One of the most, if not the most, contentious issues in all of WoW is the near constant balancing act of the systems design team. These are the guys responsible for virtually every class ability and talent nerf, and their herald, Ghostcrawler, is oftentimes the sacrificial messenger which all the hate and vileness of the internet is spewed forth onto.
But it's all good, because he's also the leader of the systems design team and leaders often have to place themselves front and center to take the worst of the damage. And the WoW community can do a lot of damage.
Recently it was discussed how and why the community reacts to class changes, in particular nerfs, and why Blizzard does what it does when it comes to them. While most of this information is not new, it is interesting to see how clearly the message has developed since Ghostcrawler began posting on the Wrath beta forums over a year ago.
After the break we'll take a look at what Blizzard has to say on class balancing and the community's reaction. We'll also pick apart a few statements and look at alternative ways which can accomplish the same goals.
The beginning of the Ghostcrawler's discussion comes from a player who was legitimately voicing concern over the near constant mutations of tank balance – from one patch to the next tanking can change dramatically, especially at the high levels of raiding. No one from Blizzard is really refuting this (at least in the forums or elsewhere in public), and it's been said many times that individual classes themselves will go on a buff/nerf cycle, a gain-power/lose-power cycle. One could easily extend this concept to the tanking classes as a whole and say that right now Death Knights just aren't the best tanks in the world, but their time will come again.
One forum go-er suggests that Blizzard just tunes down the damage bosses do, the avoidance of tanks, and the mana regen of healers all in one gigantic rebalancing act, and that people like Ghostcrawler and other blues come out and "tell the community not to be such babies and understand it's for game balance."
Here's where Ghostcrawler starts talking and where there are some interesting things said. None of the quotes in this article are taken out of context, indeed when appropriate context will be given if necessary.
GC: "This is a good [forum] post. However, it is very hard to "tell the community not to be such big babies" (in your words). Players can get worked up over very small nerfs, and dropping tank avoidance by half (which is probably the right number) would not be a small nerf. Some players would understand it. Many would not. Players always *always* respond to nerfs to correct class balance with "Why didn't you buff instead of nerf?" Buffing feels good. Nerfing feels bad."
Ghostcrawler's point is dead on – you can't just tell the community to suck it up and deal with it, in such terms. The balancing act of buffing and nerfing no matter how well justified will get a small but very vocal minority of the community up in such arms you'd think WWIII had begun in WoW. But here is where a psychological paradigm shift needs to occur too.
Ghostcrawler says that the community will "always respond to nerfs to correct class balance with 'Why didn't you buff instead of nerf?' Buffing feels good. Nerfing feels bad.'" This is true as well, but it's not a good thing. What is good for the game is good for the individuals in the long run, and players need to be educated to understand this. They need to be taught that what they bought and had when they first entered Azeroth is not what they're going to have exactly in a few months.
But that's not what they think – they think that WoW and the game mechanics behind WoW are a stable and unchanging element in many ways. My Hunter was OP in patch 1.1.12, therefore it should be OP in patch 3.2.2. Wait, it's not? Fail Blizzard, fail.
This thought process that the overall community has, which is quite a bit less mature and refined than what goes on in the role forums, and pales in comparison to what goes on inside the halls of Irvine, needs to change. It was developed initially in the early days of WoW when the forum presences of Blizzard posters wasn't all that much compared to what it is now. Of course the forums had their stars, but they (by no fault of their own) didn't shine as brightly as the nightly quips by Ghostcrawler.
The community's reaction to nerfs can change – and I hope that Blizzard is taking some serious looks at how to change it. The Class Q&A that went on is a great example of how to change mindsets en-mass. If people don't get their Class Q&A from sites like WoW.com or MMO-Champion, they'll get them from the Blizzard forums or see a guildie repost them in their guild forums.
But the Q&As are not enough, even if we are hearing they're planning on doing more of them. Ghostcrawler's very presence on the forums helps a lot too – although despite the rabid fanbase that knows of him, there are just an equal number of people who think he's a fresh-of-college community rep, not that there's anything wrong with that – but they don't give his words the correct weight.
What Blizzard can do is begin to just lay things out on the line for the community. Communicate more via the forums or whatever other method they want. Start a Dev Blog like other MMOs do. Begin to say things like "the community needs to not be such big babies." Their presence on the forums now is certainly a step in the right direction, but it could go so much further so much faster if there would be a visibly coordinated effort to do so. One that came fast and furious, not just once every few weeks like the Q&A did.
GC: "We will make unpopular changes when we think they are best for the game and more or less unavoidable, but at some point you risk actually hurting your players (to the point where they might leave) if you do things that feel arbitrary or cruel, even if it is for the good of the game in the long run. (Incoming: a dozen posts that cite a specific nerf as arbitrary and cruel with threats to bail if it isn't reverted.)"
Again, a solid point. There's two things to point out here.
First, Blizzard doesn't want to see a lot of players walk away from the game over changes they feel are "arbitrary or cruel." No one can argue with that on any level – it's a wise community strategy and a smart business practice. It does make me wonder if this had happened with WoW before perhaps. Some of the BC changes really did not sit well with the community – I know several Warriors to gave up in frustration once they found out how lacking their class was at multimob tanking compared to Paladins. But that's neither here nor there.
The second thing this statement shows is that despite the possibility of angering large swaths of the community, Blizzard is willing to make the changes if they are "unavoidable." Again pointing to the Warrior class, I see their Wrath abilities to tank multiple mobs (Shockwave, increased Thunder Clap damage) as unavoidable changes that upset a certain large segment of the community (Paladins).
The bright line between a changing feeling arbitrary or cruel, and the change being unavoidable for the good of the overall game, is one that I would like to see more elaboration on. While that line is obviously fluid and changes daily based on team discussions, that level of communication about the intrinsic of the game could go a long way at showing the community the decision making process – at providing transparency to the whole endeavor.
At the end of the day it's important to remember that Blizzard is a company – that they are a business. Despite their separation of the business side from the creative side, all employees at Blizzard are dedicated to making as good of a game as possible. And oddly enough, most of the fans participating in the role forums and on sites like WoW.com are equally as dedicated.
The role that Ghostcrawler has filled has been a godsend to all of us wanting to see WoW become the best game possible – but in some ways he needs to clone himself and help the community really reach the point where they can truly stop being "such big babies" and accept at least on a basic level the nerfs and buffs that come with the great class balancing act.