To say that World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth has had a rough start is…a bit of an understatement, to put it lightly. However, I want to avoid hyberbole in this post and look at the constructive ways in which we can address the various problematic aspects of BfA and just why it is that players feel so sharply pushed away from the game.
As it stands now, the game has been out nearly two months, and we have our first major content patch on the horizon, one which aims to remedy a lot of issues, but may not be able to do so. Take a look at any WoW fan site or community, and the overwhelming takeaway is that people are quite dissatisfied with the experience of BfA.
I want us all to put on our detective caps for a moment and take a critical, objective view at the things that, to date, have defined Battle for Azeroth.
(Also, yes, we’re going to look at that Lore post, yes, that one.)
Taking the Role out of Roleplaying
WoW has been, for most of its history, an idealized canvas upon which players can paint their own idea of their role in the game. Starting around Mists of Pandaria, but especially prevalent in Warlords of Draenor on, we have been very effectively pigeonholed into the role of “champion,” a title that carries the burden of an ideal. It is a bit of an MMO trope that player characters are ultimately what can best be described as “murder-hobos” – homeless ruffians who are good laborers for the various little problems that face NPCs. We are pushed out into the world to fix everyone’s issues not because we are seen as epic champions, but because we must constantly ingratiate ourselves with everyone we meet in pursuit of our quests.
WoD making us champions marked a rough transition point in the storytelling and play space within the game, and not for the best, I would argue. Each expansion from WoD on has lavished upon us with titles of grandeur and respect, yet the quests that make up the majority of our gameplay time have not changed to mark that shift in style. We are still sent on menial tasks for strangers, who often derisively scoff when we are introduced as these grand champions. There is little story significance to the majority of questing in the game, and while that has always been the case, the game’s efforts to wrap everything up in lore and storytelling has felt flat when that portion of gametime is spent not reinforcing that messaging.
But there is a gameplay aspect to roleplaying that is largely missed and has been starting with WoD as well – the acheivement of greater levels of power. WoD was pruning expansion number 1, replacing new skills, talents, and the like with the 5 spec-specific random enhancements to existing spells. These kind of helped add to a feeling of advancement, but it is clear that Blizzard felt they missed the mark and the end result was Legion’s artifact weapons, a system which completely blew advancement out of the water. At the time, enmeshed in the system as we were, I think it was easy to miss why players liked them so much – they brought back the old flavor of talent trees, even if they were mostly non-existent choices outside of the path taken to get all the traits.
Battle for Azeroth has removed even this and replaced it with Azerite armor, a system that offers fewer choices, with less impact and has nowhere near the depth of the artifact or old school talent trees. I feel a little bad for Blizzard here, truth be told – they obviously had a good intention in the idea. “Artifacts, but simpler” was the call, and yet, it is the simplicity of these new traits that makes them feel so hollow. But we will talk more about Azerite later!
For now, it is worth stating this – Battle for Azeroth offers no real permanent progression choice from 110-120, and this is a massive disappointment, in that leveling feels like meaningless busywork, or tourism through a pretty new place. For what it’s worth, I know old talent trees were actually not that great of a system, and I think they are remembered far too fondly by many people, but artifacts proved something related to that tangent – talent trees can be done in a modern way that offers some aspect of choice without the punishment of poor/uneducated choice. That being offered to us and then taken away is, I think, a core part of the rift between Blizzard and the game’s audience.
Unclear Reward Structures Hurt The Desire To Do Anything
WoW as a game is built on a foundation of looting upgraded items in a near-endless cycle of Skinner Box gameplay, with the desire to constantly power up until the reset switch of an expansion hits and the cycle repeats. BfA continues this, with the strong systems that Legion had in place for this – World Quests offering moments of power, Mythic Plus systems allowing multiple vectors along which you could farm gear, and the traditional raid mechanisms that have always existed in the game, coupled with warforging and titanforging, systems which, while contentious, added an element of desire to do more content.
BfA however, through the introduction of Azerite gear, invalidates much of this by adding uncertainty to the mix. The thing with this is that I feel really bad for Blizzard here, because it’s clear that in many ways, they took the feedback about RNG to heart. Azerite traits are preset, the Legendary system is gone, and while warforging and titanforging are still present, they are ultimately much more muted, though whether that is a function of players accepting defeat on the topic or some tweaking done to it by Blizzard is an open topic – and yet, the core loop of gearing feels largely subject to fate still. Now, to be fair, some of this is players ultimately pushing on one of the few remaining random bits of content in the game, but there is a point to be made here.
In Legion, Mythic Plus was an equally viable (in some ways superior) way to gear when compared to raiding. Raiding offered a limited number of potential drops per difficulty with the only way to upgrade the power of those items being to push ever higher difficulties, the point of which starts to hit sharp diminishing returns. I can PUG a normal raid easily, and a heroic raid slightly less easily, but Mythic raid pugging is damn near impossible, where Mythic Plus pugs for high level, Mythic-raid equivalent keystone runs are available. They are diminished in comparison to say, +4-+7 runs, but they are out there, even now. The odds of getting such a group are much higher than Mythic raiding, and the participation rates seem to reflect this.
Legion, however, had a huge advantage over BfA – all gear was available in the end of dungeon cache. Was getting a relic in a cache exciting? Arguably not. However, you had the ability to farm whatever piece of loot you wanted, provided you could get a stone for the dungeon of your choice. You could jump from PUG to PUG for Halls of Valor if you wanted the Horn trinket in the end chest.
Azerite armor, yet again the thorn in BfA’s side, cannot be in end of dungeon caches, and further, if it is in your weekly cache (which it can be), the possibility space for which piece it can be is huge, and even worse, it can often feel like a downgrade. I had a guildy get an Azerite piece in their cache, and it was 340 instead of 350. Now, I know how the system works and that a 350 piece of Azerite gear does not exist, but this is massively disappointing.
Couple this with the random nature of World Quest Azerite caches, and the newly reacquired weirdness of random weapons for a spec you don’t play being a reward, and all of this combines to make an irritating reward structure. The moments where the loot you receive feel like they were worth the effort are becoming fewer and farther between, and that is a problem.
The end result of this? If you cannot find value in play, then you will not play. Blizzard’s greatest enemy isn’t necessarily in bad systems – many people will play with bad systems, but it is when those systems create player apathy.
New Systems Are Secondary to The Actual Game
Islands and Warfronts are interesting new systems in some ways. Islands, now that the looting mechanics are starting to be better understood, are pretty cool, and as an alternate leveling path for alts, can even be fun! Warfronts similarly offer a good amount of variety, with the zone changes in the open world, world bosses, and the drops. Then, the core gameplay is somewhat interesting and represents something new and different.
There is just one problem with these examples, however, as pointed out by Bellular in one of his recent videos – these systems do not serve their own purpose, but rather exist as bolted-on elements to existing systems. Warfronts suffer from this a little less, but ultimately serve as a sort of gear catchup mechanism. Islands, however, are solely tied to the Heart of Azeroth and Azerite systems, and outside of these systems, serve no real purpose. I think some of the visceral dislike of Islands comes from this forced interaction – the need to do them solely to satisfy a gearing requirement. When coupled with the pacing problems of the gameplay and the spawning patterns of the current Island systems, yikes.
The sad thing is, a few rotations of the Arathi Warfront down, and a few weeks of Islands done, and I can’t help but think that these things are a disservice to the gameplay present. With a better reward loop and improved mechanical design, both of these could be slam-dunks for fun, engaging gameplay. Islands, when leveling, can even be that now to an extent, especially if you use the newfound rules for farming the cosmetic drops available. But they could be so much more, and yet, here we are.
A Lack of Choices Makes Caring Difficult
I started writing this post before the clarifications about what was coming for Azerite armor was put forward, so I’ll keep this short – the launch state of Azerite offers fewer interesting choices for players compared to Artifacts, and even those choices are not permanent, making them seem worse – you don’t keep and earn these traits, as armor replacements will change these traits. There is no reason to be invested in these traits, because by virtue of being tied to replaceable gear, your natural incentive is to constantly push towards new gear and thus, replacement traits.
Blizzard’s Attitude About All Of This Has Been, To Put It Mildly, Disappointing
Here’s where we venture out of the game to talk about the more real world implications of these issues.
Blizzard, initially, seemed fairly contrite about the issue. The Ion AMA expressed that the team was evaluating ways to correct course on the system, and that they believed changes they would be making with balancing, along with new traits in future patches, would bring the system to a point where players would be satisfied with it, even if perhaps not as happy about it as Blizzard would find ideal.
However, the forums continue to attempt to submit useful feedback, some of which can be, admittedly, slightly hyperbolic. However, in focusing on that and largely ignoring the concerns raised, only one thing is communicated clearly – you don’t care to engage with the community in a meaningful way on this issue.
And that brings us to the Lore post. I want to preface this in two ways – firstly, I firmly believe Lore was having a bad day and I don’t think the tone of his post accurately reflects the development team’s actual mood towards the issue, but that also donesn’t ultimately excuse the very dismissive and awful tone of the post. Having said that, however, I’m not the tone police, and frankly, I don’t much concern myself with the tone of an announcement when there is enough content to derive an opinion from.
Rather than line-by-lining the post, or rehashing the firestorm of last week, I’ll just link to the post and fallout here. (Definitely read the OP as well, it is worth a view).
The big TL;DR is this – Blizzard is also unhappy with the system, but isn’t keen to change much, and they are happy with new traits, trait balancing that has been done and is still coming, and future changes, reforging is intentionally limiting, and they don’t like refarming but might not have a great solution for that within the confines of the system.
Now, as I originally, late last week, started writing this, this is where the story ends and I’d be more inflammatory and dissatisfied with this response, even if I ultimately am not terribly bothered by Azerite.
But then this week came, and along with my 33rd birthday, came a new reply, a much more measured tone, and most importantly, actual solid information about what the immediate fixes for Azerite are intended to be.
The Post-Script – Blizzard Put A Ring On It
The newest post regarding the update to Azerite gave us a few big pieces of news:
Up to 370 Azerite Armor will be added to Emissary Rewards in an attempt to ease acquisition woes – Firstly, this is good news, and I want to commend Blizzard for doing something that may anger a small portion of their fanbase to appeal to the larger audience. The item level of the gear will scale in a fashion similar to current gear rewards from World Quests, meaning you’ll only have 370 options if it is the next available upgrade tier. The intent here is to ease past the drought of over 340 Azerite gear many of us have suffered through. However, this suffers a few things that need to be addressed – firstly, the unknown factor – what gear options will there be? The current Emissary Cache Azerite and World Quest Azerite gear drops have “zone” traits that are sort of so-so, and if those are the only option, it solves one problem (not being able to get higher item level Azerite pieces) while maintaining another (the ability to target best-available traits). Second, this points to a huge flaw of Blizzard’s in general – their stubbornness to stick to their guns on their most beloved ideas. While having more options for high-level Azerite gear is great, the biggest gap is still that many specs really want a dungeon drop with high item level, and since Azerite gear does not drop in Mythic Plus end-dungeon caches, but can possibly drop from weekly caches, farming this gear is nigh-impossible as you have no real way to target it short of item level – you can do the keystone level that would net Azerite armor at the item level you want, but then the pieces you want are just a fraction of the overall loot table available through the weekly cache. It addresses the issue for some players to add higher-level Azerite gear to Emissaries – I am one of those people. But I think it is important to recognize that it’s not just the lack of Azerite pieces, but this means that there are 3 slots that a pure Mythic Plus player can really struggle to get through their preferred means of gameplay.
An Additional Outer Ring With More Spec Traits is Being Added – This is meant to tackle the problem of player agency. Their goal is to use this outer ring for two traits per spec and nothing more, meaning that you can pick two spec-specific traits per armor piece, allowing you more choices and theoretically, more potential combos and abilities to mix and match. Current items will not get this, but anything dropping post 8.1 will, which will include upgraded item level gear from existing dungeons, World Quests, Emissaries, and Siege of Zuldazar/Crucible of Storms. I like this idea – it means you can take a generic trait without losing flavor of also getting a spec-specific ability.
New Traits in 8.1 Will Be More Interesting – This one was not elaborated on much, but the same day, WoWhead datamining turned up some new traits, and they are actually pretty good! Windwalker Monks, as an example, get Fury of Xuen, giving them a stacking buff with each Combo Strikes, which can go up to 33 stacks. Each stack gives a 3% chance on use of Fists of Fury to give the monk some Haste and summon Xuen for 8 seconds. Now this is a meaty trait with a lot of great gameplay interactions – I can choose to hold Fists of Fury, a short cooldown big damage ability, in order to build enough stacks to guarantee a proc of this ability, or I can use it normally on cooldown and subject myself to some RNG. It is a fantastic design, and if this is indicative of what we can expect of 8.1 traits (and the other, very small number found thus far seem to indicate it is) than the gameplay we will get from Azerite armor is going to massively improve and offer much more in the way of choice and player agency, which is great!
So, overall, I am glad I held this post to get older, because in doing so, I think I can offer a happier ending than I originally planned – Blizzard needs to do better at communication on this expansion’s major issues, but I am very happy to see the changes they are making, and I think that while some issues need addressing (M+ Azerite!), the outline of the path in front of us is much more promising than I expected a week ago.