Back in the days of Nintendo, die hard gamers intent on beating Super Mario Bros on “hard mode” or trying to get into the hidden dungeons of Zelda learned that there was one way to fix any bug in the game—to blow on the cartridge. It was self-sufficiency at its best; there was no tech support, no online help forums, and no one but those within our own phone books to ask for additional assistance. Skip, skip, skip ahead to new generations of consoles, and the mentality stayed the same. When our weekend gaming group would get together for Saturday nights of Goldeneye tournaments we had two die-hard rules: no throwing stuff at the Frat’s new big screen and no playing as Oddjob. When we upgraded to Perfect Dark games, the X-ray rail gun was strictly off limits. And when I logged into MW:2 online for the first time, I joined a server which had one steadfast rule—no Martyrdom. Through the years there was not one developer that I thought to reach out to with these complaints of imbalance or to question about class design—until World of Warcraft.
For as much flack as Blizzard receives for their perceived lack of community involvement, without deferring to expert research I think I can safely say that they are one of, if not the only major game studio that engages its community in ongoing discussion. The WoW forums, although having a bad reputation for trolling and general whining, until recently provided the only true avenue by which Blizzard could rapidly disseminate information to its community. With the upgrade of the battle.net forums and the institution of blog posts, Blizzard has stepped even further forward in terms of information-sharing and discussion. But, amid all this hand-holding and sharing, I feel obliged to ask … is this type of interaction really good for the community?
The marketing side of me unequivocally says yes—Blizzard reaching out to the community is what has enabled them to become adored the world over. If nothing else, this very blog is a testament to the kind of loyalty and attention that they’ve managed to garner from those gamers who now call WoW home. Instead of hiding behind closed doors or tech support forums, Blizzard has a long-standing policy which not only has them using informal forums as a means to disseminate information but also as a means to (somewhat) openly share their design philosophy and their perspective on changes in the game world.
This inclusion approach that WoW takes with its customers has a number of benefits:
- It encourages players to identify with game designers and think of them on a “gamer” level; these are the guys who sat next to us at the DnD tourney or LAN party.
- It provides reinforcement that Blizzard listens to its community (again, the concept of “we connect with you”)
- It means players are more likely to come forward with suggestions (which means Blizzard benefits from the combined rationalization and imagination prowess of their entire player-base)
- It also means that players are more likely to report quality of life issues which will impact the continued success of the game (which is important because Blizzard’s profit model is based heavily on subscription fees).
- It reinforces the service relationship that Blizzard is in. (Remember, buying a single game in a store is a product-delivery system, but Blizzard ups the ante by providing both a product and continuous service.)
I’m sure there a multitude of benefits that extend beyond the ones listed above, but even this small excerpt shows that the benefits of community involvement and interaction are substantial as each one is directly tied to the longevity of the company that it’s taken 20 years to build. To put it into basic terms: the cooler we think Blizzard is, the more likely we are to continue funding their efforts. Which, in turn, means that we get more cool games from the company we like and they’re able to continue to be successful doing something they love.
But, if that’s the case, why is there such a backlash against Blizzard on their own forums?
The Negative Side of Things
As much as I appreciate the sort of dialogue that goes on between the community and the developers (and calling it a dialogue is being very generous), there is a distinct downside to all of the efforts aimed at getting the player base to buy into a game like WoW. In fact, in the past couple of months, I think Blizzard has actually started to take stock of some of the negative effects of its policies that have blue posters daily roaming the forums, chiming in where they deem it appropriate or timely.
Pulling from a recent post of Bashiok’s (man, I love that guy) about why there’s been a decided lack of crab presence on the forums since the Christmas holiday:
These forums have always been about players talking to players. We don’t want to foster the expectation that it’s going to get a blue response if someone tries hard enough (lol I’m replying to a thread calling for a blue). While GC added a lot to these forums (and I say ‘these forums’ because he only posted in the North America forums) we think we can reach more players, particularly those in other regions, more directly through the blogs, or concerted Q&A’s.
He went on to address some of what he identifies as the problems of using the forums as the conduit for information:
While forum posts do lend themselves to that conversational approach, they actually have a lot of downsides to them from our perspective of attempting to get clear and clean information to the players. They aren’t very visible is really the first and maybe biggest problem … Forum posts also tend to be fairly quickly written by one of us without much in the way of peer-review, and anything written off-the-cuff like a reply to a thread can tend to be more precarious than a more substantive outlet that has an official process of review and correction before its posted (like the blogs). (Source)
Although I don’t personally agree with his first point about the forums not being visible (possibly because I myself am glued to Bluetracker and thus can’t imagine a world where everyone else isn’t), I wholeheartedly agree with the second. As someone who sometimes takes half an hour to craft an email response to an inquiry submitted via LiG5, and still frets that I might be sending out misinformation, posting quickly in a forum where you words will be dissected and interpreted is akin to playing Russian Roulette—one misstep and you will pay the price.
But more so than the qualities mentioned above I think there’s one negative consequence of forum interaction that Bashiok didn’t touch on (maybe because there’s no tactful way to address it with a customer)—entitlement, and along with it, arrogance . If there are ailments that I think too many WoW players suffer from, it’s these two qualities. You see it in the lectures heaped upon the forums, the blog diatribes against “lazy” or “incompetent” developers, in the threads created for the sole purpose of “educating” Blizzard about their own game. Because the true downside to encouraging players’ feedback isn’t that you receive too much of it, it’s that they begin to believe that you, the recipient of that feedback, are required to listen to it. And as evidenced on those same WoW forums, they get downright pissed off when you don’t.
Further, in a community setting, a personal sense of entitlement sets players in competition with each other. Like siblings vying for a parent’s attention or employees seeking reinforcement from a boss, when there is a higher power to seek approval/acknowledgment from, collaboration and support are a long ways from most people’s minds. Divisions become more apparent, group think sets in, and we see the sort of “we’re better/worse than those guys” bickering that’s all too prevalent these days. It’s only when there is a lack of potential intervention that our nurturing skills really kick in; we learn to adapt and change circumstances ourselves. Whether it’s dealing with the fact that Noob-toobing is bloody OP, or that Nintendo cartridges were prone to getting dusty, we either give up entirely or devise a means of coping.
While Blizzard may maintain that “Every Voice Matters”, (and note here that there’s a distinct difference between a well-reasoned voice and a high-pitched aggravating whine), the fact is that no one is more invested in WoW’s success than its creators. They are invested more than you on your Season 4 Gladiator, level 72 hunter, or Dragonslayer; they are invested in the game because their jobs depend on it. They are the ones who hold the data, they are the ones who know the math behind the classes, and they are the ones who, at the end of the day, are accountable to the company’s shareholders for the success or failure of their investment. So as much as I’d like to identify with Mr. Greg Street, aka Ghostcrawler, the fact of the matter is that he is way above me. And as much as I think Resto Shaman need buffs, or cooldowns, or awesome laser powers, it is his opinion that matters, not mine. (And you know what, that’s fine by me, because I can’t say that I’d be all that open if one of the Blues tried to give me advice on federal grant compliance.)
Walking a New Road
With the launch of a new forum community and a new “official” Blizzard blogging platform, the WoW team has a fresh slate in front of them on which to define the community interaction that has been their hallmark. But in contrast to years past, I think that interaction needs to become one more focused on information delivery and less on reacting to players’ thoughts and posts. As delighted as it would make me to see a blue icon crop up in any one of my threads, as much as it would inflate my ego to legendary proportions, it would only serve to reinforce the idea that a player can grasp the enormity of a situation and the implications of change. And the fact of the matter is, we can’t; we can only guess.
Despite the fact that it has been said time and time again that the forums are a place for players to interact with each other, as long as developers post updates and content-related information in player threads, the forums will be a place where players will flock to try to begin conversations with Blizzard. The problem is that, at least in the past, actions have spoken louder than all those blue words telling us what the forums are really for:
We’re not looking to you guys to be our QA department. We’re not asking you to balance the game or even solve problems for us. If you want to offer feedback, great, that’s what these forums are for. (Source)
We made this topic for players to discuss the issue between themselves, as that is mostly what the forums are for. (Source)
These forums are for players to discuss the game with other players. This is supposed to be a environment in which constructive discussions and helpful advice can be found.(Source)
You are welcome to provide your feedback regarding any aspect of the game in the appropriate forums. Our Community Managers or Developers may be able to answer the post there but mostly there forums are for players to discuss the game with other players. (Source)
The community team in specific uses these forums for sharing information, interacting with a portion of the community, and taking feedback from players to our developers. They’re also a place for simply building a broader sense of community of World of Warcraft players. (Source)
… though we do gather feedback from across many forums, and sometimes post here and there, the forums are primarily here for people to discuss between each other. This is even more so the case for the class forums, which exist for players to discuss their class with other players, post and read guides, share tips and generally help each other to become ever more proficient at their class. (Source)
These forums are here for players to discuss the game with their fellow players. Though our Developers and Community Managers collect feedback regarding the game and do greatly appreciate it, not keeping a thread open on the subject doesn’t mean that they are not perfectly aware of the feedback on the subject. (Source )
So ultimately, as much as I appreciate the thoughtfulness and the genuine desire for customer interaction that blues display day in and day out, I think it’s time for Blizzard to take a step back from their community. The interactive policies that applied when the gaming community was smaller aren’t the same ones that hold true when they’re dealing with a 12-million plus audience. But the qualities that define Blizzard, that set them apart from other gaming studios isn’t their blue-posters, it isn’t their forum interaction—it’s the gaming experience that they’ve created in WoW, Starcraft, Diablo and other games.
If forums are about player discussion, then I maintain they need to be lacking the blue text that we’ve come to associate them with. If you want players to stop vying for blue counts in their role/class forums, then you need to make sure they have nothing to vie for in the first place. More so, I think Blizzard needs to set about defining itself as an expert on its own game, and it won’t be able to do that while still seemingly pandering to the whims of the forum community. The formal means that Bashiok mentioned—blog posts and patch note releases—are a great place to start to send the message. And as much as players will complain about the recession of blue posts, the fact is that the recession will empower players to be self-sufficient once again.
It may take us a while to figure out how to blow dust off of a digital download, but I’ve no doubt that we’ll manage it in the end … but only if we’re pushed into doing so.