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WoW Archivist: Class protests and the Million Gnome March

Naked gnomes everywhere

WoW Archivist explores the secrets of World of Warcraft's past. What did the game look like years ago? Who is etched into WoW's history? What secrets does the game still hold?

Betas make players nervous about their class. It happens every time. Blizzard makes changes, often drastically, and for better or worse some people hate the changes. I've been keeping my eye on the beta class forums since the Warlords beta began, and I've seen a lot of unhappiness this time around. The ability pruning that was one of Blizzard's major design goals for classes this year has removed depth from rotations, taken away both utility and cosmetic options, and in some cases radically altered or deleted abilities that players enjoyed. Beta testers have voiced strong opposition to many of the changes.

In ten years, I haven't seen players this up in arms about class issues since classic WoW -- an era when many specs and mechanics were simply broken in PvE, PvP, or both.

This past Friday, something happened that I believed would never again happen in WoW: an in-game class protest. With much more open lines of communication from developers to players in recent years, I thought the game had matured beyond the point where such things would ever be necessary. But here we are, almost ten years after the most famous class protest in WoW's history, and players once again felt the need to gather in Azeroth to voice their complaints.

Druids unite in Moonglade

Druids united

On October 3, druids prowled, swam, and hoofed it from Gadgetzan to Moonglade to protest a change to their ability Travel Form. Currently, Travel Form always activates cheetah or stag form. Aquatic Form and Flight Form are separate buttons. In the Warlords beta, Travel Form is context sensitive: it will activate Aquatic Form in water, and Flight Form in zones with flying enabled. The original Travel Form will only activate by default in zones and indoor areas without flying.

In response to druid's complaints, Blizzard added a clause to Glyph of the Stag that gives you a separate spell for Flight Form, in order to activate Travel Form wherever you want. But glyphing the ability means you have to be a stag rather than a cheetah, and it also turns you into a mount for other players.

Druids have been posting on the forums for weeks that this was not the fix they wanted. They finally took their protest to the mean streets of Kalimdor in a movement called Druids United. They're planning a follow-up march for this Friday, October 10.

The druid protest follows in a long -- and often sordid -- tradition that began in January 2005.

Naked gnomery

The first class protest in WoW occurred only two months after the game launched. Like Druids United, the problems stemmed from beta changes -- the original WoW beta. Warriors received some substantial nerfs late in the beta life cycle. The beta nerfs already had warriors grumbling. Then further nerfs to the class were patched in to the live game not long after launch. The official forums exploded with complaints.

With Blizzard showing no sign that they would revert the changes, warriors planned a protest on the Argent Dawn realm for the night of Friday, January 29, 2005. All protesters were encouraged to roll a level 1 gnome on Argent Dawn and march to Ironforge. The protest had several names, but the one that stuck was the Million Gnome March.

As the event began, organizers created a guild on the Argent Dawn realm and invited protesters into it. So many attended that the guild interface couldn't handle all the invites -- the invite button stopped functioning.

Gawkers and Argent Dawn natives showed up at the event too. Some asked the protesters to leave the realm. Some taunted them. Others just wanted to see what would happen.

Blogger Foton reported on the event live: "They are about to begin the march to Ironforge. It is a sea of naked gnomery, and I cannot adequately describe how horrifying a vision that is." (Link contains NSFW language.)

Gnomes take over Ironforge

Blizzard uses Intimidating Shout

With so many players gathered in one zone, the server began to lag. Disconnects became frequent. Then GM Xanan appeared in Ironforge. Foton was shocked. "omg omg, there's an actual GM character here now in Ironforge near the bridge," he wrote. "In 50-some levels, I have never seen an actual GM character EVER in this game." (I like how he qualified this with 50-some levels. I've been playing since 2004 and I still haven't seen a GM character.)

Xanan asked the protesters to leave the area: "This is severely impacting other players' gaming experiences. Please be advised failure to disperse can result in disciplinary action."

Most players refused. Xanan continued to ask for players to leave to prevent the server from crashing and disconnecting players. Argent Dawn became more and more unstable. At one point, Blizzard shut down the server manually. Some took it as Blizzard trying to kill the protest with a technological solution. But a few minutes later, Argent Dawn came back online. The shutdown didn't discourage the crowds or help the realm to stabilize.

Then Xanan got serious:

Attention: Gathering on a realm with intent to hinder gameplay is considered griefing and will not be tolerated. If you are here for the Warrior protest, please log off and return to playing on your usual realm.

We appreciate your opinion, but protesting in game is not a valid way to give us feedback. Please post your feedback on the forums instead. If you do not comply, we will begin taking action against accounts.

Please leave this area if you are here to disrupt game play (sic) as we are suspending all accounts.

With the risk of losing access to the game, most players logged off. No one knew what would happen next, but one thing was certain: warriors had made their stance known.

Suspended account

Sweeping suspensions

Players who remained after Xanan's warnings did indeed receive account suspensions. Blogger Abalieno, who was there merely to observe, received a three-hour suspension. The accompanying email read,

Offense: Harassment - Zone Disruption
Details: Zone disruption for Ironforge during warrior protest, player would not disperse after many warnings.

The game master's actions sparked a debate in the blogosphere about players' right to assemble in a virtual environment. Blogger Ecastronova posted a column called Synthetic Statehood and the Right to Assemble:

Running a virtual world is a service, as we are often reminded, but it is more than running a BBS or a shopping mall or an amusement. There's a nascent politics. There's policy. There's speech and assembly. There's terror and reaction. If destroying the world and banishing people are not terror and reaction, respectively, I don't know what would be. All this means that there are real issues of governance in play in the metagame.

All politics aside, however, it's hard to blame Blizzard for trying to stop player-run events when those events are ruining the in-game experience of other paying customers.

Blizzard's only public acknowledgment of the protest was to warn players that similar planned events would result in permanent bans. In an "unrelated" announcement, lead game designer Tom Chilton wrote a post on the official forums arguing that warriors have "unique" and "useful" abilities. He didn't rule out future changes, but the statement was essentially a tacit acknowledgment that the nerfs would stand.

Not everyone sympathized with the warriors' plight. I found this 2005 comment on Allakhazam's boards particularly interesting given the time frame of the event:

If warriors truly suck so bad (and the warrior in my group seems to have ZERO problems) then start over with a new character. The game is barely more than 60 days old, you can't possibly be so attached to your character that you can't start over. It's not like you've been grooming him/her for 2 years and they suddenly nerfed you.

Looking back, warriors probably had the best experience in classic WoW, at least in PvE. For most of vanilla, they were the only class with both a viable DPS spec and a viable non-DPS spec, and they had the only viable tank spec.

That didn't stop warriors from trying to organize another protest in December 2006 when they discovered that the class would be hit with further nerfs in The Burning Crusade. Myxilydian on Burning Blade-H posted on the official forums to call for a new gnome march on Ironforge on the Thunderlord realm. Blizzard preemptively put the kibosh on this plan. They announced that "anyone caught participating in this event or any event with the sole purpose of disrupting the game play for others will be punished."

Uvuros visits Shattrath

Class action

The Million Gnome March has inspired several other class protests. The most similar was another naked gnome march -- this time to protest priest nerfs -- in February 2007.

In the wake of the warrior protest, hunters threatened to hold their own march. Hunters had a longstanding bug that lowered their DPS. When Blizzard revealed that the bug wasn't going to be fixed in an upcoming patch, hunters stampeded to the official forums. However, timely intervention from community manager Caydiem calmed hunters down before the event kicked off.

In May 2006 paladins organized a "Pally Rally" on Lightbringer. They called for buffs to their class so they could become more than just "buffbots" in raids. Level 1 dwarf paladins marched from Ironforge to Stormwind.

Dot shock on the official forums

The "Dot Shock" protest of November 2007 was a forum-only protest, but it was a clever and memorable one. Upset over changes to interrupts and diminishing returns in patch 2.3, shamans began spamming the forums with posts and post titles consisting of a single period. They called it "dot shock." The implicit message was that Blizzard never listened to shamans anyway, so posting actual feedback was a waste of time. In the wake of the protest, many players had their forum access suspended and some were permanently banned.

In early 2008, warlocks staged a protest over a Life Tap nerf by kiting demons to Shattrath. Uvuros, fel reavers, pit lords from Hellfire's portal battle, and other powerful Legion foes made an appearance in the Dwelling of Light. In terms of gameplay, this protest definitely had the most to offer.

Do class protests work?

No. At least, historically speaking, they have not. They certainly draw attention to an issue, but typically in the most negative possible light. Blizzard isn't going to change course on their class design based on a protest.

I think the instigators of such things like to imagine a harried GM bursting into a meeting, disheveled and covered with soot, yelling, "The warriors are revolting! It's madness out there! We have to revert these nerfs before Argent Dawn is destroyed!" But that's pure fantasy.

A disruptive protest doesn't panic or frighten Blizzard. It earns no favors from the devs. If anything, the opposite is more likely.

A benign protest like the druids held last week can be a fun event. As long as you're not interfering with the ability for others to enjoy the game, Blizzard will take no action against you.

In the long run, however, the best way to be heard is to engage in the discussion. Although it may not always seem like it, Blizzard does read our feedback on the forums. They do look at our tweets, read our blogs, and watch our videos. Not all of them, of course -- but whenever there is a great deal of complaining about an issue, that message is received. That doesn't mean Blizzard will immediately act on that message, but rest assured, they know how we feel.

If any protest has ever seemed to work, it wasn't the protest that convinced Blizzard. It was the players who took the time to provide well-reasoned, informed, and mature feedback on the issue.

Although many players are unhappy with their class in the Warlords beta, we have to remember that Blizzard is far from done. This is an enormous transition for both class design and itemization -- the biggest in WoW so far, I would argue. Blizzard is likely to make changes throughout the expansion to ensure every spec is viable and feels good to play. In the meantime, we have to keep providing feedback to help them reach that point.

After months of surveying, WoW Archivist has been dug back up! Discover lore and artifacts of WoW's past, including the Corrupted Blood plague, the Scepter of the Shifting Sands, and the mysterious Emerald Dream.