I began writing this post about two weeks ago when the idea to create this blog first came to me. Interestingly enough, I’ve noticed from a couple of articles on WoWinsider this week that quite heated discussions have begun over player behaviour and expectations. Some of this is included in my rather epic piece below. Perhaps, given its length, I should have penned it in purple ink!

The Gilded Past

Most long-standing veterans of WoW, who have played since Vanilla or TBC, look back fondly on the days they joined the game. Viewing Azeroth through a misty lens of golden sunlight, they recall that there was a thing called Community then. There are many tales to tell of people they met out in the landscape, who became friends, or tales of random acts of kindness from complete strangers. I can remember a personality called Mongoose on our server, a level 60 paladin who always used to show up when lowbie towns in Ashenvale or Westfall were being attacked by Horde players – used to happen a lot back in the early days. Levelling was a far slower process then too, so quite often these random attacks were a great inconvenience to players, when their quest NPCs and flight masters in towns were nearly always dead – there were more players levelling their characters then than having top level ones. I’m quite sure the same happened to lowbie Horde towns too. On Alliance, Mongoose would invariably arrive on the field to defend the towns and save the day. I remember meeting him randomly on the road one day while questing, and pausing to thank him for his noble deeds. His response was a dignified ‘You’re welcome.’ To some, this might sound like a different world to the Azeroth we know now.

But Mongoose wasn’t the only champion among us. In those times, it might have been that the people who considered themselves only to be elite raiders, above the hoi polloi, kept to themselves (if in fact such creatures even existed back then). It was a lot more difficult to raid when the teams needed 40 people, and only a few of the top guilds were involved in it. So there was inevitably a percentage of max level players who found enjoyment in other aspects of the game. There was a lot more PvP going on in the landscape, probably because people wanted something fun to occupy their time. The top level dungeons, known only (and confusingly to newbies) by their acronyms or short forms, Mara, BRD, Scholo, Strat, LBRS were often seen as the pinnacle of the game by those who weren’t raiding. It seems bizarre now to imagine people boasted about doing BRD. But they did. It was – and still is – an immense dungeon, and very few could clear it in a night. (I can remember spending five long hours one night in Maraudon, and we still didn’t finish it.) But even though you might have had boasters in the community, it wasn’t much more than that. There was less, if any, scornful rudeness, at least at the level of the game/community that I saw. It might well have been different for the raiders. (I didn’t begin to raid until the advent of Karazhan in TBC.) But for most of us, if anything, people were keen to demonstrate their skills and help others on the way up. In my experience, it was very unlikely a high level player would turn to a lowbie with a sneer and a ‘L2P noob’ comment.

When the Shine Began to Fade

This mellow state of affairs continued into the first expansion to WoW, The Burning Crusade. When the expansion came out, Hellfire Peninsula was stuffed with players – far too many for the game to accommodate comfortably – but the level of behaviour was far higher than the feral pup fight we witnessed on Cataclysm’s launch night. In TBC it was just too busy more than anything. However, as time went on the cracks in the community grew wider and began to show. This was, in my opinion, influenced by Blizzard’s first steps into making content more accessible to a wider amount of players, and when the concept of Hardcore vs Casual first began to evolve. This, quite frankly, has been at the root of most player abuse since then. Blizzard introduced the 10 Man raid of Karazhan that was doable for people new to raiding (enabling them to cut their raiding teeth in fact). On top of that, players could win epic loot in heroic dungeons, (rarely seen outside of raids before), and worst of all, in some people’s eyes, Blizzard handed out what were referred to as ‘welfare epics’, i.e. pieces of nice gear that could be gained from doing PvP arenas – even if you consistently lost your matches (a circumstance since changed and rightly so, really). These epics, while including PvP stats, were also very good for entry level, 10 man raiding. Many new raiders strove to augment their gear with these pieces. Old School Raiders were incensed that the scrubs could get good gear from arenas and use it in PvE content, and were very vocal about it. The rot began to set in.

Until this point I had either been sheltered from this sour elitism by my very newbiness to raiding or else it simply hadn’t existed in such a toxic form. But I only noticed it start to happen with the introduction of the ‘welfare epics’ fairly late into the expansion. This unleashed a tsunami of ill feeling on forums among 25 man raiders, which never went away.

The Community Today

Over the years, and two expansions later, the community of WoW is all but shattered. Consistent anti social behaviour has made many decent players wary and disillusioned in the extreme, or suspicious of players they don’t know. What started as sour grapes among a small percentage of the player base about epic loot has exploded into a whole contaminated breed of players, who consider themselves above others and are not shy of making this plain. I’m not implying these types are Old School Raiders; the majority of the culprits clearly aren’t. They are fairly new to the game, but somehow they’ve tagged onto the whole elitist concept as a means to augment their self-worth. And they can be vicious about it. While in reality, these types probably are the minority, their very behaviour in group situations and their loud trumpeting on forums makes them seem more common than they actually are. These are the vermin who populate PUGs for heroic dungeons, and are sighted quite frequently in LFR. They congregate on forums to tell everyone how WoW is dying because Blizzard is now catering mainly for that most contemptible of life forms – the Casual Player. As to what actually constitutes a casual player is open to interpretation. Perhaps if you wouldn’t consider selling your family for a world first kill you are casual, who knows? But for some, being Hardcore is where it’s at; heroic raids for 20 hours a week or nothing. And in their eyes, no one who isn’t doing top level raiding is worthy of seeing that content at a lower difficulty.

Blizzard, however, is a business, whose aim is to be successful and make money. Perhaps realising that the strident self-proclaimed hardcore were actually a small percentage of its customer base, and that by listening to them and implementing their demands they were driving players away in their hundreds of thousands, (as seemed to happen with Cataclysm – no coincidence surely), Blizzard have visibly changed tack with some introductions to the game late in Cataclysm’s life, (the LFR difficulty of raiding so that virtually anyone can see the end game content), but mostly with their announcements for Mists of Pandaria. It appears to me that the developers are trying to have a more holistic view of the game, with multiple avenues to players’ enjoyment and satisfaction. It seems they are cottoning on to the fact that end game shouldn’t just be about raiding, and they should be commended for that. I hope other MMOs follow suit. And I say this as a core member of our guild’s progression raid team too. But this still leaves us with the problem of bad player behaviour, and the antics that have torn the WoW community apart.

Bullies – The Unpalatable Truth

The fact that random dungeons and raids involve people from across different servers, who will never meet again, removes any shred of accountability. People can be as vile as they like with no comeback.  The only recourse decent players have is the Ignore function, but it’s well known that the Ignore list isn’t large enough to accommodate the amount of unpleasant types you can stumble across in PUGs. We are given the right to report bad behaviour, and we do. But nothing really can be done about someone being a bully. They’re not exactly breaking any rules unless they swear a lot or say something racist or threatening. Being cruel and rude is not in itself a bannable offence. Some players, exasperated by this situation and desperate to change it, have suggested on forum threads that players could be ranked by their peers. For example after doing a dungeon through LFD, players could rate their team mates, downranking those who behaved badly. But this is so patently open to abuse by the very people it would be designed to cull that it’s not even worth thinking about. The bad contingent would simply utilise it to inconvenience other players, or get back at someone for a perceived slight, or just for the hell of harming someone they don’t even know.

Blizzard will not ban unpleasant people from the game. Simple reason? The bullies pay their subs, and that would be lost revenue. I’m not saying the company condones this behaviour – they clearly don’t – but it would be counter-productive, and their accountants would have something to say about it, if they started banning a lot of their own customers. Also the amount of employee hours that would be required to police rigorously all the realms is just unviable. Realistically, it’s not going to happen. This leads me to believe it’s down to us – the decent players – to police our own realms.

The Search for Solutions

I don’t think that punishing people for bad behaviour will have any effect. For a start the only real punishment would be a permanent ban, and that isn’t a likely outcome. But something, surely, could be done? Do we just have to put up with a rabid community that’s now bordering on some sort of science fiction, post-holocaust disaster movie? Do we really have to accept that decency at the levels we used to see has gone for good? Is our only option to ‘man up’, as some commentators have suggested, and simply attempt to ignore the rudeness and cruelty? I personally don’t think we should accept any of that.

It occurred to me that we, the decent players, have been looking at it all wrong. I’ve no doubt others might have thought of this, (I’ve just not read it anywhere), but would it not be feasible to reward good behaviour instead of punishing bad behaviour? There are many ways this could be implemented within the game that could not be easily abused by bullies. Perhaps we could rate fellow players, but ONLY when we’ve got something positive to say. I discussed this with a fellow officer in our guild, and we played around with thinking of a few ways in which rewards could encourage not only better behaviour among players, but also improve the community itself.  Here is a selection of those ideas.

1. The Order of the Mongoose

Joking here with the name, but what I mean is that when players consistently earn good reports for being helpful or skilled in different ways, they could amass points that would go towards a sort of WoW peerage. There could be different ranks for this, beginning with (to keep the fantasy theme) knights who would earn the title Sir or Lady before their character name, on to higher ranks such as could be dreamed up to fit the theme or taken from history –  Lord/Lady Protector and so on. When players come across others with these titles they’d know they were honourable people. They would be ranked according to their success at being decent humans as much as how good they are in raids, dungeons or various PvP scenarios. Player skill is paramount to the game, yes, but so are team spirit, tolerance and self-responsibility.

I would imagine that players would have to earn a lot of points to acquire such a title, but then it would actually mean something, and the players would deserve it. Points needn’t just be earned from behaviour and attitude towards others in dungeons or raids or PvP. If someone should assist others in whatever way, in a city or out in the landscape, or simply through one of the chat channels, they could potentially earn points. Or maybe they were courteous and knowledgeable in a team situation, or were a good leader who contributed to team success in a BG. Players could submit a report about others they felt deserved it. This would, I imagine, have to be a multiple choice questionnaire that donated points to a player automatically, as I doubt Blizzard would have the GM staff to deal with individual reports and dish out the points themselves.

2. Tangible Rewards

Instead of, or as well as, the prospect of earning a difficult to acquire title, fair players could earn more physical rewards. Not everyone is into mounts or titles, so perhaps there would have to be an array of different rewards, including good pieces of gear or weapons. For example, you could have the equivalent of a legendary, but earned in a far different way to however any such weapon has been earned before. I’m sure there are other ways players could be rewarded for treating their fellow players with respect and courtesy. There could be a wall of fame in home cities, for example, or statues of the most decorated players on a server. (Plenty of room in the various throne rooms for those – they could change annually or bi-annually so as not to take up ever-increasing space.) Perhaps the most prestigious of all mounts (such as those handed out for top arena players per season) could be awarded annually to a small amount of the top-ranked chivalrous players. Not only could they cluster outside the banks in cities on these splendid beasts simply to show them off, other players would be aware they’d got those mounts by being ultimately decent people. Few could begrudge them their spoils.

While the Knights of the land might have to commit many valorous acts to earn their titles, lesser acts of decency should also offer perhaps lesser rewards. The idea would be to fix it into the community mind as a whole that good behaviour earns treats. Bullies would be forever excluded from certain mounts, pets, titles, legendaries, or other items.

I hope people reading this get the vibe of what I’m suggesting. I’m not convinced all the ideas I’m presenting would work, but there is, I trust, a feeling behind it all.

3. The Problem of the ‘Bads’

One thing that the ‘other side’ might bring up, if they were brought into a discussion about player behaviour, is that some players are so terrible at playing they are actually a liability for teams. They are mostly seen as lazy or stupid people who have never bothered to find out how their class, or indeed the game, works. When coming across unskilled players, some of the more proficient types, (who might under normal circumstances be fairly mellow), can be driven by frustration into a frenzy of rage and insult-bombing, which of course only contributes to the performance of the so-called Bad becoming even worse.

Unskilled players will always be with us. Some people might never totally ‘get it’ but might still, at their level, really enjoy the game. Also, it’s so quick to get to top level now it’s entirely possible even a potentially good player can reach the max without having learned much about their class at all. There is no means within the game itself for them to learn; they have to use third party web sites. And some might not even realise these exist. I felt I had to write quite a long article recently on our guild forum for a few newly-dinged 85s, (friends of friends who joined the game, and therefore our guild), who didn’t really know much at all. Things most of us veterans take for granted they just didn’t know. It wasn’t their fault. WoW is huge. There is a lot to learn, eight years of stuff to learn, and like I said, the majority of this information comes from other players or web sites.

I read a Blue post recently on a forum, in which a Blizzard employee brought up how the so-called Bads, who might simply be uninformed, could be the top raiders of tomorrow if they were only given a chance, advice and help, and treated with tolerance and compassion. How true.

Other MMOs have brought in mentoring systems, whereby high level players volunteer to be mentors for other players. That would surely be another sensible way for people in WoW to earn points towards a title of chivalry. It could work both ways. Mentors could submit reports on their students/apprentices too.

Edit: Interestingly since I began this piece, Blizzard announced the introduction of mentor guilds as an experiment. Personally, I still feel individual mentoring would probably work better, as seen in other games, but my mind is open on the subject. Let’s see how it goes.

4. Guild Contributions to Community

The system could be taken even further for entire guilds to earn this kind of chivalrous reputation. Guilds who organise server-wide events, who are active in the community, or are helpful to newcomers to the server, or generous to fellow players. There is much potential there.

I’m not a game designer. I’m not sure how feasible any of the above ideas are, but to me any level of their implementation would be a step towards the community policing itself and bad behaviour being actively discouraged.

Potential Pitfalls and the Need for Change

The only way a system such as I’m suggesting might be open to abuse is if friends attempted to form a sort of cartel to rank each other, or players utilised multiple accounts for the same ends, but I’m sure with a bit of thought systems could be introduced to offset that. The fact is that the minute any system is introduced into WoW there are players waiting to exploit it and find a way round it, and I can imagine cynical young men (in particular) taking mordant pleasure from acquiring a title of chivalry they hadn’t earned or deserved. It would surely be the ultimate goal of the bully to find a way to get a title like this and then turn round and spit in the face of the community.  Yes, that’s how jaded I am with such types. But, it would soon become patently obvious they had cheated, and ranks and privileges can always be stripped from a player. I think quite wistfully of stocks in city centres where miscreants could be imprisoned for the populace to throw things at them, but perhaps that’s going too far. Anyway, I do think the ideas explored above could form the seeds of change. And we DO need change.

The very people who are ruining – or have ruined – the community will scream in scorn and outrage at these ideas, I know. I will be accused of being a care-bear or worse. For some, it is simply not ‘cool’ to be decent; it’s a sad fact of our current times. But I think Blizzard can do something within WoW that could be so innovative other developers would want to copy it. I do think these measures to greater or smaller degree could do much to improve our community. If people were rewarded for being valiant and noble, as fantastical heroes surely should be to their own kind, especially to those less fortunate than themselves, the nasty contingent would become marginalised. Some might actually be inspired to change their ways – although I wouldn’t hold my breath on that.

The question is, though, would Blizzard have the courage or the means to implement such a system?