So let's start with a straightforward definition: data mining is the process of digging through WoW's data files and looking for information like maps, graphics, models, or sounds. It's not hacking or exploiting the game, just looking at the game files -- often, but not always, files that are publicly available -- to see what's there. These files can be from the current game client or come from a PTR or beta build, any of which could have new content that players can't access in the game world. Similar to looking up filming photos from a favorite TV show or movie, data mining gives you a sneak peek at game content that hasn't been publicly released, which can range from hints at the next patch to hints to the next expansion. Hungry for information, plenty of players turn to data mining for answers -- but because Blizzard can change, remove, or expand on unreleased content without any warning, anything data mined needs to be taken with a pretty big grain of salt.
So should you be paying attention to data mined info? In the end, the choice is up to you -- but we'll give you some background on just what WoW data mining might tell you.
A brief look at the history of WoW data mining
In the patch 5.4 files, released last summer, we got our first clues as to what would become Warlords of Draenor with a data folder named Iron Horde added to the game client. In hindsight that seems like a pretty big hint, but at the time we weren't sure what it indicated and there weren't any files in the folder that gave us a clear indication as to what the Iron Horde was. Similarly, the Wrath of the Lich King release was preceded by data for Howling Fjord showing up in the game client, a name that players -- accurately -- guessed suggested a Northrend setting for the next expansion.
While that makes data mining seem like a sure thing, data mined info can't always be trusted. Data mined content could be works in progress that will change before going live or it could be concepts that Blizzard will abandon and remove further down the line. For some real-world examples, Lead Game Designer Ion Hazzikostas recently had to point out that there will be 8 new dungeons released with Warlords after fans saw data mined info that only showed 6 new dungeons. Similarly, there were data mined sound files from Grand Magister Rommath that made him out to be a pretty bad guy -- but they never actually made it into the game, causing a lot of player confusion as to his character.
In the end, while data mined files can give you hints of what's to come, there's no way to know what's actually happening until Blizzard releases a final game client.
Whether you dig into data mining or not is really a personal call. Some people enjoy staying on top of all possible information -- including data mined content and every possible spoiler -- while others are happy to sit back and wait for the final result. You should already know which of those categories you fall into. But whether you pay close attention to it or ignore it, data mining isn't going away -- and as we get closer to the expansion release date, we're only likely to see more of it as players start getting invited into the beta and more game files are released.
It's also worth noting that data mined information often includes spoilers in the form of sound snippets or zone information -- so if you want to stay entirely unspoiled for an upcoming expansion or patch, you may prefer to avoid data mined information entirely. And just like movie spoilers, these bits of data mined info are likely to be everywhere, so take care if you want to stay spoiler-free.
For more casual players -- which I suspect most WoW Rookie readers are -- it's probably safe to ignore data mined files. They don't -- and might never -- effect current gameplay, so you're fine to carry on gaming until the final changes actually arrive. When Blizzard does announce its final patch notes, you can read them and know that they're true -- without having to keep track of the many iterations that preceded them. But if you do decide to read up on data mined info, remember not to take it as gospel -- it's not worth getting worked up about changes that might never happen!
And whatever direction you wind up going, remember to have fun out there -- it's not worth keeping up with the latest data mined info if you're not having fun doing it.
Just because you're a newbie doesn't mean you can't bring your A-game to World of Warcraft! Visit the WoW Rookie Guide for links to everything you need to get started as a new player, from the seven things every newbie ought to know to how to get started as a healer or as a tank.