A theme of sorts has been building in my mind and in my recent posts, as of late.
Basically, the core of it is this – Battle for Azeroth is, in many ways, the inheritor of Legion’s player feedback to its systems. World quests continue, with some slight changes. Loot power continues to creep upwards in a similar fashion, with some tweaks made to random chance events and without legendaries. Honor is now account-wide. Artifact Power in BfA is eminently less grindable, both from a numeric standpoint as well as a reward one.
The feedback so many of us have had about Legion is that it was good, but the systems had too much noise in them. Random events cluttered our gameplay. Surprise rewards would no longer play well with us.
So, in effect, Blizzard tried to give us what we said we wanted. And yet, the game is perhaps worse off for it.
In this post, I want to explore that idea on its own more fully, rather than embedding the point in comments and one-liners in a larger post.
I also want to make clear that this is not an attempt to either absolve Blizzard of blame for the design of these mechanics, or to suggest that players screwed it up. I’d like to strictly talk about them from an academic angle as much as possible – to remove the emotion present in the discussions so frequently had around these things and to bring it back to a place of philosophy in design. I might fail at this, but in the end, it is worth a shot!
So, here we go!
Legion – The Slot Machine Expansion
It’s worth starting from a flashback to the state of Legion during the 7.x patch cycle, not through rose-tinted glasses, but as objectively as we can.
Legion, largely, was built on randomness. The core hooks for us to log in on a regular basis were Artifact Power, World Quest Emissaries, Mythic Dungeons and Mythic Plus, Raids, and Legendaries. These systems nearly all interact in some way, and all but one have a foundation built upon randomness. Artifact Power was a constant, and so we’ll mostly set it aside for now. World Quest Emissaries were a carrot on a stick to play – just do 4 quests in the right place or of the right type and talk to an NPC, who will set you up with a chest. The chest’s contents, however, were somewhat random. There was potential gear that could drop, with the loot pool based loosely upon the zone or faction of the emissary. Gold was a common reward. There was the large burst of faction reputation. There were also Legendaries, which we will visit in more detail momentarily. With the Paragon Reputation system of 7.2, there was then the Paragon Chest, with its gold and chances at mounts and pets. Chances being the key word here – there was no guarantee of the best things, but only a guarantee of something.
Mythic Dungeons have fixed loot tables, but Mythic Plus adds a wrench to the works – now, you only got one loot event, at the end of the dungeon, but the possibility was that any piece of that dungeon’s gear was on the table. Further, the weekly cache could pull any piece of Legion dungeon gear, and both loot events could also have Legendaries, along with any dungeon boss at endgame on the non-timed difficulties. If you couldn’t run the keystone for the dungeon that dropped your best in slot items, well, maybe the weekly cache would deliver – if you were lucky.
Raids are as they always have been, fixed loot tables per boss with no deviation, which helps them be a more predictable source of items, at least. If you did Krosus in Nighthold and didn’t get your tier chest, there wasn’t another thing you could do to get it unless you had Seals to use on him and could reclear to him once for every seal you wanted to burn. At that point, if you still didn’t have your tier chest, wait for next week. There was one change with Legion, a common theme – Legendaries. Yep, bosses in those endgame bastions could drop those orange playbaits too.
So now it is time to really get to it – Legendaries. In truth, as many of us said during Legion, the method of acquiring them was godawful, mainly because it relied solely on dumb luck with a bad luck timer slowly nudging you closer to that orange text. Countless characters were spilled discussing how the randomness of these items was bad, awful, and no good. The ability to target them was non-existent until 7.2, and even then, it was only a slot and spec basis. You could not target the specific item until 8.0, at which point artifact power went away, Wakening Essences were spilling out of the game, and everyone could buy whatever legendaries they could save up for.
The Critical Reception of Legendaries and the Skinner Box of WoW
Now, here is the thing – I think that we were correct to criticize this design in Legion. Not just because Blizzard made commitments about targetability of legendaries, but also because it exposed WoW for what it is as a game design at its core – a Skinner Box. The game wraps this mechanism up in engaging, fun ideas – do dungeons successfully with friends or strangers for currency and a prize! Run this raid and you might get the nice shiny armor piece you want! When you play the content created by Blizzard, the game incentivizes this behavior with loot and other rewards. While you are free to play in your own way, deciding that you’d rather spend all day running laps around Dalaran, or taking screenshots of cave entrances, the game ultimately doesn’t put forward any prize or reward for this. Achievements allow Blizzard to reward this type of gameplay, but they are only willing to do so once (fill in all the maps, get a title and tabard). Raid gameplay, on the other hand, encourages repetition, to fill out gear slots, to push higher difficulties, to chase the incentive. This, in and of itself, is not a bad thing – I don’t point out the origin of the term in punitive conditioning experiments on animals to try and say Blizzard is doing wrong by us here – but rather, that this is core to understanding WoW.
What Blizzard aims to do is to provide us with gameplay that stays rewarding in the ways they intend – ways that, conveniently for a business, happen to involve the engagement of multiple players. The constant increase in loot power does this, the constant introduction of new rewards does this, adding new scenery and zones accomplishes this, etc. This is what I’ll refer to going forward as the reward cycle – the mechanisms by which the game constantly rewards consumption of content. It is a cycle for a reason – the expectation is that most of us will reach our own saturation points of rewards, at which point Blizzard must be ready to step in and offer new rewards to continue this sequence through a new cycle.
While Blizzard has traditionally done many things to reinforce its reward cycle, few were as transparently awful as Legendaries in Legion.
The Reward Cycle and How Rewards “Feel”
Yet, here is the thing – how many of us played way more in Legion that we might have without them? It occurs to me that at the same point in Legion as we are now, I was rather unbothered with mass gaining of Artifact Power, and I didn’t care about dungeons or raids as much more than social events. Yet, I was still playing nightly, gaining Artifact Power and pushing on more content. I was still doing random heroic dungeon queues, which I haven’t done in BfA since September! Why is that?
Simple – as much as we hated the execution, Legion Legendaries did an incredibly good job of suckering us in. When I got the flash of a Legendary loot prompt, I felt excited! Depending on what item it was, that might dim or fade altogether relatively quickly thereafter, but it was a cool, heart-racing moment. I hit the right buttons enough to get the prize.
It was a shallow execution – just do enough things and you’ll get a prize. And yet, it worked on me. I hated that it did, wrote long posts about how terrible it was, and yet, for all of that bluster, I played a ton of Legion hoping for that orange text to pop in my loot log. When I went around with a loot spec of Havoc on my Demon Hunter, I got awful legendaries, but I still got something that made me think. The incentive of legendaries was that no matter how bad it might be, you still had to think about the item you got for a moment.
In Battle for Azeroth, I’d argue that Blizzard did listen to our feedback in many ways. Legendaries are gone. Emissary rewards for World Quests are stated clearly on your minimap with no need to wonder what the chest might have. If we take their posts during alpha and beta at face value, they’ve reduced the chances for high titanforges and limited warforging bonuses for weapons. The only remnants of Legion randomness at all are random stats on crafted gear (itself a holdover from WoD), Warforging/Titanforging (which is supposed to happen less), and Mythic Plus caches. The only new randomness we have is the tokens for Titan Residuum, which can be circumvented by saving a bit more and buying a specific armor piece at item level 385. Yet, this leads us to a point where everything we can get is laid out before us, and where there is randomness, it usually has a smaller possibility space. And this feels bad.
I’d argue that Artifact Power was never the glue that held Legion together – it was easy for us and Blizzard to say so, given that it was a fixed, static reward that everyone wanted and needed. Rather, I would suggest that the central play reward we all sought in Legion were in fact Legendaries, and by not having those cool moments of reward, everything feels duller around rewards at BfA endgame. Here’s an example from my standard night of play in the current patch:
-Log on after dinner on either my main or my Horde alt
-Check Emissary rewards
-No gear upgrades, on to Alliance alt 1
-Check their emissaries, gear upgrade available
-Do the 4 quests, get the gear, log off and repeat until all 120s have been logged in
This falls apart now, however, when my alts are all in a similar state and item level, and have so few rewards available. If my priest doesn’t have a gear upgrade in waiting, neither will my monk, my paladin, or my hunter. My warlock is the lowest of them and might have more options, but once I’ve done a few world quests, I’m done. An emissary takes like 15-20 minutes to do, if even that, and so my incentive to log in is very low. The world quests available are okay, sure, but they are still simple WoW quests at heart. I might opt to solo an old raid (and every week I hit Mythic Blackrock Foundry for my mount) but at that point, I’m out of content that engages me meaningfully. I will have to give Islands another shot, sure, and I might like them – I didn’t really dislike them in 8.0, but they also felt like they had no rewards to offer. I do Warfronts when those are up, but usually once per 120 for the quest and nothing more. I haven’t done rare farming since the second cycle of Arathi, which is an option, but the rewards just don’t compel me that much.
This is, to me, the core issue I have personally with BfA. I like a lot of the content, I truly do! However, when I log in, this ennui sets in – I won’t have the super-cool flashing pop-up of a legendary, and nothing I loot will be super powerful save for maybe raid drops, and I can see that the rewards handed out for participating aren’t particularly awesome, and so I just opt out of playing, remove myself from the reward cycle, and move on.
Blizzard, to be fair here again, has acknowledged this in part, and bumped gold and Azerite rewards to help. However, those rewards aren’t engaging in the same way raw player power is. In Legion, a bigger chunk of Artifact Power might have meant more, but in BfA, unless I’m trying to push a rank, it just isn’t compelling to me.
So What Do I Actually Want?
Well, the thing here is that I don’t really know. I hated Legendaries, and yet they made me want to play so much more than any other system in Legion. I think in my head of cool things that could happen on a random, bad luck protected timer. Maybe more Azerite gear drops? Maybe once you do a certain amount of endgame content you get a big chunk of Azerite – like 10,000? Maybe I can push world quests in a specific zone for a reward – if I do 150 in just Tiragarde Sound, maybe I can get some mount prize, or a toy, or something? It doesn’t have to be random, and you could even build a progress bar to encourage me to step up my efforts when it is close to being filled – but it would be nice to know that all gameplay is working towards a goal, instead of only some.
If I had to peg my dissatisfaction with BfA it would be the squishiness of goals in WoW since, well, really, since late MoP. Every tier resets the game, with catchup mechanics, new items, and higher power levels. While I’m not inherently opposed to catchup – I would never have achieved 36/36 Mage Tower skins in Legion without these mechanics – it also does kind of make the gameplay I’m putting in now feel a bit meaningless. My non-raiding alts are less powerful than my main and my alts that have raided Uldir higher than LFR, but not by much, and once BfA Season 2 launches, I could springboard them right up to where my main is in relatively short order. The goals I set for myself don’t mean much because the game is shifting those goals closer to me over time. If I want my hunter to be 370 geared, I can do that today, or I can get really close, like 360, and then wait for Season 2 and just run a few Mythic dungeons – they’ll drop 370 gear and I can kit up fully in the stuff in a weekend.
Legendaries were powerful because they sidestepped the season mechanics that started in Legion – I could loot one now and know it would still be relevant in the upcoming tiers, because I could upgrade it.
BfA loot, on the other hand – not so much. The Azerite armor all of us have now will be nearly worthless compared to Season 2 drops, because we can get more traits in the new stuff. Nothing I accomplish in gearing my character has any permanence in this between tiers, much less over the full expansion, and that makes me question how much I really care about a chance at an upgrade.
I’ve found that so far, posed that question, I don’t really care that much, and I don’t like that.