World of Warcraft has gone harder on its raiding focus in recent years in a lot of ways, starting with Warlords of Draenor and moving on from there. It’s pretty clear that the game’s designers consider LFR a chore that they are obligated to continue updating rather than something they actually want to support (witness the eleventh-hour rug pull regarding the supposedly community-determined mount) and the ever-escalating focus on “go join a regular raiding group.” You can either acknowledge this or be wrong; it’s pretty much a clear matter of fact now.
Today, I want to talk about something related to that but also a bit off the beaten path, prompted by discussions with friends who not only did play the game in the past but did so in that raiding ecosystem, who found a group of people they could stand being around for a while. These are, in other words, exactly the people that Blizzard has been courting to come back to the game for years now… and yet they aren’t coming back. And it strikes me as an interesting point that isn’t really discussed: They’re not coming back because of that raiding ecosystem.
You know what most of these friends say to me when talking about WoW? They have fond memories of the game, but they see no point in playing without raiding, and the thought of raiding again sounds absolutely awful to them.
Maybe they left because of some horrible guild blow-up that made the whole thing toxic. Maybe they found a group of people to raid with but all of those people have moved on since then. Maybe they just have other projects. Whatever the case, these are players who look at going back to WoW as voluntarily taking on another job, and it’s just not worth it.
There are a couple of interesting elements of this particular discussion.
First of all, these players are very much the player archetype that Blizzard considers the people worth bringing back. But what would actually bring them back? For many if not most of these people, they don’t actually care much if at all about the story, the characters, the world, and so forth. Whether that’s a direct result of Blizzard consistently being bad at these things or not is irrelevant; what’s relevant is that the only thing that would draw these people back is the same thing that’s keeping them away.
I find this interesting because quite frankly, it speaks to something that is present but rarely if ever acknowledged by a lot of players. Connections via raiding might keep you playing for a while, but if all you care about is smashing the newest raid boss and progressing via those mechanics? Your actual bond with the game is really shallow.
That’s not to say that shallowness is somehow a deal-breaker. It’s not like Tetris has a deep world or setting to immerse yourself in, and considering how many people have long formed a deep bond with the Legend of Zelda franchise despite its total lack of narrative consistency but fun gameplay? Yeah, that’s not really a problem. But it does mean that for a lot of these people, you can’t draw them back unless you can make their one point of attachment appealing again.
And that is… not actually under the control of the developers.
Like, I raided in a solid and consistently performing guild during Wrath of the Lich King. I was considered one of the top members of the group. And quite frankly, even if I was tempted to go back and raid with those people again (which I am not, because that ended for a reason), that would rely on all those people being available at the same times, ready to raid with the same intensity, and all of us having the same particular alchemy that worked in that place in our lives and maybe never again.
Seriously, there’s literally a saying about “never fall in love with a bar” for precisely this reason. The bar is just the place; the people are what makes it memorable, and that is inevitably going to change over time. Lives change, people move, priorities shift, and expecting everything to be the same forever is a nice fantasy but it doesn’t reflect the reality of things. A raid group that stays together for a few years is already doing pretty well.
So for many of these people, going back to WoW means searching out a new raid group that is hopefully fun to be around and picking up that job again and if it was already feeling tedious then, why would you voluntarily go back to it? You don’t care about the story or the world. You know the point would be raiding, and you don’t want to go back to that. Screw it, who cares, what’s the point?
Are there people playing the game and enjoying it now? Yes. And nearly all of my friends who are playing it are aware that some of that is because they already have dedicated raiding groups or M+ teams that they can fall back on. If those things weren’t there, suddenly the game would feel much smaller and less appealing along the way.
It’s this point that I think gets missed by a lot of people who argue, for example, that something in the game isn’t that hard. If you already have a guild you like being in and with a reasonable number of people, getting Normal raid clears is really not that hard. Looking purely at mechanics and time required, it’s not that hard. But that’s a bit like saying, “If you have decent savings and good credit, getting a home loan is not that hard.” It’s true as far as it goes, but it’s neglecting to show awareness that those first two things may be kind of difficult to get.
Marketing to the people who had raiding groups and see no point in coming back to the game without raiding does make a certain amount of sense. If raiders are considered your most devoted fans (which is itself a debatable assertion, but let’s just let it be or we’ll be here all day), you can understand why a studio would aim for keeping them around and happy. Fair enough. But the thing is that, as mentioned above, if these people left, they did so for a reason.
Not only do they have no particular reason to come back, but those reasons aren’t actually going to be something that can be mitigated by design. I have, to this day, met no one who actually left the game because the raids were too hard, but there are people who have left because they weren’t having fun. And if your last memories of the game were raids that you didn’t enjoy and thinking that there’s no point in going back to the game unless you’re raiding full-time?
Maybe that’s not actually the crowd available for pulling back to your game, and maybe focusing on a narrower and more progression-minded band of content is not actually the key to making someone feel welcome returning to your title in the first place.