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WoWOct 16, 2018 10:00 am CT

The Risk of Stagnation: Greg “Ghostcrawler” Street on why people quit games

The only time I’ve unsubbed from World of Warcraft since 2004 was when my wife and I got married and we moved up here to Canada from my place in Seattle. Why? Because I knew I wouldn’t be playing the game for at least three months, and I saw no reason to pay for it over that period of time. Why do I bring that up? Because of this post by Greg Street, A.K.A. Ghostcrawler, a former World of Warcraft and current League of Legends developer.

In it, he talks about the idea many players have that the best — or even only — way they have to express their displeasure with a game’s direction or development is to stop playing or unsubscribe (if it’s a paid subscription game like WoW) entirely. Greg is asked directly about this idea, and his response is an illuminating one.

Basically, if you think unsubbing works as a form of protest when your game of choice makes a change you don’t like? You’re wrong, because it almost never happens. Unsubbing doesn’t work as a form of protest because the developers don’t know it’s happening, if it even is.

Why do people leave?

Now, he mostly talks about League of Legends here, and that’s not surprising since it’s the game he currently works on, but his overall discussion is still worth looking at and considering for WoW. Greg was the Lead Systems Designer for WoW for years and he’s seen the data on player engagement, after all. So when he says that the two biggest reasons people unsub are that they don’t have the time to play anymore or that their friends have left the game, I believe him. Especially in a game like WoW, because I’ve been playing it for fourteen years and in the time I’ve played, even when people do unsub because a design change has made the game something they don’t like, they rarely leave immediately. Instead, they tend to leave after a period of disenchantment and growing apathy, and often it’s only exacerbated by, not caused by, design decisions.

In other words, people don’t quit because Paladins suddenly play very differently. They may get less engaged with the game as a result, which then means they feel less invested, which means they don’t pay as much attention to what’s going on in the game and lose track of what the current state of affairs is, and then they leave. This is mirrored in what Greg says about engagement.

My perception has been that the players and developers in the “We’ve changed too much!” camp tend to be those who are less engaged with the game than they once were. Losing track of change usually happens to players who once played every day and are now playing once a week or once a month. They remember being super engaged with the game and knowing everything that was going on, and so the dissonance of that no longer being the case for them is really striking, perhaps even alienating. On the other hand, players who are still really engaged are the ones most likely to need something fresh and new so that they don’t run out of stuff to do.

This isn’t caused by design changes — Greg specifically calls out the fact that people’s main two reasons for unsubbing are a lack of friends currently playing and a lack of time to do it, which feeds into the sense that the game has changed too much/made a bad change. I find that really interesting as an idea. People who are waning in interest — either because they can’t find the time to play like they used to or because they lack the friends who made playing fun in the first place — are more likely to view design changes as bad and lose interest in the game because of them.

Do they even care why we quit?

Now, does this mean you should never unsub as a form of protest?

I’d kind of have to say that you should unsub for any reason you want to — the ones Greg lists, for example, or because you’re financially unable to keep paying, or because you really like a new game and want to play that for a while, or because you’re working on a work project and can’t commit to WoW the way you used to. But expecting the game’s design to change because of unsubbing would be unlikely, unless the loss of subs was so vast and dramatic that it couldn’t possibly be mistaken for anything else. It’s not that Blizzard doesn’t care why you’re unsubbing as much as it is unlikely that enough people unsub at any given moment for a specific reason like, “You got rid of Single-Minded Fury” or “Why can’t I get daggers on my Assassination Rogue?” 

Tell them what’s wrong

So if unsubbing doesn’t work, what does?

Turns out, it’s telling them why you want to quit in the first place.

As an aside, the best way to drive change is still to try and clearly articulate your concerns in some public forum and hope that the developers take it seriously. I have talked to plenty of players to know how frustrating that answer might be, because at the end of the day, there just isn’t some kind of magic key that you can use to 100% guarantee that you will unlock that lock. Nevertheless, it’s still the best hope you have.

Believe me, I understand how frustrating it can be. I spent years writing Warrior columns complaining about Armor Penetration, Haste, Burst Windows for DPS, and it often felt like no one cared or was listening. Even when I would later be told directly that yes, they had read that, and even before they’d read it some people on the team were discussing said issues anyway. Blizzard does read our feedback, they do read their own forums and other sites that discuss their games. But the fact is, World of Warcraft is a huge game and there is inherently some institutional inertia for any decision made in the development process. There’s a reason they don’t just scrap Azerite Armor despite a lot of complaints about it — iteration on it, design refinements are both a lot more practical and have the best chance of meeting the needs of the majority of the players.

You simply can’t expect even a really good critique of a current system to result in its immediate abolition, even if the developers agree it’s messed up. It takes time to do anything, especially when there has to be a lot of sifting of that useful feedback to separate it from the noise on forums and sites.

Unsubbing in protest can feel really great — I know people who are still warm and fuzzy over unsubbing from Star Wars Galaxies over the New Game Enhancements — but it doesn’t really send a clear and unambiguous message to the developers like we might hope. In the end, it’s best to simply tell the developers what we don’t like, why we don’t like it, and what we’d prefer they do even if it doesn’t seem to make an immediate change.

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