairly compelling argument for the viewpoint that once players hit level 100 in Draenor, the content that compelled them to get there pretty much disintegrates. I’d agree with this too: this is probably the most accomplished leveling experience the game has ever managed in an expansion setup, but it fails crucially at, for what is for most people, the most important point. Because for pretty much everyone, leveling is just the thing you do to to get the important stuff: end game.
I won’t lie to you here, if you’re not raiding in Warlords, there is pretty much little or nothing compelling you to remain in Draenor when you hit max level. Blizzard have effectively admitted as much too, that they had let players down. Even people’s motivation for raiding Highmaul, Blackrock Foundry and Hellfire Citadel was pretty shaky. Yes, there were bad and nasty people inside, but their relevance to the actual plot of the expansion was often tenuous at best. Of course, for those who spend their lives maxing alts and grinding tasks for gold, this didn’t matter and they remained regardless, but for millions of players… well, we know where they went. It was a wake up call for Blizzard, however well they thought the job had been accomplished? Not good enough.
So, the fault of the developer is apparent but what about player culpability, because as a few people at the back are now attesting, you can’t blame those inside the game for what’s wrong with construction. Except actually, you can. Perilously few take the time to constructively criticize design and implementation. Sure, there’s hundreds of wannabe YouTubers ranting about how awful things have become, sock puppet Twitter accounts as far as the eye can see when contentious decisions are made via social media. In a way, the reaction to flying was both the best and worst thing that could have happened to World of Warcraft in a period where uncertainty was obvious even from the design team. You only need five minutes on a flying mount in game now to realise just how stupidly trivial all content has become when you’re able to employ the X axis to defeat it, and that is significant for future development. As has been noted by other game designers, Blizzard’s attempts to plan long term might be about to come back and haunt them, with decisions made away from the player base during long-term planning processes already causing issues for contention.
And here’s where the wrong kind of player reaction, and how it is subsequently interpreted, can negatively impact development. If you complain about something, sight unseen, based only on historical context and gut reaction, it isn’t fair. Yes, of course you can argue that what came before is a suitable barometer, but using this as a stick to beat people when you have no idea what you’re going to get? There is a good chance you will get laughed at, and people will not take you seriously. There’s an article about female representation in the Warcraft movie that is a case in point for this, and what it shows is that for many, complaining before the fact has become a socially acceptable method of attempting to change the course of artistic development. With my entertainment hat on, I’d cite examples such as fans petitioning for a female Doctor Who or a black James Bond as evidence of how this pre-empting has now become a real and tangible method of people highlighting shortfalls in accepted and established cultural phenomena.
The purists will tell you in no uncertain terms, don’t rock the boat. Canon is canon, you get what you’re given, but yet people still complain. There’s no genuine surprises in this game, data mining has removed them all. That’s one of my personal favorite complaints, as it happens, and even I grasp it’s only true to a point. Player actions via datamining, stripping the client to its bones even after the game’s been current for years in an attempt to provide online content has been one of the most harmful consequences of giving people the chance to dissect your work. This is where collective responsibility really matters: if we didn’t all need to know what was happening ahead of time, there would be no need to spoil everything or datamine the client to within an inch of its life. So, to the angry mob at the back of the room with pitchforks and torches? Yes, you do have some blame to shoulder in all of this, like it or not, but don’t let that stop you destroying all the respect that the community used to have for the process of complaint and response. If you want to know why things are the way they are, perhaps it might be a good idea to set down your weapons and take a cold, hard look at yourselves first. It isn’t just about the game in an MMO, it is about the community that surrounds it, that feeds into the process and out of the experience. You are as much to blame as designers when it comes to the way you treat each other inside Azeroth, if you come to destroy and not to contribute.
The problem is, of course, is that you’re not listening to me either. You’ll give me the time of day if I stop and let you explain your concerns, but if I’m able to counter or even disprove portions of your argument, that’s it, all bets are off, and the flaming torch is up my nose. The most important thing about collective responsibility is realizing that includes you as well as me. If you have good ideas don’t keep them to yourself. Make a document and publish it, write a blog post, set up your webcam and instead of ranting about how awful Azeroth has become: Tell Blizzard how you think they could make it better again.
Show a grasp of mechanics and theorycrafting, and there’s even a chance that Blizzard will look at you as a potential employee in the future. Because if you examine the makeup of their staff right now, people like you work for the company. They totally do. In the end, I won’t struggle for topics for the column that aren’t simply rehashes of the past, because I look at Blizzard currently as an exercise in understanding the process of gaming evolution. This is a title that remains the focus of so much interest and desire after more than a decade: whether you’re supporting its cause or predicting its end, there is always an angle to measure, a corner to expose. The fact that there’s no real news actually should make players genuinely excited when Blizzcon rolls around because not knowing what you’ll get can actually sometimes be, well, quite exciting. That’s what this game needs right now. Less people moaning about it, and more people being genuinely enthusiastic. Blizzard understand that too, and they’re working on it as I type.
You just need to learn to be patient.Related: Column, Developer, Expansion, Legion, World of Warcraft, WoW Wednesday