Something I often think about during my time gaming lately is why I am feeling what I would describe as “constructively dissatisfied” with my WoW time.
I play WoW now largely and solely to raid with my guild, many of whom I know in real life. I enjoy that time, but I do not feel compelled to play much, if at all, outside of that. I’ve been trying, through blog posts, forum reading, and the like, to understand why that is, and that has led to my latest series of posts.
But there is something major I hadn’t really considered over the last 3 years that is important, if not vital, to understanding why the game might feel worse for some people.
The Importance of Goals
One of my favorite reads in the WoW blogosphere is Gnomecore, who write about his experiences playing through very goal-oriented gameplay around a large number of alts. His core posts talk about the goals he has, often with screenshots of his tracking spreadsheet. The takeaways I’ve had from reading his posts is that he has a great, goal-centered way of playing, and those goals are (relatively) constrained. He raids up to LFR and no higher, levels multiple characters over all races, classes, and factions, and gear goals are often “full appearance sets for transmog.” He is one of the few people I follow who is really, wholeheartedly enjoying WoW in BfA, and I think that what I just described explains why.
How is that? Well, the thing I came to realize about his goal-oriented gameplay is that in many ways, it is what the core of Vanilla WoW was, and is antithetical to the systems design in modern WoW. We’ll talk more about why that is momentarily, but for now, I want to focus on how engaging goal-setting can be.
Having goals, whether for serious, real-life endeavors, or playtime in a video game, allows you to center yourself on an objective, with a fixed path and light at the end of the tunnel. Having a goal means that there is a path and a destination – with that destination being critical. You can enjoy the journey, but at a certain point, the big rush of dopamine and enjoyment comes from reaching a goal and having that deep exhalation and feeling of accomplishment. While to those outside of our bubble, it may seem silly to feel that in a game, MMOs in particular as a genre are built around this reward cycle. Leveling brings that rush with each new character level achieved. Raiding brings that rush with each new boss defeated.
Goals offer us those moments where we can relax and express our pride in our work (or gameplay).
My hypothesis for this post is as follows, then: modern WoW has removed game-enforced goals, which allows the player to define their own goals completely, which is both an expansionary move that offers more choices, and yet also can and often does encourage burnout.
Let’s dive into that now!
Classic and Goals – Limited Options
The core design tenet of classic WoW seemed to be offering a lot of choices for things to do. There were dungeons, outdoor quests, auction house play, raids, and PvP. At the tail end of classic, there were tons of these things to do, with lots of options.
Yet, no matter how you defined it, your goals at endgame ultimately served to constrain those options down to a set of choices with a few end goals that were reachable over a long time investment. PvP had the grind of the ranking system, but if your goal was to complete that grind and reach the point where you claimed a high enough rank to get the best PvP gear, it defined your gameplay as battlegrounds, all day and all night. If you wanted to run nothing but dungeons, there were only a few, but without loot lockouts, you could run dungeons over and over on loop if you wanted. If you wanted to raid, you had a fixed number of raids, with 40 player raids on weekly lockouts and 20-player raids on a 3 day lockout.
Early raids were stingy about loot – with Molten Core bosses dropping around 2-3 pieces of average. It was not uncommon for a player to go multiple raid resets in a row with nothing new to show for it, and yet, that was the model and we were hooked. Molten Core was relatively simple, yet the fights drove a degree of engagement that helped pull together the early WoW scene.
The goal of most raiders, at this time, was an ideal, BiS loot set. I say “BiS” as while this was the goal, it wasn’t often as clearly defined. You might want to complete your tier set, even if your tier set as a Paladin had a weird mashup of stats on it. You might want an ideal set for warrior DPS, meaning that even with the defensive stats on most Warrior tier gear, you would still grab it but then take a few off pieces, like the classic (mail!) Edgemaster’s Handguards to improve your damage. Whatever your goal, there was always an endpoint.
Those endpoints, however, took time, and it would often be a long slog towards getting all of the loot you wanted. It took me nearly a year to gather a full set of Prophecy on my priest alongside Benediction, both because of low drop rates and then the social dynamics of loot distribution among 40 players where 8 priests all want those pieces. However, the nice thing about classic is that these were defined goals with no flex – if you wanted your full tier set, well, it was 8 pieces, dropped in Molten Core, and had a mix of ways to obtain it. You could try to buy the 3 BoE pieces off the auction house, but that would require you playing the auction house to have enough gold. You could farm the BoEs in Molten Core, but getting trash drops in a 40 player group was difficult and most MC clear plans involved pulling the smallest amount of trash that was possible. My raid strat often involved ending the night after killing a few key bosses and moving to Blackwing Lair as the means by which we could avoid some trash that was tied to those bosses deeper in the raid. Then, there were the 5 main slots, all of which required getting into MC yourself and farming.
When you got that full Tier 1 kit, you were in an elite group – the lucky few that had managed to farm enough to kit out the full set and it would then be common for your character to be inspected as you idled in capitol cities. If you ever randomly got group invites from people who were standing near you – you just knew they got excited to see what you were wearing and accidentally clicked the wrong option starting with “I” (they were right next to each other, can’t blame them). And it didn’t matter that it wasn’t tier 2, tier 3, or the ugly bug sets from AQ40 – even just having Tier 1 was an accomplishment worthy of awe from those who were still running UBRS for their dungeon sets – themselves a similarly cool, but less-impressive, feat.
The thing about the gear grind in classic is that it was long and often punishing, but well-constrained – it had a defined endpoint and once you had the full tier set, the full accessories kit, the weapons, you were done. You could run the content and see what the power it provided you would enable, or push ahead into new content.
Emblems, Valor, and Currencies – The Goal Space Expands
This model continued for much of the game’s lifespan, actually – there were more generous drops in later raids, dungeons began to offer better gear, and currency systems allowed a new potential goal – best gear without stepping into a raid. These enabled lots of different players to set their own goals and work towards them, while still offering a defined endpoint – there was a best raid gear, best heroic raid gear, best dungeon gear, best emblem gear set, etc. PvP gear also expanded in TBC with arenas and the use of currencies, making more options available to more players. Crafting also expanded and with it more options to reach a viable goal.
The content in the game was also designed in tiers, in such a way that you slowly stopped doing launch content altogether and moved on to newer, greener pastures. In Wrath of the Lich King, the launch dungeons gave way to Trial of the Champion, giving way to the ICC 5-player dungeons. You’d still run the launch dungeons from time to time through random queues for emblem rewards, but the dungeons themselves offered nothing of consequence besides emblems and maybe DE materials if you had an enchanter with you. In Mists of Pandaria, since you could get Valor points from almost anything, you slowly stopped doing dungeons other than for some Valor, instead doing new dailies, raid bosses, and the like in their place.
While Warlords of Draenor reigned in the possibility space slightly, pushing away stats like Hit, Expertise, and moving away from assigned gem slots, it is the last expansion I would say truly offered defined, end-pointed goals. Warforging, at least initially, offered the possibility of only +6 item levels (itself a carryover from the Mists of Pandaria implementation of Thunderforging, which became warforging in Siege of Orgrimmar and was originally intended to be a way to offer 25 player raids a better sense of accomplishment!) and then a tertiary stat and a gem socket, at best. You could, in theory, decide that you wanted to farm a full set with these enhancements, but there wasn’t a tremendous amount of value in doing so – 6 item levels was a point where it sort of mattered, but not very much, and so it served its design purpose – it was exciting, but not a game-changer.
Changing Seasons – Legion and the Randomization of Reward
Legion design turned the game on its head, in many ways. Warforging allowed for Titanforging, which could pop a massive number of upgrades, meaning gear was now generally constrained to the current Mythic raid item level, plus 10 more item levels, plus a tertiary stat and gem socket. This meant that upgrades could happen more frequently, and the design expression of this concept was that you could get an upgrade by helping out a lesser-geared friend through their lower-difficulty content, but in practice, it has made something of a mess of goals. Additionally, Legion also began the practice of content seasons, meaning that new content did not fully replace the original launch content, but rather, supplemented it. While for brief windows during the initial 8 months of the expansion there was a divide between launch dungeons and Karazhan, by the time 7.2 came around, everything was calibrated to match a new difficulty floor and everything was raised in item level, meaning that the new dungeons like Cathedral of Eternal Night and Return to Karazhan were now on-par with Darkheart Thicket and Violet Hold, rather than setting apart the new dungeons.
The thing about this is that it offers a variety of content that is still viable by the end of the expansion (all of it, in fact) but it also ignores the value that the original design offered. WoW, as built in WotLK and Cataclysm, is to me the best model of what WoW can offer in terms of content and goal-based gameplay. The game intuitively sets you on different goals as the lifespan of the expansion winds on, with the early portion being about leveling and gearing your main character for whatever content you tackle primarily – raiding, dungeons, PvP, etc. As time goes on, you might start to get to the point where your character is geared, has reputation with the major factions on offer and only plays to raid, so you naturally move to level alts or work on alternate goals (classic content progression, transmog farming, mount farming, etc). Then a new patch comes out with a new dungeon and raid, and you have new goals for your main, but those taper off and you again are in a cycle allowing you a moment to breathe and pursue other goals. So you do – and now you have max level alts that are going through the same cycle! It repeats until the end tier, where now the full content structure is open, and you’re likely progressing alts into the current endgame, where they are getting some vendor reward gear that matches the current raid tier and now all your characters feel really powerful.
The tricky thing about the current design is this – on paper, it offers more content and more choices. If this were Wrath or Cataclysm, in the upcoming 8.2 patch, we’d only being doing Nazjatar things on our main characters – some new Nazjatar dungeon (which I’m not sure will be a thing, but I would imagine so), the Mechagon mega-dungeon, the Nazjatar world quests alone, and the Nazjatar raid, but under the Legion seasonal model, we have that, plus the launch dungeons, plus all the current world quests in the game. However, in practice, this means that just as players get used to how to precisely AoE down the trash in the beginning of The MOTHERLODE!!!, it gets more powerful, we feel less powerful, and the cycle repeats – the same content, run for the same rewards with larger numbers attached, to result in a loop that feels awfully repetitive.
If you are a gear lover, than you never get an endpoint, unless you manage to get a full set of tertiaried, gemmed, 425 pieces right now – and good luck with that. This is an absolute minority of players, so I want to be clear in saying that I think this concern is often overblown by players, but if gear does motivate you and you are running even the highest echelon of content, it can still feel demoralizing when you are on an alt and someone gets the trinket you still need on your main, but Titanforged past what your main will likely get.
If you love running raids, you can do it more, since there are only loot lockouts up to Mythic and you can even use reroll seals on second attempts at a boss, and you have 4 difficulties you can run! This allows you more choices on things to do – you can progress Normal > Heroic like my guild, or farm Heroic while working on Mythic, just do one, or do LFR – but in this sea of choices, you run into a situation where it can feel a bit repetitive, running the same content on loop with different tuning.
While I’ve beaten the point to death in prior posts, it is also important to reiterate that the loss of gear vendors and reward currency also pushes you into fewer options and no clear goal in sight. Gone are the days where you could buy about 75% of your slots as vendor gear, with iffy itemization but higher raw power. Now, you can choose to buy raid BoEs and crafted gear, and get pretty close to those halcyon days – but it is no longer a cycle of reward for doing content. World Quests and their gear rewards sort of replace this idea, but the problem of randomness rears its ugly head here – you cannot control what options are available, and instead have to hope that a world quest pops up with a good reward. If you have a piece as a reward for a world quest that is equal or slightly worse than your current gear, you might want to run it anyways, on the off-chance that it warforges or titanforges into something better. Maybe you get lucky, and an ideal upgrade piece is available and it Titanforges! Maybe you wait 3 weeks before a weapon cache is available for doing an emissary.
Blizzard has, in effect, given you goals – complete the raid, do 3-4 world quests for this faction, do this world quest over here for a new ring, do 4 dungeons on Mythic for a chance at a big upgrade, but the core issue on display is that all of these goals are tied to words like “chance” or “opportunity.” There exists a better set of gear for everyone! – but you better be lucky enough to manage to get those upgrades.
The Steady Goal of Artifact Power
The one constant upgrade the game offers is Heart of Azeroth level via Artifact Power, which is not a suitable replacement. It doesn’t offer much in power, and the moments where you are actively grinding for levels feel tedious and awful. I’ve given up leveling my HoA beyond raids and the occasional world quest emissary, and it means that while I’m around 4 HoA levels behind my more dedicated guildies, it ultimately doesn’t mean very much – I perform just fine without, and I’m not pushing Mythic progression, so that degree of min-maxing is unnecessary.
This leads to where I find myself today, where the game has basically shuffled me out of wanting to do most content loops except for raiding. I spent 4 hours total playing WoW in the last week – two nights, two hours each night, just raiding. It was fun, and I accomplished my goals – we finished the raid on Normal and went 2/9 Heroic, so great! I gained a Heart of Azeroth level and overall, it felt pretty nice. At the end of both nights, I logged off happily and immediately went to another game, and I felt pretty good about that decision too.
I think a theme I’ve been trying to communicate in recent posts has remained subtext and needs to be stated, so here it is: it is actually okay that the game might only offer a smaller selection of activities to me individually, and that doesn’t mean the game has failed or is bad. The realization I made for myself is that currently, I am happier just raiding, and while I would like to want to do more, it’s not bad that I don’t. However, it is worth evaluating a playstyle like mine as Blizzard would – if the goal was to incentivize more frequent log ins and play sessions, did they fail?
Arguably, yes. The goal of systems like Warfronts, Islands, and the entirety of Azerite (built itself upon the Artifacts) is to encourage you to log in every day for a little bit to see what content is available, knock out an emissary, a dungeon, and maybe stay for more – a weekly Island session, your one Warfront per cycle, a raid, etc. However, what has been lost in the newer systems is a clear sense of progression and value towards a goal. Leveling my HoA means more power for my Azerite armor, but I need different levels per piece, and the powers themselves are not transformative enough to really be worth it. The value I get back for time spent isn’t enough to me personally to incentivize these added bits of gameplay, and so the game has lost me in those ways.
This is not to suggest, again, that these systems are themselves bad – but the feedback on them seems to suggest that there are some problems the playerbase has with these ideas. If you are good at constraining your own gameplay, and setting respectful limits that honor your own time, you are way more likely to love this expansion – and rightly so! However, if you allow the game to take you on Mr. Blizzard’s Wild Ride, you are being pushed and pulled through a series of random chance events, repeatedly running the same content in slightly different permutations for ever-more-powerful rewards, and collecting oodles of these little blue and gold crystals for ever slightly more power, for all of it to reset and scale ever higher every few months.
Now, what I have taken this to mean for me is that it will be worth waiting for 8.3. Admittedly, I went through the same cycle in 7.1.5-7.2, being disillusioned with WoW, playing FFXIV (which, intentionally or not, has built its content cycle to release expansions during this tender window for WoW), wanting more from WoW and eventually getting it with 7.3. I believe pretty firmly that this cycle too will repeat, and by the time 8.3 comes out, I imagine I’ll be way back into WoW.
The thing about the seasonal cycle of the current game is that eventually, the seasons stop growing and everything enters an equilibrium at the end of the expansion, when the content is all out, the new expansion is staring at us from press releases, media days, and alpha tests, and we have a moment where the game has suitably constrained itself to a fixed reward model where we know the item level we get from dungeons isn’t going up until we hit the new expansion, so we can afford to run them without feeling like they’ll just be made obsolete in 3 months.
I guess it is an interesting conflict – conceptually, I see the value in having a wider array of content available as the expansion moves on, only slowly adding in additional bits of content to do. It has a net result of offering a similar amount of content to what we would have had in WotLK or Cataclysm, but it also keep people running the original launch dungeons at the same time. On the other hand, during Legion for example, I feel like I didn’t really get enough chances to run Karazhan, Cathedral of Eternal Night, and Seat of the Triumvirate as current content, since they quickly moved into the full rotation rather than having a long time as the “top” dungeon. It also feels like something is lost in the lore to that process – I liked the idea in prior expansions that we resolved the issues in those dungeons and moved on to new plot elements. Raiding, at least, continues with the old model – Uldir is no longer relevant and will not be relevant going forward, as Battle of Dazar’Alor has taken its place atop the content heap.
But this point of the expansion has twice in a row felt bad to me. It doesn’t seem like there is any real point to grinding out extra AP, knowing it gets easier over time. It doesn’t feel worthwhile to do world quests for gear on my main because the shuffle upwards isn’t going to plateau for another 4 patches or so. Right now, I struggle with wanting to level more alts, as there is no goal like the Mage Tower in sight that serves as an endpoint reward for mastery of the class/spec on an alt, and all of the gear grinding that accompanies it.
Basically, even when I really want to play, the massive scope of rewards and the model of seasons disincentivizes that gameplay. I don’t even like the treadmill at the gym, which is why I’m an elliptical trainer.
Wait, ellipticals go up just to come back down too.
Does anything progress in this world?!