The Vengeful Polyglot

Blizzard Just Can’t Win

Posted on: April 26, 2011

I was planning on finally adding my two cents to the debate surrounding some of the more contentious issues which have been broached about Patch 4.1, but since it dropped today I would probably do better actually experiencing these additions before commenting (if you can’t tell, I’m excited).

One conclusion I did come to, though, in trying to examine to both sides of the debate outlined in various blogs and on the official forums, is that it seems that the underlying problem here isn’t Blizzard’s response to its customers. The problem here is us.

Let’s consider the specific example of the forums, and the players who post there. The first issue is that, as a whole community, we’re so large that the feedback found on the forums or any other public media is highly stratified as well as statistically insignificant. You’re much more likely to find players who are really pleased or, more likely, really dissatisfied or angry posting on the forums, than players who lie in the spectrum between these extremes. For most players who are reasonably satisfied with the game, there’s little incentive to contribute their opinion to these debates; they don’t have the motivation. Because of this, the middle-ground on these debates is usually lost. The people who could go either way usually choose to keep silent.

This is all fine, and expected from any truly large internet community. The problem arises when people forget that the people posting on the forums are not an average, random sampling of the player base. The opinions expressed there are not proportional to the feelings of everyone out there playing the game. By and large, these posters are the relatively hardcore fans (or the immature fans, as the case with trolls usually is); these are people who are, in general, highly invested in the game. It’s not the average, casual player who posts a huge theory-crafted argument for changing the coefficients of a particular spell. That’s the realm of the players who really, really care. Which doesn’t invalidate their feedback in the slightest; in fact, I tend to find that people who do really care, and who are interested in providing a sound argument instead of just raging, often have the best constructive criticism. The opinion these players express is just not necessarily the majority opinion, or the opinion of the average player.

Players will often call out Blizzard for not fixing some perceived problem after there have been posts about it on the forums, perhaps even spanning more than one or two threads. What these players don’t take into consideration is that, for each poster agreeing that the situation is a problem on these threads (because, of course, some are posting that they disagree, and some are merely trolling or not contributing meaningfully), there are probably several thousand players who don’t feel strongly enough about the issue to contribute, or who feel like it’s not a real problem but don’t want to take the heat for disagreeing. This is obviously not always the case, and on the other side of this are players who just can’t be bothered to post even though the problem is annoying to them, or players who don’t know how to post at all. All kinds of extenuating circumstances determine who posts or not, but I would posit that the most influential is investment in the game and its workings.

The point of this is not to say that only nerds post on the forums, or that the forums are useless as a tool for sampling player feeling. Of course, there is genuinely good feedback to be had on the forums sometimes, and Blizzard team members have even posted there specifically to solicit player feedback on mechanics or possible future content. Blizzard has a hugely active community moderation team, and has recognized more and more over  time just how important it is to interact with the community via these official, public means. I just think that sometimes people forget that Blizzard has some 12 million subscribers, and some 200 people arguing in a thread likely don’t represent the statistical majority or a random sampling of fans. As a general rule, you’re not seeing the whole picture when you read the forums.

The second problem that dovetails into this one is that we, as players, necessarily see a minuscule amount of the so-called “inner workings” of our favorite game, which is also exemplified in the forum community. We see more now than ever before, thanks to people like Ghostcrawler and the Q-and-A answer sessions “Ask the Devs,” etc. The people who make this awesome game are no longer faceless businessmen. They’re passionate members of our community who love what they do, and it shows. They do come out and justify their design decisions, and admit wrongdoing when it’s needed. In fact, they communicate with us to such a degree that it’s easy to take it for granted. I remember this being cited as one of the reasons why Ghostcrawler stepped back from being such a strong presence on the forums to doing still-chatty-but-more-impersonal “Dev Watercooler” blogs. Once he began responding to the threads he felt had merits, he was lambasted by players for not responding to their threads, and eventually for not responding to all threads. People started addressing threads directly to him, in violation of the “don’t solicit blues” clause of the forum ToS, and then went ballistic when their threads were locked or ignored. People took it for granted. It went way too far. And even now that the situation has been pulled back some, people still take for granted the amount of communication between the developers and the community, and the amount of courtesy shown to the playerbase by the devs.

This doesn’t mean that your every thread is golden, or that every problem will be solved immediately and to your specifications. Paladins aren’t going to be buffed just because you call them boring on the forums. But Blizzard has shown, I think, a commitment to responding to player needs, even if they aren’t entirely transparent while doing so. That’s not their obligation. I appreciate that they’re as chatty as they are, but they don’t “owe” that to me, or anyone else. People spout off about being paying customers, but the fact of the matter is that Blizzard, as a business, has no requirement to make its workings transparent. There is competition out there, and it’s probably not the soundest decision, financially, to go into exhaustive detail about how everything is decided on and run in public. Moreover, it would be overwhelming and, to be frank, kind of ridiculous. If you don’t like their M.O., you’re welcome to take your paying-customer money to the competition. Few people do, though, because the game is ever-evolving and responsive to the needs of the playerbase. The internal priorities of the company, as well as technical limitations on fixing certain issues or implementing new features, are often hinted at. They’re not necessarily obvious, though, nor do they need to be.

We just don’t see all that’s at work there, regardless of the debate as to whether we should. While, yes, there may be a thread about an issue with several hundred posters, Blizzard, I would wager, can get a much more realistic idea of the scale of the issue with data they have available to them server-side. They have tools not at our disposal which allow them a much more comprehensive view of the “forest.” Players can get lost in the “trees,” is all I’m really saying. Some degree of trust is involved. If they recognize a problem and say it will be fixed in an upcoming patch, it probably will be. If you post about something time and time again without any official recognition, it could be that the “problem” is intended, or based on mitigating factors such as playstyle or hardware.

Because of this relatively immediate feedback, and quicker patch deployment, players have become accustomed to having quick, meaningful responses from Blizzard. Features come out, generally, rather quickly after they are announced, unless specified otherwise. In addition, the internet age has made most of its denizens complete strangers to the idea of delayed gratification. It’s a thing of the past. Everything we want, we either get immediately or we dismiss. We need instant satisfaction. This can’t always be provided because of technical limitations. Despite stating a design intent to have smaller, faster patches, people are usually not satisfied with just how quickly these changes come. Simply put, they can’t come quickly enough, and since we lack perspective about the feature or bug-fix priorities behind the scenes, as well as how far along in development each of these things are, we’re intolerant of being given the Blizzard trademark “Soon” response. At once, we applaud Blizzard for generally trying to release content only when it’s ready (resulting in shockingly smooth releases like that of Cataclysm, marked improvement over the Burning Crusade release debacle), as well as being entirely intolerant of the time it takes to ensure completeness and correctness. And no matter how well they do, how quickly things are remedied, or how few things there were to remedy to begin with, players will still find something to complain about.

It’s something I really can’t stand as someone who has been involved in at least small-scale development cycles. No, it’s never going to be perfect the first go-round. But it’s as good as they can reasonably make it without releasing to a massive playerbase, which always shows flaws not statistically likely to be found in smaller sample sets. The expectations of the majority of the community, at least its vocal participants, are entirely unrealistic, even for a company of Blizzard’s size and resources. And yet, they are communicative about these limitations, and they do attempt to, probably due to player response, create more frequent deployment of content. For the consumer, though, who cannot see the effort being made to please him or her, this will never be enough. It’s a problem that plagues all communities — look at people who talk about politics, for example. They never understand what’s really going on behind the scenes, they just know they’re really angry that things aren’t going the way they personally want them to.

Another problem which plagues public forums of this sort is the natural degradation of any internet community once pride and anonymity are involved. I’m not sure what Blizzard can realistically do to combat this. The erosion of the idea of the “neighborhood” generally, and other larger social constructs like that are at work here. Anonymity causes normal people to behave poorly, even though they otherwise wouldn’t, because of a lack of “real” consequences. Common decency kind of goes out the window. In game, for example, the cross-server random dungeons have moved us away from a sever-based reputation system to having very few repercussions for deviant behavior like ninjaing and ragequitting. This is well known, and often complained about, despite the fact that those same nay-sayers were most likely the same players at whose behest Blizzard implemented the feature to begin with. The community is often fickle like that; they will complain so widely that it causes Blizzard to attempt to implement a solution, which is then criticized for almost the same reasons it was created, and often by the same people.

As a consequence of these things, people often go into a community with an automatic distrust of the goodwill of fellow players. When you have a bad attitude to start with, you’re more likely to find what you’re expecting in social interactions — and you’re more likely to behave poorly yourself, I’d wager. In game, as mentioned above, players often justify their poor behavior with the logic of, “Someone did it to me, or someone will, so why shouldn’t I do it to someone else?” Things like a DK DPS rolling on a Spirit trinket have been justified to me this way. The community has just degraded proportionate to the greater degree of anonymity is afforded to them. The general consensus seems to be that other players are out to ruin your day and take your loot, and so with such limited consequence, why not just act selfishly? There’s no incentive not to, and the sanctions are light enough that they can often be ignored. Get a Dungeon Deserter debuff? Log and play an alt for 30 minutes. While well-intentioned, the system is just too unsophisticated to detect which are true examples of deviate behavior and which are not. That may be a technological failing.

The basic point of all this rambling is that, no, I don’t think Blizzard is unresponsive, or sitting back laughing at the forums while swimming in their giant money pools. I think they just can’t win, no matter how hard they try to please their customers. Patch 4.1, for instance, launched a great and terrible DPS QQ-a-thon on the forums because of the announcement of A Call To Arms. While players cried about long DPS queue times (despite most choosing the role knowing this would be the case, and despite the average time to find a group as DPS already being massively reduced from the time prior to the implementation of the Dungeon Finder system), once Blizzard tried to incentivize tanking, and to a lesser extent healing,  to reduce these DPS queue times, the forums exploded with, “Well, but why don’t we also get rewarded for doing a far more common, admittedly easier role?!” Regardless of the efficacy of the system, which is up for debate and probably won’t be decided until it has more time on the live servers, the players just could not be pacified. They had a problem, Blizzard tried to offer what, in their opinion, would be the most effective solution, and those players again called “no fair!” because they were being “denied” equal treatment. I could go on and on about this, but I won’t (I’m clearly biased, and I think my thoughts on the issue are pretty obvious).

The point is, how is Blizzard supposed to win? It just can’t be done. The community, by and large, expects immediate, personal changes to the game while at the same time having no concern for their fellow community members and a vague disrespect and misunderstand of the company itself. I really can’t bring myself to think there’s something Blizzard could be doing overwhelmingly differently to fix what is intrinsically now a gaping flaw within the game community. Maybe it’s just a fangirl opinion, but I truly hate what happened to the community here. The elitism, the self-centered-ness. People want to know why everyone runs with their guild (and I additionally want to know why people automatically assume the generally just-as-random people in their chosen guild are automatically superior to those found in the game at large, but that’s a topic for a different post) instead of using the Dungeon Finder and ameliorating the queue times for most of the playerbase? It’s because playing with people who expect perfection and who are intolerant of the needs of the whole rather than their personal needs are punishing to play with. And that’s what it seems the community has become.

I wish I could end this post with something constructive, like suggestions for improving the situation, instead of seeming like I’m just some deranged Blizzard stalker who whines without a point, but I just can’t think of any. These types of problems have come up in all of the similar communities I’ve been in. People’s monkey-spheres (look it up) just aren’t as big or welcoming as they used to be, and I find it really, really saddening.

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Blog by a programmer cum linguist cum writer cum total geek. One who pretentiously uses "cum" in place of any other logical connectives. Direct questions to the Ask Lauren page!

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