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«media matters Battlefields of Negotiation Control, Agency, and Ownership in World of Warcraft rené glas amsterdam university press Battlefields of ...»

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Whether the makers are poachers or jammers, some exploration movies have actually led to (threats of) legal action and formal changes in the game’s design through patching, thereby frustrating potential copycat behaviour. In May 2005, an avid explorer by the name of Dopefish published Exploration: The Movie, a machinima showing content that few people outside of the core design team had ever seen. It showed characters walking through regions many thought did not even exist yet. Some of these regions have been published in the years following the movie, like the Ahn’Qiraj ruins, the Caverns of Time or the Outlands. Other regions shown still have not been announced as being in production when this study was finalized in mid-2010 and might never see the light of day in finished form. Dopefish and his explorer friends nevertheless managed to get inside of rough and temporary design versions of these regions, and in the process surprising friend and foe. Embarrassingly enough, Exploration: The Movie also claims to show the secretive GM Island and Designer Island, regions never meant to reach the public eye. Here, the game masters and designers “live” and play with the game’s design. Among other things, we can see an explorer ride his mount over large, barren terrain with the sentence ‘chum is my love monkey’ written all over it, probably the work of a designer making fun of another Blizzard employee. Not surprisingly, Blizzard was not amused by this disclosure of secret content, and some of the websites hosting the movie were asked to take it down.100 A follow-up movie by the same team called Nogg-aholic the Movie (Dopefish & Forg) appeared in November 2005. Even though this movie featured an even bigger collection of explorations of World of Warcraft’s hidden content, it was not pursued by Blizzard in the way Exploration the Movie had been. One major difference was that this new production did not show how to use exploits to explore terrain normally hidden from view. Exploration the Movie at one point shows an exploit technique that has become known as “wall-walking” – walking up a steep hill at a very specific angle making it possible to “stick” to the surface, enabling players to climb them. Through the mountaineering-like wall-walking, players were shown how to get up the hills surrounding the human city of Stormwind, showing the see-through “backside” of the city’s architecture, a façade of hardly discernable forms and textures. Nogg-aholic: the Movie does not show the technique itself, lessening the potential for copycat behaviour.

In contrast to most exploration videos, the creators of these machinima productions were far more dedicated to providing a resistive commentary on the game. Judging from the Nogg-Aholic blog, wall-walking and exploring in general is very much seen as an act of defiance in Jenkins’ original meaning of culture jamming.101 Clicking on the topic ‘why do we wallwalk?’ on the blog leads to a six-panel cartoon, showing a man who tells a friend why he enjoys walking on a part iv claiming the game little wall on his way to work. The man frames his activity as a ‘pleasing physical activity’ which elevates/estranges the wall-walker from the surrounding world (‘for a minute when I’m done the world is strange’) as well as its inhabitants (‘I pass these rich fucks with their little bags of dogshit – shithandlers in fancy track suits’).102 This suggests that the wall-walkers see their deviant practices as a transformative experience that not only provides an altered view on the fictional world but also sets them apart from players who just follow WoWs dominant play strategies. It is not the continuous collecting of bigger, better and more expensive items – one of WoWs core instrumental goals – that makes these wall-walkers happy; it is the gratification of free play in its purest form.

Additionally, the blog offers a series of posts entitled ‘Why WoW is a bad game’, which provides a host of reasons why the owners of the blog are dissatisfied with the core game as designed by Blizzard. Their stake in the Exploration and Nogg-Aholic machinima productions seems clear: they want to break open established norms in, and views on, the game. The films are both explorations of the game’s limits and at the same time critiques or exposés of the game’s merits and failures. The fact that Blizzard actually took steps to limit the distribution of Exploration: The Movie both established and confirmed the explorers as rebellious, strengthening the exploration community and pushing it underground.

The attention to these machinima productions contributed to the popularity of wall-walking as a form of exploration, with the initial films and their subsequent removal from video sites by request of Blizzard spawning a multitude of machinimas showing off new discoveries. Blizzard, however, eventually announced that it officially considered wall-walking an exploit of the game’s design. Many explorers

reacted furiously: why take away this “innocent” form of free play? Blizzard Community Manager Caydiem reacted on the community forums:

Now, I completely understand the desire to defend the act of cliff-walking, but I want you to step back for a second and look at it objectively – cliff-walking is the act of hitting a very steep slope at juuuuust the right angle so you don’t fall down. If you hit it normally, you would slide to the bottom. That is an exploit, as it’s doing something that goes against the proper game mechanics (in this case, the steep slope stopping people from gaining access to these areas). It’s a small exploit, mind – nothing horrendous or game-breaking – but it’s an exploit nonetheless.

As such, I want you to understand that there’s no way that we should allow this exploit in the game. It does cause problems in PvP – accessing areas you should not in order to gain an advantage over the enemy. Yes, exploring is fun, and it’s one of my personal joys in these games, but this particular method of exploration was never meant to exist and cannot be condoned (posted by “Caydiem”, 28 November 2005).103 156 battlefields of negotiation Soon after, patch 1.9.0 (released 3 January 2006) removed the possibilities for wall walking.104 As a farewell to their favourite pastime, a group of dedicated explorers did one last wall walking trip on the evening before the implementation of the patch, capturing their adventures in the nostalgia-ridden machinima Last Wallwalk the Movie (Dopefish 2006).105 The case of wall walking and its removal from the game by patching reveals the influence that divergent forms of free play – especially when they are recorded and distributed through popular machinima – can have on formal changes in the game’s design. In this case, players were appropriating the game in ways Blizzard did not expect them to and, ultimately, decided to hinder them from doing so any further. Usually, exploration is more about immersing oneself in the fictional world than it is about achieving structural goals – a form of play that is allowed, even encouraged by Blizzard through the environmental design of the game world. The fact that wall-walking also caused players to exploit more goaloriented content – for example in the PvP battleground situations Caydiem pointed out above – caused unwanted overlap between free and instrumental play. Not only did players get to places they should not be, they also caused unfairly balanced game situations. Cultural poaching and jamming became so intertwined that Blizzard ultimately found itself reacting with the removal of the possibilities for wall-walking altogether.

The stakes of wall-walkers are about valuing the freedom to explore, and to play and otherwise behave in such a way as to defy the norm; machinima moviemaking is an important tool to express these values. Even if Blizzard would appreciate the free play forms of the explorers, it cannot condone what it sees as exploitation. Patching out the option of wall-walking stops the practice altogether, whether it is used innocently or deviously. Players valuing exploration beyond the limits set by Blizzard are continuing their efforts to explore and exploit. Machinima showing their activities still appear on many video hosting sites, including Warcraftmovies.com, as well as in peer-to-peer networks – placing them further out of the reach of Blizzard’s sphere of influence.

In this chapter, I’ve shown practices that widen the possibilities for free play by extending or adjusting the fictional universe as designed by Blizzard, involving the use of third-party programmes, exploits and other deviations from the core game. Such practices, meant for and/or captured by machinima filmmaking, can lead to battlefields of negotiation with other players or, in some cases, Blizzard, who might consider these forms of participatory culture undesirable. Not all “illegal” practices are punished by Blizzard, as in the use of certain third-party tools used to produce popular machinima such as Tales of the Past III. This is because Blizzard has (or takes) the freedom to differentiate between “good” and “bad” appropriation. This decision-making process is not necessarily negotiated with players, nor is it entirely transparent; machinima makers remain uncertain about whether their practices of appropriation and creative productions move within or part iv claiming the game stray beyond the contractual boundaries of the game. While this does not stop players from engaging in machinima filmmaking practices and distributing their productions to the community, it does show the fickle nature of setting, or wanting to set, boundaries for creative appropriations of games such as World of Warcraft.

158 battlefields of negotiation14: The Fragmented and the Multiple

In January 2006, Blizzard released patch 1.9, titled The Gates of Ahn’Qiraj, which implemented highly anticipated new content. This patch would finally open a huge gate in the south of the fictional world which had remained sealed since WoW’s release, offering access to the mysterious city-kingdom of Ahn’Qiraj which consisted of two major raid dungeons. For the first time in World of Warcraft’s history, new content was not instantly accessible to the players upon release of the patch. Opening the gates to Ahn’Qiraj (and thus the new content) required players to participate in a “War Effort”; without this effort, the gates would remain shut. As I will show in this chapter, this design decision led to major struggles between different player groups, each displaying different stakes in opening the gates.

I will not primarily investigate, however, how the battlefield of negotiation concerning the opening the Gates of Ahn’Qiraj was triggered but rather how players negotiated the differences of opinion and agency within this situation. It therefore deals with issues of (self-) governance in times of social unrest among a player community. The difference between this chapter and the previous ones is twofold. First, I do not look at what players can and cannot do but what players can and cannot say within World of Warcraft’s contractual bounds. Therefore, this chapter is less about negotiation play and more about negotiating communication.

Second, I look less at individual player practices but focus more on a player community as a whole through participatory observation of a specific realm during a time of distressing events. And on the realm I was active on, agitation was surely noticeably.

Let me quickly explain what the patch entailed. Opening the Gates of Ahn’Qiraj required two acts from the player community, which also called for a certain degree of cooperation between the competing Alliance and Horde factions. To begin with, there was a (voluntary) assignment for all players to collect nearly four million items (supplies for the war effort such as bandages, food and so on), a requirement without which the opening of the gates would not commence.106 As the new Ahn’Qiraj content behind the gates consisted of two new raid dungeons aimed only at the raiding community, many non-raiding players did not bother to participate in this collecting effort. The second part of the war effort consisted of a series of extremely difficult quests involving visits to all of the most part iv claiming the game challenging dungeons, as well as collecting another 40,000 (and much more difficult to collect) items. This assignment was not meant for the general player community but only for the most hardcore raiding guilds, many of whom put in the effort to be the first to complete the tasks at hand. According to members of the raid community I had spoken to in the realm in which I was active, only three raiding groups had, at the moment of the patch’s release, managed to beat the dungeons’ bosses which formed the threshold for partaking in the Ahn’Qiraj quest series – meaning that this new challenge was truly for the very best raiders only. Blizzard even introduced a competitive element in the form of a sceptre that functioned as a key for the gates – only one player within each raiding group who managed to finish the challenges could receive this sceptre. The first sceptre to strike a gong near the gates would start the actual opening of the gates.

By wielding this sceptre, a raiding community could obtain the key to unlock the new content for all players on a realm, and the power it exerted became the basis for the battlefield of negotiation that would unfold. Even though the new Ahn’Qiraj content was solely aimed at the top raiding guilds, other players also had stakes in the actual opening of the gates. The opening event itself, dubbed “the War of the Shifting Sands” by Blizzard, was introduced as a major happening in World of Warcraft’s fictional universe, including a pre-scripted re-enactment of the historical events by famous NPCs which led to the initial closure of the gates, as well as a ten-hour invasion of giant insectoid creatures all over Azeroth.

Understandably, players invested in World of Warcraft’s fiction did not want to miss out on this one-time-only event. Even if they were not interested in the Ahn’Qiraj raiding content, they considered the opening as an event that was also theirs.

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