Back to communication lockdown

After the Big Emotional Flying Flap, I — foolishly — thought that Blizz had learned a lesson about how lack of meaningful communication can spiral out of control. In response, not only did they do the “Q& A” but there was even a decent follow-up a week or two later. Though both these events left something to be desired, I was encouraged because they showed a willingness to discuss reasons behind some game design decisions, in a way that was not flippant or snarky or dismissive of legitimate player concerns. (Hazzikostas remarks about demo locks and disc priests notwithstanding.)

At the time, I expressed my hope for these kind of sessions to continue regularly, and — gullible as I am — I really thought there was a chance that might happen. But no, it turns out they were only “events” designed to shut everyone up and buy Blizz more time before the player base disappeared at an even greater rate than it had in the first quarter of the year.

(Also, if Blizz hopes to get a huge bump from next summer’s movie, they need to be able to hype the bump as an increase in subscriptions, not as recouping their massive losses from the WoD disaster of 2015.)

It was, it seems, all about the second quarter bottom line. We will get the Q2 report on August 4, so we will see then, but I have no doubts that it will be a rosy picture for Activision Blizzard, and that there will be no unpleasant footnote about significant WoW subscription losses that Michael Morhaime will have to shoo away as “normal cyclical patterns.”  Because promising flying worked as a tourniquet.

As I have said before, the lesson that Blizz “learns” every time they make big mistakes is that if they APPEAR to be contrite and if they seem serious and humble enough, it will all blow over and they can go back to business as usual.

In this case, the almost total absence of meaningful communication for months, the subterfuge about “maybe”, followed by an imperial edict that there would be no more flying ever, became a public relations disaster. The fact that it subsided after a flying promise and a couple of in-depth pseudo interviews showed how hungry the player base was for some meaningful communication and respect for legitimate game play concerns. Most well-run companies would learn from this and implement regular communication of the sort that their customers demanded.

But not Blizz. Having averted disaster, they are back to their normal communication lockdown. Except for a few Blue Posts AFTER major decisions, they are back to @WarcraftDevs tweets as the main communication vehicle. I don’t know who decided this was the best way to communicate with customers, but whoever it was has zero grasp of the concept of customer relations. There is a place for fast short communications, but to use that medium as the major route to interact with customer concerns is just plain dumb.

Example: Everyone who plays the game knows that queue times — unless you are a tank or healer — are unacceptably long. Worse, they are quixotic, so that your guildmate who queues 5 minutes before you do can get into a group in 2-3 minutes, yet you might wait 2 hours or more. Or the other way around. This is a very significant problem, affecting many aspects of play, causing some players to abandon LFR completely even if they otherwise like it. For weeks now, Blizz has given no indication they are aware of or care about this problem. It is a situation that cries out for some discussion, some explanation of why it happens, some reassurance that devs know how frustrating it is and are working on a fix, some estimate of how long that fix might take to implement. But what do we get? This:

@WarcraftDevs

Improve by how much? Surely you must have a working estimate. What’s with the whole “class diversity” thing? There was not a huge queue time problem prior to 6.2, so when and how and why did you change what appeared to be a working algorithm for what seems to be a terrible one? What made you believe “class diversity” was necessary for LFR groups? Did you not test it before you implemented it? Did no one think it might have a terrible effect on classes — especially DPS — with high populations? Does this mean the current raid tier demands certain classes in order to down bosses? Have you abandoned the concept of “bring the player, not the class”?

LFR queue times are a big deal for many, many players, and a response like the one above generates more questions than it purports to answer — it is something that needs some communication beyond a couple of cryptic tweets.

It is sad but telling that we still learn far more about WoW game design decisions from a former employee than we do from the current ones. MMO champion, as you may know, has for some time been publishing WoW-related tweets from Greg “Ghostcrawler” Street. While I was never one of his big fans, I do think when he worked for Blizz that he always showed respect for players and he always took player concerns — even when they were clearly just whining — seriously. And even now he manages to use short tweets to good advantage, providing decent thoughtful answers and comments. Here is a recent example (GC tweets in bold):

Can’t make content last longer, but you sure can make it last much shorter.
I think you can make content longer *if* you add rewards. I think there is a magical time to reward ratio. (OccupyGStreet)

So here’s a question – how do you distinguish content as reward from drawing things out?
I think there is almost an internal clock of being ready for a reward / something new. (OccupyGStreet)
Which is why you can’t just add time without also adding rewards, extrinsic or intrinsic. (OccupyGStreet)

@WarcraftDevs could take a lesson.

A few days ago, MMO-C published some longer responses from GC, beyond what he felt he could convey in tweets. I am not going to quote them here, although I found them interesting, but take a look at them if you have a few minutes. The point is not so much what he had to say, but that he felt it would be useful to provide better comments than the Twitter vehicle allowed.

Why can’t Ion Hazzikostas and some of the other decision-makers currently at Blizz do the same thing? What would be wrong with a weekly extended-comments sort of communication, where they gave some decent insights into things players have asked about or pointed out as problems? It does not have to be a time-consuming studio “Q&A” “event.” Just some honest, thoughtful communication on a regular basis.

Communication lockdown just never ends well, a lesson Blizz has yet to learn.

About Fiannor
I have a day job but escape by playing WoW. I love playing a hunter, and my Lake Wobegonian goal is to become "above average" at it.

2 Responses to Back to communication lockdown

  1. Grumsta says:

    I saw those tweets last night, and two things struck me. The first was that it confirmed the theories Gnomecore put forward on Grumpy’s blog on 14 July.

    Link: http://thegrumpyelf.blogspot.com/2015/07/what-do-long-lfr-queue-times-mean.html

    The second thing I thought was odd is that it wasn’t an anouncement at all, but a direct response to a specific comment (and it is just an observational comment: it wasn’t even a direct question expecting an answer). They didn’t even prefix the reply with a period, so it was a private reply to that one person. Who then re-tweeted it.

    The problem with the @WarcraftDevs account is that it’s anonymous, so you don’t know who made those posts or if they were authorized to make them. Usually we see stuff like this after 100s of posts on the same subject on the forums and a Blue Post finally appears with some vague reassurance.

    My instinct is that if there’s a communication lockdown before an earnings report then it likely means that report contains bad news and the company doesn’t want it leaking out and hurting shares or subscriber numbers further.

    • Fiannor says:

      I don’t think this lockdown is just because of the upcoming earnings report, I think lockdown is Blizz’s normal mode and has been for several months. Here’s what I think happened:

      Prior to and immediately after WoD launch, we had lots of the team leads tweeting away on their company Twitter accounts. Some of them were fairly responsive, but the overall “message” was contradictory and confusing. We will have flying at max level. No, we will have flying in 6.1. No, we are still deciding about flying. We will have flying if the player base clearly wants it. We don’t think flying is a good idea because it would take away the “immersive” experience. Et cetera. Same confusion reigned in many other areas of the game.

      The reason there was so much confusion is because Blizz was in total disarray over the entire xpac — they were still reeling from massive personnel turnovers, they rushed an incomplete expansion out the door, the tech side of the launch had been a disaster, there had been no attempt to integrate each of the massive changes into a cohesive experience, etc. It wasn’t a matter of the devs being deceitful in their tweets, it was that no one had any idea what the plan was for most aspects of the xpac, and they had dug themselves into such deep holes that in fact there was no possibility of fixing many of the worst problems.

      But, rather than getting their act together, corporate “fixed” the mixed-message problem by forbidding their employees to talk about game design decisions on their Twitter accounts, and instituted the “official” @WarcraftDevs account as the sole method of issuing policy statements. This made it much easier to control the message. And it gave the devs cover to ignore the player concerns for which there was no real answer — by the “anonymous” vehicle you mentioned.

      In fact, I was probably wrong when I said Blizz never seems to learn from their mistakes. In this case, I think they did learn, but what they learned was that transparency and responsiveness is bad, centralized secrecy is good. I do not expect to see anything but communication lockdown as their normal mode from now on. What we will get is scripted, canned “interviews” for major announcements, but little or no explanation of the things that affect every player’s experiences every day. In other words, cryptic tweets.