Bottom line and communicating

Yesterday we got the Activision Blizzard 4Q 2016 Earnings Call. It was — as nearly all these public announcements are — a rosy picture. The company is making money hand over fist — $3.6 billion, more than double the previous year. Blizzard itself is doing well, and World of Warcraft is still a money-maker even if it is no longer the main profit engine.

There were some interesting tidbits in the report. For example, ATVI customers racked up over 43 billion hours of time in 2016 either playing or watching  others play the company’s products. This is approximately on a par with the amount of annual time people spent watching Netflix. Never would have guessed that.

One metric, though, really caught my eye (emphasis mine):

Blizzard’s fourth-quarter play time surpassed the previous record set in the third quarter. Overwatch had its second and third seasonal events, Halloween Terror and Winter Wonderland, each one driving new records for engagement with the game. World of Warcraft saw an increase in total play time for the quarter, surpassing the Q3 expansion launch quarter and all non-launch quarters in the last four years.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I am happy the game is doing well and continues to make money for ATVI. WoD gave me the distinct impression WoW was in its death throes, but Legion has erased such thoughts, and I am ecstatic at the apparent turnaround. Still, the professional worrier part of me can’t help but wonder if there is not some fancy smoke-and-mirrors manipulation going on here.

From my worm’s-eye view of the game, it is absolutely true that I have increased my play time in Legion, as compared to the time I spent playing in WoD and even in Mists. But that is not because I love the game more, it is because the game has changed in a way that more or less forces me to spend more hours playing. I have a certain set of personal progression goals that I pursue in each expansion, and before Legion I could accomplish those goals with a mostly constant amount of play time. But for me to accomplish the same goals in Legion, I find that I must significantly increase my play time. I suspect this is true for most players. We are faced with the choice of adjusting our personal goals or increasing our play time. Apparently, given the quote above, many players have opted for the latter.

I do not want to make this a Big Thing — it is after all just a game, and we all face far more searing choices in our daily lives. I do wonder, though, if this is actually a good long term strategy for WoW. It certainly looks good on paper, it probably reassures stockholders, and it is likely a featured bullet in a certain Game Director’s annual performance review. But how long can this strategy be sustained? How long before a sizeable number of players decide that the ever-increasing effort is no longer worth the ever-decreasing payoff? I don’t know the answer, obviously, no one does. I do think the question is worth asking as food for thought, however.

Shifting focus, I was intrigued by a spate of blue posts (nicely collected by MMO-C) about Blizz’s recent epiphany that they are lousy at communicating with their customers. Who knew?  (No, no I will not be snarky about this. Much.) Apparently Blizz has discovered that having an actual, formal communications team and organizational setup might be a good idea for a multi-million dollar worldwide company. What insight! (*slaps self* No! Bad blogger!)

Seriously, I do applaud the efforts of the CMs who seem to be the instigators of this change of course for the company, and I hope they are successful. But we have had a long history — pretty much ever since Ghostcrawler left — of Blizz promises to do better in this area, lots of fits and starts, and the end result is they still stink at it. It is a sad commentary, in this age of social media and well-established professional communications methodologies, that a world class company like Blizz still thinks they can wing it, as if they are a couple guys operating out of a garage and can just run out on their break and throw some pacifying words at a customer.

I think the CMs have a decent plan and a true desire to improve, but ultimately it is actions that will speak, not good intentions. For this to work, it will require company commitment of appropriate resources as well as dogged follow through on the part of the devs and the CMs. Not to put too fine a point on it, we have had at least one recent example of total communications failure when a CM started a “Let’s Talk” thread in the hunter forum, then proceeded to disappear for months, ignoring hundreds of pages of comments, effectively harming communications more than if he had done nothing.

Blizz is by no means unique in its desire to make everything seem successful and pretty with their product. Of course they want their stockholders to see growth in all areas, so they tout a mostly-contrived increase in quarterly play time for the game. It’s a good placeholder while they figure out how to actually improve player experience and satisfaction.  Of course they want to be seen as receptive to customer comments and concerned about customer complaints, so they talk about a great new communications process. Nothing to see here, folks, lots of companies engage in these mild forms of puffery. Legion has made good on many of Blizz’s promises after WoD — let’s hope they can also come through on these larger-picture ones.

And now, I’m going to start my weekend! Enjoy yours.

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.

5 Responses to Bottom line and communicating

  1. Garfurion says:

    I must be one of the exceptions with a serious decrease in play-time and also not really feeling the desire to increase my playtime since it seems to just mean endless grinding. My goal for each expansion was to end it with 1 additional max level char by the end of each expansion but at the moment I’m reduced to having only 1 spec at max level, and I don’t even enjoy playing it all that much.

    Blizzards attempts at improving communication are futile. The devs aren’t interested in feedback and even if they appear to listen (e.g. adding LoneWolf as a talent) they implement it in such a way that their original design still holds and the class is punished by loosing something else (in the case of LoneWolf a viable talent row).

    • Fiannor says:

      I am not so sure you really are an exception. I have absolutely nothing to prove this, but I have a gut feeling that there are significant numbers of players who have reacted to Legion the same way you have. As you allude to, there is a kind of soul-sucking endless grind aspect to the whole artifact trait chase, as well as to some extent to profession leveling and even class hall quest lines — especially for alts.

      I am pretty much crushed over Blizz’s betrayal of hunters. I think I’ll have a post about it next week, but your Lone Wolf example is to me representative of Blizz’s whole con game on hunters in WoD and Legion. We were led to believe that by 7.2 there would be some substantial changes to the current hunter clunky play style (all specs), but instead all we have gotten are some numbers tweaks (it’s not not not not and never has been imo about the numbers!) and some patronizing half-assed attempts similar to the Lone Wolf “fix”.

  2. I don’t understand why play time is important to be measured. It is not like we are being exposed to advertising.

    • Fiannor says:

      I had the same question. I would really like to know their reasoning on that metric, but they seem to set considerable store by it. All I can come up with is that they somehow equate hours played with interest in the game, which they think is tied to esports audiences and merchandise sales. That seems awfully tenuous though. Maybe they are tracking hours played and correlating it with token sales? I really have no idea.

  3. I agree with the above commenter about playtime being lower. It may just be that, unlike a lot of people I guess, I am deeply unhappy with the game direction in Legion. I log about 1 hour a day to do my daily cache and PVP towers, and that’s it, outside of raid nights. The problem for me is that everything — from leveling to PVP to professions and archy/pet battles — is an intolerable, endless grind. That’s not fun, that’s not engaging. In the past, I would have worked on an alt once my main’s daily tasks were complete, but you already know the alt situation in Legion. (I am actually finishing one of each class, but past that I have absolutely no intent to go through all of that class hall nonsense again.) Any time spent on an alt also feels “wasted” due to the time investment on my main.