November 12th, 2021 is the last time I logged into World of Warcraft. This is the longest single break I’ve ever taken from the game, writing this now on July 18th, 2022 with the game not even so much as installed.
In brief, fleeting moments, I’ve been hit with the fear of missing out bug – FOMO. What if I just raided? What if I just did Mythic Plus? What if I just came back for a month or two, consumed the content I wanted to consume, and left again? Does doing so signal support for Blizzard where I don’t want to offer that? What do any of these feelings mean?
When the Dragonflight announcement was on the horizon, I wrote a week worth of WoW posts that culminated in the admission of the FOMO I was feeling. I had a head of steam ready to resubscribe and rejoin the battle for the afterlife of Azeroth, and then…my guild had some drama that pushed a few players out of raid, and I immediately noped out. I had a second burst of FOMO when it was confirmed that season 4 would start at the beginning of August and the Season 3 KSM mount and AOTC for Sepulcher of the First Ones would no longer be available after it. I had a third burst pretty quickly after that, as the Dragonflight Alpha test starting gave me another dose of desire to play, even if small.
Since November 12th, 2021, I’ve been pretty hard on WoW as a game, as a community, and as a hobby that I lost interest in, and while I’ve tried to thread a needle on offering commentary here that is more analytical of my own disinterest in the game, I think I’ve been too indirect in stating my concerns with the game while also admitting the honest truth – I still like WoW, at least a bit. So today, let’s take the gloves off and analyze the three lenses through which I see WoW – through Blizzard, through the community, and through the game itself.
Blizzard’s Role In Maintaining Interest
Blizzard obviously has a crucial role as the game’s developer in building a title that is worth playing. What I think we’ve all had to come to terms with over the last year is that Blizzard as an entity can also make their games wholly unworthy of support, for little fault of the game itself.
After last summer’s heartwrenching lawsuit from the state of California, supporting Blizzard for me personally became very difficult. If I am being completely honest, Blizzard was a company I idolized and looked up to as a sort of gold standard in gaming, even as the quality of their creative output slid and their interactions with the community grew more distant and left me wanting. As a lifelong pro wrestling fan, I’m all too familiar with “never meet your heroes” and the idea of separating art from the artist, especially since one of my heroes in wrestling was Chris Benoit (content warning if you don’t know and go look him up), but the possibility of a whole company being rotten to the core in that way was something I both intuitively knew was possible (and had seen before, to be fair!) and yet also something I didn’t expect from Blizzard. In spite of my personal beliefs overwhelmingly pointing to the idea that no company should be held in esteem, I was a big Blizzard fan – been to nearly every Blizzcon, got a campus tour, have some readers in the company ranks – and so in many ways, I’m still unsure how to even really feel about the news.
Blizzard as the small entity within ABK has made some public-facing improvements, and employees there seem generally okay with the direction being taken after the issues that were presented to us all, but there have been numerous backsteps too – with announcements of no wrongdoing found from internal investigations, attempts to quash unionization efforts among the QA staff, the retainer of a notorious anti-labor law firm, slow progress on any meaningful change, and the insistence from new leader Mike Ybarra of not over-engaging with the past that came before him, it is sort of hard to place any stock in Blizzard having learned much of anything, even if individual employees and lower-level leadership make improvements and Ybarra expresses a desire for positive change.
So that leaves me a quandary. On the one hand, there is no ethical consumption under capitalism, which is not just an excuse to buy from problematic companies but a genuine attempt at grappling with the inherent structure of our modern system and realizing that consumer action is wholly inadequate, and so if that is true (and I believe it is so) then playing a Blizzard game doesn’t signal that I support their laundry list of employee offenses, just like the Coke I am drinking as I write this doesn’t signal that I support a soda company assassinating union leaders in Colombia. At the same time, however, there’s a certain gross feeling I personally get from the idea of giving Blizzard money again – it just doesn’t feel like something I can tuck away in my mind, and I certainly am not dumb enough to buy into abstractions like the idea that paying for a WoW token with gold offsets any personal guilt I might have (never mind that Blizzard makes more money off a token sub and guarantees two engaged players, one who needs game time and the other who needs in-game gold). It is also difficult to reconcile the idea of consumer action, ineffective though it can feel, against the employees who maintained early in the lawsuit drama that the best way to support them was to maintain subscriptions and keep engaged with the studio’s portfolio.
Ultimately, it is a tough question with no clear right answer, and as ever, I don’t begrudge anyone on either side, because it is hard to feel like any action or inaction results in a clear message (and the likelihood is that it doesn’t anyways). For me, the answer is sort of a moving target, complicated by the fact that little I can personally do (except writing here) communicates a position clearly. My personal disgust with the idea of supporting them with a subscription comes and goes in waves, and I’ll confess to being swayed by interesting-looking content drops.
The WoW Community and Social Experience
The last 4 years have made larger creators and elements of the WoW community deeply unwell. There is a sense of hostility, more open and unguarded, that I’ve never witnessed in the game’s ecosystem before. Some people will say they never see such things (while being the very thing they claim to not see) and others are openly hostile to how the playerbase has contracted and pushback aggressively on discussion of other games in comparison to WoW. I’ve found myself having to stop following a fair number of my old YouTube standbys in particular, as a lot of the WoW-centric channels have had to adopt a hardline stance that maintains WoW is fine and players are wrong, actually.
But that is just a small part of the general malaise I’ve seen consuming the playerbase.
WoW’s playerbase has always had certain elements of regressive/reactionary mindset within it. It’s one of the first game chats, in an era before prime Xbox Live on the 360, where I saw a barrage of slurs, openly bigoted talk, and a noticeable lack of pushback on people spewing such things. I won’t say that Blizzard openly wants this, or that the playerbase as a whole or even majority is responsible for it, but there’s just a scale of open toxicity in WoW that is still sort of saddening to me. It’s only with comparison points from outside of WoW that I’ve come to realize that needing to do deep curation of my chat channels isn’t a thing that most online games require, because reporting in WoW is woefully inadequate except as an account-wide ignore since bigots and trolls largely escape unscathed. The prevalence of such within corners of the game also makes engaging to improve things difficult, if not impossible – pushing back on such often just pushes you out instead, and finding a group free of such is a Herculean task.
It’s quite telling that something simple and straightforward like Blizzard adding gender-neutral bodytype naming and the ability to select your character pronouns has to be immediately comment-locked on Wowhead, because a large undercurrent of the game’s population are awful people in that way, close-minded and unwilling to even entertain a change that would have no real effect on them or the core gameplay of the expansion. It’s similar to how people whined and caterwauled about the Social Contract in 9.2.5, that the idea of even possibly being held to account for their negative actions is some big breach worthy of fuss. These elements of the WoW community love to self-report their own shittiness, and with time and distance from the game, I see that minority of the community for what it is and am content to avoid it.
A lot of elements of WoW’s gameplay loop and design encourage a sort of competition – a desire to be number 1, a desire to win loot over those you play with, and so it frames the community as perpetually in a race against each other, rather than in a teamplay scenario working together.
This brings me to the biggest point about community interaction that has effectively pushed me out of the game – and unlike the general game sentiment, this one is personal and localized.
Last summer, I wrote about my guild quit and rejoining saga, and I’m not interested in relitigating that or starting any new drama. We resolved the major issue, I rejoined and cleared the Sanctum tier with them on Heroic, things were fine to a point. The Sepulcher tier has amplified the differing visions of what the guild can be and how things are approached, such that a couple of progression-focused players reached open hostility and forced out a fair number of raiders by being shitty to them, and it has been a recurring theme that kept coming back and cut the merged raid from around 26 players to near 13 (some of these have also just been burnout or game quits, to be fair), as a lack of punitive action towards or apology from the offenders have let those actions go unchecked. It’s made the prospect of returning to raid with them untenable for me, as the environment is not what I would want to be a part of, even if that means leaving my friends to raid with another group – and I’ve told my close friends this. I’ve watched the group of hostile players with some distaste, as a couple of them stream or engage with each other via stream chat on Twitch to shit-talk the other players in the raid, and it is clear that they have a vision for how raiding should be that is completely incompatible with the rest of the group, but because there is no consequence to be had, they push to try to transform the raid team they are on instead of finding a better fitting group. At the point one of this problem group suggested that raiding should be like work, I found myself scratching my head in morbid fascination with how these brains work.
On some level, I struggle because I also sort of get their concerns. The raid team split for the last two tiers prior to Sepulcher ended up grouping progression-minded players in one group and the more casual and slower set in a second group, and that helped keep things running mostly smooth (with concerns from the slower group about a lack of progression, however). Merging the groups was bound to create some friction, and it has. I can empathize with the concern that progression can be smoother and that it can be frustrating to be playing to your best and for that to not be enough to clear because other people in the group need more time and practice, but at the same time, the solution to that is thoughtful teamplay and collaboration, not berating and being an asshole to the other players. In their approach, they lost my support completely and any validity their points had went out the window. Refusing to apologize for being an asshole and pushing people out of the group is a big negative for me and I’ll actively choose to avoid a group that has that kind of behavior and fosters it through inaction.
So, would I want to return to WoW? Sure, maybe. Would I want to raid? Yes. Mythic Plus dungeons on the menu? Sure. Do I see that being possible with my old, existing group/guild infrastructure? No, not as things currently stand. I do like the players in the group – I even like some of the assholes when they’re not stinking the joint up with bullshit! But I won’t let myself simply slide back into a group for the sake of ease when I already know that nothing is going to meaningfully change. And, to be fair, I was a part of that too – I let the point about differing philosophies slide because when I came back, we had two teams and that sorting naturally let things be less contentious – but that was always a ticking time bomb I had acknowledged and then let be for the sake of ease and convenience. My hands aren’t clean in it, for the role I could have had to proactively mend fences to alleviate things going the way they have, and I carry some measure of guilt for having seen an outcome like this tier coming and yet choosing the convenience of ignoring it to get my clears and loot in the last tier I played.
So coming back to the WoW community, both as a high-level concept and the low-level of guild environment and the like, is a big obstacle to overcome. I have some potential options on the table – one of the people who was forced into exodus raids with a stream community that seems like my kind of vibes, but that is presumptuous that I would be invited, welcome, or that even my friend would still be playing with them in Dragonflight. I could always take my FFXIV Savage lessons to heart and simply PUG – I did that with Season 2 Shadowlands KSM and it went very well, but raid pugging was a less-positive and less-enjoyable experience in WoW for me, and it’s not something I’d be likely to want to do long-term. Perhaps the simpler solution is that I just do dungeons and watch the raid from the sidelines – but I think the bug would get me, sooner or later. My in-game chats are already pretty well curated and I can avoid the worst and most virulent bigotry and bullshit from the chud minority of WoW fans, but I don’t know how I feel about the idea of simply ignoring it or joining a game where I know that such intolerance and bullshit is just an ingrained part of the community.
But all of this talk is getting ahead of the final point I have to make, which is…
I Still Think WoW Is A Good Game Worth Playing
Early on, I bristled at the idea of stating this so plainly. If I didn’t want to play WoW, it had to have gotten bad, surely, right? Well, as I’ve reflected on the months since November 12th of 2021, I think my position is this – there are elements of WoW that are not great, and there are things I damn sure wish Blizzard would do in terms of design, community moderation, and feedback management that would make things better. In spite of that, however, I think the core game of WoW is still a really solid, fundamentally sound MMO experience. It’s lost a lot of the RPG elements in terms of being able to meaningfully build your character (and Dragonflight has some changes aimed squarely at that concern), and I do think that the world design has lost some of the charm and environmental storytelling WoW once excelled at, but it has leaned hard into what the playerbase has evolved into, and on that front, WoW is still near the top of the class. If you like raiding, WoW has one of the largest and most robust raid scenes around. If you like dungeons, WoW’s systems enable players to engage all day every day with them. If you like decent and interesting casual gameplay, WoW’s world content is a fairly broad range of interesting things you can do to burn away a few minutes to a few hours.
It’s not a good story game (to the extent it ever really was), and the content distribution is pretty lopsided in favor of those who want to raid or do dungeons both in terms of amount of content but also in responsiveness to feedback from players, but there is something there for a large swath of players. When I reflect on negative experiences in WoW as a game, most of the time, it has little to do with the game itself but rather the game as a setting for a negative social interaction. To be fair, the game’s design does push some of these interactions with a focus on hypercompetitive gameplay in the raid and dungeon scene, but it simply exacerbates a social friction issue that will always exist in an online game and doesn’t really create a new one. For every hour of WoW time I’ve spent pushing progression content, I’ve easily spent 2-3 hours just vibing in Azeroth, listening to music or watching some YouTube video while half-engaging my brain with world content, gathering, or alt leveling. Perhaps interestingly, one of the things I like most about WoW is how disengaged I can be while still playing it most of the time, that it does not actually demand a high amount of concentration and focus of me at this point in time. I have raids and Mythic Plus for focused, concentrated bursts of heavy gameplay and the rest of the time, I’m free to just hang out and chill. That is something I valued a lot about my time with WoW.
But the problems with focus of content drops never really bothered me because I’m the audience for it. I love raiding and dungeon-running and the game’s modern structure is built to appeal to a player like me. If you’re more casual, is WoW as good? Probably not – your mileage may vary. But WoW does offer a decently well-made package to players who like pushing content – you don’t even need to push high Mythic Plus keys or higher difficulties in raid besides Normal to get the benefit of the content focus from the team. This is something of a problem for the game as a whole ecosystem, but from my perspective, it works pretty well and it’s definitely appealing.
And Now To Answer the Question
In short: will I play Dragonflight? I still kind of don’t know.
There are things I see that I genuinely like and have interest in, but as I broke down in my first peek at Alpha testing, it is just too early to say. For where I am right now, the game would have to make a hell of a pitch to appeal to me and do so in a near-finished state. For where the game is right now, I don’t know. I’m ultimately pretty resolved to be done for Shadowlands – I did enjoy a lot of the time I had in the expansion, but Season 4 as a concept isn’t something that really clicks for me personally (even if I find the idea intriguing intellectually) and I’m still very much enjoying having FFXIV as my main MMO – it’s been a rewarding experience to try another game in that role and I think it could persist there for a long time to come.
On top of that, there’s obvious social friction waiting for me back in WoW and it’s something that I don’t want to have to figure out right now. Obviously, the start of an expansion is an easier time to do so – new raid teams start up strong at the beginning of an expansion and I could see pretty well where things are going to shake out before making any firm decisions. Delaying to that point also means I get to sit on the news cycle of Dragonflight testing to see if I continue to like what comes out of the process.
At the same time, maybe the right answer is that I play Dragonflight like so many of my friends have played WoW for years – come in to start an expansion, run the story content, see the zones, the dungeons, get a sense of where things are, and then dip out before any long-tail bullshit whips me in the face.
A big part of the FOMO I feel seems to be habit, more than anything. I’ve been there on the ground for every WoW expansion launch ever, and with the very-real prospect of this being the first one I skip out on, it kind of triggers that twinge of regret, that desire to be absolutely certain I’m not interested, and I’m trying to logically and rationally weigh that notion against any actual desire to play.
In short – I don’t really know yet.