Another View On The World of Warcraft Community – The Quietly Playing Majority

In my post earlier this week on the WoW community, a valid point that was raised is the question of who constitutes the “community” – for the purpose of my post, I had zoomed in on a very specific slice of the community, which was largely content creators and those who talk about the game on social media and how that discussion has turned awfully sludgy over the last year and change as WoW’s fortunes have dwindled.

Something that is nearly always true about enthusiast communities in general though, is this – most people who engage with an activity do not go out of their way to discuss it. For most people, playing a game is the activity, and it doesn’t push them to read, write, or participate in any community conversations that take place outside the bounds of the game. It also leads to an interesting question, one that I’ve often puzzled over, especially in this WoW-heavy week of topics – what is it that those players want or like in the game?

That might sound almost accusatory in tone, but it is a genuine question being asked. In conversations like ones had on this page, on Twitter, in Wowhead comments, and the like, you’re seeing a self-selecting batch of people who are highly engaged with the game – far beyond the active engagement of any other player. Definitionally, even readers who go to a site like Blizzard Watch, WoW Insider, or especially small blogs, are a minority within a minority of the playerbase. If, as a writer or commenter, you fancy yourself a champion for positive change and improvements, how can you be sure that you’re hitting the mark?

It’s a question I know I’ve grappled with a bit here, and the short answer is that you can’t know. Not with any evidentiary support, at least.

For those who are here, I get a good general sense of what they find valuable in the game, mostly. I find that funny sometimes because many of my readers are quite unlike me in what they enjoy in the game – most of the bloggers who did stuff like Heroic raiding or M+ have fallen off the game altogether, which is a rather interesting topic to explore at some other time. But I can only get that insight because they are discussing the game themselves, and granting a window into their play with that.

But your average player doesn’t offer that information up, not in any real capacity where a stranger could see it.

So, what is the hook to WoW (or any MMO) for these people?

Well, it depends. The problem with assessing anything without explicit knowledge is that a game like WoW, like FFXIV, or Lost Ark – any MMO – is that they are so often buffets of content that you can pick and choose from. Each of these games offers so much, from mini-game modes to housing to trades to high-end PvE and PvP content, and they’re all interesting on some level.

In truth, this type of player is the backbone of the game, because they’re often not engaged with anything but their own gameplay, and so as long as the gameplay is appealing to them, they’ll stick with it. Of the around 1-million people playing WoW, I would take a guess that like 75% have likely never spoken about the game in any public forum or platform. I’d also guess that something like 50% or more have never even left the game for guides or reading content about it, and just followed along with what the game offers. A big part of my call for better in-game guidance comes from thinking about these players – if I told a friend who has never played to play WoW, could they do it without needing to ask me questions or leaving the game for a guide or tool? The easy answer is that WoW today is too complicated, but at the same time, if you just play and read quest text and do it all contemporaneously with new features and systems, getting the drip-feed intended by design, you can probably figure it out. Sure, there’s min-max and definitely things that the game can be much clearer on, but the average player does not need to min-max and provided that unclear moments of gameplay don’t create too much friction on the experience, they can be guessed through or fumbled on and still be engaging or enjoyable.

That really brings me to the main part of this post I wanted to get at today, which is this – for all the talk in the community online about the game and its health or lack thereof, ultimately, we are looking at a minority of people playing even currently in total. The majority of players, by choice, do not have a say in the various slapfights and meandering arguments I discussed in my last community post. When those of us who are extremely online for the game talk about what should come next, we’re often speaking from and for a minority of the playerbase – the people we talk to, the people we see, and the people we know. You might get some perspective from people who are blissfully disconnected from the online discussion – my guild has several who log in and just play – but there is an ever-larger group out there just playing. Are they enjoying the game? What would they like to see improve? In large part, we do not know.

The hope then is that Blizzard does, that they find ways to aggregate their feedback through telemetry data and play session analysis – what points do players reach when they stop, what pushes a player past an average play session’s length, etc. The problem with data analysis without actual feedback or player thought behind it is that they, just like us, are on the outside of that process and left to guess. Does a player stop a session early at a given quest because it is frustrating, wears thin, or just because some real life thing comes up? Does a player keep pushing past average session length because they’re enjoying a piece of content, because they just want to get it over with, or because they have a work holiday the next day and don’t have as many constraints on that evening’s game time?

The folly of the discussion community (to use a narrower term) around any game online is that we can know or speak to their concerns or interests in abstract, or that we can even have any large-scale “majority” opinion of the game. Blizzard has data but has to try and tease out the trendlines from it, we have feedback that we can see that comes from a small portion of the community and often has multipliers based on who is sharing and who wants those thoughts to be increased in volume, and no one has a 100% accurate picture of what the entire playerbase of WoW actually…wants.

When the game was vastly more popular, the game’s online community had a bit more diversity of thought among it – there were a ton of people who could write and record content and shared their thoughts on the game. There were web comics, discussion forums, multiple large fansites – WoW Insider (now Blizzard Watch), worldofwar.net (I went to a meetup with the site admins there at the first Blizzcon and got a shirt for free!), and the community discussion was more lively – in good ways and bad. Early WoW community online was the raging casual debate, something that had a pretty negative impact on the vibes around the game. Early WoW community online was also this blossoming space with collection talk, rare hunting, machinima, and this weird sense of bonding over something simple we all just sort of did. For much of my time participating in WoW discussion, as a commenter, a writer on a 10-year old Tumblr blog I kept for like 4 months, or this site here, I’ve most enjoyed the conversations had with people whose tastes in game are unlike mine, or for those who do a lot of the same stuff but have different POVs. I’ve raided with a core group of friends for over a decade, and that rotation has had people come in and out and seen new faces added on, and that is very different to a fair number of people I see who have their guilds as this very separate, game-only space that doesn’t apply much outside of the game.

As WoW has gotten smaller, who is left discussing publicly are the people the game has served best. In many ways, this has been the raiding and dungeon community – competitive, high-skill PvE content has been something of a focus for WoW, and yet the irony is that it isn’t even the thing that has received the most expansion over time. World content and stuff that can be done in short play sessions has become a clear focus. We’re a long way from Wrath and Cataclysm, when the game added minimal or no story/questing content in a patch or relied on a basic, rotating set of daily quests. Since Mists of Pandaria, the game has added more non-instanced PvE content to the roster, with a focus on story quests, expanded repeatable content outside of dungeons and raids, and new zones that have a primary focus on non-instanced activity. The players we see online often have concerns about this content being required for their raids and dungeons, but we rarely hear the other side – what does someone for whom that content explicitly serves think about it? I hear a lot of very interesting feedback about Zereth Mortis, mostly good, some bad, but it all comes from people either engaged with the community online or from people I personally know. What does the average player think of any of that stuff? The anti-casual arguments of the late aughts, I would argue, pushed a lot of people out of the public space, and so a lot of the bloggers, writers, and creators who would have focused on the expansion of that side of the game over the years were not around to have their say. Even still, the change in online communities has had a stifling effect as well – most game discussion happens in siloed Discord servers and not public, easily-searchable and linkable forums, so more of that conversation is happening in front of smaller and self-selecting audiences.

And that isn’t to say that raiding or dungeons have been perfectly maintained either. They’re still quite good and definitely the strength of the game, but they have high and low points as well. Raid design this expansion has had some real challenges, with a rather weak raid finale to Sanctum of Domination coming after the news of the Blizzard allegations putting the game on a wobbly footing with that audience, and the expansion of the Mythic Plus system with new affixes and the continuation of seasonal affixes has had teething pains, not to mention some significant dungeon retuning done season after season, almost always on live as opposed to PTR. However, I can say as a player who did that content more than most and more than other activities in the game, that even with those weaknesses, the PvE content in WoW is still among the best in the genre, and so it makes a lot of sense that the people you see persisting in the public eye tend to be raiders, dungeoneers, and the like.

The struggle of writing about the game and trying to do a serviceable job of understanding multiple perspectives on the game is simple enough to state through this lens – no one can truly know what the silent masses think. Normally, when someone invokes a “silent majority” it is a fallacy intended to deceive in favor of one’s own viewpoint, but here, I am pretty sure the silent majority of the game’s players would want something different than I do. At least, the start of their wishlists for the game would look different than my own. I want better-designed raid content that hews closer to what the game used to be exceptional at, and repeatable content that rewards on my own terms, while I might turn up my nostrils at exceptionally-involved world content. But there is overlap there too, I am sure of it. I think a large number of players would like the story to be better and more compelling – I think the meme that people don’t care about it (including the times I’ve done it myself!) is more a defense mechanism than anything (although some people genuinely don’t care). I think the game being more comprehensible and understood on its own terms without leaving the game would be beneficial to all audiences. Regular content updates don’t just serve the WoW junkies but also those casual players – and I would not be surprised to find that a large part of the move away from WoW over Shadowlands is due to people simply finishing their goals and not having stuff to do as much as it is any specific concerns about story or content.

Ultimately, I guess I wanted to visit this topic today because it’s something that is easy to brush aside. When I looked critically at the WoW community on Monday, the big thought was the big online discussions, the influencer space, but they (nor I) represent the community at large. We’re all kind of just screaming into the void, because it certainly feels like Blizzard is not listening most of the time, and I want to use that as a setup for tomorrow’s post, or at least a chunk of it. Yet beneath the caustic, rolling surface of the game’s community, there’s a larger chunk of people whose motivations and interests in the game remain a mystery. Any discussion invoking a majority or portion of the playerbase needs to (and often does not) account for these players, and I think the space as a whole (my own writing included) could do better to at least try to. Not to drag them into this space to share, but to instead acknowledge that there is a larger number of people just playing the game and that any amplification of community sentiment online ultimately still reflects a small portion of the total playerbase, whose ideal WoW we may never know or see (or may very well have seen and been unaware).

9 thoughts on “Another View On The World of Warcraft Community – The Quietly Playing Majority

  1. People like you and I, people that blog about it and read about it and raid weekly are not really the important ones. That is a very slim minority. The vast majority is what you call that “silent” majority, and, if they don’t get a handle on what keeps those people playing, it’ll all be over. WoW is not sustainable on the raiders’ pocketbooks alone.

    So I hope they figure that out.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Bhagpuss commented on this on my most recent post on my blog, and I’d like to hear him expound on this quite a bit more. One thing that he did mention that really caught my attention is the possibility that the million or so players that subscribe to WoW are all the loudest people in the room that are left, and all the ‘casual’ players moved on to something else. I can say that since the “WoW player” is one bucket with two different branches –Retail and Classic– it’s entirely feasible that the number of WoW players who primarily or only play Retail are significantly smaller than the 1 million subscribers to the game.

      The irony is that because of Kaylriene’s most recent posts, I went and dug out some old blogs that used to be active, including Gevlon’s Greedy Goblin, and boy was his caustic nature worse than I remembered. If someone were interested in trying out WoW and came across his blog while checking out opinions, they might never have started playing.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Haha, yeah, Gevlon was a complete and utter pill. I dropped that one so fast, blocked any mention of him on Twitter, and burned my PC just to be sure.

        I had been thinking that what we have left IS the “noisy ones” but couldn’t utter the words, because that means that WoW has already lost the kind of gamer that can sustain the game. That is a depressing thought.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. I use to write a lot. The good the bad, could knock out 1000 words on a topic with a bare minimum prompt. I once wrote a long well thought out discussion on guilds, the problems, potential solutions, multiple ideas for quality of life improvements, all from the perspective of a Guild Leader with a guild capped at 1000. It was a very popular post linked to Twitter, shared to many notable WoW employees. And I never heard a word, never even a like from someone tagged that worked there. It was disheartening, seeing all those words, the ideas, the comments saying you should share this, this is good stuff. I think it was the only post I ever had with well over 100 views from all around the world. And it left me with a feeling, why should I bother writing, sure a handful of people may read or comment, but if even 1 great blog post out of over 1000 didn’t even get a glimmer of attention, was there really a point to keep doing it. I did for awhile, closed out one blog, started a new one, scrapped one or two, finally just stopped. I’ve seen so many bloggers that I use to get an exciting feeling seeing they had a new post, all slowly fade away. It’s funny, I saw the notice the other day, congrats on 9 years with WordPress I can’t even recall the platform my original was on 2 years prior. But the community keeps getting smaller every year. Replaced with influencers on Twitch talking at their masses of followers.

    But I did have an interesting thought on community. I got my start on one of the last 4 servers created for the game after Wrath had launched. US-Borean Tundra, nothing boring about Borean. Lol. It was a unique social experiment in its own way. It was opened at the beginning of January 2009, open to new players, but locked out to transfers for the first 6 months. Oh sure you had your experienced players that breezed through leveling and got their gate opening achievements since it had never been done on this server. From what I recall, it was about 40% Vanilla/BC vets, and 60% mothers and fathers, kids picking up their first MMO game, older people, married, single, we were a hot mess. We were also called every name in the gamers book of insults, casuals, noobs, carries, we were everything wrong with the game. We put up with it for 6 months. We worked to get everything we had, we started looking out for ourselves, how you acted in the community had repercussions, we got hard. And then one day, most of them left. I was in a guild, had somehow been made a top officer because I was an adult, and would answer questions and help out people even though I wasn’t even at max level. And one day the guild leader disbanded the guild, took everything in the bank and left the server. Can you imagine what it was like for me getting whispers in game from 11 and 12 year olds upset thinking they did something wrong and why did they get kicked out of the guild. I helped them find other guilds, I was asked to join one of the larger raiding guilds and they did not want kids under 18. Anyway, over the next few years we grew as a server, we learned, figured things out, we had a community. And we had some crazy guy in his 50’s on Twitter talking up this great server, and why it was special, and some people came, they rolled Alts, played the game just to play the game. We weren’t top 10, even top 100 you could find us easy on WoW Progress by starting at the bottom and scrolling up a little. We congrats people for getting achievements, said hello when people logged on, if someone in trade needed help it was met with, “sure thing, give me a sec”. It was more about the entire server doing well, than any one guild. It was a happy time to be sure. It’s when I started the whole server Christmas Card I did for years and sent to Blizzard every December.
    But like anything it was short lived. Eventually we were connected to Shadowsong, a West Coast server, we were Central time. We were the new kids, they were the Vanilla crowd. There were some growing pains, a bit of us and them, we were the backwoods community and here came all the fancy city folk looking to put us in our place again. But we got along, guilds grew, I had taken over mine during Cata and had grown it from 14 characters to cap. We did things together to try to make our two small servers a bigger better one. It worked. Having some guilds more East coast worked for some, others liked the West Coast times for raiding. It wasn’t perfect, it was like being in a small town with two elementary schools, and we had all gotten older and found ourselves in high school together.
    I’ve tried to put a finger on it, when did the feel of the game change, when did it become more important to be the best, be first, mean more than having fun, mean more than taking a half hour to grab your level 80 in raid gear to help a couple of guildies clear a level 40’s dungeon so they could complete a quest. When we would all be logged in to the world defense channel watching for an alliance or horde attack so we could rush to defend, the standing in the building waiting for Wintergrasp to come up so we could get in and have our chance at the mini raid. Something changed, either the percentage of people that just wanted to play got too small, or they were shooed away by those wanting a tougher more complex game. I’m the Atari era, I had the joystick and fire button. Nintendo was crazy with those extra buttons, and PlayStation?? Lol. Yeah, too much for me. But WoW was different in the beginning expansions. It was less complex and because it was so new you had a higher percentage of people that wanted to help. They all got replaced with the L2P crowd. And I think the game has suffered for it. It might be why Classic is doing as well as it is. I don’t really know. I’m just an old man that’s been playing video games for 50 years.

    Anyway, sorry to write a novel, I’m enjoying the series. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This was a relatable novel.

      I quit playing WoW around the point of the Blitzchung affair, and the less said about Blizzard’s current moral nadir the better, but the game had been a big part of my youth and reminiscences about its past still stir something in me.

      Until I quit, I actually liked the mechanics of the modern game better than the old iterations. But undeniably, people’s approach to gaming has changed, and I don’t think WoW designers could have done very much to stop it. Bhagpuss’s point below about the displacing effect of social media is well taken, and I think the primary socialisers provided an important community lubricant (and normalised a less performance-oriented approach to the game). And, of course, competition is no longer within the ‘server family’, with all the human drama that entailed. That locality, too, provided some slack. Nowadays, one competes primarily against oneself (perfecting the parse), against the global leaderboard, and against artificial benchmarks set by the tiers and the seasons. The numbers are very precise, the encounters suffer from complexity creep, and it amounts to a harsher standard.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. When I dabbled in 100% of the game it’s was well worth $15 a month. When PvP started to get beyond me I still dabbled in 75% of the game and $15 a month was still decent. When I could no longer keep up with the pace required to raid and stopped I was down to about 50% and I’m still subbed. With dungeons going to Mythic +, and random heroic groups being a toxic swamp I just stopped that. I think I was down to about 30% of the game, and now with the current content I’m at pretty much 0%. If I was not the guild leader, and knew the next expansion would be even less appealing I would just cancel and walk away.

        Like

  3. Great post and some very interesting comments, too. As Redbeard says, I was talking about much the same thing in his comment thread recently and it’s a drum I’ve been banging for many years. I realize it’s paradoxical, pontificating about the silent majority as a very vocal mmorpg blogger but there are two specific things I’ve observed both in and out of game over the last couple of decades.

    One is that the very great majority of all the people I socialized with, back in the years when most of my play was social, almost never read, heard or thought about the mmos they played except while they were literally playing them. I was in several guilds of middling size, fifty to a hundred members, where it was the norm for people not even to know there was an update due until they tried to log in and found the servers down. A handful of guildies who did pay attention would usually end up explaining whatever changes had been made every time someone else logged in. I don’t think I would be exaggerating much to say a lot of the people in those guilds rarely even read the patch notes as linked in the launcher, let alone went to the forums.

    I don’t believe the average player would be that disconnected from the support structure of the game they were playing these days, but I suspect that’s because thjose kinds of players don’t really play mmorpgs any more. At that time mmos were effectively a kind of social media. As I said somewhere this week, WoW in the noughties had the reputation of being that game where you logged in after work to chat to your seven year old nephew and your grannie. It was the Facebook of its day but once the real Facebook got going a lot of people didn’t really need the distraction of all that orc and elf stuff any more. I’d guess the biggest reason WoW subs dropped an order of magnitude in the last few years has a lot more to do with a huge number of WoW “players” no longer needing to play WoW at all to keep in touch with the people they knew there.

    At the same time, the sheer amount of non-combat things you can do in an mmorpg has grown out of all recognition. That makes the genre a great place for all kinds of people to enjoy some very specific content without reference to the framework of group and raid instances that used to be central to the experience. WoW is actually well behind the curve there, particularly in the way Blizzard are so dead set against housing, but even in WoW there are multiple options available that would fill most people’s evenings without recourse even to LFR, much less Mythic+ (I use those terms as if I know what they mean!). Some of those people do talk about their gaming choices in public spaces but they’re nowhere near as well-represented as the traditional pursuits of the Dungeon/Raid/PvP lobbies.

    Which brings me to the other change, which is the gradual disappearance of bloggers and commentators who prefer to write about those non-core activities. There used to be a lot more of them than there are now, not least because there used to be a lot more bloggers period. Partly its that the whole thing of sharing what you do online has moved to other media – video first then streaming, primarily. I’d be interested to know how many people there are uploading videos of their pet battles or live-streaming as they decorate a new mmo house they just bought. For all I know there could be hundreds of them but the nature of those kinds of visual presentations make it far less likely I’ll ever see them than if they were all putting out seven-hundred word blog posts that take me five minutes to read over a coffee.

    What I do end up reading are bloggers like you and Redbeard and Shintar, who tend to discuss progression-oriented content in detail and post long, analytical pieces like this. People I used to read, who just posted amusing memes or funny stories about their last session, all went dark years ago and very few similar bloggers have appeared to replace them. It does end up with the same subset of people, mostly with an overlapping set of interest, all talking to each other and re-inforcing what we already think we know. As you say, how any of us are going to get to hear other voices is unclear.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. “if you just play and read quest text and do it all contemporaneously with new features and systems, getting the drip-feed intended by design, you can probably figure it out”

    I’m going to link this video by Venruki and show exactly how this statement is objectively incorrect –

    There are so many obfuscated layers of ephemeral systems and mechanics that impact the player experience in the post-Legion design paradigm that instantly make casual players like this guy quit as soon as they are made aware of the time and mental investment burden they represent.

    Like

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