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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Steven Williams

When I was trying out WoW around the time Shadowlands first came out, I wanted to (1) unlock the storyline with Jaina Proudmoore (the Pride of Kul’Tiras Storyline, I think it’s called) and (2) unlock Void Elf.

Making my way around the the esoteric-as-hell game design needed to unlock either of these was a train wreck. I had multiple Wowhead tabs open while I played, and even those gave me no end of trouble. It doesn’t help that Wowhead is a nightmare to navigate. It has 4-5 guides on everything, the guides themselves are hard to navigate. They have “zone troubleshooting” guides. What kind of game needs ZONE TROUBLESHOOTING GUIDES!?

Getting any specific goals done in the game, especially as a new player, is just too damn difficult. So yeah, I see why people just play the game.

Knight Porter

Blizzard has *never* known what it was doing with patch design. That’s been abundantly clear since the first expansion and sesawing with Druid, Shaman, Paladin, and other similar cases.

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My 3 problems with WoW loot:

1) Shadowlands armour is largely BFA armour with new textures.
2) Everything green has the same name — “…of the firelash” (or fireflash, one of the two).
3) The rollercoaster ride of “build up Mastery and Versatility! Now drop Mastery and Versatility! Now build it again!” What?

I think one problem with loot is that the game, and the way we play it and what the number-crunchers want from it, has changed over time. In the beginning it was all about loot diversity. It seems like there was tons and tons of varied, interesting loot that had a few extra points in different stats and it was pretty clear if something was an improvement or not. Nowadays, it’s just a mess of competing stats that are seemingly arbitrarily given more or less importance, depending on which way the wind is blowing.


Communicate. We listen sayeth mighty Activision-Blizzard. Whom do you listen, Blizz?


“Because I sure as heck can’t recall people complaining that there was too much so much as too much irrelevant loot.”

Sounds like a First-World MMO Problem.

Lucky Jinx

Thank you for the great article. It really points out the problems that are Blizzard’s way of “listening” to the playerbase. Nobody ever complained about the amount of loot in BfA. It actually made gearing up your alts, where the optimal setup wasn’t required, very smooth. Now, in Shadowlands, grinding the renown levels just get your alt to where he can somewhat painlessly go about gathering mats and all that in the open world is just horrid. It practically requires you to do the entire covenant story campaign. Gear you can get from WQ’s and command table are terrible because they don’t scale properly with your ilvl, being consistently inferior and thus useless.

I’ve started considering which alts I should drop and forget at this point because the grind is honestly quite overwhelming as it is. I’m a casual stroller. My gameplay is not centered around raids and mythics, so I do like to fiddle around with alts a lot (I have 7 alts I played actively in BfA). Now I feel like I’m forced to make decisions I don’t want to make. I’m not expecting raid level gear, just something that gives me enough to deal with open world mobs without making it an epic battle for survival each and every time if I happen to pull too much.


Didn’t Ion used to be an Elitist Jerk? Says it all really.


The problem isn’ the message or messaging, is rather Blizz simply doesn’t get it on many things. Either out of shear disregard or willful ignorance…

As for the example sited in the article, I suspect, like with many things they do that is unpopular with the main playerbase, the decision to reduce loot was for hardcorez, cupcake. But spun it as loot choice thing to make it more “palatable” to said playerbase. To which brings the other problem of their message/messaging: They are dishonest.


“…The other possibility, of course, is designer arrogance…”

I think that this is actually 100% of the problem. Remember the old “You only THINK you want it, but you really don’t.” position? That is ‘Designer Arrogance’ on display for all to see.

This feeds directly into all the bad decisions that have been made ever since Cataclysm. Designers thinking THEY know best and the customers had better get in line with it. Or go home.

So, let’s all go home. Then the WoW designers can all sit in a circle and tell each other how great they are. Until they are all transferred to mobile game development. Where most of them belong anyway.

Just my 2c.


Ion told us repeatedly Shadowlands was an expansion all about player choice. I chose to un-sub.

Lucky Jinx

I remember that, and it is extremely sad that the choices given really were “grind it out or leave.” I always felt like BfA, with all of its flaws, gave you choices quite generously. Shadowlands has been a whole different story.

Sarah Cushaway

“Don’t you people have phones?”


Yeah, that one as well! :)


To be fair, the players often don’t know what exactly they truly want and might propose changes and fixes that do achieve what they want but wreck the game in other ways. Blizzard used to be good at identifying this, making changes to the game that, while not exactly what players were clamoring for, nevertheless added what the players actually wanted in a way that was better for the game.

Blizzard seems to have lost that ability during the Cataclysm timeframe, though, to never recover it.

Also, you should never tell (or imply) that the customers are idiots in the way Blizzard did. For the most part they aren’t, and even if the customers are idiots it’s still bad for the company image.

Baron von Munchausen

The problem is that people tend to be awful at articulating what they want. They’re very good at telling you if they’re happy or not happy with something, but if you ask 100 people to fix it, you get 100 solutions, and it’s most likely none of them probably would even work.

So there has to be some element of arrogance, if you want to call it that. You simply can’t do what everyone wants.

That said, they really should say something along the lines of ‘This is our vision for the game, this is what we want to do, and if you don’t like that, there are other games’. But that would mean taking a stand and saying No to Money, which corporations are awful at. So they mush onwards trying to make everyone happy for a bit so they keep that $15 coming in and end up with an inconsistent, incoherent game over time.

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To me it’s both. Not only does Blizzard routinely and stubbornly stick to a number of bad ideas, they also throw out some infuriating messaging to try to strangely justify their decisions. Their rationale, particularly when it comes from Ion, feels slimy in the sense of being dishonest and using twisted logic.

I get it. They often decide to purposefully implement a bad change for their bottom line, not the players. But to then hide the truth by inventing some diversionary, convoluted reasoning for a change just feels flat out insulting. Even worse is to see a number of players eat it up, many of which I can only assume don’t know better and/or flat out don’t care if it doesn’t affect them negatively.

Whenever Blizzard comes out with an unpopular decision, I find that it helps to think about how that decision would benefit Blizzard monetarily or not. For example, it’s not like they don’t remember the currency loot systems they’ve used in the past nor do I think that they actually believe that those systems were so bad as to be never used again as is. They just instead favor finding ways to keep players on the loot treadmill for longer. They’ll even create systems that seem deterministic at a glance, but if you look even just a bit more closely you’ll quickly see a healthy dose of RNG sprinkled in to keep players from quickly getting what they want.

That’s what Benthic gear from Nazjatar did. At a glance it was a deterministic currency system to acquire gear. But looking closer we saw RNG results once you’d “open” the gear token which kept players grinding the currency longer, keeping them playing more.

Players get sick of hearing the complaints about the focus on monthly active users for any decision, but I honestly can’t blame people for bringing it up. Even if Blizzard were genuine about their reasoning for making a bad change, they’ve done enough over the years to make it often not feel genuine, and that’s a problem.