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.