Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Only Myself To Blame

Expectations are difficult things.

I have, for quite some time now, been of the belief that the pace of development that Pandaria maintained was an indicator of what we could expect not simply for future Expansions, but for Beta releases as well. This was based on the very real understanding that Blizzard was pushing out content that I couldn't complete, that I consciously had to pick and choose from because designers wanted to maintain momentum of change for the majority of the playerbase. I am well aware I hardly fit into the 'average' player demographic to begin with: mother of two, well past forty, with time as my primary resource to manage. Therefore, when it emerged in quick succession yesterday that not only was the 'leak' of the boost to 90 video not being dismissed but that pre-sales of the Expansion would begin today with the boost attached, plus there would also no Beta to be seen to immediately accompany it, I realised I'd been deluding myself.

If I wanted as a company to maintain interest in a game, giving people a new 90 and six months in order to run all the content the existing subscribers were rushed through first time around is the perfect delaying tactic. In fact, it couldn't be more brilliantly timed.

Pandaria was yesterday relaunched for a whole bunch of new people, who all get until the Autumn having paid their money up front for a game plus a L90 to play catch up. The rest of us? We can go back and do all the stuff we were forced to miss out on because there was never the time to do it when it was current. The new Expansion will be with everyone in Fall 2014, just in time for that all-important 10th Anniversary, and it will appear this was all part of the plan. We were never promised stuff at the speed of Expansion development, after all. Lots of people went on record and said they'd *like* it to happen quicker, but if you go and examine interviews nobody ever said it would. Only people like me foolishly assumed that when they announced at Blizzcon the concept was ready to go sooner rather than later. Only players with what might appear like misguided enthusiasm could mistake this pace of change for ACTUAL progress and then get disappointed that actually, this is exactly the same pace of development as we had last time, and the time before.

In the end, do we only have ourselves to blame?

10 points for the reference. OFF YOU GO.

What has prompted this latest flurry of activity, the consequences of which caught pretty much everyone on the hop, is unlikely ever to be properly explained. Just like that time when the Mobile Armoury got hacked at the weekend and millions of gold simply vanished, there are some reactions and decisions as players we simply never get an adequate explanation for. There are many reasons for such silences, and a lot of them involve internal issues and mistakes that simply can't be avoided, and therefore have to be dealt with in the most efficient manner possible. The key in any such situation is how to turn a potentially disastrous issue into a success story, and let it not be said that Blizzard aren't more than capable of making a win out of what many would consider a loss. Allowing people to buy their game now and either play a 90 or simply leave and come back when the game proper launches is, yet again, a stroke of marketing genius. Well done them. If it's also being launched now to fill the gap until there's a functional Beta in place, then even more so. It's also going to make those First Quarter profits look really healthy to boot.

There's still a very good chance that a Beta could appear in March, but with Blizzard trailing Warlords for a 'Fall release' in already published Tweets. It's probably more likely to be next month than this, simply because we know from the Dev Watercoolers that there's still a lot of stuff yet to be explained. Of course, they might prove me wrong again and start the thing tomorrow, which could well go some way to assuaging the general level of disquiet I've seen pretty much everywhere since this announcement broke. The biggest problem in all of this is the manner in which the announcements have transpired, the information that has been released, and the way that has disseminated across social networking, which has never been afraid of pulling its punches when presented with the surprising or unexpected. There's still plenty of opportunities for points to be scored and mistakes to be rectified, but that might not be enough for some.

There will be those who feel, perhaps with justification, that they've been misinformed.

Bring fish fingers and custard STAT.

Life is, like it or not, a lot about what you can control. When it comes to your gaming experience the only sure-fire method you have to guarantee you'll get what you want is to be inside the company making it, and even then there's no cast iron certainty even then that any end result will be exactly what you're after. For everyone else, you take what you're given and often cling onto it with an enthusiasm that is misplaced, beliefs that are inherently tainted by individual perception. To make sure that happens as little as possible it then becomes vitally important for any information to be handled both sensitively and objectively. I'm pretty sure therefore Blizzard wouldn't deliberately want to announce anything particularly important on a Sunday morning, especially not a very high profile advert for a service that has so much riding on it. Once something like the 90 Boost Advert is public knowledge, the company has a choice. You either make it work where it lands, or you're forced to watch it devalue what has been worked for. Given a decision like that, the solution is simple. Blizzard made what is undoubtedly the right call: you remember those, we've been talking about them for weeks. In fact, this is probably the moment to drag out my favourite graphic as demonstration:

Presented without comment.

Nobody promised an Expansion early. Nobody guaranteed a game before December 20th, least of all Blizzard. Nobody said we'd have a year of the Siege either, but here we are, looking at the distinct possibility. The powers that be have decided to 'relaunch' the game for a new bunch of people in the hope returning and new players will either pay up front now, walk away and come back at release or simply shrug and wait. Whatever happens, they make money. If the game is absolutely brilliant it won't matter, because people will flock back. If it's awful it won't matter, because of the cash made from pre-sales. Either way, Blizzard will profit, and that's all that really counts in the end. People like me now have a choice to make: do we sit it out, take a break, or do we accept what is normal behaviour and simply play through to the end?

Whatever happens, as players there is a salutatory lesson to learn from what has transpired. The only people really in control are the designers, and however much you might THINK your input matters, that's only ever true to a point. Don't build up your expectations based on unrealistic possibilities. Understand who's really in control. Above all, don't get overly emotionally invested in a videogame.

Trust me when I say it will only end in tears.


Neri said...

Your labels for this post are beautiful! I laughed.

I don't think it was too far fetched for people who were constantly hearing "More content and faster!" to also factor in expansions. You nailed it, though, they never once promised us a quicker one. This is just their usual pattern, with a free 90 thrown in instead of a free game.

It sucks for raiders that they're going to have to endure Dragon Soul V2, but there are plenty of other options coming out in the meantime that should tide them over.

Great post, as usual :)

dobablo said...

It would of been nice to get a bit more warning. "We like/we want/we are trying" builds up some very annoying false expectations. Someone should have been better at reading the community and popping the expectation bubble before it became too big and burst our enthusiasm. All it would of taken is for them to wave the "Fall 2014" about in some of the watercoolers or site interview.

Since they removed a load of server first achievemsnts, I'm hoping that they'll let pre-purchases get early access to a "live-beta" for the non-end-game content. That should cut about a month out of the beta cycle.

Jim Younkin said...

What I find so fascinating in this "It's $50 with a "$60 Value" level boost." bit of marketing jujitsu is how it goes along way to validating (by force) the idea that $60 is a reasonable price for a character boost. When people who want to boost a character's options are: Pay $60 for a boost alone or pay $50 for a boost AND a whole expansion (or an expansion with a boost) who wouldn't pay the price that's $10 less and gives you an expansion to boot.

If they can convince gamers that the boosts are worth $60 then they go a long way to increasing their earning potential in the future.

Also, what's with the $10 increase in expansion price?

Calexa said...

To be honest, I'm quite happy the expansion isn't due any time sooner. I started playing last September and I have still a lot of stuff to do. This gives me time to catch up, complete the legendary quest, maybe get an alt or two to max level, try pvp or simply complete more achievements :)

MuttleyXIII said...

Not sure who said it on twitter but why have patches come out so fast to then have a full year between announcement and release. I know no one said it'd be sooner but they can't be surprised, when the pace has been so fast up til now, that people are a little disappointed its not sooner. I know Blizzard are renowned for the "Soon" trademark but by now how can they not be better judges of the progress they are making?

Anonymous said...

like me i think there are a lot of people waiting to resub until the expansion. the longer these type of people have to wait i wonder if it will make them more or less likely to pick up WOD.
Blizz know there are lot of players that jump in and jump out with xpansions or big patches. They are hoping 90 boosts is a new jumpin mechanic and its much easier than new content.

marathal said...

Absolutely correct, they did hint around they would "like" to see 18 month expansions, but never said unequivocally Mists would end sooner than 2 years. I believe it was also said they would not particularly "like" the final tier to run as long as DS/Wrath did. They have a desire for content to be cleared at a certain level of difficulty. I do not know what percentage of players have made it through to the end, but I know personally that we are struggling, trying to keep interest, and max out people's gear with upgrades so they can move forward. Unless this is also a push to generate more interest in faster expansions.

Faced with 5-6 months more of this is risky. Casual players and guilds cannot handle seeing "You have 83 wipes on this difficulty" It is disheartening. Running it on LFR, then on Flex, then on Regular, and then asking us to try heroic, and now lets reboot the entire tier. Too much. People will take breaks, and I see many looking at maybe playing Elder Scrolls or Wildstar. Unless that is what they anticipate, let them go, play other things for a time, then pull them back in as interest in the flashy new fades.

To be honest dumping people on loottastic island with fresh 90's will not take many long to be into and through all of Siege at the very least LFR/Flex. I think they do realize as soon as a beta drops many will rush to get in, see new things, and start planning and working on fights. It is the MMO cycle of life. At some point they will have to start phasing in the content nerfs in order to meet a certain percentage of players through to be adequately prepared to push into the new content. I only know of 2 people that have seen a new BoA drop in our guild of 830+ (425 accounts), still know many that are only now working on the Legendary cloak. Ran 2 for Nalek last night in fact. I have not stepped into LFR since September when I did my full clear.

Facing the prospect of running an LFR with many new to a class 90's is definitely low on my things to do to have fun list. Flex and regular are not grabbing my interest. So I am faffing around on other things, but even those will run out soon.

I do not even think I am looking for a Beta, but more tidbits of information to read. Not even specifics or design philosophy, more story, besides

Ugh, you go here, stop bad Orc drink, save world, make happy place.

regardless of how long it takes, I will log in everyday, do some running around, help some people out, talk up the guild and server, and continue on. I don't really need a beta, but I would like to know some more general details.

Grimmtooth said...

I don't really think that you were unreasonable to expect the pace of content patches to carry over into the same pace for the next expansion. That seems completely logical on the face of it. They're setting expectations, you're taking them at face value.

Unfortunately, WoW has hardly been consistent between its two development teams. It appears that the live team (current content, content patches) this time around has better managed its time and workflow, and the (for lack of a better label) "expansion" team has not. (Maybe they leapfrog and the next expansion will be managed by the current "live" team, hard to say)

Regardless of cause, one thing that Blizz has demonstrated has been a lack of consistency and an unwillingness to staff up to manage the more agressive "want". I have no doubts in my mind that the "want" comes from the professional side and the lack of resources comes from the management side. As such, the only way that Bobby "Make them fear for their job" Kotick will EVER spring for increased headcount is if it's by way of buying hatchets to split the current crop in half.

Blizzard are not Disneyland. They are just another software development company, albeit one with a wolf rider in its foyer. But the bottom line is that they will as a company pursue the bottom line before they pursue anything else, and that includes pleasing the customer, because a bunch of bean counters is running the show.

When we hear "we want to" from the PR mouthpieces at Blizz (and their trained development spokespersons) it's a cry for help from a bunch of people that really WANT to blow out one expansion per quarter, but are being held back by a headcount freeze that limits them to a two-year cycle. Need I point out that there have been ZERO aggressive hiring sprees in the WoW unit. You can't squeeze blood from a turnip.

The conspiracy theorist inside of me wants to suggest that these "leaks" are strategically placed to deliberately sabotage the sub numbers, to manipulate Kotick's suits out of power or at least leverage more headcount to "revitalize" the franchise. The realist inside counters that such a scheme would never work in the real world and will likely backfire. And the cynic inside of me says "Have you HEARD Varian's dialog? The people that thought that was compelling will DEFINITELY believe that such a scheme will work!" As such I think it's entirely possible.

I will not say that Greg Street left the company over the reveal of the actual schedule versus what was "wanted". But I will say that the timing is convenient if nothing else. I will NOT say whether it was his desire to be elsewhere or if it was someone else's desire for him to be elsewhere, because I have no doubt that Blizz has a similar culture to most software companies in this regard: nobody is allowed to discuss salary with each other, and management will never, ever, EVAR tell you the actual reason that somebody left. And I'm sure that GC's severance package, if it was the latter, was suitably sprinkled with enough caveats (flavored with money) to keep him from talking for quite some time.

I'm looking at the bright side. I may have gotten around to Proving Grounds, Battle Pets, and Archeology by the time the silly thing comes out.

Sarolian said...

That Doctor Who pic ;)

It's clear that when it comes to releasing new content, Blizzard works in mysterious ways..

Navimie said...

I try and look at the bright side, I suppose. At least now I have time to finish up some old achievements - that is, if there is anyone left in the game to play with whilst everyone takes a 6 month hiatus from the game.

Shannon said...

Great post, Godmother! I find it interesting that you made all of the points that I wish I could make in 140char on Twitter, and yet were the devil's advocate to my point of view during our Twit-versation yesterday.

The long and the short of it, for me, comes down to this: we aren't going to get new content from Blizz until they're ready to release it, and yeah, that will probably be 6 months from now. Therefore, I personally don't see any benefit to getting all riled up about it. I will most likely go on about my long-term goals in game, and my guild is just now getting around to running flex/normal raids, so I have something to occupy my time.

That said, I can see why elite raiders are now really vexed that they'll have to spend up to a year in SoO. The reality is, though, that no matter what level one plays the game at (hardcore raids, casual faffer, everything in between), the choice is clear: play for the next X months, or don't. Getting upset is natural if that didn't meet one's expectations, but *staying* upset is a choice, and one that has consequences for everyone connected to the person that makes it.

I, for one, choose not to be upset. I'll see you all on Azeroth, flying about on my beautiful Dread Raven.