WoW Factor: Ego, philosophy, and learning the right lessons in MMOs

Through the fire and the flames

Picture the scene, if you will. The year is 2006, and I am working in a library with a number of people whom I get along with and one girl who I have an overwhelming crush on. She is dating someone, of course, and I like her as a friend and thus don’t let that creep into our friendship. One day, she comes up to me looking for advice about something her boyfriend is doing that really bothers her. Single, depressed, lovelorn me responds by giving her the best advice I can about communicating with her boyfriend and working through her issues.

The next time I see her, she thanks me profusely and says that I may very well have salvaged her relationship. At that moment, there were a lot of lessons I could have learned through a bruised ego. The one I chose to learn was a pretty good one, though: I’d rather be someone who valued a friend and did my best to help her even if it meant my not getting what I wanted than be someone who tried to get what I wanted regardless of the harm it did.

This may not seem to have a whole lot to do with World of Warcraft at the moment. Bear with me for just a little while longer.

See, at the time of this story I was 23, and like basically every 23-year-old I was kind of a stupid selfish toolbag. And it did occur to me pretty much immediately that I could do my best to subtly sabotage my advice, to try convincing her to leave her boyfriend… you get the idea. For that matter, part of me was intensely annoyed at myself after she thanked me because damn it, why should someone else be in a happy relationship when I’m not?

That part of me was an idiot. It was a stupid knee-jerk reaction to a bruised ego, as mentioned. I know without any doubt that I did the right thing. And I tell the story not to make myself sound like a decent person (I’m doing my best to make myself sound like an arrogant jerk, as it happens), but to point out how easy it is to take these things as personal affronts. To let your ego get in the way of learning lessons.

You know, like a sadly persistent issue in the WoW community. (See? I told you to bear with me.)


This whole column occurred to me back when Ion Hazzikostas was discussing the temporary move to restrict Covenant abilities to just the Shadowlands, with his response immediately noting that once again this was being designed from the start as another case of borrowed power the designers fully intend to remove in a couple years’ time. And yes, the change that limited these abilities to being unusable was reverted, but the philosophy is still there.

If you don’t understand why that would prompt a bit of irritation, well, here’s a hypothetical. Would you trade every part of Covenants in Shadowlands – all the Soulbind mechanics, the new abilities, all of that – for just two new abilities for your class that let you do something different and that would absolutely persist into the next expansion? Just two abilities. Maybe one of them is even just passive.

My guess is that a lot of people would. I certainly would. All of the people I informally surveyed would. And yet I can absolutely see where we’ve gotten to where we are with a consistent arc of borrowed power in the game’s expansion because from a design standpoint it makes a lot of sense to ask if maybe a better structure for the game involves tying abilities intimately to the expansion.

If you look back across the game’s history, doesn’t that feel like something older expansions could have benefitted from as well? What if every spec had had specific demonic energies to be harnessed in The Burning Crusade? Wouldn’t it add a neat flavor if, say, Mists of Pandaria gave all of the classes some touch of monastic flavor for that expansion, maybe even giving every player a choice of multiple martial schools to follow? That’s a neat idea.

Of course, the fact that it then fails to matter at all is what turns people off. Put it another way, the problem with the Heart of Azeroth wasn’t just how bad Azerite was but the fact that everyone knew it would stop mattering in a couple of years. I even wrote a whole article about how this “pursue a very time-limited goal” thing was detrimental to the game in the long run.

And it seems that Blizzard has repeatedly heard this feedback and responded by stating “no, we’re right and you’re wrong” in ever-increasing volume.

Not riding a dinosaur.

My point here is not to say something to the effect of “look at how dumb this is” because I don’t think that’s accurate. I genuinely believe that people like Hazzikostas came up with “rotating expansion obsolescence” as a way to avoid the game getting too top-heavy while still delivering big new marquee abilities. The problem comes in when players give lots of feedback pointing out how and why that doesn’t work, and… ego rears its ugly head, gets defensive, and insists that no, this is the right design. You’ll see!

And it tracks with the team getting more and more defensive about systems in place. That ego. Not arrogance, exactly, but a firm certainty that you know better than the players saying this doesn’t work, even when retention and surveys and feedback consistently tell a different story. A certainty that if people are saying this system is bad, they must just be using it wrong, or if you think about it all these things you say are bad are actually good.

It’s not hard to see how we get here, either. The people who get really fixated on the elements of the game that are easiest to quantify like raiding content and high-end PvP are easiest to see as invested in the game. So you wind up with the loop of people designing the game for an ever more elite audience, the top end becoming bulkier, the push for continually harder raids and to make dungeons like raids and miss that what once gave dungeons their popularity was being not that. There are columns to be written about that, and I’m glossing over a lot of this here simply because we’ve already written several of those columns.

But I think it is, ultimately, telling that this is the state of WoW. It’s being developed by people who have a very specific vision for what the game is supposed to be and the assumption that the game is still such a huge behemoth that everyone has to get in line or else. That might have been true at one point, but it sure isn’t the case now.

And ultimately, all that can help this sort of situation is the dissolution of ego. The point of recognizing that however good your idea might be, you can’t talk people into liking something they don’t. Recognizing that all of the calls for persistence aren’t people failing to understand the concept of overly complex design, but players who want to feel like their time is rewarded over a longer experience.

That maybe, just maybe, it’s better to take the bruised ego and learn a good lesson. Sure, it hurts in the moment… but in the long run, improvement over time is worth more than getting everything right straight out of the gate.

War never changes, but World of Warcraft does, with a decade of history and a huge footprint in the MMORPG industry. Join Eliot Lefebvre each week for a new installment of WoW Factor as he examines the enormous MMO, how it interacts with the larger world of online gaming, and what’s new in the worlds of Azeroth and Draenor.
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