A current, recurring discussion within a lot of WoW fandom is judging if the game is “good” or not.
Besides being subjective, I also think that it largely is the wrong question to ask.
Why is that? Let’s discuss.
The Stereotypical “Bad” Expansion Begins – Cataclysm
If we look at points where the playerbase has rejected some or all of Blizzard’s idea for what WoW should be, we have to start back at Cataclysm. Announced at Blizzcon 2009 in August that year, prior to the release of the Icecrown Citadel raid in Wrath of the Lich King, Cataclysm announced a few very interesting ideas – namely, that the original Azerothian landmass was to be revamped, with some zones being redone almost completely (the Barrens and Stranglethorn Vale becoming two zones, big changes to Azshara, etc), and some being left almost completely untouched (Felwood, Winterspring).
The real project was to clean up the boundaries between zones, the things hidden out of sight of flight paths, so that the whole of Azeroth was physically contiguous, allowing flight. With the plugging of these offstage tears and gaps, the team made new zones that nestled right in to many of those places, using existing but inaccessible zones like Hyjal and expanding other existing places to new dimensions (Twilight Highlands was born of the entrance to Grim Batol, which had been in the game from the beginning).
With it came two controversial decisions – the 1-60 leveling experience would be revamped into modern WoW style, with more of a hub and spoke design that tightly wound around the zone itself rather than the ping-pong structure of Vanilla – and the level cap extension being only 5 levels, going from 80-85. Coupled with flying from the beginning, it made Cataclysm’s zones harder to remember and associate with, it removed the cohesion of having a continent full of new zones that we got used to in the prior expansions, and it generally felt like something was sacrificed in the 80-85 content in order to push development resources towards the old world revamp.
I’ve argued in the past that I liked Cataclysm, but I can also see the merit to many arguments against it, while making some of my own against it that many would disagree with (the point that flying from the beginning sort of spoils the new zones and makes them much less familiar or explored, as one example). There is little disputing that something just didn’t click with many players about Cataclysm, despite it having some genuinely good content (pretty much all things Firelands, some of the questing content at 80-85 and some of the revamped quests in 1-60 too, the art of many of the armor sets), and it is the first example of a “bad” WoW expansion.
Warlords of Draenor – The Quintessential Bad Expansion
Warlords of Draenor, the second expansion released after Cataclysm, has been held up as a reviled piece of content for nearly 5 years now. Coming after the excellent Mists of Pandaria, WoD was set to offer us a handful of new features – the Garrison system for Blizzard’s take on player housing, new character models that took the 10-year old models of that time and revamped them with higher detail meshes and smoother animations, and also marked WoW’s return to level cap extending by 10 levels at a time, after MoP had evened out by pushing players from 85-90. The story content, while still fairly zone focused, offered an overall consistent villain in the Iron Horde, with each zone returning to them by using different warlords in charge of the various forces of the Iron Horde as the differentiators in story.
Warlords was bad not because many of its features were bad, because for the most part, what we got was fairly sound – but because it was one of the few times where Blizzard’s sky-high promises of content fell through in such a volume that players took note. Of the things discussed even just at Blizzcon 2013 during the reveal of the expansion, around a third of those items were gone by the time the game shipped. If it had been one feature, say Path of the Titans from Cataclysm or Dance Studio from Wrath of the Lich King, it would have probably just become a joke among fans, but instead, left with little of what we were told to expect, the game could only feel disappointing. Mid-expansion, we lost even more, as the expectation of a Shattrath raid and related story content never materialized and what we were left with was a barebone expansion with two raid tiers and a last tier that lasted for 14 months.
So What Makes a “Bad” Expansion, Anyways?
One reason for the history lesson, besides me enjoying the narrative, is to convey that even in the widely-received “bad” expansions, there is little common ground but one piece we can evaluate – a lack of endgame content, perceived or real. Cataclysm had a lot of daily quest content, especially in Tol Barad, which itself had a lot of different things to do. Patch 4.2 brought the Firelands and Hyjal Incursion, with a large array of additional daily quests that also rotated, making each day slightly different. While patch 4.3 did not offer new daily content, it had 3 new dungeons alongside a new raid, LFR, and the option to keep clearing the previously-available daily quests and other content.
Warlords of Draenor, on the other hand, rightly gets the label of lacking in content, as its solution for the daily quest burnout that came with Mists of Pandaria was to offer almost no daily quests. You had one quest available from your Garrison, which was selected from two choices. The quest took a bit longer and often melded gameplay types, offering quests that could be completed with gathering items, killing mobs, saving friendly NPCs, or some combination of the three tasks. Patch 6.2 offered the Tanaan Jungle dailies, which gave some variety and volume of tasks, but it was around 4-5 daily quests, none of which took terribly long to complete, and the end result is that outside of raiding or PvP, there wasn’t that much to do, for real this time. In mini-patches released during the 6.2 content lull, Blizzard tried to add the weekend events as additional bits of content to do, but they largely failed to keep players engaged much beyond the boundaries of their existing gameplay.
So it is safe to say that subjective judgments about quality aside, the one constant that runs through these concerns is that the game lacks things to do during the expansions in question. That leads to my next question, and the real point of this whole piece:
Is Battle For Azeroth a Bad Expansion?
For real, at this point in time, such a question is impossible to answer. Expansions have had worse starts and stuck the landing, or better starts but failed in the tail-end of content, so making any such judgment now is short-sighted.
It is, I think, safe to say that the game is failing to provide for its full audience in a satisfying way. Most people, depending on what they look to WoW to provide, are getting something that keeps them around. As a raider, Battle of Dazar’Alor gives me something worth logging in for two nights a week. Some people like mount farming, world quests, PvP, or the lore, and are justified in continuing to log in for those. Many of us that are here just for the things we like are bothered by the lack of satisfaction it provides – and I think that is both justified and yet misses something pivotal.
To me, the duality of BfA is this – I actually really like the current raid and enjoy logging in to raid. However, unlike in Legion, I don’t feel any need to do world quests unless there is a gear reward of greater item level. I’m not doing emissaries for AP or gold, I’m not doing Islands or even Warfronts at this point on my main save for the quest for a level 400 piece from the Darkshore warfront, and I’m not really doing incursions unless they overlap with an emissary that has a gear reward. With this being the focus of my in-game time, I’m actually enjoying it a lot. When I was trying to do all of the content and not really getting too excited for most of it, it was wearing on me. When Uldir was the current raid, I wasn’t super excited to raid.
I think the problem for Blizzard with WoW is that the game typically offers so much content that there are so many different possible failure points for it, and depending on what you play, your perception will vary. If you’re a raider, you are probably pretty happy this tier – I know I am. If you mainly log in to do world quests, you’re probably happiest around the start of a new season, when new rewards come into play and the ability to benefit increases. Increasingly, the issue is not that the overall game is weak, or that there are huge weak points, but rather that enough points are below average or weak in a way that affects the game’s perception as a whole.
To that point, think about an average raider who is still trying to consume more content. They might be doing Mythic Plus, raids, world quests, warfronts, maybe even Islands. You’re probably pretty happy with the raid this tier, and Mythic Plus can be satisfying, although some affixes more than others and the increased trash of BfA dungeons can wear thin. World quests? You’re probably doing Azerite ones to keep your neck level up, and gear ones when they offer upgrades, or maybe picking your favorites based on gameplay, but the system as a whole is pretty thin. Islands – you might enjoy them, and they can be a fun way to zone out and smack mobs around for a bit, and the same goes for Warfronts. All of these different components of the game are there to be played, but how many of them are enjoyable in their own right?
I guess that meandering prelude brings me to my point – at the midpoint of the 8.0 content, I was not a fan of the game and logging in was taking a toll on me. When my raid took a break, I was elated, and used the chance to log in to the game only once a week for mount farming, using the reclaimed time to do all manner of other activities – other games, 3D modeling, writing, and more! However, while now I am playing only 2-4 times a week, in truth, I am enjoying it more, and thus, I would subjectively struggle to say BfA is a “bad” expansion – in the same way I unironically enjoyed Cataclysm and WoD.
The game of World of Warcraft, at its absolute best form, is a free-time annihilator, scooping up any free time you have and eating it alive. Legion ate your free time and shit out legendaries, AP, and artifact appearances. Some of these systems weren’t so great! Yet, they made a strong central package and the core appeal of the game was clear – even with grindy systems in place, the game made apparent the value rewarded through these activities, and many of us voluntarily got really into the grind.
On the other hand, WoW’s “bad” expansions offer something different – a chance to come up for air between focused, content-dense expansions. Cataclysm gave me more time to play through other games, and it was the expansion during which I got really into Steam games and played a decent number of titles. It was also the expansion during which I went to PAX the most and enjoyed other games and got into things outside of the WoW community. I also played a fair bit of Star Wars: The Old Republic during this time! Warlords of Draenor gave me Final Fantasy XIV time, and hooked me in the 2.0 experience. BfA currently has let me explore a number of backlogged titles I’ve owned for years, while picking up and getting into a few new titles and also preparing for a new Final Fantasy XIV expansion. These things are happening concurrent to WoW for me, not replacing it.
That is the nice part of a “bad” expansion – sure, maybe I don’t play WoW that much right now, but maybe that is a good thing. Because I can connect with the elements of WoW I love, remove the things I don’t, and supplement the time in WoW with time doing other things I enjoy.
Maybe WoW should be all things to all people. But, in a way, I think WoW can still be a good game even if I find fewer individual elements to love in the game.
Does that make it “bad?” I’d argue no. The right question to ask is, “is WoW worth it to play right now?”
The answer to that is, well, it varies – but likely, you could still find something to enjoy.