WoW Factor: Does Blizzard have a messaging problem or a message problem?

A journey already taken.

A recent post over at Kaylriene’s blog got me originally thinking about this one. The original posting here is actually about a different issue in the broadest strokes, pointing out the number of problems Blizzard has when it comes to effectively communicating changes being made in the game, why they’re being made, and what players can expect. To broadly summarize, I’d say the point being made is that when it comes to things like decreasing the amount of loot in World of Warcraft: Shadowlands, some of the problems come down to the way that Blizzard communicated this to the average player.

And it’s a fair point. But the more I thought about it, the more I kept coming back to the same idea: The problem here isn’t just how this change was communicated but the change that had actually been decided upon, following a long tradition of changes being made that address an issue without really addressing the core issue. I don’t think the core problem here is how Blizzard communicates changes so much as what those changes are. In other words, it’s not a messaging problem – it’s a message problem.

Let’s focus on loot again a little bit here. (The original blog post is not focusing on that; my point here is not to refute that post, which I personally liked, but I’m using this as an example.) People definitely had issues with loot in Battle for Azeroth, but what were those issues? Because I sure as heck can’t recall people complaining that there was too much so much as too much irrelevant loot.

That wasn’t a problem of sheer volume so much as a problem where randomized stats and secondary enhancements meant that every piece of loot was a constant juggling act in which you hoped to first get the loot you wanted, then of a high enough level, then with the secondary stats you wanted, then with some extra enhancements. So much loot was provided without all those necessary random secondary elements that you wound up with piles of loot you didn’t need or want.

There were other problems, too. For example, how many people found themselves with dozens of boots that weren’t useful but no trinket or main-hand drops? These are serious and consistent problems that need to be addressed, hopefully in a straightforward fashion. A deterministic gearing system, for example, could easily solve a lot of these issues right away.

Instead, the solution was “no more Titanforging, no more loot in general.” This is an entirely different problem that has only technically solved those complaints, in the same way that setting your kitchen on fire “fixes” a chipped countertop.

Big time.

People are not super happy about this, and it’s easy to look at that and ask if better messaging could have addressed this issue ahead of time. And that’s fair, but I think the more central issue is that this isn’t something people wanted. I don’t think many players really wanted less loot, excepting the people who formulated the statement carefully so it was “less loot for everyone who isn’t me/in my particular playstyle.” No matter how carefully the messaging was handled, people were still going to be unhappy about this particular change.

It’s important to note that this is also separate from the issue of whether or not this was in fact a good and necessary change. I don’t think it was that, either, but you could at least make a case for it one way or the other. The question of whether the message problem exists does not extend to asking whether perhaps unpopular decisions are necessary ones, but whether or not any method of communication would help with what the message actually is.

You remember a while back when I asked if the developers even knew whether they know what the game wants to be any longer? This is part of where that comes into play in terms of the decisions being made. If the development team doesn’t have a coherent picture of what the game is supposed to ultimately be, changes are being made to address present issues and mollify complaints… and they’re often wild overreactions to smaller problems, because that makes the changes bigger and more visible.

Better communication is strictly better than poor communication, but it’s not going to fix the problem when part of the problem is what’s being communicated. And a good chunk of what causes that is decisions being made without what appears to be a clear understanding of what the actual issues might be.

In other words, the problem by that logic may not be that Blizzard has a problem with messaging, but that the playerbase has one. By speaking in too many voices and with too many unclear requirements, the optimistic point of view is that it’s not clear what players actually do want on a whole, leaving gross adjustments the only real way to address issues.

(The other possibility, of course, is designer arrogance. But that doesn’t really tie into messaging all that well.)

Sometimes it just makes sense.

At the end of the day, Blizzard really is facing a unique issue when it comes to overall messaging. It has a very large and diverse playerbase that can’t always be counted on to see every relevant piece of information, and it can be an ongoing struggle to put things sufficiently front-and-center to feel confidence that most players are going to be exposed to relevant info. But I think it’s also wrong to treat the situation as if it’s simply a problem of ineffective communication.

A lot of games out there – ones that have run nearly as long as WoW if not longer – have not had to communicate elaborate changes to their loot philosophies because those philosophies and goals haven’t changed all that much. The changes have been minor and easy to engage with over time, not as sudden as “new expansion means that everything is different now.” And whether or not that philosophy has been communicated effectively becomes irrelevant – it never had to be stated, because players learned it from experience.

The problem lies not in how this is all communicated but in what is being communicated. The way that players are being asked to continually re-learn basic ideas and underpinning goals of existing game systems. And while it might be hard to find the right way to communicate all of those changes to players in a way that you can be sure all of them will listen, it’s hard not to notice that some of the problem lies in the very premise.

If anything, these problems have been repeatedly compounded and revisited as we’ve continued on from Mists of Pandaria. There have been more and more fundamental rewrites to communicate, more and more changes to the basic structure, and each time it’s a matter of getting everyone to know about these changes… but the bigger question is why these things are changing so severely in the first place.

Messaging is difficult. But even when you get it right, it doesn’t do you any favors when the message being sent is one that no one wants to hear. And if you’re getting a hard backlash over the message, it’s unlikely to be the way that you say it that’s causing it.

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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