Analyzing The MMO Community & Its Relationship With World of Warcraft

One thing I find fascinating about being primarily a WoW and FFXIV player is that sometimes, it feels like being on the outside looking in.

I’ve probably danced around saying this directly at points, but I sort of hate-read MassivelyOP. When I say “hate-read” it might convey a sense of disgust that is too severe, but there is no better term for it. I don’t really go there to be enlightened or read something fascinating – I usually go there, read a few posts, get to a WoW post (or especially the comment thread on a WoW post) and then shake my head and close the tab. Sometimes the posts are entertainingly written, but there is a definite feeling for me of being the Garfield “wonder who that’s for” meme, if both Garfields were replaced by the WoW logo.

But the funny thing I find about MMO commentary in general is that WoW discussion is compulsory.

What do I mean by that? That’s the topic of this part of the post!

To start this section with, and to preface the whole post, I want to make this clear. I do read MassivelyOP and go back occasionally to read more, and while I am going to be harshly critical here, I also know that I’m not really their target demographic, and I’m okay with that! I think the writers there have their specific interests and I think consuming content critical of your favorite media is good and healthy, because it prompts more thought about what you find engaging with it. If you think I’m just going to bully MOP here, don’t worry, the back-half of the post is dedicated to some commentary on Wowhead and how I dislike elements of that site as well!

Every game I’ve played has its own vibrant subculture of player blogs, subreddits, and discussions – but there is a sort of old-school tendency for gaming blogs to exist by genre. Before this blog became my sort of general gaming discussion hub, I would have called it an MMO blog, and I wrote about multiple games – two mostly, but I have posts documenting attempts at playing Guild Wars 2, Riders of Icarus, and Everquest II. The thing about most MMO blogs that designate themselves as such that I find fascinating is this – they are largely for players who play non-WoW MMOs, but there’s too many clicks on the table, too much ad revenue and too many Patreon subbies given up if you don’t talk about WoW, so a WoW section becomes a requirement of sorts.

The specific issue I have with MassivelyOP is that it largely reads like a troll’s WoW blog. It isn’t nearly as bad as late WoW mentions on Gevlon’s blog (some day I’ll write about the couple of times I’ve fallen down that hole) but it sort of circles it, waiting for air control to give the go-ahead to land there. That might also be too harsh, in that sometimes, the people who do write about WoW there often still seem like they maybe play the game once in a while, but it feels like there’s little attempt made at substantive criticism. For every few posts that are good and interesting, there’s one like the most-recent WoW Factor, which basically just reads like an extended shitpost on MMO-Champion’s forums. There’s an effort in parts of the post to have something interesting to say, like the rather bold admission on that site that Blizzard’s investor report MAU data cannot actually be reliably extrapolated to confirm that WoW is specifically losing players, but then the post ends on the king of all strawmen:

As one last aside, if you’d like to come into the comments and say that actually you are happy with the current state of the game any(and) you like everything about it, congratulations! You must be having a grand old time. How’s your friend list looking these days? I hope it feels robust.

So first of all, no thank you – I’ve seen your comment section, and I don’t think I’ll touch that.

No, I Don't Think I Will | Know Your Meme

Secondly, though – no, of course there aren’t that many people who love everything about WoW, and man, that is some troll-ass shit to put in there, to be blunt. THIS is the statement that made me push this post from “draft idea I might write some day that would include larger community focus” to “okay it’s 4:31 AM on a Sunday and I’m gonna crack open this energy drink and write.”

So let’s evaluate why this statement set me on this path (and why I’m here writing about it with a link to the post instead of just quote carving it).

I know that Eliot, the writer of the post, reads WoW blogs. He reads this blog, and I know that because my work frequently gets linkbacks at MassivelyOP including in his pieces. If I wake up to a spike of 30 readers who read one post with no clear origin stats in my Jetpack dashboard, it’s probably because of that.

The reason I find their coverage of the game so particularly awful is this: there’s not really a foundation of care in their WoW commentary. I like reading people who care and want a thing to be better, or who care and want to extoll the virtues of the thing. My problem with MassivelyOP, and other blogs that strike a similar tone with regards to WoW, is this: there’s a voice of not caring in the writing, to which I ask – well, what the fuck are you writing about it for? Like, if you admit that WoW isn’t your cup of tea in its current form, and your writer’s voice tends to be in this space of aloofness, then why should I want to read it? I do care.

One thing I’ve tried to make abundantly clear about my engagement with WoW is this: I don’t think the game is perfect or satisfies every MMO craving I have. I think it has huge gaps in a number of places, from systems and mechanics to story to monetization, but at the same time, it has a degree of comfort for players who’ve stayed engaged with it. Even when I find the game grating or off-kilter, it still has a sort of homey feel to it, you know? And a lot of people have that feeling about different games – it is certainly not unique to WoW. So one of the things I think about when writing WoW posts is this – what is it that I want and why am I still here?

Throughout the ever-burning 9.0 content cycle, one of the things I’ve been pretty consistent on is that I am playing with goals in mind that are personally satisfying and that is where I find my desire to play. Finishing Ahead of the Curve for the raid tier? Personally rewarding, especially as raid lead. Getting my item level up? Personally rewarding and gameplay-improving. Getting to Shadowlands Keystone Master for Season 1? Personally rewarding and it makes gearing subsequent alts easier through Valor upgrades. Getting the Corridor Creeper? Useless in 9.1, but good for now in getting level 50 alts through the Maw starting experience and into the Shadowlands.

I don’t need to rattle off too many bonafides on the topic, because if you’ve read my blog for any length of time, you’ll have seen a large number of posts expressing concern with Shadowlands, concerns with BfA, concerns with Legion, and documenting how I’ve managed to stay engaged with the game through many, but critically not all, of those issues. Throughout it all, though, WoW has remained sort of the core of my blog here because it is what got me to start writing. It’s the game I’ve played the most, the longest, the franchise I have the most investment in as a continued work.

Sometimes I’ll joke about Stockholm Syndrome, being a prisoner in the game, but at the same time, I’ve walked away from it before. I spent most of Burning Crusade not playing. I spent months in the middle of Mists of Pandaria not playing. I took a number of winter breaks from the game which I documented here, and I pretty much gave up on it at the end of Battle for Azeroth! I’ve played the game for a long time, but I don’t have the 10-year wolf, because I’ve dropped in and out at all sorts of places for all sorts of reasons, some related to the game and others not.

Ultimately, here’s the beef – I want to read people who care about the topic at hand. If you care and want it to be better, great! The writing should reflect that. But it doesn’t – I largely find posts about WoW at MassivelyOP to be circlejerks about how the game is swirling the drain, with comment sections full of people who have moved on from WoW. And that’s fine! Moving on from WoW isn’t a sin of any sort, but it feels a bit like checking on your ex-girlfriend’s Facebook feed to continue discussing it as the sole topic in a post or comment. Like, you moved on, didn’t you? If it isn’t for you, that’s fine – but maybe find someone who it is for who can write about the topic with some clarity.

The large part of that post outside of the trolling ending was the same sort of wishful, vengeful thinking many people engage in when discussing WoW – the current devs are so disconnected that maybe we should just replace them all, and maybe it would be better if they all lost their jobs and the whole team was replaced whole cloth. Of course, on MassivelyOP, you can’t actually say “the developers should lose their jobs and be replaced” because that site also has to hit Activision-Blizzard at every layoff talking about how they’re people, dammit, and they deserve employment security (but also I don’t like their creative direction so they should all go and be replaced!). Here’s my hot take on that one – maybe there’s a solution that doesn’t involve rooting for people to lose their jobs, y’know? Like, you can dislike Ion and there are some compelling reasons to do so – but I find it hard to take you seriously if you wail at every layoff and then also discuss how the team should be replaced. I disagree with layoffs generally and think that Blizzard could find a solution that doesn’t involve a mass purge of the developers I don’t like or that I think are bad – it isn’t hard to be ideologically consistent, folks!

I do think that it will take an ideological shift to change the game for the better, and I think it has had better days. But, at the same time, I asked myself this after reading the post – “does anyone in the chain at MassivelyOP want the game to be better?”

And I think the answer to that is no, not really, not in any substantive way. The game is held up as an avatar of what is wrong with MMOs – posts discussing it usually either focused on fact-statements “the upcoming patch will feature X, Y, and Z” or fiery rants that almost feel like a catharsis for people who’ve moved on from WoW, a morbid sort of two minutes hate. Most readers at a general MMO blog like MassivelyOP are there because they are no longer WoW players, or have sort-of moved to WoW+another game, so they aren’t exactly looking for WoW coverage, but it is effective bait for engagement. For a site that writes a lot about other games, I find it funny (downright hilarious, even) that the current popular threads section on the page shows WoW-only posts with 50% of the top commented, but when I read them, it’s all sort of the same mush.

I say this because I think I’ve largely done better in the past about writing about games I didn’t care for. I didn’t like Riders of Icarus at all and my experience with Everquest II was sort of baffling and odd, but my posts on those topics tried to walk a fine line between just tearing into the games and having something to actually say about them. Ultimately, my experience isn’t representative for everyone, just a small data point and so sure, I couldn’t get into those games, but that isn’t to say they have nothing to offer. Again, I don’t care about the courtesy of it – you can tear WoW apart! I did that with regards to the story in the last month, and every now and then I have a post that teeters on pure rant about Blizzard! But they come from a place of care and concern. I didn’t care for Riders of Icarus, so I stopped talking about it. I don’t have anything insightful to say about it specifically because it wasn’t for me, and that is okay – so I said as much and moved on.

But I get the impression that writing about WoW on an MMO blog is, indeed, compulsory. It’s there as a featured title for discussion on MassivelyOP because it can bait WoW players into reading, but also, and seemingly mostly, because hating it is also sort of a rite of passage in that kind of space. Most modern MMO players start at WoW, and it is sort of the genre default, so using it as a comparison point makes sense, but a lot of that audience has left WoW behind for other titles for some reason or another, so they’ll discuss it and join in on kicking the game in the shins. It’s fun to be in a circlejerk, but when it ends all that’s left is a mess.

But, lest you think I’m too critical of a community that I’m not really engaged with on a deep level, let me talk about the other side of the coin – Wowhead.

Wowhead, The State-Sanctioned Media of WoW

I like Wowhead generally as a service and tool, first of all. I need to say that just as I wrote the disclaimer up top for MassivelyOP because I want to say that I get why they exist and I think it is generally good.

But for everything I dislike about MOP with regards to WoW, I dislike the opposites on Wowhead.

Go into any news post on Wowhead and you’ll notice a pretty tight degree of moderation. Let’s be real, sometimes it’s needed (their recent post discussing how Chromie is trans is comment locked, and I know that it is because the comments would have been deeply disgusting, transphobic, and at best, trolling – why is this in the game, who cares? – because capital-G Gamers are deeply troubled folks with shit views), but a lot of times, it is clear that they moderate aggressively to keep a sort of fictitious peace up. For as unpopular as WoW is with a general MMO audience, there is a more directed and pointed vitriol directed at it from people deeply engaged with the game. Sometimes, I think that can be good (criticism of design direction, systems layering over each other, etc) but other times, it can be bad – overuse of “casuals” as a meaningless insult, lots of sarcastic go-nowhere comments, and the like.

But Wowhead tends to be too heavy-handed in how they moderate comments and post about things. There’s a veneer of objective-neutrality, but at the same time, they rarely touch meaningfully on controversies about the game, rarely allow themselves to post “the game could be better,” and they tend to tamp down on comments hard to keep discussion on a sort of narrow trajectory.

One recent example I saw was their post about Vereesa Windrunner’s new short story, in which she mentions seeing ” a fragment” of Sylvanas’ soul in the Maw, not the whole thing. This is, of course, extrapolated in the comments into a protracted comment war of how Sylvanas is a fragment, now we know, and that also conveniently justifies the commentariat’s strong desire to see Sylvanas redeemed because “oh all the bad stuff since she came back in Edge of Night was the fragment, not her as a whole, so it’s actually another person that is different!” I could write another whole post about how irritating this notion is to me but Sylvanas posts are bad for my blood pressure, so I’ll back off.

The comments have some removals for moderation, but what I found deeply curious is what is allowed to stay. There are long comments filled with rants about how Sylvanas deserves redemption, and how “dudebros” actually wanted Arthas and Garrosh redeemed, a post that is pretty inflammatory in tone (and also full of strawmen, because I rarely see people wanting redemption for Arthas or Garrosh, and while I’m sure such people exist, they are a tiny, margin-of-error percentage of the playerbase writ large). It makes me wonder exactly what seems to constitute an “inappropriate comment” because what stays up seems to be largely Blizzard-positive. Not always, and I certainly don’t want to leave that as subtext – there is a lot of discussion about how Blizzard has made mistakes or that the game isn’t in ideal shape, but the tone is largely positive towards the game, and the comments supportive of Blizzard that end up left on the site tend to be allowed a bit more leeway.

But outside of the comments, something I find sort of obnoxious is that the tone of articles written by the site are very positive on the game, which is fine to a point, but also, I feel like Wowhead is one of the largest fansites for the game, if not the largest, and so I would like to see some more critical analysis of the game. Critical support is fine – as I mentioned with MassivelyOP, I think there’s more to say from the position of caring about the game and that things said from that perspective are more interesting to read/listen to/watch, but Wowhead rarely writes such work at the time. You’ll see in Shadowlands that they might often include references to things being poorly received in the past, but they tend not to discuss too many current things analytically. Instead, most posts are news and very much fact-based, which makes them great for that news (they have the best versions of “X is happening in Y patch” type stories) but then it also makes the occasional critical post they do host more interesting, which I guess is sort of the point.

Generally, I find reading Wowhead to be sort of sterile and non-stimulating, with that rare exception of an opinion post or some of the guide-writer analysis posts, where the debate and critique open up more, and I wish those posts were less-rare, even as I also find that them being rare makes them feel like treats of a weird sort.

But I also know that Wowhead is the WoW analogy of access journalism. They’re friendly to Blizzard and generally non-confrontational, so they get access other sites don’t – beta keys en masse for giveaways, press kits for the new releases, early access to alpha, interviews and exclusives, and sample products like upcoming WoW novels and expanded-universe stuff so they can often be first to the punch on new content. All of this in spite of the fact that Wowhead’s core business has been, for a long time, datamining and spoiling the new content coming to the game as soon as it hits a server they can read from, an act which Blizzard often comments as affecting their development cycle and the way in which they roll out PTR and new data and which they’ll often comment is a detriment to the game!

In a weird way, I find both sites to be emblematic of sides of the same coin – one is a hive where you go if you love WoW, where discussion remains mostly positive and uncritical, while the other is a place you go if you dislike WoW, where the discussion is rarely positive or focused on anything that might be working in favor of trashing the game. And both have their spaces, obviously, but I find one to be more interestingly-centered. That may be a byproduct of my own biases as well, I won’t pretend to have some sort of immunity to that.

In Conclusion – What Do I Want Out of an MMO Blog Anyways?

So with these examples of what I dislike in an MMO blog, what is it that I want?

I guess as a reader, the easiest thing to say is clear care for the topic. If you write about a game, any game, whether I like it or not, I want to know that you care and have some amount of investment in it. If you don’t like where it is today, I think that is great – discuss why that is! Make clear and concise points about what would make you come around, and ground them in some sort of reasoned discussion. “Firing the WoW team and rebuilding it” isn’t that, obviously – but discussion of what things you would prefer to see in game would be great and ultimately, the kind of subjective critique I could get with. I actually like reading people who liked WoW at one point, don’t anymore, and have things to say about it – most of my blogroll at this point is people who are either extremely disconnected from the modern game and willing to discuss why that is, or people who are into the current game but have strong points of objection. I’ll read a ton of commentary if you have an interesting framing and clearly care about the topic. I read most of Wilhelm Arcturus’ EVE commentary, and I’ve never played it and have no intention of trying it!

I don’t think it’s fair to say you have to currently be waist-deep in a game to have something to say about it, and I would avoid an engagement metric being the criteria for what is interesting to read. However, I would point to the example of Shintar – who was not playing retail when I started following her but had a lot of interesting things to say about the game, and like Wilhelm’s EVE posts, has a lot of interesting and engaging posts about SWTOR, a game which I haven’t played seriously since it launched 10 years ago (oof, that timeframe just hit me hard). In the WoW landscape, a lot of players I read heavily don’t play at the content I enjoy, but I find them fascinating all the same. Gnomecore is a good example of someone who writes about stuff that I think many of us miss, and that makes his content more interesting to me, as well as being a good canary in the coal mine for when things are amiss, as they are now!

Were I to distill this post to its simplest essence, it would be this – I think that MMO blogging can be more enlightening, more engaging, and more interesting by showing more care for the virtual worlds discussed, like them or not. I have WoW sites for WoW news and analysis, so I find it somewhat odd the way in which general MMO blogs discuss WoW despite obviously not having a taste for it, because it makes me wonder what the audience for that really is. I think it is worth asking if discussing the game is a worthwhile endeavor or if it is something done to draw engagement from former fans with no greater interest behind it.

But I suppose it could be worse. You could be Gevlon, and no one should want to be Gevlon.

6 thoughts on “Analyzing The MMO Community & Its Relationship With World of Warcraft

  1. What is it with MOP and WordPress stats that they never get shown as a referrer? (They also never appear in any of my Google alerts either.)

    There are a couple of writers at MOP who have a clear pattern of playing to the torches and pitchforks crowd when it comes to games and studios they are clearly not fond of. But the MOP editorial stance tends towards confrontational with certain studios as well, so perhaps the writers are just following the party line. On the flip side though, in the general MMORPG genre, their competition is very poor indeed, so they stand out. You follow them or you dig through studio sites and press releases on your own.

    When it comes to WoW Head… or Icy Veins or MMO Champion for that matter… I tend to avoid any of their commentary and just read them for news and announcements and to use their blue post trackers to keep an eye on what the Blizz devs are saying.

    Thanks for the nod about EVE Online. I think most of my readership when it comes to those posts are people who do not play the game.

    I do miss Gevlon now and then. As nutty as he could be, it is sometimes useful to have a contrarian to test your opinions against. Of course, in disagreeing with him I became the subject of his scorn and I was banned from being even mentioned on his blog and I had to ban him from my comments due to his persistent and unhinged rants towards the end of his blogging days, but at his peak, in his late WoW and early EVE Online eras, he at least made you consider other points of view.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve never been able to figure out how the stats fail to catch them myself! It’s not even like I have an “unknown referrer” or something, it just looks like people randomly stumble onto the same post at once, such that I had to vanity search myself to see what might have caused it.

      The funny thing is that both the WoW and FFXIV content at MOP are by the same person, so I often find the same writing style but with one game where there is clearly a passion and one without it, which is what led me to the path I went down here, where they just kind of don’t care about WoW. I know the party line there is anti-Blizzard, I’ve seen their EIC rant about them and they indulge a large amount of secondary topics if they pose a chance to hit at Blizzard – Diablo certainly isn’t an MMO by genre conventions, yet I see it brought up constantly along with Overwatch, both in the same sort of “see it isn’t just WoW they mess up!” vein.

      But at the same time, I’ve also seen a lack of major MMO blogs anymore like that. Once Allakhazam became ZAM and then largely became “parent company of Wowhead” I feel like the writing was sort of on the wall, which, I mean, is good for small bloggers but that’s a lot of little fiefdoms!

      I should likewise take your lead on ignoring the comments on most of the WoW sites too, but I sometimes use it for post fodder (er…”inspiration”). I don’t engage short of just skimming, but it’s hard to skim without getting some grime on you as well.

      On the shoutout note – of course! I think that it’s easy to hear that EVE is Spreadsheets: The Game and I enjoy seeing more actual game and discussion of the gameplay.

      I could write multiple screeds about Gevlon, because my god, his blog was awful. I read his WoW stuff and his seminal work on “morons and slackers,” but I followed it quickly with his persecution complex in EVE (read the CCP Falcon stuff, then his stuff on you, then the linked posts to your blog about him), and then topped it off with his really bad and dumb libertarianism as the shit icing on that shit cake. It was amusing, but then I also found myself wondering what it says if he actually believes that stuff. It was pretty binge-able but also kind of disturbing, which is an interesting mix to land on!

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  2. I wasn’t gonna call out Eliot as the person that so often seems to (generously stated) “take inspiration” from your posts but yeah (I don’t actually recall seeing linkbacks, my bad I guess).

    I find his posts a good counter to the, as you so kindly stated, “access journalism” sites like WH and BW. It’s not so much I think he’s really right in most cases, but I do feel it’s important to step outside of the echo chamber from time to time.

    I do feel there’s a nugget of a point to his posts, but he’s off on the wrong track – Ion isn’t making his decisions in a vacuum, he doesn’t design every facet of the game, that’s no how software engineering even works. There’s collaboration, and the collaborators are the ones bringing the bad ideas to Ion. He’s choosing from a bunch of bad ideas so it’s no wonder we end up where we are.

    Fire all the people? Of of course not. The problem’s cultural. I don’t know how to address that, aside from bringing back the young firebrands that created this game in the first place. But they fled.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha, I do remember that email and made sure not to throw you under the bus in the post!

      I think that Eliot’s WoW work at MOP is fine enough sometimes, and there are posts that are good. I found his discussion on deterministic loot to be interesting, if self-sabotaging (you can’t make a case for a thing and then undercut it my dude!).

      I just also see his FFXIV posts, and like I said in reply to Wilhelm, if I stack his posts about the two games alongside one another, there’s clearly one he’s invested in and one he isn’t, and again, that’s fine, but it is all too clear which game he actually cares about.

      And to the point with Ion, I definitely agree. It feels like, from the outside, that there is something fundamentally broken with the design of the game and the culture around how it is designed and implemented that isn’t a single-person’s fault or lack of vision. Swapping people in and out (the most generous possible interpretation of his comments in that MOP post) doesn’t really change the corporate culture and management style enough to move the needle, IMO.

      I think the same people could even do well if they were free of the yoke of influence from above – Ion was the lead encounter designer for one of the best stretches of raid content in the game – but that is definitely a fantasy that just won’t realistically happen, and that drifts further afield of the topic of this post haha

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      1. Yeah, there’s people that blog that I have no idea why they do. They just don’t seem to enjoy the work. (let’s not speak of Gev).

        The problem with a lot of the current team is that they seem to have promoted from within without looking too hard at qualifications. I think it’s time for them to pull a few Holly Longdales, only for retail.

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  3. I’m quite behind with my blog reading so I only just got to this, and I’m blushing! Thanks for the shout-out! To be honest I was wondering whether you’d read any of my stuff since I don’t think you’ve ever commented (and while I know I’ve shamelessly self-promoted in your comment section in the past, that’s not a guarantee that anyone actually clicked the link, hehe).

    I can definitely relate to “hate-reading” MOP… I used to be much fonder of it to be honest (I even chipped in on their Kickstarter when AOL shut down the original Massively) and I still appreciate that they gather and collate news about so many different MMORPGs, but the staff clearly has a limited number of particular favourites and everything else gets treated pretty roughly in terms of editorialising. They mis-reported stuff about SWTOR a few times in the past for example… and of course the comment section for posts about most games is just full of people repeating that they played game X at launch and it sucks.

    I agree that it’s probably the worst for WoW though because everybody knows it and can understand articles about it, so it generates clicks. I’ve clicked on these sorts of articles myself a few times because curiosity got the better of me, but I do try to catch myself and stay away from that sort of content these days. Like you say, it’s just like stalking/complaining about an ex, and that’s just not good for anyone! That’s not to say that you can’t have criticism, but there’s a very noticeable difference between someone complaining about something because they love it and want it to be better and those who are long past caring and just enjoy spouting vitriol to vent.

    Liked by 1 person

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