It’s been a while since I’ve gotten to dive into a post that is both about the game while also being a sort of meta-analysis of the community, feedback, and the role of players in the development of a game like WoW.
Over the late part of this week, a series of events very gently unfolded before exploding on Twitter this afternoon. A member of the development team discussed how feedback from players tends to be focused on numbers, which can make gameplay feel and fun hard to discern, which led to a lot of players who are or once were high-end theorycrafters discussing the kind of feedback they directly provided on a private forum setup by Blizzard for them to provide feedback and the condescending and dismissive ways some developers interacted with them there.
I feel it is appropriate to thread a fine needle here – most of the theorycrafters that have come out to discuss the issue often emphasize that it was not a teamwide problem, but rather specific developers, most commonly designers, who would respond poorly to feedback, so most of this post is intended to discuss this directly, and not to be a general WoW team diatribe or discussion. I’m also not particularly interested in being tangled in drama, so I’ll make clear that I don’t have said forums but have heard stories about them over the years. A post that excellently summarizes this process is the last post on Binkenstein’s WoW blog, linked here. The thread I first read that summarizes the mood of the room best is the biggest, from Magdalena, linked here.
So, let’s dig in.
As an objectively more casual player, I can admit to finding the prioritization of theorycrafter feedback a bit disheartening but also understandable. I started this blog with theorycrafting and build discussion and that phase lasted maybe a month before I realized I was no good at it. That is why most of my feedback in blog posts centers on “feel” or fun rather than objective numbers analysis. Some of that invariably leaks into the discussion, but it is rarely if ever my own math and I’ll readily admit that. I do think that if the WoW team wants feedback on gameplay feel for the average player, inviting theorycrafters and experts to have a direct line for feedback (even if they are also dismissive of those players) seems like it would create a self-sustaining bubble of numbers feedback. Not to suggest that theorycrafters don’t have a finger on fun or gameplay feel, but the type of person that flocks to that sort of activity is naturally more inclined to provide “objective” feedback via numbers rather than a subjective feedback like how something feels.
The WoW team itself has largely grown by hiring community figures who love to theorycraft, and I think a consequence of that is that the development of the game focuses on that kind of fun as well. If you hire the main theorycrafters of Elitist Jerks (including one becoming game director) and then the game becomes more numbers-driven and focused on performance and rankings, that seems more like an obvious consequence of this kind of personality being core to the design and development of the game. I don’t think that is inherently bad either – having people who think about numbers and balancing and are capable of the math needed to do it is a good thing! However, it seems, from the outside, that people thinking about “fun” might be a tad outnumbered.
But I’ll save more of this feedback for later. Let’s talk about the core issues on display in these posts.
The game has lost a lot of community theorycrafting figures over the last decade, some to being hired, others to a loss of passion, and others still due to the game design pushing them into a more casual mode of play. From outside of those communities, it is easy to assume things that may not be true, or to paint a narrative onto that of your own. I’ve seen a fair number of people talk about how Blizzard designs the game for the top players, and we can see in this feedback an anecdote about how that is perhaps not true!
In fact, the biggest thing that surprised me about the thread from Magdalena in particular is the fact that it is straightforwardly simple to assume that Blizzard would have a private forum to specifically gather the feedback of these players and would discuss it in a deep and respectful manner. Instead, the opposite seems to be true – players involved in these forums from their inception point to the founding of the forums being a good period, and then once a certain developer left in late 2013 (believed to be Ghostcrawler), the developers left managing the forum allowed it to fall into disarray and made it clear that they often didn’t value the feedback there, dismissing it out of hand or doomsaying the feedback. The examples show developers (out of context, to be fair) dismissing feedback, talking about how stuff being in beta is a better preview than community argument over patch notes (noting this is about the water mana change in Shadowlands, and unintentionally is a fantastic example of some of the more insidious undocumented changes that the team has made in the game over the last several years like 7.2 item level scaling in the world) and a quip about how the mythic player community and sites exist to push talent choices they prefer over others (the implication seemingly being that Mythic players do so in their own service rather than based on the math).
While the context missing is something I’ll call out, I will note that the accounts of Magdalena, Binkenstein, and several other players who responded and discussed the forums in question have backed up the tonal issues and dismissiveness of the developers they were often left to interact with.
So the core issue on display in all of this is something that dogs many of us and drags the game down quite a lot – does Blizzard listen to and iterate on feedback from players? The thing is, I do think it depends on the era. Ghostcrawler, as I’ve discussed a lot in the past, caught a lot of shit from the playerbase but ultimately, I think he did a very good job of collecting and iterating on feedback with the team. Even when he had missteps, he ultimately did a good job of explaining the design intention behind changes and indicating when things were intended vs unintentional, and was an agent for positive change. The developers have had, as of Warlords of Draenor forward, to fall over on this more often. Player feedback would often not be acted upon (or was perceived as such easily by a majority of the community) and it took larger movements to get changes in. WoD, famously, was going to be no flying mounts, and months of player feedback from a massive swath of the community finally got that changed, and shifted to a model that has existed since then in Pathfinder (which itself is often a posterchild for Blizzard not listening to feedback, as the requirements have been growing each expansion). Pruning in WoD, Legion, and BfA all met with silence or “play it first and see” – even in beta, when players could play and see and were providing that feedback based on the gameplay they had. Azerite as a system was met with a cacophony of mathematically-backed wailing and players noting the bad gameplay feel, which was met with derisive “wait until you see it in the game and at endgame” and then was…changed, much, much later than the feedback received.
I won’t lie, in beta, a part of me wonders if I should even bother supplying feedback and finding it a waste of time due to a lack of changes seen. I still do it, but there is something of a challenge here. WoW as a project over-relies on free labor from players, simultaneously expecting them to be excited for beta and to do the job of QA while disregarding their feedback. The feeling of frustration of the theorycrafters seems to boil over at the point where it feels like a job – they love(d) the game and want to make it better, and provide hours of their labor, both in actual work testing and evaluating things and in emotional labor of getting invested more and more into a product.
Ultimately, as players, we aren’t responsible for how a game develops. The unfair perception of a public testing phase is that I think Blizzard often leans overly hard on how they didn’t get “enough actionable feedback” and then gets silent when the receipts of months-old Twitter, forum, and Reddit threads are surfaced showing mountains of feedback on systems, numeric and gameplay feel alike. At the end of it all, the state of World of Warcraft as a product is solely on Blizzard and Team 2. If the game ships in an unfun state or pushes players to quit, that is absolutely Blizzard’s responsibility to correct course on. When discussing the differences in content between WoW and FFXIV in the past, something I’ve always identified as a strength for FFXIV is that Square Enix has a robust internal QA process and no external testing, so content launches are both surprises to players (which has a tangible effect on player excitement for content) and also generally tested very well. What a lot of the players who mention these private forums also mention, if they’ve moved on to Final Fantasy XIV, is that the XIV team generally is faster to implement player feedback. Housing has been a player pain point, and the last two expansions, they’ve added more plots to the game than any other point in the game’s history except the initial housing launch (other pain points with housing design not withstanding). Monk design was a problem and they’ve done mid-expansion tuning and gameplay changes during Shadowbringers. Ninja had similar feedback and they completed a major redesign of the job a couple of patches ago.
Players in WoW often have a very sour outlook on feedback, and I think it is deserved. It sucks to invest so much mental and emotional energy into wanting something to be better and having that smacked down or being told that “no useful feedback” comes out of the community constantly, or to have designers condescendingly tell you that you just don’t get the whole picture. To be fair, FFXIV has a distinction of design in that the core systems, job designs, and gameplay have changed very little from the A Realm Reborn launch, and when they have, it has been in service of player feedback. It also doesn’t have the mechanical or build complexity of WoW – even in the current neutered WoW design, players have hundreds of permutations for character builds, where FFXIV has 1 per job and player choice all boils down to optimizing combat rotations and gear stats. However, the thing I respect a lot about the FFXIV team is that the development team works in a different language to a lot of content creators on the game and a large portion of the playerbase, and yet the sense I get is that they care and really want to deliver something that players will love even across those boundaries.
And I don’t mean that to say that the WoW team doesn’t want that, to be perfectly clear. I’ve met a fair number of the design and development teams on the game over the years and found them to be affable and dedicated to the job at hand. They care when players don’t like the game and want the game to be the best it can be. However, I think the game is bound to challenges that come from having engagement mechanics implemented so core to the design and lore. It’s further compounded by the team asking us to deny what we can see and intuitively feel – a lot of these engagement systems come at the expense of fun at various points in the process. But complicating this issue even more is this – if the team thinks that engagement mechanics are fun, then we need to have that discussion, because if the conflict is design vs. players, then that changes the shape of the interaction.
That leads me into my conclusion and where I think a lot of this feedback ultimately centers. For a lot of us as players and for what I’m sure is a majority of the development and design teams on these games, the relationship we want to have is collaborative. Players pour hours of gameplay time, discussion time with fellow players and fan communities into making their experiences the best they can. Some people surely approach in bad faith, but the majority of what I see on Twitter, other blogs, and forums is well-intentioned feedback. When that feedback festers or dies on the vine, it creates a negative reaction. You see players who provide real, reasoned feedback and accompany it with comments like “Blizzard can’t balance their way out of a paper bag.” Likewise, I’m sure developers and designers do genuinely feel like they build an environment where they depend on and value player feedback, and I can imagine how disheartening it would be to get feedback that something you made isn’t great! However, I do think that what we see most is frustration on part of the playerbase – years of providing feedback through all available means, watching as both us commoner players and the elite both get spurned by individual developers who represent the team poorly in the places where this feedback is gathered.
For what it is worth, I do think that Shadowlands represents a better place for the team. The delay, redesigns of poorly-implemented covenant abilities, and increased openness from the team do represent a shift that is worth calling out and commending. I do think there is still distance to close to bring players to a point where they feel like the team has turned over a new leaf and are willing to share that feedback freely without the pent-up frustration from the last few years tainting the process. Until that point, players will hold on to the feeling that feedback is, as a process, players versus the development team, and as long as there is an adversarial aspect to that interaction, there is going to be the natural instinct to distrust the developers when they say they value feedback, because multiple points of evidence exist to show that, at least when it comes to certain publicly facing designers and venues, the team doesn’t back those words with meaningful action.
So ultimately, all of this is a sort of dramatic matter for the players involved, but it speaks to a core concern that many of us feel impacts our playtime in a negative way. Will it change? I can’t say I know that for sure, but the recent process around Shadowlands makes me feel like Blizzard is at least aware that change is needed and I hope to see it serve as the starting point for a larger, more comprehensive overhaul to how the team works with the playerbase in the future.