I think anyone who has been a fan of World of Warcraft over the past two decades has been trying to parse out some difficult feelings this past week, and they’re difficult feelings that don’t entirely make sense. If you’re anything like me, you’ve found yourself feeling bad in unfamiliar ways, feeling like you’ve lost something as a direct consequence of what’s been happening within Blizzard – that somehow even fixing the game wouldn’t be enough to make it attractive any more.
And on some level, this feels weird. The past several years have been a steady exercise of watching Blizzard screw things up and manage the game poorly. Earlier this month we were all eagerly clowning on the fact that the game had been managed so poorly that a likely fake leak still read as plausible. Why is it that this, even more than Blizzard’s cowardly treatment of Hong Kong, feels like a break that can’t be repaired?
The answer, while not pleasant, is at least simple. Everything else that’s been going wrong with WoW has felt like something that can be fixed, even if it won’t be. But this lawsuit exposes a problem not with the substance but with the very soul.
What happened with Hong Kong at least felt like the actions of daft corporate executives chasing what amounted to a hypothetical profit margin. It was easier, at least in theory, to write that entire incident off on some level as the result of the type of people who were in charge of Blizzard at that point in time. Sure, you could argue that many of the people involved were old hands (and people did note just that), but there was at least a plausible gap to drive in there about when these things had happened and what it said about modern Blizzard.
This doesn’t say anything about modern Blizzard, though. This makes it clear that the problems there go back well back into the “golden years.” It has nothing to do with Activision or new leadership beyond the fact that leadership continued to let these problems fester for a long while when something could have been done, and nothing was done.
All of this goes right back to the core of what WoW always was. And that is just a little harder to parse and deal with because… well, it means that this isn’t something that can be fixed.
I don’t mean that in the sense that the people who are responsible for the most egregious acts of harassment or inactivity in the face of it can’t be brought to task and removed from their positions; they certainly can, and in many cases already have been. But even after that happens, for a lot of people WoW has become irreversibly tainted. For them, the entire history of this company is now shot through with a stain that’s nearly impossible to parse, and a game that for a lot of people was a safe space is now forever tied with being an unsafe project to work on.
Consider this: Even if patch 9.2 is amazing, would you feel comfortable playing it right now? Or would you feel like something is… off, somehow? Like you shouldn’t be playing or enjoying this, as if you’re doing something wrong by giving this game more of your time and attention? Because that’s certainly where I’m at right now, and it runs a lot deeper than just systems and poor management now.
And it’s why I don’t know if it’s going to be possible to feel comfortable with this ever again.
It certainly doesn’t help that this is coming all at a time when customer trust in Blizzard was already bottoming out badly. Blizzard has been fighting a losing battle for a few years now trying to convince fans that it’s still the company they remember, that the relentless self-promotion and things like “Blizzard quality” are still real concepts rather than things that have steadily fallen by the wayside. This is now compounded by the idea that not only is it a lie now, those values might have always been a lie.
That is… not an easy thing to come back from. When people bought into a myth only to see it be diminished, you can possibly rebuild it. When people bought into a myth only to see it be diminished and then be told that it was always a gigantic lie, though? That’s going to drive your goodwill right back into the ground.
Let me give you an example. I had an actual column written about the things that needed to be done to “fix” WoW and actually address a lot of persistent player complaints before this news came out. At this point, though, it seems almost perfunctory and I’ve thrown it out. Reworking the narrative department at this point feels like an empty and pointless gesture when there’s a sickness that’s taken root deep within the company and has apparently been there since the earliest days of this particular game at a bare minimum.
And this is – again – just covering the people we know about beyond a shadow of a doubt. There are definitely other people and other things going on that we haven’t heard about. What we are seeing is the tip of the iceberg.
This is a hard thing to deal with for longtime fans. If this game means a lot to you – and it means a lot to me – you have to kind of struggle around the feeling of whether or not you’re ever going to feel all right with this game again. You have to grapple with whether the things you now know about the title are going to make it feel forever tainted, even if you had any hopes that the development team was going to actively pursue a better design or address outstanding issues.
And I do not have the answer for that.
For the time being, I have joined my fellow WoW columnist Justin and unsubscribed from the game. I cannot, in good conscience, talk about the game as if it were all business as usual in the wake of the frankly monstrous behavior that was not just permitted but encouraged for years within the company. I recognize that for some people, this decision isn’t an option, but for me it is, and it’s an option I’m exercising. And I’m not sure what, if anything, can be done to correct this feeling now.
That’s the really hard part. This isn’t actually something that can be fixed by gutting leadership and removing abusers. It’s still going to be hovering there. Yes, it’ll definitely be easier to move on if the company takes this seriously, but that won’t make it go away.
Wounds to the body can heal. Wounds to the soul, though? The sort of damage that this inflicted on the very perception of WoW? That’s harder to do, and it requires not just new leadership and new approaches but a kind of deep and all-consuming love that the game has been systematically beating out of people over the past several years. And I don’t know if there will come another day when anyone can talk about this game with a clean conscience.
I’d like to imagine there will be such a day. But even doing everything right, it feels unlikely… and thus far, Blizzard has most certainly not shown an interest in doing everything right.