How the evolution of WoW affected the social side of the game — for better or worse
Recently, Mike Morhaime (y’all remember him, beloved former CEO and cofounder of Blizzard Entertainment) did a lengthy interview talking about quite a few things, one of those things being the tightrope between accessibility and social gaming in games like World of Warcraft, a game Mike knows a fair bit about. You should really listen to the whole interview, but we’ll talk about the most salient point here.
I would also just observe that as World of Warcraft evolved over the years, it actually kind of became less social, because in an effort to achieve more accessibility, we kind of removed some of the reasons why you need to play with the same group of people over and over.
I think that it takes away some of the reasons for some people of why they play, and why they might want to continue to play.
I think the success of WoW Classic backs up his point — there are players who prefer the game when it enforces this kind of gameplay. They like being in big groups, in guilds that support this level and style of gameplay, and when given the option to play the game in this manner they will absolutely take that option. It seems pretty indisputable that yes, for some people, the game is more fun when content requires you to be social, to play regularly with the same group of people, to match your schedule with theirs and spend the same amount of time at the same pace.
How has the concept of being social changed?
But before we really leap into that discussion, let’s look at what Ghostcrawler had to say (yes, our old friend Greg Street, currently at Riot Games but a large presence in the WoW community during his days on the design team) on this subject, because I think he made a really great point.
People connected on WoW. It was the first experience for many gamers of making a friend online instead of IRL. There were these stories we received about kids who used WoW's mail system as email, of fathers who could only talk to their teenagers through the game….
— Greg Street (@Ghostcrawler) April 29, 2020
In order to address this point, I’m going to tell a story about my own life and my own experience. During 2004, my then-girlfriend and now-wife and I were separated after living together for several months, and World of Warcraft did exactly this for us. It was where we went on dates — we’d run a dungeon or two and then go hang out and watch the sunset in Auberdine or Menethil Harbor and talk for a few hours about nothing in particular, the way people falling in love do. We didn’t care that it wasn’t face to face — in a very real way, World of Warcraft was our world during that early period before she could come back. It’s where I proposed, during a Molten Core run with our huge, unwieldy guild.
So I have pretty positive memories of that period of time. I think Greg’s right, though — the world and the internet of 2020 are not the same as they were in 2004/5, when my wife and I used WoW as our chat program, our email, and our dating service. There are better ways to do practically all of those things now, and people coming into the game aren’t going to be prepared for the level of social commitment it takes to run a 40 player raid guild. I remember back in 2005 getting actual phone calls from guild leaders asking me to log on in the early morning because there was a world boss up and the guild wanted to beat other guilds to it, and I was the only Warrior dumb enough to share my phone number with people. This is not something I think would fly today for most people — for one thing, it would probably be a text now, or a mass @everyone on the guild Discord.
Change can also mean more options
Of course, we also have J. Allen Brack’s opinion on this to consider. As the current President of Blizzard and the long time Executive Producer on World of Warcraft — someone who came in way back in the day when Talents were added to the WoW beta — has seen the game throughout all of its sixteen years of existence. What does he think? Well, I don’t think it’s a terrible surprise that he doesn’t think WoW has actually gotten all that much less social.
I want take a step back and just say we’re really thankful that our games are able to play a part in how they bring people together during what’s really an unprecedented and challenging time for us all. World of Warcraft has been fortunate to be engineered as a very social experience, and that’s as true today as the day we launched. Over time, we’ve listened to feedback from the community, and the game has evolved to what we now call the “modern game,” which has really expanded the breadth and the depth of gameplay, as well as making it easier to kind of find friends, group up, make progress, or play alone, all within the social environment.
I think both Morhaime and Brack can be right here. There was a very specific style of social environment promoted by World of Warcraft in its first few years that is simply less necessary now. You do not need a large group of people in the same way to access content — back in the day, if you wanted to see the end of a raid, you had to be in a raid group, or wait for it to be puggable which sometimes meant waiting until the end of the next expansion. I remember seeing groups of level 70 players in full raid gear wiping doing a 25 player raid on Naxx 40, because the mechanics were still pretty challenging with the smaller group even with the 10 level difference.
The true challenge of social gaming in the old days was organization — raid groups lived and died on their leadership, and those positions burned people out quickly. Guild culture was top down — the guild leaders fostered whatever they believed the guild should be like and that propagated, so that, for example, guilds run by misogynists who didn’t believe women could play as well as men simply didn’t recruit women. I was fortunate enough to be in a guild with decent leadership, but there were still personality clashes and players burning out and returning and leaving again.
Nowadays it feels like a lot of the social aspect of WoW as a community has shifted away from this kind of heavy organization and towards broader groups, away from forums and towards discords, but it still seems to exist to my eyes. Guilds still exist (I’m in one now) and they have a wider array of focuses. There are casual guilds, Mythic raid guilds, guilds pushing world first content, guilds that focus mostly on Mythic+ dungeons, PVP guilds… so while I think Morhaime is right that WoW has shifted away from the strict format that enforced the kind of social gameplay that existed at the time, I also think Ghostcrawler’s point about how the game and the world are different now has to be considered.
Social gaming varies from player to player
In essence, the game as it was in 2004 was extremely one-note in terms of its social aspect. You were in a guild. That guild did whatever the leadership said it did, and you either showed up and raided, or PVPed when everyone else did, or you didn’t really do much with them at all. I knew quite a few players in my guild back then who simply couldn’t make the raid times — they were nice enough people, and I would chat with them occasionally while doing dungeons, or even offer to tank them through a few — being a tank back then meant my dance card was as full as I could stand it and everyone wanted me to take them through dungeons. But they didn’t raid, and often drifted away to more casual “friends and family” guilds where they could connect with their real life social contacts.
Now, WoW supports them as much as it does other types of guilds. They can run dungeons even if no one else is on. They can do raid finder and see how the latest raid ends. There are options when there weren’t before, and that means that they get to keep playing. There’s less of an enforced hierarchy, a structure that was necessary due to the cat herding you had to do to get anything done. I personally prefer it this way, but I understand why some people miss WoW the way it was — WoW Classic shows that there’s an audience and an appetite for that style of social game, one with strict requirements to get to the gameplay.
Perhaps that’s the best argument yet for WoW Classic. It lets players that enjoy that level of socialization indulge in it, and lets those of us who don’t want it avoid it.
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