So my last post was kind of a downer, and admittedly, it maps to how I have been feeling about the game lately.
But, with that sentiment expressed, we can now dive fully into things that are shaping up to improve in the near future!
There was an 8.1 Q&A from Ion and Josh on Friday, and while it tended to stay in the relatively safe ground of what was currently out and doing well, there was one thing that surprised me and, frankly, gave me a lot of hope for the future state of the game.
The Azerite Dilemma
The big, foundational feature of this expansion, Azerite armor, has been a bit of a dud. In trying to capture the idea of artifacts, but simpler, Blizzard instead made a system who edge is dulled into meaninglessness. Azerite armor was supposed to be this cool thing, that would shoulder a lot of burdens – tier sets, artifacts, and Legion legendaries.
Instead, the launch traits were almost always passive and non-gameplay changing. Some aren’t even observable! It has been a point of contention for the entire lifespan of BfA now, and many of us have been worn down by it, in part because it tends to make acquiring new pieces of gear less exciting – reactivating a trait you already had feels bad, and being locked out of the full power of your gear feels bad.
Ion identified this precisely during the Q&A – the team was worried that making us wait for powerful, spec-tailored traits would feel bad, so they were front-loaded into those first rings. The other traits tend to be more bland stat increases, damage procs, or utility, so they get loaded in later, followed by the final item level increase trait, which also increases the power of the other traits. The problem, which the team admittedly missed, is that it feels bad to wait to re-unlock traits you likely already had, and then for those traits to be somewhat underwhelming. Add to this the fact that the Heart of Azeroth story content has barely even been a sideplot to this point, and well, you have a recipe for disappointment. Not only does the system not live up to its role in replacing the 3 major systems it was made to, but the concessions made to try and make it better don’t do that either.
The Fix – Unlock All The Things (Rings)!!!
The solution, presented in the Q&A, is simple and yet opens the door to a lot of possibilities. Azerite armor will continue, but all of the armor received in Rise of Azshara will be pre-unlocked for Azerite traits. When it drops, you can just pick your traits and go. This will allow you maximum power from your armor straight away, and assuming that the Season 2 BfA layout continues, with secondary spec trait rings, this will mean a lot of power increases. This will help with that feeling of Azerite not doing very much – more active traits coupled with immediate unlocks should close a lot of the gap in how awesome the system feels.
The second component of the fix, however, is something far more exciting and is something the WoW subreddit has been asking for for a while – the Heart of Azeroth is gaining its own traits in 8.2. Now, this is potentially very cool, but could also fall flat – we don’t know if these are going to be active traits you use or more passive designs. However, what I like is that it adds a sense of permanence to the necklace. Rather than just notching item level increases for the thing, it will now have traits of its own, which you will maintain and improve through at least 8.2, and I would assume 8.3 and the rest of the expansion until we inevitably de-power the necklace.
And that permanence is important, I think. The biggest gap I see with Azerite, besides the unlocking mechanisms at present, is that the traits have no degree of belonging. You are constantly upgrading and replacing gear, and so you can never really truly embrace a favorite trait, as the gearing pool narrows as you travel up in item level, resulting in your favorite traits disappearing as you grab what should be an upgrade, which should feel universally good, but instead, as with a few other things in WoW gearing, muddies the waters. Having a set of traits that belongs to you permanently is going to help tremendously. Further, if there is class or specialization specific design in these traits, it can serve the role of new talents, offering additional customizations to your character that enhance gameplay.
Now, of course, this could also go poorly – if the customizations are generic, all passive and non-gameplay affecting, or offer too steep a cost to play multiple roles and choose abilities between your specs, this change may not be as positive as we’d like. But I think that just having the rings fully unlocked is a big win.
What did Blizzard miss with Azerite?
The thing about Azerite is this – I feel a fair bit of empathy towards Blizzard on this system. I can see that the goal was effectively “Artifacts, but simpler” – a system built for endgame progression and constant growth and rewards, while dulling the edge that artifacts could often have. Artifacts were punishing for multiple specs, until Artifact Knowledge scaled high enough to remove that edge. Artifacts offered constant growth, but with little customization – you could choose many paths, but the system kept you moving in a line with a few branching paths and nothing more, not to mention the role theorycrafters played in establishing the “best” routes, or that the eventual creep of AK could remove that choice by simply powering through the early points until all you had left was choice of 4th points in those early traits. Lastly, Artifacts as a system were needlessly complex in some ways, with Artifact Knowledge scaling the values up to ungodly numbers, the additional values of Stamina for all characters and bonus damage for tanks and healers that scaled on total traits (but only up to a certain value), and the somewhat confusing additions (4th points being added all of a sudden to 3-point traits, the massive scaling of Concordance of the Legionfall, the random trait bonuses of the Netherlight Crucible, and the original Paragon trait).
Artifacts were tricky, in many ways, and it’s clear from statements Blizzard has made and the implementation of Azerite that they wanted to capture the magic of Artifacts but without 75 point trees, trillions of points of Artifact Power, and active abilities.
And, when first unveiled at Blizzcon 2017, I actually thought it was a pretty good idea. I liked Artifacts, a lot, but having played characters at all stages of Legion made me think that the system was unfriendly in a lot of ways – early AK punished late joiners, later AK made the efforts by launch players less recognizable, relics were awkward, Netherlight Crucible was super awkward and too RNG-dependent, the original Paragon trait was a balancing nightmare in later Nighthold, Concordance was a better design but also far less exciting, Artifacts mattered far less in Antorus than they did in the prior two tiers, and lastly, overall, the system felt like it reset a lot on each patch, a topic which I will revisit later with its own post.
The goal of reducing complexity always carries with it an inherent risk, however – if you reduce too much complexity, there’s not enough there to make a system feel important and exciting. This is a thing Blizzard does almost too much – they are a pendulum design organization, as I call it. They swing from one extreme to the other, and very rarely land in the middle. Artifacts are a great new addition but too complex? Azerite is version 2, but has almost no complexity and offers little incentive to farm. The garrison has too many upgrades and things to do in the mission table? Class halls keep much of that but streamline the mission table followers and the upgrades, limiting it to the research path offered in Legion (a rare example of what I would consider Blizzard nailing the middle ground). Which, they then sent to the extreme simple side in BfA by reducing the entire commander/mission setup to a boat with a table, followers are automatically max level and don’t have a gear quality, everyone gets the same 5-6 followers, recruits are random, and the missions reward almost nothing, alongside a neutered research tree.
And this is the thing about Azerite that hurts it most – it was the opposite of Artifacts in nearly every way. Farming Azerite is simpler from the start, because there is no research for Knowledge, it just happens automatically when Blizzard says so. There are no items to use to gain the power, only one item that can use it, so no need to pick a spec to push the power into, and when your necklace levels up, there is usually either nothing to do, or one trait to assign from a choice of 1-5 available options. Where Artifacts had deep customization that was staring you down at every turn, Azerite has rare customization events with shallow depth. Theorycrafting makes this even easier, as the current crop of traits have such a clear stack ranking available that there’s rarely a choice that cannot be simulated out to a theoretical, decimal-pointed raw DPS/HPS value.
The key issue in this is that removing the depth removes the intrigue to the system. Artifact traits could be mathed out, yes, but there were gameplay modifiers, relics, and the fact that you’d eventually have every trait. You could also attempt to push further ahead of your guildies and friends by grinding more artifact power, as even +1 trait made a difference. Azerite has rings spaced out, such that grinding out that next level on the necklace only occasionally offers you any power other than +2 item level to the necklace.
The Stubbornness of Blizzard, Averted
I don’t want to spend much more of this post bashing the current design of Azerite, however, because I think it is worth giving props to Blizzard for this change in course – in a prior forum post from Lore, it seemed increasingly likely we’d be stuck in the same loop of unlocking already-previously held traits for the rest of the expansion. Blizzard has a history of stubbornly holding to their own notions of what is and is not fun in their game, even when a majority of the playerbase is yelling at them.
The Blizzard that I know, while I like them generally, is also definitely the type to keep their half-baked idea in the game all the way through with only minor tweaks just because they want to see their darling all the way. What Ion did in that Q&A was interesting and different because it was so rare for Blizzard – to admit that basically, they shipped an un-fun idea, and that they were willing to pivot from it at least partially to bring players back to the table. The fact that the idea Ion mentioned is one that players on Reddit have brought up before is no accident either. It says, quite clearly, that while this is a team that still has a large distance to cover on communication, they are listening and willing to move on player feedback.
To me, that alone is worth commending, even if I now must wait for 8.2 to be really excited about Azerite.