On world quests and rewards

In a recent post in his game design blog, Greg Street (aka Ghostcrawler) wrote a few words on the art and science of game rewards. It started me thinking about how Blizz has structured rewards in Legion. Overall, I would give Blizz a C+ on this aspect of the expansion. They have done some really innovative things, but on the other hand they have made much of the reward process needlessly frustrating and/or manipulative. I am not talking about difficult — I don’t mind working to achieve something I want in the game — I am talking about things that just seem to operate on the “gotcha” principle for no good reason, or mechanics Blizz thinly disguises as “content” but are in reality vehicles for forcing certain kinds of game play.

Today I want to focus on one part of the Legion reward system: world quests.

I liked the idea of world quests early in Legion, and I am still basically a fan, especially with the emissary twist. My main hunter does not need any of the gear or gold or class hall resources they offer, but I still usually crank out some of them for mats or AP (anything above 300k, more about this below). But I run as many as I can of them when I am focusing on one of my alts. Most of them are fairly quick (especially now that I can almost run them in my sleep), and frequently the rewards are useful to my alts.

I think the tying of faction rep to these quests was a good idea, and I don’t mind that vendor-purchase items are in turn tied to achieving faction rep. If I am interested in being able to buy things from a particular vendor, I am fine with working a bit to be allowed that privilege.

I make sure to run all the offered emissary quests on whichever alts I am working on  — if I can find the time — mainly for the chance of getting a legendary, but I am kind of conflicted about this aspect. It is a fact that you cannot play a character in Legion to any reasonable level of competency without two of the “good” legendaries — whatever they may be for that spec. So I chase them on my focused alts, mainly via emissary quests and LFR, but it makes me feel manipulated. It seems bad enough that every character must have a certain weapon and only that weapon for the entire expansion, without requiring certain other additional gear as well.

But the main reason I still run world quests is part of the minus side of them: artifact power. Blizz has had a stunning turnaround on the whole idea of AP.

Prior to 7.3, Ion Hazzikostas several times reminded us that once a player reached Convergence on their artifact weapon, the amount of AP required to advance it further was, BY DESIGN, ridiculously high in an almost logarithmic progression. This was because — so he told us — Blizz did not want players to feel like they had to continually grind AP, that the idea was that it would just be a somewhat small additional reward for doing normal game activities like emissary quests, random instances, mythic dungeons, etc. Additionally, so he said, the design was that players who played many hours each day would not have a significant artifact level advantage over players who might play only a few hours a week.

In other words, the whole artifact trait mechanism was designed to become less and less important once the 7.2 Convergence point was reached.

Then, in what seems to have been a sudden reversal of design policy, in 7.3 Blizz introduced a whole new artifact weapon leveling system in the form of relic traits and the crucible. They tied it to AP and Convergence levels, and to make the new levels possible to attain they re-introduced a form of artifact knowledge, except they removed player control of AK progression and just time-gated it with weekly increases. The net result was to make AP once again important to players and to make grinding it a productive activity again.

And a true grind it is. There are several reddit threads in which mathematically-inclined people have analyzed ratios of AK to AP and estimated time required to get to certain points. But the thing I have noticed for my hunter is this: In spite of both AK increasing every week and AP increasing with each new level, it still takes me about a week to gain a level. This will change after I reach level 75 and after AK rates stop increasing, but it strikes me that this a whole new way to gate character power. Blizz for some reason has opted for an incredibly complex method to do this — why didn’t they just set a limit on how much AP you can earn in a week, or how many levels you could increase your artifact level?

Even more interesting, why was there this complete 180 on AP design? Why did we go from the official “We don’t want you to chase AP” to “Here is a whole new reason to chase AP — ready, set, GO!” ?

One obvious reason: MAU. My guess is that they saw their MAU levels falling as the AP rewards from game activities became less and less relevant for main characters. Players just stopped doing the daily stuff that was offering what had become insignificant rewards. So the magic metrics fell, causing this part of the Blizz world to start to look shaky in corporate eyes. Swinging into action — and without any apparent trace of embarrassment — they reversed themselves on the AP design philosophy, because chasing AP is the one thing that would bring raiders back to daily hours in the game. And raiders are the group Blizz values these days — basically anyone who runs regular or above raid tiers and Mythic+ dungeons.

It is nice that I can increase my alt artifact weapon traits by 10-15 or even more levels a day just by running a few world quests, but it is demoralizing that I have to continue to run them on my main just to feel like I will not be letting my fellow raiders down. Especially after all the assurances from Mr. Game Director Hazzikostas that after reaching Convergence, size artifact power doesn’t really matter.

If the all-important MAU numbers were falling, why could Blizz not have taken a different approach? For example, they could have significantly increased the non-AP rewards for emissary and world quests, and for early world bosses, or they could have added more cool mounts or pets as rewards for the non-Argus quests. They could have implemented some sort of catchup gear currency to be earned outside of Argus. They could have instituted a mechanism for alts whereby for the first two legendaries you win you get to pick which ones you want. They could have made Blood of Sargeras account bound, giving mains a reason to go out and get it, and giving alts reasonable-level gear with which to go and run their profession instances or to join regular raid groups or even just to compete on Argus without serial dying.

All of these things likely would have kept the MAU numbers up a bit. But Blizz does not design for players like this, they design for raiders, so the only idea they had was to re-institute the AP grind. Not the kind of creativity we are used to from Blizz.

So yeah — Legion reward system has some real A+ moments. Unfortunately it also has a lot of fail moments. Overall grade C+.

Unofficial and pertinent views

Admin note: We are having a terrific 2-day windstorm in my neck of the woods, and our power keeps going out, so today’s post may end up being a bit choppy.

Ghostcrawler has a piece on his Tumblr page that really caught my eye. If you have a couple of minutes, I encourage you to read it.

I was never a particular GC fan when he was with Blizzard and was the most visible dev interfacing with players, but in retrospect I wish we had someone doing that thorough a job now. Yes, he was often reviled — he took an incredible amount of player abuse — but say what you will, he was always out there explaining and debating design issues. Even when I disagreed with the path of the game, I always felt like GC was being honest — sometimes brutally so — with us, and more importantly that he respected the player base. Those feelings evaporated as soon as Ion Hazzikostas took GC’s job and began to put out piles of snarky, disingenuous doublespeak to a player base he seemed to disdain. That he has backed off this approach over the last year or two does not erase that first awful impression. Since Hazzikostas has gotten away from everything other than canned Q&A sessions, there is no one who has been able to fill the void and create a regular, trusted, respectful — if often contentious — dialogue with players.

All this is by way of saying that I think GC still has insightful things to say about WoW, even though he is no longer with Blizz. I like the fact that he still responds to questions about the game, and I take his comments for what they are — general views of how things developed years ago in WoW, and insights into much of the messy process of designing and maintaining the complex enterprise that is an MMO. Does he know anything about current Blizz design problems and plans? No, but he is still the only one out there willing to address valid player concerns in any meaningful way. He fills a void, even if imperfectly and unofficially, in Blizz’s customer interaction.

So the cited piece on Tumblr caught my eye. There are actually two discussions there, the main one answering a question about why players unsub, and a second one below that about why WoW players keep playing.

One part that got my attention in the unsub piece was that in the big picture, when you have millions of players, the vast majority who unsub do it for personal reasons of not having enough time, or their friends stopped playing or the like. It is rare indeed when there are significant numbers of people who quit out of protest for a certain game design or trend, and even then generally that group still ranks below, in terms of numbers, those quitting for personal reasons. (Translation: rage quitting WoW likely gets zero attention from any part of the dev team…)

Another interesting observation, I thought, was that games — like nearly every human enterprise — have life spans with long-term ups and downs in numbers of players. Unstated, but what I presume, is that sometimes there are identifiable causes for these fluctuations, and sometimes probably not. GC says there is usually a predictable dev set of responses to this:

When you see a lot of players leave over the course of say half a year, it usually spurs two diametrically opposed views on the development team. You will get one faction of “Players are getting bored – we must be bold and innovate!” You get another faction of “We are changing the game so much that we’re losing our soul! We need to get back to basics!”

I think we have really seen this scenario play out in Legion. A lot of players did in fact unsub in WoD — recall the famous 3-million player loss in the first quarter of 2015 — and there was much criticism of the expansion throughout its existence, most of which centered on some version of “There’s nothing to do” with sprinklings of “It doesn’t fit with the lore, this whole time machine idea stinks”.

So what did we get in Legion? I think we saw the “bold and innovative” group dominate, but there was a nod to the “back to basics” group in terms of the main story and lore. The dominant group led to many of the mechanics in Legion — complete class rewrites, the idea that specs become what amounts to their own class, artifact weapons and the eternal AP chase, the complete repudiation of the WoD profession model, severe curtailment of alt play, Mythic+ dungeons, world quests, zone scaling, etc.

But the kicker point made by GC is this:

My perception has been that the players and developers in the “We’ve changed too much!” camp tend to be those who are less engaged with the game than they once were. Losing track of change usually happens to players who once played every day and are now playing once a week or once a month. They remember being super engaged with the game and knowing everything that was going on, and so the dissonance of that no longer being the case for them is really striking, perhaps even alienating. On the other hand, players who are still really engaged are the ones most likely to need something fresh and new so that they don’t run out of stuff to do.

What this comes down to is a game company knowing who its intended audience is, understanding what kind of a player base they are courting. Do they want lots of new players, or are they content to design for what will almost certainly be a gradually-dwindling group of dedicated players? I think Blizz has still not figured out the answer to this.

Legion seems to be favoring the latter group, the dedicated player base. As I count myself in this group, I am not totally unhappy with that trend. But I can’t help but wonder if it is ultimately a strategy designed to gradually — and hopefully gracefully — ease the game’s final demise. I had hoped that Legion, maybe in conjunction with the Warcraft movie, would bring in a rush of new players who would soon love the game as much as I do. Sadly, that turned out to not be the case. The movie, let’s be honest, was a stinker for anyone not already involved in the game (and even for some of us predisposed to liking it, it bombed), and Legion added an incredible leap in complexity for what was already a complex game. The buy-in for new or even returning players, especially if they do not have someone to help them along, seems almost insurmountable.

We will see what happens in the next expansion, but it is looking to me like WoW is moving towards catering to a small group of dedicated players, and Blizz is not especially interested in significantly increasing its player base. Whether that vector is ultimately beneficial or destructive remains to be seen.

Housecleaning before vacation

I am going to take a short break from posting in this blog — maybe a week or so. Several reasons, actually. There are some real world work things I need to get to in my studio. I need to spend much of my game time between now and next Tuesday preparing my main for our guild raiding season. And — although things are settling down in the game for me — honestly, Legion still seems too chaotic for me to focus on something long enough to write about it.

Thus, before I take off, a bit of housecleaning so I can return to a nice tidy blog and drafts folder.

Ghostcrawler confirms what we have all suspected. In a recent series of tweets quoted and collected on MMO-C, Ghostcrawler finally came clean on one of the factors driving class changes in WoW, at least while he was at Blizz (emphasis in the quote is mine):

You’ve explained before that back in the days in WoW you wanted to nerf frost mages. How come frost mages were pretty much left untouched for such a long long time? What’s the process behind getting something nerfed/buffed like and who has the final word when something gets nerfed/buffed (at Blizzard and Riot Games)?

The less diplomatic answer is that there were a lot of WoW devs who played Frost mages, even though I wasn’t one of them, so there were always a lot of people to point out your potential mistakes when you try to make a change.

But above and beyond that, it was a tricky design space, because Frost mages were supposed to be good at both tankiness (emergency buttons that cover you in ice) and burst (ice lance combos). When you are good at defense and offense (especially burst), you are walking a razor’s edge all the time.

Who among the Blizz devs plays a hunter? Who speaks for hunters in the design process? Who is there to “point out your potential mistakes when you try to make a change” to hunters?

Answer, clearly, is: No one. And I have to wonder, why is that? If nothing else, why does Blizz not designate someone to be the advocate for each and every class and spec? Someone whose job it is to understand the heart and soul of a class and spec, someone who engages with that community regularly, someone who plays that spec regularly in every game venue, who understands at a gut level the synergy and play style of the spec.

No. No one at Blizz speaks for hunters. They don’t understand the class, they don’t play the class, and worse, they don’t care. This explains a lot. This is irresponsible for a game developer.

Secrets and surprises are overrated. This occurred to me as I — finally — finished my hunter class hall campaign last night and unlocked my third relic slot. Yes, I was happy about getting the achievement, and much of the quest line in retrospect seemed relevant and engaging. But not knowing where I was in the process for the last couple of weeks has been beyond annoying. My impression was that it was an endless series of more quests, and all I could do was slog along miserably ignorant of when it might be over.

Some people do not like to know the big picture, they consider any knowledge of where they are in a process to be “spoilers”. Not me. I am goal-driven, and I like to know exactly how many more hoops I need to jump through before I get to a goal. Contrary to spoiling the process for me, it enhances it, makes me more eager to finish, allows me to gauge when I might expect to be rewarded.

It is the same with Legion professions. Blizz deliberately keeps the profession leveling process murky, telling us repeatedly how much fun™ it is to not know when or where you might find a clue to leveling up! No, no, and just hell no! I want to know what the process is, even if it is a long and complicated one. I like knowing what I will have to do to achieve a goal. I do not like the juvenile game of I-know-something-you-don’t-know.

There are some third party sites that are starting to list things like all the quests in class hall campaigns, and how to level your professions in Legion. I use them, and I am grateful for them. But Blizz should do this for players in a centralized game guide location — no need to look at it if you don’t want to, but there for those of us who want to know how or if we are progressing.

RNG versus the Powerball Lottery. I am in a fairly large and active guild, we have had probably 30-40 people active almost every night since Legion launched. And so far, I do not know of a single person to get a legendary drop. It may have happened, I just have not seen it in any of the many hours I have been playing. Additionally, thus far to my knowledge no skinners have managed to get a drop of fel hide except for the world quest that awards it. The drop rates for these items is so low as to be virtually zero.

This practice, in my opinion, is not in any way related to the concept of “random drops”. It is much closer to the concept of a multi-million dollar lottery. Sure, it is mathematically possible, but realistically the chances are about as close to zero as you can get. These kinds of fairy-tale “drop rates” have no place in a game. Either make it so players have a reasonable expectation of getting them — infrequently, sure, but getting them once in a while nonetheless — or remove them from the game. This is bait-and-switch.

In fact, Blizz, why not publish once a week or once a month the actual number of drops — and the rate per active player — of some of these uber-rare items? If you think they are reasonable for drop rates, put your money where your mouth is and tell us how many are actually dropping.

In spite of everything Ion Hazzikostas says, it is not/not/not fun to be told “there is a chance” to get these items and then never get them. No, Ion, just no.

Plusses and minuses to zone scaling. I like the idea of being able to level anywhere and  still be challenged as well as get appropriate level XP and loot. That is the good side of scaling. However, the bad side of it is that every minor mob along your path becomes a significant threat. Of course, as you gear up they become less of a threat, but I am thinking now of my squishier alts, who likely will not get a lot of gearing up, and how much of a real pain in the patoot that is going to be.

Again, it is not fun™ or immersive™ to have to stop, dismount, and fight your way through that same bunch of mobs every time you are on your way to a world quest location. Every. Single. Time. Nope, nope, and nope.

At this point, most of my alt leveling will be done after flying, I am thinking. And it better be in 7.2 at the latest. Speaking of which, I think it is time for Blizz to actually stop being coy and announce when flying will be available. (Another example of me hating Blizz’s stupid ideas of “secret” and how much fun that is! Whee!)

OK, that’s it from me for a few days. I expect to be back here writing again next Wednesday — caught up, rested, and ready to go.

Legion! Yay, or something

As everyone probably knows by now, Blizz has officially announced that Legion will go live on August 30. Honestly, I’m not sure what I think about that. I’ve had a lot of thoughts darting through my head since the announcement. Here are a few of them.

First, there is the big fat obvious fact that patch 6.2 celebrates its first birthday on June 23 of this year. Which means it will be just a smidge over 14 months old when Legion goes live. Last June, I wrote this:

How did your first day go with 6.2? I can best sum mine up with a hearty “meh…” Some things were fun, some were almost unbelievably frustrating, but one thing I know for sure is that this patch will get very old very fast.

Which it did. We had two patches in the first year of WoD — although 6.1 hardly even qualified as a patch — and then zero, zip, nada for 14 months.

WTF, Blizz?

Things have come a long ways — and not in a good way — from this November 2013 quote from Ghostcrawler:

We find that expansions are what bring players back to World of Warcraft…. Really good patches will keep them, but they aren’t as good at bringing players back to the game.

We really want to get to a cadence where we can release expansions more quickly. Once a year I think would be a good rate. I think the best thing we can do for new players is to keep coming out with regular content updates.

Not only no new expansions every year, but no new patches either, much less “really good” ones.

Certainly a new expansion every year, if it is of the immense scope that WoD and Legion are, is extremely optimistic. To achieve that frequency, a company has to devote very significant resources and must be almost flawless in their project planning and execution. Also, they must be willing to ignore the Good Idea Fairy who seems to make a nuisance of herself throughout the expansion development cycle, causing original concepts to become as bloated and overgrown as a Pentagon defense contract.

Blizz has demonstrated that they are just awful at all of this. Thus we get attempts to completely rework nearly every facet of the game for every expansion, the projects grow far beyond their initial scope without increasing the development resources to compensate, deadlines loom, and the projects get rushed out the door with a vague thought that all the known bugs will get fixed in the first patch. (When did Blizz adopt the Microsoft model of project management?) In short, we get WoD. I can only hope this is not the case with Legion, but I will wait to see.

I am neither surprised nor disappointed that Blizz has had to back off of Greg Street’s 2013 comment, but I would appreciate the courtesy of a new statement reflecting their current goals for frequency of expansions and patches.

Second, you have to wonder what kind of marketing duel may be going on between Blizz and Square Enix, which recently announced that Final Fantasy 15 — one of the strong WoW competitors — would be released Sep 30. This is suspiciously close to the previously-assumed release date of Legion, clearly chosen for the competitive value. Now suddenly Blizz one-ups Square Enix and announces an Aug 30 release. One can only hope that this is an actual, reasonable release date, and not one pulled out of the air in the spirit of “Oh yeah? We’ll see your Sep 30 release date and cut it by a month! Hah!”

Third, what does this mean for a beta test? By my calculations, if you allow time for a beta test followed by a PTR, the beta should have started, like — before now? It will be interesting to see how the “alpha” experiment will be spun by Blizz. My hunch is that we will soon see something that will be labeled “beta” but will actually just be a sort of  pre-PTR, with no substantive changes made, no matter what the comments are from the testers. Let’s face it, the alpha was the beta, from now on things other than minor tweaks are set in stone. The PTR — well, it will mainly be there as a pacifier to players not invited to either the alpha or the beta. If Blizz is smart, they will use it as a system stress test, because …

Fourth, what if any technical changes have been put in place to ensure we do not have a disastrous release day and/or week? The experiences for release of Mists and WoD were monuments to incompetence. There is no excuse for Blizz to fail to anticipate these factors for release week:

  • There will be a HUGE surge of players at the release hour. This surge will continue for at least the first week of the expansion. This means that servers must be prepared to take capacity loads, and additional tech servers may be needed.
  • People will be playing during times they ordinarily do not, so standard patterns of peak play times will be meaningless.
  • Some group will almost certainly try to attack Blizz servers and network infrastructure on release day. Get ready for it, and don’t complain that it is an “unforeseen event”. I am foreseeing it right now, so you should, too.
  • Lots of things will go wrong, so start preparing now to bring in extra support personnel, including GMs to quickly address tickets. People will have taken vacation time and made similar arrangements to experience intensive play time at release, so realize that they will be more emotional than usual when they hit a bug that prevents them from playing. You will win a lot of fans if you can address their problems rapidly and successfully.
  • Realize that you will likely have a lot of brand new WoW players for whom this will be their first expansion day, and whatever their experience is will color their entire view of the game.

Last, what does this mean for a pre-expansion event and for the pre-patch? Typically, these are big guessing games, Blizz gives coy little hints and bats its eyes like a middle schooler trying to flirt for the first time, but they never really announce a pre-patch release date. But this time, given the extreme changes every class and spec will undergo, I think Blizz owes it to their player base to cut out the cuteness and tell us at least an approximate time frame for the pre-patch. Those of us still around have proven our loyalty, we have stuck with this game in spite of a terrible and seemingly-endless expansion, and dammit we deserve to know when our classes will change forever.

What provisions are in place for playing a Legion spec in a WoD world? There are a ton of concerns here, not the least of which involve changes for secondary stats, for new global cool down intervals (1.5 seconds, up from 1.0 seconds — subject to haste), for new healing paradigms in an old-paradigm expansion, etc. I suppose we need time to get used to our new rotations and spec play styles before we get dumped into Legion, but honestly I am not looking forward to it, and I would like to have as much advance planning notice as possible.

Everyone fasten your seat belts, securely stow your belongings, and make sure your seats and tray tables are in an upright position. Here we go!

Communication 101 (again)

Recently there was a series of tweets between Mr. J. Feasel, aka Muffinus, and a couple of WoW players. The conversations are nicely summarized here by MMO-C.

In a nutshell, the tweets are an attempt at a fairly in depth explanation of Blizz’s thinking on RNG as a mechanism for rewards, and also on some raid philosophy. I don’t intend to comment on the merits of either side of the discussion in this post, rather my intention is to examine the meta aspects of the exchange. (Well, okay, one comment: I cannot fathom why Blizz clings to the fantasy that RNG is “exciting” for players. In what universe?)

First, the good side. I applaud Muffinus for putting himself out there and engaging with players who have legitimate points of view on these subjects. I give him additional kudos for trying to explain some of the background logic for the mechanisms under discussion, and for doing so as a thinking adult debating with another thinking adult. We need much more of this, on a regular basis, from devs who do not treat players like annoying small children. So, good on ya, Muffinus.

Now the not so good side. Here’s a tip, Blizz:

Twitter is not the medium for conducting in depth discussions on game design and philosophy. 

I don’t use Twitter much — mainly to follow breaking world events and contemporary cultural issues — but I have a couple of accounts and I absolutely understand its power as a method of communication. I also understand its limitations, and one of them is that 140 characters simply cannot convey complex thoughts or logic chains. (Unless you are a poetic genius like Boris Pasternak, who was able to express more with fewer words than almost anyone else on the planet, but that is just my opinion and at any rate a whole other discussion.)

But Blizz has for some reason latched on to Twitter as their preferred medium of exchange with players, and this is — not to put too fine a point on it — really stupid, not to mention frustrating for players with legitimate concerns. Why are they so enamored of it? I don’t know, of course, but I can hazard a couple of guesses. One is that it is quick and easy, devs can dash off a couple responses while they are waiting for the daily group decision on lunch. Another is that there is no requirement for sentence structure, grammar, punctuation, perfect spelling, all of those things engineers hate to think about.

And last, and most tinfoil-hattery, since initial tweets to devs from players are seen only by the devs, there is no need to answer inconvenient questions or address uncomfortable subjects, they can simply be ignored and no one is the wiser. This is the big advantage Twitter has over, say, forum posts, because if 100 people post to a forum on a particular topic and Blizz ignores them, others will see this happening. But if they get 100 tweets about a subject and ignore them, other players will never know. This also permits more latitude for Blizz to claim fuzzy stats along the lines of many players finding RNG to be exciting game play, or the like. On the flip side, Blizz is free to select a single tweet that mentions something they want to address anyway and make it seem like lots of players are interested in it.

Thus, I will make yet another futile plea to Blizz on communication.

Blizz, please institute some form of regular player communication for real player concerns and game interests. It doesn’t have to be Hollywood-production streaming, it doesn’t have to be the responsibility of just one dev, it doesn’t have to be Q&A format, but there needs to be some regular and serious interaction with your interested customer base. I know most of you are engineers and would rather eat worms than write, but you need to find some way to make this happen. Even in the desert of between-expansions, thoughtful communication can go a long way towards retaining players. 

Hint: Twitter is not it.

Suggestions:

  • Hire someone like Ghostcrawler to be the face of the game, who is not afraid to mix it up in the forums, explain why certain decisions were made, understand player concerns and possibly let the game design benefit from them, and if necessary make a few people mad for the greater game good. Whether we liked it or not, we always got regular feedback from Ghostcrawler.
  • Institute some regular feedback on Legion testing — not the bug reports, but some thoughtful observations on various facets of Legion development as it progresses. Once a month would be a decent time frame for this.
  • Institute some regular class columns/forums that address class development, balance issues, playability issues, etc. This could even be done in the current class columns, but it would take the form of a regular blue class status post instead of the random and often uninformative blue posts we currently have.
  • Do the same for profession development and status.
  • Give us some idea on your timing goals for Legion. When will a more traditional “beta” go live? Or will it? How long before the PTR? What’s the goal for final live? Yes, I know if you mention any specific time and fail to meet it, you will get a ration of sh*t about it, but you are getting that anyway and will get more of it as the months pass. Why not be radical and have a bit of transparency on the subject? Most serious players have some notion of  the complexity of new expansions and understand changes and delays.

I know I am a lonely voice crying in the wilderness, but I am a strong and loyal customer who is extremely interested in the whys and wherefores of this game, and honestly I feel like Blizz considers me nothing more than a cash machine.

Talk to me about the game I love, dammit, in some form more organized than cherry-picked 140-character obscure snippets!

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.