Monday, June 28, 2021

Unrealistic Expectations

I've seen an awful lot of discontented posts about Blizzard and World of Warcraft lately. It's hard to avoid them. Even though I'm not currently playing WoW it remains, as it has been for the best part of a decade and a half, the big story in the genre just about all the time.

These days, of course, there isn't just the one World of Warcraft. Blizzard may never have produced a sequel but, perhaps without intending to, they've somehow managed to make it seem as though they have. As with Norrath and a growing number of imaginary worlds, there are multiple versions of Azeroth available now. 

With three distinct and different versions available it's quite possible, likely even, that some are doing better than others. Not everyone is going to be unhappy all the time. Even so, there seems to be a general sense of malaise around the franchise as a whole.

For much of this year it was Retail in the firing line. There seemed to be no end to the complaints and discussions over everything that was wrong with Shadowlands. I kept hearing how most of the mechanics and systems introduced by the expansion were flawed or Not Fun. Either Blizzard wasn't doing much of anything about it or whatever it was doing didn't seem to be working.

As Classic wound down and the countdown to Burning Crusade ramped up, there was a fair amount of excitement but also some apprehension. Choices needed to be made and not everyone seemed comfortable about them. In the event the launch did arrive with the anticipated rush of exhillaration, and yet in a matter of days I found myself reading more tales of woe. 

Players leveling Shamans felt ignored and neglected, left in the old world dust to fend for themselves as the leveling bubble rose through Outlands towards the cap. Then there was the inevitable guild drama over reduced raid sizes, benching and the usual internecine maneuverings guilds tend to foster.

With the advent of the latest patch (9.1 I think it is) there's been a tinge of optimism over in Retail. I've seen commentary suggesting notice has finally been taken of the general levels of disatisfaction. Attempts are being made to turn the ship. Even then, there's a sense that it might be too little or too late or both.

The release of the recent Carbot Animations video "This is World of Warcraft" seems to have ratchetted the anxious tension around the games up another notch. Wilhelm has an excellent post on that, as does Gnomecore. Their positions overlap in a number of interesting way, especially given the extreme difference of their in-game interests and experiences. Both seem to agree the problems, whatever they are, lie as much with players and their expectations as with developers and their intent.

Both the posts also generated some lengthy and thoughtful comments. I get the impression the current state of all flavors of World of Warcraft and of the company behind them is giving a lot of players pause for thought.

It is, of course, not just about the games. It's only a couple of years since decisions taken over what could or couldn't be said in a livestream gave Blizzard unwelcome prominence on non-gaming newsfeeds all over the world. That controversy, bright though it blazed, doesn't appear to have smoldered as long as some expected or maybe hoped. In the end it seems it's the gameplay that matters most; the gameplay and the friendships it sustains.

Or doesn't. And that seems to be the problem. One of the problems, anyway.

In a comment on Wilhelm's post, Shintar linked another WoW video. 


I watched it but, like the Carbot video, it didn't really connect with me on the kind of visceral level it seems to have reached almost all of the two thousand or so YouTube viewers who left anguished comments on the thread. It's not that I don't recognize the experiences, albeit from games other than WoW; it's more that I don't look back on those same experiences with the anything close to the kind of emotion I'm reading about.

Perhaps the main difference between the two videos is where the center of gravity sits. The Carbot appears to drill down into what Blizzard, as both creator and curator, first got right and then got so badly wrong. The Pint video, conversely, appears to place a question mark over the validity of the experience itself, leaving the viewer uncertain where the blame, if blame there's to be, might lie.

All of this dovetails neatly into a sequence of posts Wilhelm has been running concerning the unwillingness of mmoprg players, en masse, to accept or even recognize the practicalities of keeping these games alive. Put shortly, it takes money and players don't want to pay.

There's another, closely-related theme playing out elsewhere. It concerns the attitude of players to games developers in general. Kaylriene has an excellent post up about that. He takes a very reasoned and reasonable approach, assuming goodwill on the developers' side, but it's worth reading the very well-argued counterpoint by Jackie in the comment thread, which includes this telling assessment:

"I don’t believe the developers want to engage with the playerbase. They’re not interested in criticism even from the people who can articulate it. If they wanted to communicate they would. My perception is that it’s an inward looking culture rather than outward looking."

It jibes nicely with something I said in my own comment on the thread there, where I asked why it might be, if we accept the premise that games developers do care quite deeply about the quality of their work and its fitness for purpose, that "so many changes in so many games appear to work so badly for so many players".

It's a worrisome question, isn't it? Personally, I've always been skeptical about player involvement in games development. I don't necessarily accept that individual players know what they want and I certainly don't see much in the way of collective agreement. 

Even if players did know what they wanted and could band together to express their wishes coherently, though, wouldn't it feel even worse to know the developers were listening and did care, but were fundementally incapable of doing anything very effective about it? 

Devs aren't gods, after all. Not even gaming gods. On the same day I read Jackie's comment I read this heartfelt statement by a developer for whom I have a lot of time, CharlieX of SmokymonkeyS, creators of the wondeful (now, sadly, mothballed) Ninelives. Despite the idiosyncratic English the emotion comes through perfectly: 

"Sometimes a player tells me, you design your game to more difficult and annoying to prevent the player to get the achieve. Well, this is a wrong idea overall. Sadly, this mean the developer's intend is not going well, and it happens always. Sometimes I go to watch my game player's video and get sick every time I saw the player stuck, get lost, or failed caused by my design."

Just because you know what you want to do doesn't always mean you're able to do it.

So much for the developers' side of the table. Returning to the comments in the threads following both the YouTube videos I mentioned, the recurring, indeed overwhelming theme coming from the players seems to be one of heroically unrealistic expectations. 

Playing World of Warcraft has very definitely been a seminal experience for many. Almost a rite of passage. From comment after comment I get the sense that playing WoW marked a transition from solipsistic isolation to social engagement, at least for some. Some feel betrayed that Blizzard somehow took this away from them. Others seem bereft, almost guilty. They lost the way all on their own.

The Pint video is fascinating in the way it depicts a player who, after playing and then leaving the game, has clearly been able to ground themselves in a committed relationship and, by implication, in the web of adult responsibilities required to support their newfound social status. Even with that support structure firmly in place, however, it just takes a nudge of commercially-driven nostalgia to tip them back into longing for a fondly-remembered past.

Wilhelm has another great post up about what prerequisites an mmorpg developer might need to have in place before choosing to enter the nostalgia market. For most games I think the factors he lists would be sufficient. For World of Warcraft, though, I suspect there needed to be more to make it work.

WoW wasn't just a video game. It was a global phenomenon. Its players weren't necessarily like other mmorpg players, either then or now. A lot of people ended up playing WoW who hadn't played other, similar games before. The things they did there were different to other things they'd done, not just in degree but in essence. 

I'd be willing to bet that some of the people posting elegaic, emotional comments on the threads following these deeply nostalgic videos found social engagement and acceptance in Azeroth for perhaps the first time. In their memory the experience isn't just one of many, another social setting where friendships were forged then forgotten. It was an intense experience that changed them and for that they value it highly.

It's a theme not in any way unique to WoW or indeed to mmorpgs or even video games. I see it repeated over and over in comment threads that draw on any widely-shared experience, from childhood itself through musical trends to a college education to sports... Any moment in a life when everything just seems to fall into place. When people around you understand. When you find your tribe. When you belong.

It always fades. School breaks up. You graduate college. The bands you followed split up or find new directions that don't sound good any more. You don't get picked for the team because you can't run so fast or jump so high and anyway practice is on a weekend and there are things you need to do, more important things. Your guildmates stop logging in, even on raid nights. Life moves on, everything changes, nothing stays the same.


If you're hoping that long-lasting mmorpg you used to love is going to buck that trend and stay the same forever, you're in line for a disappointment. It's going to change along with everything else or else it's not going to be there or if it is then no-one will be playing any more. 

And if you believe a Classic server is a time machine to take you and your friends back ten years to when you were younger and freer and life was better, well, you might, if you're lucky, get to take a nice vacation in a well-managed resort version of a specific snapshot of that past. And then time will catch up with you once again and you'll be back where you started, only with more disappointment than you had before because one more fantasy turned out to be just that and nothing more.

Listening to the various voices, the ones that seem most sanguine, most satisfied, are those that recognize a game is after all a game. Not "just" a game. More than that. But not so much more it can stop time and bring back lost youth. The people still having fun in World of Warcraft, both Retail and Classic/TBC, seem to me to be those who aren't expecting it to change their lives, just entertain them for a while.

I suspect that, if developers concentrated a little harder on entertaining people and worried a little less on keeping them locked into a revenue cycle, both sides might stand a better chance of getting what it is they really want. The games might hold onto the interest of more people for longer if players felt more accepted and more at home.

It's a pipe dream, I know, but its one that quite a few people seem to share. A few years back the buzzwords around the genre seemed to be Classic and Retro and Social. Now, the mission statements of many of the plethora of new studios spinning up from splintering mmorpg majors all seem to echo the call for a more emotionally intelligent approach to making mmorpgs. It's not so much a case of turning back time as it is learning from the past.

Whether any of them will be able to turn good intentions into good games remains to be seen but I think we should probably give them the benefit of the doubt, for now at least. If they can pull it off they'll only be giving us what we say we want, after all. 

Whether we'll want it when we get it, though, that's a whole different question.


  1. There are certainly devs for whom player feedback isn't all that useful. The person optimizing database queries isn't going to be impressed by your game design. Junior devs working on very discrete bits of code probably don't have it within their power to change the overall system of which their work is a small piece. There is probably a fairly small group of devs and designers on a team even as big as WoW has that can accept, digest, and process feedback.

    Meanwhile, player feedback can be a firehose of angry emotional garbage laced with accusations about not caring or being greedy or whatever Gevlon-esque conspiracy theory is current at the time. There has always been a player perception that design and coding is easy, games should be able to turn on a dime, fix things today, make everything better in a week.

    CCP is going through similar turmoil right now. They are a much smaller company and have devs who are very much engaged with the community. They even have the CSM, an elected player advisory council. There is a forum post written by one of the devs about how to give feedback in a way that will get the devs to pay attention. They show time and again that they want to listen. But a lot of the feedback is just bad, except in the aggregate to show that players are unhappy. And even that can be wrong, as it may just be a specific sub-group is unhappy and very loud about it. Do you worry about one group screaming about a change when most of the game seems fine with it? Is every bit of feedback equally valid?

    And even when they get good feedback, devs don't always act on it for a variety of reasons from being too busy working on other items, or it just not being a direction they want the game to go, or it just not being technically feasible at the moment.

    MMOs are strange. If you make a stand alone single player game and somebody buys it, plays through it, and moves on... they might ask for a sequel or an expansion, but mostly they just move on. The software as a service model of MMOs means you have to keep people paying which means keeping them playing. That is a Sisyphean task, but we expect it to be fun all the time and get angry and resentful when we are not kept amused.

    Which is not at all to say that game devs and designers do not make bad mistakes, that they don't misread the room often. But our vitriol often isn't doing much to help the situation.

    1. The "games as a service" model seems to be quite deeply entrenched now and not just in what we might think of as traditional online gaming. It brings up all kinds of interesting questions for the medium and long term future of the medium. There's self-evidently a point where games become commercially unsustainable, making the decision to terminate the service both inevitable and straightforward but what about the much larger number of games where an audience and a demand still exists and money can still be made... only not so much money as could be made by diverting the resources elsewhere.

      I used "curate" and "curator" advisedly in the post because the very large games with really big fanbases are going to find themselves in an awkward position should they want to withdraw one of those games from service. It's one thing to close down WildStar, which hardly anyone is playing and which can't even generate enough interest to have emulators and private/pirate servers but what's the exit strategy for something like WoW? How low would the population have to go before the immense reputational damage of closing the game down would be deemed acceptable? And where would Blizzard be if, as has happened already to several other mmorpgs, the game continued to prosper and even grow in the emulator grey market?

      It seems to me that having entered into this devil's agreement some of these studios are going to be stuck running these games not just for a few years but potentially for decades. Are they really prepared for that? And wouldn't it be in their best interests to at least try and do it in such a way as to keep most customers at least moderately pacified? Sometimes it looks as though there are people behind the scenes trying to do exactly the opposite, which makes me curious what agenda they might be following.

    2. Blizz and WoW will be an interesting exercise. Blizz has been of two minds traditionally. They launch a game, do an expansion (or maybe 2) and move on. But, they also keep those games viable. Diablo 2 still gets a patch now and then and can still connect to for online play. Heroes of the Storm, despite Blizz effectively giving up on it, still gets updates and new heroes and probably more attention than some active games serviced by EA.

      WoW though, WoW is so big that I am not sure how they let go and not lose control of the game to fan emulation.

      And, honestly, I think EG7/Daybreak faces something of the same issue with EQ. EQ is so core to SOE/Daybreak identity that I am not sure how they ever move on from it. I expect that EQ will be the tripwire for WoW, that whatever happens with WoW will happen with EQ first.

  2. All of your points are valid, Bhagpuss, but I was kind of surprised that you did not add any commentary about the nature of guilds fueling a lot of this angst in Classic. And probably Retail, but guilds are pretty much an optional thing at this point in Retail. You can see all of the content without joining a guild now, and the only reasons to join a guild would be for purely social reasons or for focusing on high end, Mythic style raiding.

    The lowering of raids from 40 to 25 was going to cause issues, but they've been exacerbated by the subset of players who rushed to the end and are then waiting on everybody else to catch up. And Shintar's post on how FOMO doesn't just impact the leveling Shamans (and Blood Elf Paladins) but people who jumped into Outland on Day One and feel the pressure to keep up with everybody else in the guild.

    1. I had a good think about whether to link to any of your or Shintar's guild drama related posts. Firstly, even though obviously since they're blog posts they're public information but they still feel kind of personal in some ways. Secondly because both guilds and raids are things I'm scarcely qualified to comment on. It's a very long time since I was active in an active guild in any game and even when I was none of them were raiding anything much to speak of.

      That said, yes, it's very plain even from the outside that particularly in Classic and especially in TBC it's guild drama that's causing problems. In a way that's probably a testament to how closely Blizzard have managed to reproduce the original experience. I can't speak to WoW specifically but I know that in 2002-2006 guild drama played a significantly bigger part in my life, even in small and medium-sized family guilds, than I ever want to experience again!

  3. In many ways, Wow was the first mass-market social media. People got hooked on the easy accessibility, communication, and shared experiences. It got to the point where more folks (it is said) raided Karazhan than had bought a Mario game.

    People look back at the old game systems and assume it was mostly (solely?) those systems which promoted the rose-tinted group-oriented gameplay. What they forget is where the Internet and Society-at-large was at during that time, as well. The killer of the Wow-that-was is all the changes outside Wow. I think more players would be happy if they accepted they were tourists revisiting old haunts and not trying to move back in their parents house to recreate happy childhood memories. As you say, things have changed and nothing stays quite the same. I suspect folks are learning that sometimes even what they perceive as happy, simple memories are just that: memories.

    1. The moving back to your childhood home metaphor is very appropriate. It's also like when you go back to a place you spent a happy time in childhood or young adulthood - where you went on holiday or your university town, for example. Even if by some miracle very little has changed, physically, much will have changed culturally. And you wil have changed emotionally. It doesn't mean you can't still have a great time there but it will be different great time.

      On the mmos as social media issue, I agree entirely that that's how it was at the time. I'm curious, though, as to why people feel they need to go back to WoW or another game to recreate that social experience. Surely, if those were their friends, they'd have been able to keep in touch since they left the game by using all the many social media options that came afterwards. I wonder if retro servers are becoming the equivalent of school reunions, something you do every few years for a quick catch up with people you don't really care to see or hear form any more often than that, if at all.

  4. My formula for whether a MMO has lived up to my expectations in terms of the quality of the content is pretty simple: did I get at least a month of entertainment out of it? If I did, it's at least as good as any standalone game I could have been playing instead. Very few standalone games last me a solid month, much less the three months to multiple years.

    In terms of value, there are two main things. First off, how much does it cost to get going in? How does that compare to the cost of something else that would have entertained me for the same amount of my spare time. MMOs tend to come out very well if you look at them them way.

    However, another thing I judge them on is more nebulous and hard to judge. In terms of whether I consider the ongoing support from developers of a MMO adequate, it comes down to how much of the revenue seems to be getting folded back into the development of more content for the players vs. siphoned off for shareholders or to support projects that few players of the game could reasonably bet expected to care about. If games really are a service, then profit margins of 10% or so like most service industries seem warranted. I am skeptical that even 50% of the revenue of any MMO I have ever played, besides maybe Project Gorgon, get's turned into salary support for developers to make new content for the players. Whether that speaks to some horrible inefficiency inherent to the industry I am unaware of, or corporate bonuses and shareholder meetings, I can't say.

    1. As an addendum, that isn't to say that I don't think some MMOs do a good job with that last part. Many do put out more than enough ongoing content to keep me entertained for years on end, which is all I can ultimately expect I suppose. It's just a bit of pushback against the ID that these games need to be vastly more monetized than they currently are to support that, and that we somehow aren't willing to pay enough for what we get.

    2. It seems hard to ignore the huge discrepancies between how much new content various mmoprgs get as standard. The new content in EQII may be somewhat formulaic but for a small game with a small and undersourced team it seems to have been able to sustain an enormous amount of regular, new things to do. If I compare it with, say, GW2, which is vastly more populated and much more successful, EQII gets a lot more new stuff per calendar year than GW2 does. WoW, the biggest of them all, seems to get less new content than almost any of it's nearest rivals. It does make you wonder about both the intent and the efficiency there.

  5. I think there might be a post length reply rattling around to this now that you've so wonderfully aggregated a lot of the thoughts circulating at the moment.

    But in case I don't get to it given next few days already have posts planned, I think the gist of it focuses on the assumption made in some quarters that players expect both the game to never change and to always be fun without end. Oh- and never change the price, either.

    The first assumption there seems to have been driven by the popularity and demand for Classic, from what I can tell.

    But I wonder if that's an over extension of the motivation, and whether the reality might not be that people don't like their game to change but rather they don't like the specific ways in which their game has changed.

    It's more common by far, I think, to hear people say something along the lines of, 'It all started going downhill after **personal favourite xpac**'.

    And to put too much weight on a desire for the static I think removes all consideration for the almost equally vocal base lamenting the lack of development throughline between expansion to expansion. Blizz (seems) to take the fact their new systems are not well received to mean they have no merit and should be thrown away, rather than looking for any nuance in and around the fact the MVP versions didn't work so well but could actually made into something enjoyable (for us) and able to retain players (for them) given a little more love.

    1. Your fourth paragraph is key, I think. I have seen a fair bit of speculation along the lines of "what would WoW be like now if Blizzard hadn't screwed it up?" I think it may be that their ongoing decision to tear down the house at the end of every expansion and build a new house somewhere else that they expect everyone to move into is the core problem. I hate to use the old "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" cliche but that seems to be literally what Blizzard have chosen to do every time.

      The whole level squish /Chromie time thing paid lip service to some kind of continuity with everything that came before but as long as they remain focused on funneling everyone into the exact same endgame and then flipping it every eighteen months or so, I can't see them getting ahead of the declining population curve. If you want people to stick around you need to make them feel at home, not alienated and confused.

  6. I do agree that players have unrealistic expectations, but especially after playing Classic for the last few years, I also wonder whether they aren't right to call out certain things.

    Going from the original WoW Classic to Burning Crusade, I've found it striking how incredibly well designed BC was. It's something I didn't fully appreciate back in the day, but I do now. You can tell that the devs who made it were intimately familiar with every aspect of World of Warcraft, from the large meta to the tiny minutiae of everyday gameplay, and they set out to make everything better and more fun. They even predicted and fixed some problems that weren't even really problems yet back in Vanilla and have only really started to rear their ugly heads in Classic, with people having had ten years of analysis and min-maxing under their belts.

    And I think modern WoW hasn't felt like that for a while (admittedly based on my limited experience playing it myself and following various content creators that talk about it). When was the last time a WoW expansion genuinely felt like it made the game better instead of simply trying to provide some novelty to keep people busy? I mean, there's nothing wrong with some novelty, but it shouldn't be your sole driving force.

    I do wonder why that is. Maybe there's corporate pressure; maybe the sheer weight of fifteen years of content piled on top of each other has just made things too complex. Maybe the devs are boxed in by their own past experiences (e.g. "we can't do anything like X again because then players will complain/abuse it by doing Y"). Or maybe some of the people in charge really are less competent or inspired than the old guard used to be. One has to wonder.

    1. I would bet that, at the time Burning Crusade was being designed and tested, most of the developers had been active players throughout Vanilla and would have been anticipating playing actively in BC. I don't mean they played because it was their job and they were responsible employees; I mean they played because playing WoW was what they wanted to do in their free time.

      WoW was built by ex-EQ players who wanted to make the game they wished EQ could be, so they could play it themselves. EQ was built by people who wanted to play their tabletop rpg campaign as a 3D online game. In both cases the motivation of the developers would very closely have matched that of the players those games went on to attract.

      It reminds me of the trajectory of bands. The first album is a culmination of all the songs the songwriters have had stuck in their heads for their whole lives. If they're lucky, there are enouhg left over to make a second album that sounds quite a lot like the first. Then comes that tricky third album. All the band is doing now is touring and recording. They've used all their songs and they need to write some more but they're not really doing anything other than playing music and doing promos. That's when, for a lot of bands, everything falls apart.

      I'm wondering if, by the second or third expansion, it hasn't all become very much a job. Everyone knows the game inside out. They still play but it's with more of a sense of duty and it's no longer really possible to switch off from dev mode. New ideas are hard to come by (in Blizzard's case, infamously, they usually come from other games so they're rarely genuinely "new" anyway). New people joining the team have the enthusiasm but just like when a new person joins an established band they have neither the authority nor the ownership to push their ideas forward. Everything becomes a practical, problem-solving excercise. It may be a job they love but it is now very much a job, not the labor of love it used to be.

      And also, as you say, the really innovative people move on, because that's what those kinds of people do, and the people who replace them might not be quite as good at what they do.

  7. It's easy to overstate WoW's problems, especially looking at sources like Reddit (which let's face it, is 90%+ a cesspit on any topic) and Massively OP, who seem to have an axe to grind against Activision-Blizzard in general and WoW in particular. Did Bree not get a ticket to one of their press junkets or something? WoW isn't the phenomenon it was, but it's hardly in the same sad state as RIFT. I'd even say it's in a better place than Guild Wars 2.

    Also, I can't blame devs if they don't engage with players, especially openly on social media. Much like politics, discussion of game design is dominated by the cult of the angry amateur. It's the Dunning-Kruger effect in full flow, and nobody enjoys having some flaming ignoramus tell them that the answer to all of their problems is simple and obvious (when in fact the whole situation is neither) and therefore you must be stupid, morally degenerate or both to not instantly agree with them. Pretty much everything some player loudly condemns is there because some other player likes it, or at least it's there to fix something that some player perceives to be a problem.

    Give the players all the good stuff in the game straight off, they'll complain that there's nothing to log on for. Make them work for it, they'll moan about grind. Set it up so you can only do so much at a time so it doesn't feel like a no-life grind, and prepare for the bitter whining about being time-gated. You can't win. And if you're not able to win, why compound that by having some online version of the pub bore telling you how crap you are?

    Maybe Blizzard's best bet is to institute a version of EVE's CSM, get the players to elect a committee of representatives... and then tell them to write the design document for the next expansion. Blizzard will provide coders and artists, but every aspect of mechanics, story, quest and raid design will be in the hands of players chosen by the body of players at large. I can't see that ending well, but I'd get through an enormous amount of popcorn watching it.

  8. I commented on Wilhelm's piece and said most of what I had to say over there, but I did want to say that this was an excellent post, Bhagpuss. Certainly the fact that we aren't who we are in (whatever year you think WoW was best) plays into it, but I think there's a lot to be said about Blizzard's design processes as well. The dissatisfaction with WoW's development is certainly the most high profile example, but its hardly alone amongst Blizzard games. They cut off Heroes of the Storm development at a time when it was actually starting to accumulate some positive momentum. They've cut off Starcraft development, and they hadn't been doing much for a long time before that cut off. Sure, they're working on Diablo 4, but they haven't done much with Diablo 3 for a long time aside from regular seasons. I feel like Hearthstone's development (not that I pay attention to it) has been widely and regularly criticized for a very long time. I admittedly don't know anything at all about Overwatch, but even if that's doing very well, that would generally make it the exception within their stable.

    I'm just over it. I was a huge fan of Blizzard for a good 15+ years, from Diablo I and Warcraft II and Starcraft all the way to several WoW expansions and Starcraft II, but I just don't think they have it any more. And while I may be different than I was back then, there's enough of my tastes that's still the same and rooted in those foundational games for me there that I think Blizzard could make something I'd be interested in, if they were capable of doing it any more. I just don't think they are.


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