Tuesday, May 3, 2016

WoW Analysis: The Decay of Realm Communities

It's no secret that the sense of community in World of Warcraft has been on the decline for a while, with the most recent Nostalrius takedown controversy involving mentions of the private server having a robust community that the live game lacks (though to be fair, splitting hundreds of thousands of players between a couple servers with a smaller game world helped). While this issue has been ongoing, it's only been relatively recently that I recognized how much of a problem it has become for the game despite numerous signs over the years, including some that have affected me directly. This degradation can easily be summed up by pointing at the subscriber number drop that has largely been occurring since the end of the Wrath of the Lich King expansion. It stands to reason that this decreasing concentration of players spread over a large number of realms would create a wasteland of many local groups since there would need to be a sufficient amount of active playerbase for player interactions to take place. One can also point at issues such as the increasing number of convenient cross-realm grouping systems further detracting from the social interaction in local groups as well as causing unhealthier social interactions in general, the latter of which I pointed out here.

These problems alone are enough to highlight the significant of the issue to the point I consider it a core issue with the game. I think addressing these broader issues is key to improving the state of the game's community, but exploring and resolving more specific issues that may help to provide additional details and ensure that solutions to broader issues stick. Thus, in this article I will discuss a few issues that exacerbate the situation of degraded realm communities then offer solutions to them.

The Effects of Character Services

While I could criticize the actual price tag of character services much like I have with other microtransactions, one of the worst effects of certain character services on the state of realm communities in particular (and by extension, the game's overall state), doesn't necessarily have a lot to do with arguably poor business practices. For instance, let's consider the impact of paid character transfers, which had its cooldown reduced from 6 months to 3 days over time. Paired with an increasingly sharper competitive edge that caused players to leave realms with inferior PvE and PvP progression for greener pastures, the cooldown reduction served as something of a catalyst that removed a lot of the risk of taking the "plunge" of hopping realms. At the risk of making a redundant statement, a lot of these popular realms tend to have high populations (for example, Tichondrius-US, a well-known PvP realm, has a High population even during evening hours during a slump in the content release cycle for WoW). A similar phenomenon could be possible with other services like Faction Change due to this "grass is greener" idiom, which would cause wildly uneven faction populations to become more uneven as players join the "winning side."

What I'm trying to say is that even with costs that may be considered prohibitive, players seem willing to abandon their existing communities on top of the monetary cost for something better in what is usually a more densely populated community. As the number of subscribers fell, these smaller communities shriveled up further, creating something of a snowballing effect, which is exactly what has been shown to happen to many realms including my own (Rexxar-US), if the realm merges that proceeded to occur are anything to judge. Unless it is directly addressed, this trend is likely to continue to the point so few players are left on dead realms that's it may be better to decommission them.

The "Regionalization" of WoW

Much like how the internet has played a significant role in globalization, various cross-realm systems have connected players to each other significantly at a region-wide level. However, even with cross realm zones, the premade group finder, Battletags, and other features, there is still a lack of tangible connectivity due to various restrictions that cause realms to have some level of self-containment, such as the restriction of trade between realms (to maintain realm economy). This is why I can't consider such features sufficient compensation for the issue I described in the previous section because while being able to group up with players regardless of your realm is nice if one is on an unpopulated realm, the connections made aren't as strong due to restrictions preventing certain interactions ("come to VoS AH quick! I want to show you something!").

Furthermore, much like with online interactions often having elements of anonymity associated with them that allow consequence-free behavior, cross realm interactions are similar since one can't name and shame abusive players, ninja looters, and the like for the entire realm to know about. While such behavior may be considered defamatory and thus against the Terms of Use, it is a relatively real consequence players would have to face if they misbehaved among their realm community peers.

I am aware of the many benefits these features have. After all, how else can I easily communicate with players who moved to other realms, started on other realms to begin with, or are playing different games from me? It's unfortunate these features have such consequences, though to be fair, the consequences do more to worsen the situation rather than being the cause of the situation, which I cannot say about the previous section's issue.

The Emphasis on Convenience and Reward in Unison

I've already talked about this issue at length in a previous article where I presented a solution to help alleviate the problem somewhat. To summarize, there are systems in place in WoW that are not only more convenient to use since a larger pool of players are likely using Dungeon Finder or LFR. but they are also more rewarding to boot because the dungeons are made easier (due to stat-increasing buffs) and the player earns bonus money, experience, and possibly gear among other rewards for using the systems. This means there is little incentive to create premade groups in some situations (as in any that don't involve Normal+ raids or Mythic Dungeons), which reduces the amount of interaction between players on the same realm. This is why I proposed making the more inconvenient methods of grouping that would promote a sense of community more rewarding, since clearly combining the benefits of convenience and rewarding incentive together into a single system that detracts from social interactions has major consequences.

Solutions and Final Statements

If the previous section alone indicated anything, these issues in themselves are pretty significant, but as I said, they are contributing factors to an overarching issue regarding social interactions in WoW. Since I've already offered solutions for the third section, I'll offer a couple solutions to the address other two:
  • To reverse the negative effect of character services, Blizzard should consider aggressively merging more of the lower population realms together. While this will cause chaos within those communities, taking this action may ensure their survival since realm population and potential in terms of progression has a good chance of being more equalized. This also has the benefit of directly addressing the broader issue of subscription losses corroding realm communities and reduces the need for cross-realm zones, among other features.
  • Consider loosening restrictions between realms even further. As it is, there's ways to effective transfer wealth between realms without buying character services and the Legion gold cap increase may allow guilds to transfer as much as 10 million gold from one server to another, which would be impactful to the economy of both realms (and this isn't even accounting for item wealth). It can be argued that the restrictions border on being pointless now and perhaps player interactions across realms should be made more seamless. This can be done by implementing features such as the following:
    • Merging all the auction houses, "regionalizing" the game economy.
    • Allowing trade across realms (it appears there's already functionality for this considering items can be mailed across realms on the same account, so implementing this will be relatively less time consuming).
Regardless of what Blizzard does though, the playbook for revitalizing World of Warcraft may end up going beyond bringing in a flood of new players and taking steps to help retain them in ways I have already described. In a way, this article is simply another step in the guidelines to help with player retention in general by describing issues that reduced it, then addressing said issues. This is also why I disagree with Blizzard's idea of pristine realms, since it takes a more extreme approach that splits the community even more without the advantages of being a radically different experience that appeals to certain audiences like legacy servers are (in the relative sense - note that the difference in experience between legacy and live WoW isn't that great compared to other games in their various iterations). Clearly Blizzard is aware that at least some of the systems they want to disable on a pristine realm are causing issues with community as I've described here, so why not just address them on the live game instead of creating what appears to be a black and white situation?

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