WoW Factor: Breaking down the ‘third era’ of World of Warcraft development

    
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Herp to the derp.

We are, at the time of this writing, less than a week out from the second part of the Dragonflight pre-patch for World of Warcraft. And if you were considering going back to the game despite everything for reasons that do not involve professional obligations, the big and much-ballyhooed set of interviews with Preach and a number of developers working on WoW should serve as such a blinding and obvious set of red flags that you stop, sit down, and maybe consider pouring yourself a stiff drink.

Now, I freely admit that most of what I am going off of here is Wowhead’s summary as linked above because that’s five and a half hours and none of what’s in the summary makes me think that watching is worth that much time. You only get one chance on this planet, you know? This is the only one you get. Five and a half hours will let you rewatch a good chunk of Right Now Kapow, and that’s a much better use of your time. But let’s just pick out some stuff, starting with some truly dense comments about player majorities and player feedback.

So apparently, there’s an attempt to frame this as the “third era” of WoW development, which is prima facie a laughable statement since the same people are calling the shots and thus either that third era already started ages ago or still hasn’t begun. This is accompanied by the assertion that now, listening to players is much more of a core value… which is itself a laughable statement because there’s no reading where that isn’t terrible.

Just think this through for a moment. The first possibility is that this is a prevarication, which makes the most sense because it’s always been very clear that the developers are listening and aware of what people say but have filtered it through what the developers already want to do and which groups of players are saying it. Logically, the conclusion would be that nothing has actually changed now and it’s just meaningless buzzwords that make people feel optimistic about their personal priorities getting addressed.

The other possibility, however, is that the developers have genuinely changed what is being done and they’re just now starting to collate feedback and act upon it. That also is downright terrifying at best because it means that there is no prior structure for properly addressing feedback, discerning its source, and working through what needs to be changed to address the root problems. And those root problems may or may not be evident in the feedback.

I talked just yesterday about how design is always a matter of choosing who gets to be happy and who doesn’t. I’ve also talked in the past about stated values not lining up with actual values, albeit in more oblique terms. These things can collide horribly if you don’t already have solid design values and an idea of what the majority of your players are doing on a regular basis and what your audience actually wants.

This was smart. This was a good plan. I'm glad we're doing this.

Here’s a more direct example: There are people who are happiest when they get all of the best gear because they have a schedule allowing them to do the chores necessary to get it and they are lucky, and they want other people to feel bad about not having the same combination of time, skill, luck, and need for personal validation. Very few people are going to say that in so many words. If you don’t have a structure in place to interpret feedback that pushes your design in that direction – and you don’t have a clear picture of the fact that definitionally this isn’t the majority of your playerbase – you are going to make the game less fun for a lot of people in favor of a very small number of people having more fun.

Oh, hello, Actual Progression Of WoW’s History Over The Past Decade, I didn’t see you there.

This dovetails nicely with perhaps the most nonsensical statement in the whole thing: the insistence that “everyone does everything” as a pushback against the idea that there is a vast majority. Because that statement is, once again, obviously untrue. “Majority” does not need to be “vast” to still qualify as a majority. If 50.1% of the population has never stepped inside of a Normal raid, the majority still has never stepped into a normal raid.

And again, this statement is pretty clearly being made with that as a known quantity. What is being argued here is more like a package-deal fallacy; Blizzard is floating the idea that there are some people who have done X as well as Y without actually addressing the underlying question. “There are high-end Mythic raiders who have collected every pet in the game” does not, in and of itself, prove or imply anything about the playerbase; it just states that there are people who have done two time-consuming things that are not generally seen as concurrent. The fact that one group of people has enough time to do everything does not mean that other groups aren’t having to make hard choices with their time on what they enjoy (including all the people the game has already driven away).

It also relies on a sort of willful progressive ignorance, as if no one is collecting data over time but acting like everything happens in a vacuum. I don’t have the data on how many people regularly do Heroic dungeons, for example, but the thing is that as I have stated before, Heroic dungeons are basically pointless now. Making a statement like “most players don’t like Heroic dungeons” would require me to look at data about player participation over time, look at how that lines up with design changes, and suggest a hypothesis based on that data which could be further tested and refined.

Or you could just say “oh, everyone does everything” and completely dodge the question in a way that implies you don’t like what the actual answer is.

Building!

Now, for all the critique I have here – and I have a lot more, actually, but at some point I need to stop writing because I do have other work to do – I do think there’s something to the idea that these particular interviews were done somewhat guerilla-style. Obviously they were done with the cooperation of Blizzard, but they weren’t done at Blizzard’s behest or based upon the studio’s desire to control the narrative.

Admittedly, that means I’m taking claims about that at face value, but yes, I actually do believe this because when you look at the portrait this paints, it’s a portrait of Blizzard that is once again talking about changing things while taking abject pains to avoid actually changing in serious fashions. It’s a whole lot of “we’re aware of the problem” followed by “we’re going to do the exact same thing but we’re framing it like we’re working on it,” with an added “but housing is haaard” tacked on at the very end.

This isn’t the sort of thing you release to control the narrative if you’re actually any good at controlling the narrative. It’d be like me streaming the first Super Mario Bros. to show myself running into the first goomba in the game a few dozen times as if that says more about the game than myself.

That makes this not a very flattering look, and it’s definitely not something that fills me with much hope for Dragonflight or the future of the game. Oh well. See you in another couple months, folks; it’s just about time for Predictable Mistake Theater.

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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