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).