As requested – and, to be honest, intended anyway – here some thoughts on the announced premium (i.e. pay-for) feature to, in some future, be able to invite people to groups who are on a different server, but on your RealID friends list.
Before I begin, let us get something out of the way. Something that needs to be considered in all musings about WoW: Blizzard is not stupid. This is very important. Blizzard didn’t get to where they are due to blind luck or by comically stumbling around. Of course they do make mistakes on the small scale – like in balancing, tuning, or with particular design decisions – of course some of their experiments do not work out as expected or intended, but on the large, strategic scale, Blizzard achieved success exactly because they played the market exactly right, pushed the right buttons and pulled the right levers. If an argument, at any point, hinges on the assumption of Blizzard being stupid, the argument is flawed. Just because they do something you don’t like or I don’t like, doesn’t mean they’re wrong, it means they deliberately and consciously don’t care about you and/or me, they simply cater to others. Keep that in mind. Now, let us begin.
What happens when you kill a raid boss? I mean, what does really, tangibly happen, what is the change that measurably takes place? I tell you what: in some database, a variable flips from 0 to 1. Or increments by 1. Or something pretty closely along those lines. This is what actually happens. Was it worth it? But, wait, no, you overcame a challenge, you mastered a difficult task – that’s what counts! Really? Well, single-player games are capable of offering a much better tuned, much more thrilling, much more involving level of challenge. Why, then, do we (if you’re reading this, you’re likely an MMO-gamer, like myself) rarely derive the same (or even any) sense of satisfaction from beating them as we derive from beating a raid boss? Because this boss kill contains so much more. It contains the unlikely stories how you crossed paths with the people around you, and sometimes the equally unlikely stories of how you all developed into the players you are now. It contains that time you had to deal with that huge drama that nearly tore it all apart, but those who remained, came out of it as a stronger unit. It contains that time when you were short a permanent tank, or running low on healers and people volunteered to respec. It contains those times when you had to adapt to having a rather exotic raid composition and managed to play to your strengths rather than succumb to your weaknesses. It contains that time when you were way past raid end time, but kept going and got the kill you were so desperately after. It is this “social context” that gives the actually measurable impact of an entry in a database changing value .. well .. context. A bold statement to make, maybe, but truth is, you can make that statement because it’s the only difference. Everything else is just electrons heading from A to B.
Now, I am a sucker for this whole deal of team success, prevailing together, figuring it out, winning as a team, Semper Fidelis. I don’t know why, but this whole coming together and walking the path really makes me feel good inside. Which is why online games and I are such a good (and dangerous) combination, I guess. Being the team-spirit-junkie that I am, I find it easy to make a concession that is, literally, unfathomable for the vast majority of people: I’d rather miss out on something now and do it with teammates later, even if it means much later. Understand, this is not about “demonising strangers” – strangers won’t ever become your friends if you don’t meet them first. It’s about doing it with strangers being ultimately meaningless. “Why don’t you pug it,” is a question I’ve heard a hundred times in the last several years. “What do you have to lose?” Err, nothing. The point is, I don’t have anything to win either. I don’t care about flipping it from 0 to 1, it’s meaningless to me. I don’t want to do a dungeon to “have it done”, I want to do a dungeon to enjoy doing it. I want the emotional context. I want the jokes (although not too many please, let’s focus when it’s needed! … I know, I’m an ass, yes). I want the memories of “back in January, I used to run lots and lots of dungeons with Alq, Dy, Daine and Ron, and we really grew together as a unit, knowing each other inside out”, rather than “and then I hit the DF to make the raid requirements”. I want to save each other’s asses in the most unexpected ways, and I want to let each other die in the most hilarious ways. I want to have a story to tell. It’s deeply important to me, it’s what I play for.
RIFT has an interesting example for the above with the .. err .. rifts. You run into one, you can just click a button at the top of your screen to join up with others who are nearby, you fight it, you close it. It’s good, emergent, quick, no-strings-attached fun. We do it for the reward and because fighting monsters is fun, and those are some pretty cool monsters to fight. Really, rifts are just FUN, there is a simple structure, there is a sense of accomplishment, cool effects and even some (not entirely fake) sense of impact. I don’t even consider it negative that there’s usually not much (mostly none at all) talking in the process. It actually makes perfect sense. You’re an Ascended, I’m an Ascended, we see planar invaders, we fight planar invaders, the “grouping up” is not some emotionally charged event, it’s only there so we can see each other’s names, roles, positions and health bars. Immersing into the simulation aspect, if it was “real”, we wouldn’t stop and converse about the necessity to rid the land of the evil that besmirches it either. We’d cut the crap and get on with killing it. We’re only random people who met based on the shared desire to slay monsters. So, yeah, it’s good fun (and I do make a point of thanking the others or congratulating on our victory in other ways). But it also feels relatively meaningless, because we are, after all, only random people who met based solely on the shared desire to slay monsters. It becomes meaningful when you are working in a specific group. Together with your friend and regular adventuring partner (I can’t even begin to describe just how much RIFT rewards pair-levelling), when you can really see your teamwork develop, reacting to each other, supporting each other. Or even with another person you just randomly met, but you are actually a bit too weak for what you’re supposed to fight, so you really try and work to your strengths and bite through it. Meaning is acquired through people. Special meaning is acquired through special people.
The following is going to be a somewhat bold statement: people like me are the backbone of guilds. People who prioritise “getting it done together” higher than “getting it done myself”. People who are willing to sacrifice … in a game. We’re not “the only thing that makes guilds work”, far from it, but still, we’re kind of important, regardless of whether we’re in some official role or simply there, contributing energy and investment.
Guilds, on the other hand, or clans or kinships or whatever they’re called in different communities, are the backbone of online gaming. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean “everyone needs to be in a guild”, or “everyone needs to be a raider/endgamer”. There is a lot that can be enjoyed solo, or mostly solo, and that’s good and important. What I mean is that long term commitment to a game (and thus long term revenue for the provider) tends to correlate with guild membership and participation in multiplayer activities. Not all that surprising, seeing as these are multiplayer online games, and the presence of other people is what separates them from single-player games.
Guilds are the gate keepers to a significant part of the content and experience (not XP) online games can offer. Blizzard knows this. Last year, or maybe the year before – those rants are impossible to date – I read someone on some forum go for the usual “do what I want or be doomed” angle, saying that if Blizzard doesn’t change the game the way he wants it to be (can’t even remember which way exactly that was), over time it will piss off all the guild and raid leaders, those will leave and then the game will die. Hyperbole, of course, but not without a grain of truth. Blizzard is wary of guilds, because while World of Warcraft belongs to Blizzard, the guilds, as a hypothetical whole, have an uncomfortable amount of control over it. And so, bit by bit, Blizzard started its quest to weaken the position of guilds and repossess that control.
Please pause and re-read the second paragraph of this post if necessary. No, Blizzard is not stupid, nor evil. They are strategically savvy and they don’t like the idea of another institution, or structure, having that much control over what is theirs. People quitting because their guilds fell apart and there was nowhere else to go; people quitting because their guilds got stuck and they could not get into a better one; people quitting because their friends quit and they suddenly felt alone in Azeroth – it’s not something that is or was happening “left and right”, but it was happening, and it was not to Blizzard’s liking.
The first monumental battle Blizzard fought – and won – against the influence of guilds was the introduction of the Dungeon Finder and its subsequent ascension to the widely accepted standard of group play. It fundamentally changed the way we approach group content. Think back. Does the line “find a decent guild” seem familiar as an advice to someone complaining about having difficulties assembling dungeon groups? Obsolete. Even more importantly, simply jumping into the DF queue became the more efficient mode of action even compared to asking guild mates. Not necessarily “better” or even “preferred”, but for many, more efficient. Asking means waiting for answers. Asking means potentially waiting for someone who says they’ll be available in half an hour. Asking means not being independent and self-sufficient (curious, you’d think the very point of a multiplayer game is not doing everything on your own). You’d get guild mates pugging at the same time instead of queueing together. If you read a lot of blogs, you’ll often find the episode of “and then I took care of my gear by running many randoms”, rather than “and then we as a guild helped each other gear up”. Curiously, this process of helping each other gear up is among my dearest and most pleasant memories – of early Mines of Moria, of early Cataclysm – it was team progress, and team progress was great.
The downside, of course, was that the randomly assembled groups would frequently underperform, not because they were filled with bad players – we all live in the Gaussian curve – but because all these people didn’t really care, because the runs, see above, were meaningless to them, except for the end reward. At least we all got an entertaining amount of rage-blogging out of it.
Why is there no Raid Finder then, if it’s so important to Blizzard, you ask? At this point in time, I am convinced that the only reason is that they truly can’t figure out how to implement one – how to handle composition, lockouts and the compared to 5-mans higher time requirement. Once again, Blizzard is not stupid and they don’t want to come out with a tool that won’t work satisfactorily.
So, indignantly ask efficiency fans, would I rather go back to cumbersome and time consuming group assembly? What, I would like to ask back, is more important: running a dungeon, or enjoying a dungeon? Again, I don’t see an inherent value in simply running a dungeon – I want to do it for the pleasure of doing it, not to get it done. So, yes, I’d rather invest extra time in improving the quality of my experience, rather than into complaining about it not meeting my desires. Of course, we got an external value in place – badge reward. Clever, eh?
The second great and genius move by Blizzard was the introduction of guild-bonuses and guild-levelling. Wait a second. Were those not supposed to strengthen guilds? And now I’m claiming they were intended for the exact opposite? Guild-levelling and guild-bonuses changed the very notion of what a guild is. The exceptional position of guilds used to be that they were social constructs. They were so strong exactly because they existed outside the system, outside the game mechanics. Inside the Matrix, they were everyone, and no one. Ahem. Becoming part of a guild was a decision based on what the people in that guild would provide you with (access to content and friendship both being viable criteria). Admitting someone to your guild was a decision based on what that person would provide you with. Guilds were about people. Now guilds are about points and percentages. Perks and privileges. By moving guilds into the realm of game mechanics, Blizzard dispelled the mysticism surrounding them. Your guild became a game element, like your buffs, like your mount, your talents. I don’t even want to get at pushing non-team-oriented players into guilds or encouraging guilds to accept everything with a pulse. Just think of the word “guild” now. Was the feeling it evoked the same as the feeling the same word was connected to a year ago? It’s a different thing now.
RealID .. well, RealID doesn’t need much commentary. However, it offers an opportunity to link to maybe one of the best posts ever written about WoW. Reading highly recommended. RealID is the bold first step from “heroes venturing to vanquish evil” to “people hanging around in a lounge and playing games”. Like, you know, Facebook gaming. Yes, yes, I know. I won’t go there. Not now, at least. Just keep this in mind: the market for Facebook games is much larger than for the “real games” we enjoy (again, I’m counting on you being a certain type of person, based on the observation that you’re reading this). Blizzard wants that bigger market. If you believe anything else, you’re being naive.
The recently introduced Looking for Guild tool is another interesting actor here. Like Adam, I can’t help but wonder how little someone needs to care about what guild they’ll end up in to use it for their search. And, also like him, I also can’t help but wonder whether the principle of the path of the least resistance will, over time, make this into the default method for most people regardless, similar to how the Dungeon Finder – in a shorter period, due to much more immediate benefits – became the default method of group forming and obsoleted all other methods for most people.
Roughly 2.5k words in, we’re now getting to the promised topic. What about the announced premium feature? First, the indisputably good: it does offer a fix for the much-lamented (at least by me) problem of meeting someone nice on a random-dungeon run and having to leave with the near-certain assumption of never seeing them again. Of course, the peculiarities of the RealID system render this application worthless quite quickly – there is a certain cleft between “nice person, during the last 30 minutes they appeared polite and competent, would be happy to group with them again” and “here’s my real name and email address”. It’s not, you know, quite the same.
The other positive: you can now finally group with your dear friend who is stuck on a different server! Err, wait a second. No one’s stuck anywhere these days. If you are such good friends, why are you not on the same server to begin with? Maybe because your gaming habits do not match up quite as well as your personality traits? And, you know, maybe running a dungeon is not necessarily the best way for friends to “catch up”. Especially if you are doing it with 3 other people, whose intentions are statistically most likely “get through here as quickly as possible”. Meaningless dungeon run is still meaningless.
What it does though is to further dislodge you from the “grasp” of your guild, your server or any other virtual-physical place of origin. It is a logical and sensible addition to RealID to help its goal: change your mindset from that of a player of an adventure game to that of a user of a social network with 3D graphics and instanced gaming. The good news is that this feature puts us only one step short of having at least one way to form cross-server raids. The downside: Bastion of Twilight or a bit of Starcraft 2 – at which point will you stop caring? At which point does the world turn into a lounge?
So, did I just bore you with a long winded conspiracy theory? Not really. The difference between what I wrote and what you usually find tinfoil-hat-inducing is that my reasoning is not based on the assumption that Blizzard is simply out to troll you. What I described matches observation and makes assumptions based on Blizzard being a strategically wise player (cf. paragraph two again, if necessary). Silly conspiracy theories claim that for some reason Blizzard collectively wants paladins to be bad. My theory claims that Blizzard wants to maximise their profit and is taking appropriate steps. The game environment they envision does not appeal to me – doesn’t mean they’re wrong, it means I’m no longer their target audience.
Oh, and about it being a feature that needs to be paid for? Hey, why not. Lots of people have claimed they’d be willing to pay extra for the privilege of being surrounded by a better community or a better Dungeon Finder pool. Will they put their money where their mouth used to be? Or will they think of it as ineffective, e.g. due to the aforementioned caveats? In either case, another interesting field-study for Blizzard regarding how much people are willing to pay extra.
I’m sorry the climax I built up towards got a bit short, but I hope you found the intended meaning in the context of the run up to it. Have a nice weekend!