Shadowlands and Change Management – Where Things Went Awry

A lot of my recent posts about Shadowlands have had a certain theme to them, which is easy enough to state: Blizzard did not do a great job communicating changes to the community at large and many features of the expansion remain unknown or bastardized from reality in the minds of a lot of players.

A lot of times when I write here, or when many of the bloggers I follow in general write about World of Warcraft, we’re often stating things assuming a certain level of understanding. I know that, for as much as I try to avoid having it happen, it happens to me frequently both here and in-game.

Every week, I’ve found someone in my own guild surprised about Covenant armor upgrades, unaware that such a feature exists. This week’s reduction for most players to 2 Renown maximum was a change that you might have been able to reasonably predict, but the game also didn’t really clarify that or state it plainly. I’ve seen a lot of players confused by the nature of some class and spec changes – myself with tanking being a pivotal example I’ve referenced here recently and how threat reductions have made tanking a bit more perilous.

Ultimately, it all boils down to one thing – change management. As I’ve gotten older, one thing I’ve definitely noticed just in general across the board is that change is hard, and I don’t think that is an earthshattering revelation. Change is also inevitable, and so many of us deal with so many layers of change in our daily lives. A lesson I learned very early in my professional life is that much of how successful a change is perceived to be rests with how well the change management project around it is handled. If you communicate early, get everyone at the very least up to an understanding of what has changed and why, even if they don’t like it – you can win the day and keep pain points to a minimum. (Corporate speak, oh no!) We all have things that change – we move, jobs change, families change, friends change, our entertainment changes, and we discuss big macro-level changes that affect us.

Blizzard’s change management strategy has always been sort of hit or miss, and while I do think they can fix some aspects of that on their own, there is a lot of challenge to communicating with a playerbase as diverse and spread as WoW. The game supports 10 different languages with varying styles of communication, has support personnel in multiple locations, posts information to a large handful of regional sites, and has a massive information economy of streamers, YouTubers, pro players, influencers, bloggers, and dataminers that all feed people information about the game at varying levels.

The first and biggest problem, perhaps, is this – a pretty large majority of players of any game just log in and play, and this is also true of WoW. Wowhead had (in a post I can’t seem to find, so I may have imagined it!) indicated that their own research showed something like 80% of players just…play. To those of us who center on playing as a whole hobby, that seems mindblowing – but I mean, I play Yakuza games and rarely spend more than a few minutes reading fan theories or plot summaries to shed light on the overarching story of the series as a whole. WoW isn’t necessarily a unique phenomenon – many MMOs have or had information economies like it does, but WoW’s scale at its prime has meant that a lot of those sites linger, a lot of fan blogs remain in circulation, and it is far easier to find public discussion and info. Compared even to a big modern MMO like Final Fantasy XIV, which has a smallish number of content creators, most discussion of it takes place on the game’s provided forums or via Discord servers like the Balance, and the game just generally doesn’t open itself up for exploration of prerelease data in the way WoW does (there are likely also cultural factors of some sort at play, given a large Japanese playerbase which a lot of MMOs don’t really have, but I am nowhere near qualified enough to make any commentary on that).

So you face an uphill battle with that right out of the gate. If you ever wonder why Blizzard’s launcher is plastered over in advertising about things happening in the game – that is why (well, and unending corporate greed of a parent company that wants to sell Call of Duty to the WoW playerbase when possible…but that is out of scope for this post!). If you don’t push an ad about Cataclysm timewalking this week, or LFR wing openings, or PvP brawls, some players may never know that these things are even happening. The game makes other efforts to advertise these – if you open the in-game calendar, you can see them, and they try to use the positioning of questgiver NPCs and the in-game activity screen/dungeon journal to push this information to players, but I think you might end up genuinely surprised how little attention people pay to those things. I don’t say that as a casual slam either – a lot of times, I miss that info too!

When we talk about class changes, spec changes, or core gameplay design philosophy changes, it gets even messier. Again, if you read fan sites, you probably come prepared for most of these things. If you don’t, you might be able to sniff out the changes via normal gameplay. If you level a fresh character, you’ll see it unfold as the new design philosophy for that class and spec unpack before your eyes. The problem for a long-running title like WoW is that a majority of the playerbase is returning in some form. Some have been around for over a decade and can generally feel out changes, some could but might not think of checking their spellbook for added spells and abilities on pre-patch, others might return and only play the start of each expansion and be faced with a dizzying array of changes as they catchup on everything that happened in the in-between content patches, and yet others just play for fun and aren’t really looking at the fine points. All of these are fine – but there is no one size solution to fit all of these audiences.

For example, when I thought really hard about the tank threat changes after my post yesterday, I was thinking of how the game might expose that change to you, and in truth? I had no good ideas. What can you offer in-game that appeals to all of the audience? If you make people play a short new expansion tutorial for their class and spec, that might appeal to some while hardcore WoW players who’ve kept up with beta would be annoyed. If you drop explainer text in the new content splash screen, what click-through rate do you even get on that? My guess – not high, probably like 10-20%. You can tell people to open their spellbooks everytime they log in until they finally do, but again, how many people will do so to dismiss the message and not actually engage with what is being presented?

You could perhaps make quests require use of new or retuned abilities to complete a quest objective – break this ice block with *insert spell here*, but then you have to come up with a design that solves that challenge in 36 different ways, and it may not even be that – since the game no longer really has design parity where every class and spec gets abilities at the same pace, you might have a class design that has been unchanged other than tuning, while others might get brand new stuff. Just thinking of my two tanks, Paladin tanks don’t really have a new tanking ability, while Vengeance DHs got Fel Devastation baseline. You could shoehorn in the return of Word of Glory to Protection/Retribution Paladins there, but how do you then solve for a quest objective that introduces both a healing spell and an AoE burst cooldown with a self-heal?

Then I find my brain wandering to larger system changes, like loot drop rates. Obviously, this is a messaging battle, but how do you even fight that battle in-game? Can you, even? Imagine hitting level 60 in Shadowlands and the game tries to tell you that drops are much rarer here – do you attempt to spin it as “the ethereal nature of the afterlife?” Do you present an immersion-breaking pop-up that talks about design philosophy and what the team hoped to achieve? Or, do you do as Blizzard actually did – offer no real explanation in game, instead opting for players to naturally discover the loot spigots are tightened up and then end up with players being left to feel however they will about that? In abstract, it is easy to say one of the first two might be better solutions – but I’m not so sure they are. Sure, the first one is lore-infused and kind of weaves an interesting idea in there – but a veteran player might see it as overly patronizing or fluffy. Similarly, option 2 is very blunt, direct, and honest – a peek behind the curtain, and one that the team does offer publicly through interviews, forum posts, blog posts, and livestreamed Q&A sessions – but a hardcore player likely already knows this information and a casual player may not appreciate an immersion-breaking message right in the middle of their carefully-crafted virtual world.

I led with those heavy-hitting questions (and I would be fascinated to see what you all think in the comments below), because I do think it is important to call out the scale and size of the problem first, and acknowledge that it isn’t a cleanly-cut, simple solve. Any information delivered in-game carries some risk of change management failure – whether that is immersion-breaking, patronizing for veteran players, or simply easy to dismiss and ignore, all of these risks are a part of delivering such things inside of the context of a sprawling virtual world.

So that leads us to the places in which Blizzard could and should have done better in Shadowlands.

Covenant systems in general are a hot mess of poorly explained or unexplained concepts and gameplay ideas. The adventure board lacks any real detail explaining how to counter threats or meet the challenge of the adventures you might want to complete, Covenant armor is simply handed to you but the game makes no actual effort to point out that you can buy replacement pieces if you somehow get rid of one, or the upgrading system (unless you count that tantalizing Rank 1 of 7 on the tooltip as clue enough), Conduits are just drops but then there are layers of different upgrade mechanics through callings, Ven’ari, and just drops in general at higher item levels, once you get Conduits the game does little to really contextualize how to work with Soulbinds, change out Conduits, or how it applies for multi-spec play. Some of the world quests in Shadowlands do a lousy job of making clear what it is that you have to do, or have multi-step objectives that appear as you go and siphon more time than you might have planned to put in. The nature of legendary crafting is explained at a basic level, but then you have to pick between identically-named items with different item levels for base crafting and the nature of upgrading or how the Soul Ash costs stack up remain sort of difficult to parse in-game.

The Great Vault also does a sort of bad job of explaining how it works, like the fact that the raid options will only come from bosses you’ve defeated on a given difficulty, so if you get a Heroic first slot option but have only cleared the first 3 bosses, those loot tables are all you can access, or if a Mythic Plus run has to be timed or not. Sure, you could argue that the Mythic Plus part works similarly to the old chest anyways, but you cannot assume that a player is familiar with that. Likewise, while the wording on the Mythic Plus slots doesn’t call out that the run has to be timed, it is left vague and the game should make that clear to players.

Ven’ari offers weekly quests that aren’t clearly marked as such, which means you may pick them up and hold off on doing them, only to find that you can’t because reset day happened (they really need a new quest indicator for weeklies!). The various events in the Maw are left sort of vague on rewards – I’ve had to tell a number of guildies that the Soulhunter event has a chance to reward a Maw-usable mount, the Wrath of the Jailer event offering Mythic-dungeon level gear isn’t clear from the in-game UI, and stuff like the sockets you can add to gear from Ven’ari are left sort of just on her vendor table, with the expectation that you discover them.

In fact, that might describe the biggest obstacle I see with the game right now – Blizzard loves the concept of “discoverability,” where the game is a sort of black box that you stumble through until you find the right stuff, and the theory is that this aids retention by making players who successfully struggle through the discovery stick with the game out of a sense of pride from their detective skills. In theory, I don’t even necessarily object to this – when a game has left little things for me to figure out, my figuring them out does instill a certain joy and makes me more likely to stick with the game for longer. However, there is a difference between discovering in-game secret events or rewards, and discovering the core mechanics of player power acquisition or discovering a base level of understanding about the adventure board.

That’s where I think I need to diverge from my early point about how difficult explaining mechanics can be. When the system is new and being introduced to everyone in-game for the first time, you can and absolutely should be capable of writing an interesting, compelling way for the game to explain these systems to players. That is something that can certainly be done from an immersive, in-game perspective that maintains the kayfabe of the virtual world while also introducing the player behind the screen to how they should interact with it. On the examples I listed above, Blizzard absolutely did not rise to the challenge on them, and I think that the player outcry over poorly-explained systems is valid and worth addressing in future patches.

Change management is hard, and I don’t envy Blizzard for the work they have to do on that front. However, I think they have a responsibility to better meet that challenge in World of Warcraft, and I hold out hope that they will do so.

9 thoughts on “Shadowlands and Change Management – Where Things Went Awry

  1. Whole heartedly agree. I wrote something a long time ago about my feeling that they made a mistake many years ago, letting WoWhead handle tool tips on gear. It wasn’t a bit thing back then, you still had active forum posters that created and maintained guides, people would ask questions, others would answer, there was a community in the forums. Over the years more and more shifted and now the forums are a pit of posts asking for playable races, calling for class changes etc. WoWhead has guides, Icy Veins has guides “by top players” MMO Champion is a shell of what it was. And don’t get me started on the Discord Class channels. At some point, a few people realized they could make a buck off a game, and it swelled into a micro industry of web sites and groups all with their hands out. There is a day coming where Activision May pull the plug, and a lot of people will be out of work. I’ve been told that’s crazy, never happen, WoW still makes money. But then I just point over to WoW Insider who got lucky fans chipped in to save them. People are hurting now. I would say 97 out of 100 people I know are watching where every penny goes. They can justify the $15 a month, but all the Patreons, CoFi, and other donation platforms? Yeah, there is a fallout coming. And I fear we will find ourselves scrambling to find info, but it won’t be there.

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  2. > This week’s reduction for most players to 2 Renown maximum was a change that you might have been able to reasonably predict, but the game also didn’t really clarify that or state it plainly.

    As if the original “3 per week” had been communicated plainly 😉 At least I don’t remember seeing it ingame

    > If you don’t push an ad about Cataclysm timewalking this week

    That’s actually one thing I think is fine, if you use the ingame calendar. Even when we didn’t use it for raid invites, I had used it for years, mostly to check when Darkmoon Faire is up.

    > surprised about Covenant armor upgrades

    I find that weird. Most people I spoke to simply talked to all NPCs in their covenant hall when they unlocked it. So even without reading anything out of game it was kinda understood for the most part.

    Fully agree on the rest though.

    We just tried to explain to someone who just hit 60 and isn’t really involved how Torghast works with the layers, modes, different versions (quest, normal, twisting) and the rewards, and then a few tips. It took 10 minutes longer than it should have, this is a player who has played for 10 years on and off.

    And don’t get me started on the adventure table – we had several people who did all the past versions of this (Garrison, Class Hall, BfA) and it still is so convoluted and different that basically nobody grasped it at first sight.

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  3. I think the playerbase can be broken down into two groups: “Who Cares, let’s play!” and the sort that write long articles about change management.

    Let me tidy that up a bit.

    Back in the old days of RPGs when computers were powered by coal and the Sun was flickering to life, underlying systems were more of a mystery. You knew, for example, that as a mage you had a selection of spells, and, frequently, would learn what they did as you learned of the spell (in some cases maybe the “manual”, a thing we don’t use now, had a list, but it might not be accurate).

    And that was about it. You had no crib nodes on how the spells interacted with others (first time using Fireball? Always a hoot!) but rather you did a thing, noted its effects, and took notes. By the time you got to the final boss (they didn’t call them that back ten either) you knew the strengths and weaknesses of your spellbook, which spells you must always have memorized, and so forth.

    And then there’s the ones that twitch on every blue post because, well, they’re competitive raiders or what have you,

    I think Blizz’ “difficulty” in this is that in some corners there are people that are still wanting to make games for The Filthy Casuals, those guys that just play a game and have fun. People that such dissemination is wasted on (and it is).

    Now, that does not try to relive them of the requirement to make systems that are intuitive to use. If things like crafting or the “Adventure table” are just a convoluted mess (they are) then the main problem is that somebody needs to do a better job designing it in the first place. (insert my usual whine about how crafting needs an overhaul, across all professions).

    In that case, it’s less about communicating the changes. It’s that they need to in the first place.

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  4. Back when the main communication mode for mmorpgs was the official company forums I saw several developers quote the 1-9-90 rule: one per cent of your players post on the forums, another 9% read them and the rest of your players, a full 90%, never visit the forums at all. Back then, playing several mmos, I was in a series of medium-sized, active “family” guilds and it always needed the same handful of people to tell the rest of the guild what was happening. I can remember many times when guild chat was filled with question after question following some update or other, the answers to all of which had been available in official PR material and/or patch notes for days or weeks. It wasn’t at all unusual for regular players to express complete bewilderment over the serrvers being down for scheduled maintenance, even when it was right there in the MOTD.

    The problem, and I see it all the time in the bookstore where I work, is that a lot of people never pay any atention to messaging even when it applies directly to something they are de facto involved with. You wouldn’t believe the number of times people ask me for directions to something while standing literally underneath a sign telling them it’s right there. I’m not really sure there’s much that can be done about that level of disconnection but as someone who generally does read instructions and who does research (and write about) game systems and mechanics in mmorpgs I play, I’d have to say that WoW is about the most misleading, badly-documented game I know.

    As someone who’s played quite a lot of WoW but only as a casual leveller and who tends to come and go with long gaps lasting months or a even a year or more between bouts of play, I can attest to the fact that a ridiculous amount of out-of-game information is out of date or inaccurate. Even on the very big sites like WoWHead you absolutely cannot assume what you’re reading is correct. And as soon as you just start googling for answers then god help you. The info in game is better but it’s far from easy to find. I spend more time just roaming around looking for stuff in WoW than just about any mmo I can think of and when I do find, say, a portal that looks like it might go where I want, chances are it will be labelled with lore names I don’t recognize and I’ll have to go look those up out of game to check.

    It doesn’t really surprise me to hear that even relatively hardcore players are finding accurate and timely information lacking in Shadowlands. It seems to be endemic throughout the game and I guess the deeper in you go, the more complex it’s going to get. My guess is that there is no really straightforward, effective way to get these kind of details out to the broad mass of players and that’s why Blizzard has made a virtue out of necessity by calling the lack of detail “discoverability”.

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    1. “The problem, and I see it all the time in the bookstore where I work, is that a lot of people never pay any atention to messaging even when it applies directly to something they are de facto involved with.”
      Indeed, yes. I have started including in my first-day-of-class opening spiel that although there’s no such thing as a stupid question about the course content, there IS such a thing as a lazy question about course policies & events — answers to which can be found in the Syllabus and the Announcements I post every day — and lazy questions annoy the heck out of me.

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      1. Nice distinction, that nails one of the things that bothered me from my time on the podium, but never put together the words to express it. It’s almost like trolling the instructor!

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  5. Maybe the fact that they are obtuse systems is the problem, and less that there’s no guide to help people sort it out.

    There are intuitive systems in WoW. Quite a few. Classic is a super example of that philosophy. Now, we have a game that can’t be played the way Blizz designed without 8 mods, a video guide, and 4 bars of keys. Its got a meta layer on its meta layer.

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