26 September 2008

Shadow priests: a study in trust

Long post. Rather preachy. Sorry. But did you see Koraa's comments on the forums earlier this week? This one sentence stood out for me, as for many others:

In a nutshell, we feel we’ve made a lot of progress in our goal of bumping the Shadow Priest DPS numbers/scaling to where we want it to be.

I initially reacted quite poorly (read: steam came out of my ears) and was going to blog about how uninformed he must be. Then I had an out-of-body experience and saw how ridiculous I looked (steam notwithstanding).

I don't even have a beta key; what do I know? Koraa is in fact one of the most qualified people in the game to judge the state of shadow priests in Wrath, which makes the outpouring of scorn and abuse that followed his discussion all the more shocking. I really had to take a step back and re-evaluate my own attitude.

Suddenly, the whole dispute looked rather familiar. You see I work in internal communications, where I spend a lot of time dealing with feedback from staff who think the leaders of our organisation don't know what they're doing, that everything they say is at best spin, or more often just plain lies, and who feel that every decision made will result in the total annihilation of the company and their livelihoods. Wow, where have I heard that before?

I'm not sure where it all went wrong for Blizzard. When you look at some of the key concerns of shadow priests, (pvp survivability, mana efficiency and end-game scaling and itemisation), all have been addressed to some extent in the beta. Even if the execution of some spells leaves a little to be desired, surely it shouldn't feel as apocalyptic as it does. No wonder Koraa doesn't know what we're complaining about.

What it all boils down to, I think, is a lack of trust. Somewhere along the line, Blizzard has lost the trust of shadow priests, and this dispute is the result. This doesn't exclude the possibility that the class really is broken, but I think the fact that so many uninformed people are prepared to take the view of detractors over Blizzard says more about the state of customer relations than it does class balance.

One major contributory factor must surely be the lack of transparency with the development process. We have no clear iteration of Blizzard's vision for shadow priests, so we have no context in which to view certain decisions. We don't know how changes are arrived at. And instead of explaining why certain decisions are made, they are simply released without explanation. Sometimes, they are overturned just as impulsively. It's understandable that not every feature of a beta will make it to live, but unexplained quick changes and reversions look ill-considered and unprofessional.

I suspect another factor in the breakdown of trust is the inconsistent approach Blizzard has taken to development across the classes. When a shadow priest sees one class developer on the forums explicitly requesting feedback on, say, titan's grip or metamorphosis, they understandably feel overlooked when no such feedback is solicited on their own new talents. Debate and feedback on shadow priest talents have been erratic and unpredictable, which in itself leaves concerned players feeling insecure. It generates perceptions of imbalance and leaves them open to accusations of preferential treatment.

And then there is the 51-point talent, which is a PR disaster in its own right. For shadow priests, with only the one dps tree to choose from, the end talent — the flagship talent, the aspirational talent — must work for all purposes. Admitting that shadow priests would not be viable in pvp without dispersion was a terrible, terrible mistake. It simultaneously said to shadow priests that you can't pvp without it while telling those who don't pvp that it is not intended for them. This, in response to weeks of feedback from experienced pvpers who don't like dispersion and don't want it.

Dispersion may well be the saving grace of shadow (although I doubt it) — it was simply a bad decision to slap it at the top of the tree. This point was brought home to me beautifully by a comment on the forums (sorry I can't find it to link), which asked would we be so upset if dispersion was the level 80 baseline spell and mind sear was the top talent. Well, would we?

These perceptions of shadow priests may not be the reality, but in a battle for trust, reality is irrelevant.

It's unclear how this situation will play out. Blizzard's characteristic secrecy leaves a lot of questions unanswered but it appears that they are hell-bent on giving us dispersion. The class may go on to be one of the dps stars of Wrath as they promise, or it may die a slow, agonising death. The difficulty for concerned shadow priests is finding a hook with which to drive Blizzard into action. In the raiding world of Northrend, where no dps class is vital to a raid, our absence from the rosters may well go unregistered. And it's not like this situation is going to hit Blizzard's revenue — the most vocal players out there are talking about rerolling, not cancelling their subscriptions. It seems there is very little need for Blizzard to win us back.

I also have to ask just how representative forums are of the general player base. The numbers who participate are small in comparison to Blizzard's millions of subscribers, so perhaps Blizzard is even right to ignore them.

At this late stage before release, I can't see Blizzard even attempting a reconciliation with shadow priests. We have a fairly solid idea now what the tree will look like. There may or may not be further changes before release, but unless Blizzard re-evaluates its approach, even the most positive things are likely to be greeted with cynicism. The best we can hope for is that Blizzard is right, and that they have learnt some valuable lessons for the future on how to engage with its customer base and maintain a healthy relationship.

1 comment:

dietekocgirl said...

I've been reading your blog for a long time. I spend more time holy these days then shadow -- but having recently decided to go shadow for a while -- I feel the pangs of the beta process right along with you. I guess I just wanted to say -- that being a priest, by it's very nature -- was always an exercise in patience and not for the faint of heart while leveling. And that no matter what blizard does to the shadow priest in wrath, we will -- as dicipline, shadow or holy survive. Because at the end of the day it doesn't matter WHAT they do to your trees, or how blizard envisions our class. We will make the best of it -- because we enjoy playing our classes, and we will learn to twist whatever talents or spells we get to optimal use.