(A quick warning – this post, as written, is largely a filtered stream of constantly broken consciousness written during work hours. I liked it enough to share it, but with the disclaimer that it is a little meandering – well, more than usual. Enjoy!)
Something I find myself doing often is writing about WoW in comparison or contrast with other experiences I am having.
In game, it is hard to write about WoW or BfA on its own merit without comparing the current game to prior expansions or patches, to other MMOs, or even other entertainment experiences. I’ve compared elements of WoW to prior expansions, Final Fantasy XIV, Guild Wars 2, Hotline Miami, and even watching pro wrestling! It is something I find myself doing often as an explanatory mechanism because it helps me make sense of how I feel about the state of things.
I think BfA has been the most contentious expansion to WoW yet, which is interesting in its own right. A lot of what I read expresses some degree of frustration with the state of the game – guilds whittling down active rosters or disbanding, people leaving the game, people held in thrall of the game despite not liking it very much, and varying degrees of disappointment with the content on offer. I’ve been one of the voices in this camp at many points during Battle for Azeroth – from thinking about quitting after Uldir and during Heroic Conclave of the Chosen progression, to taking my winter break from the game and logging in maybe 4 times total over a month-long span, and even theorycrafting what the end of WoW would look like!
However, I feel like something I often miss in those types of posts, whether my own, or those of others, is this – why is this dissatisfaction felt?
It is easy for me to rattle off a list of things I dislike in the current expansion – and in the original draft of this post, I had a paragraph long list of exactly that. What I find is missed is the comparison though – to what are you comparing BfA to?
I’ve seen, for example, a complaint that BfA has grindy reputations, stated as though this is a detour from the path WoW has been on. However, since Mists of Pandaria, that has been the way – once reputation-gaining tabards were gone, the game has largely made reputations grindy, but also secondary. After the Golden Lotus debacle in Mists, Blizzard has largely made progressing reputation an exercise in bar-filling. I can’t even name the factions in Warlords of Draenor – but I know that for a large number of the launch factions, you had to just find their favorite places and kill mobs there to get the reputation – a grind we haven’t really had since vanilla, and haven’t really had again since WoD! Legion factions were slow grinds against the limits of the world quest system, a system which persisted into BfA. If you state that the current state of the game is grindy reputations, yes, I agree – but let us not forget that this has been the case for a while.
But I’m not here to dunk on anyone else, but rather, to note that a lot of my own posts early in this expansion were deficient in this way. I did find myself burning out, and I think the posts I’ve made since then have helped to better explain why – if I have a platform and a voice in the community for the game, however small, it is my desire to see it used for specific, actionable feedback.
I think that Season 2 of BfA has been better overall – the raid design is much better, the fights are more fun, from what I have read and heard, the Mythic Plus affix is more interesting (if easier than Infested), and the new item levels are letting the people who stayed through the dire straits of Season 1 BfA finally conquer world content as a hero. When the season properly ends, I’ll be sharing more thoughts about these topics overall.
However, I do find that the current state of the game has made me gravitate more towards other games. Even in this last week, while getting Ahead of the Curve on Uu’nat in WoW, I spent more time leveling Samurai in FFXIV, more time invested in the E3 news coming out about Shadowbringers for FFXIV, and this weekend, during time I would normally grind old raids, I instead got deeply into Planet Coaster, making theme parks with my girlfriend and trying to make intersecting coasters so my park looked like a big bowl of spaghetti. My earlier prelude was to bring about this point – largely, I don’t hate the current state of WoW, and I’m actually somewhat optimistic that 8.2 will improve some things further. I still play weekly, and while I would like a raid break until 8.2, I’m perfectly content to keep playing with my guildies as normal for now. My comparison point is outside of WoW – rather than thinking about past expansions, I’ve instead put my time into games that have me more excited.
Right now, there are less than two weeks until Early Access for Shadowbringers in FFXIV, and so I am immeasurably excited for that. 10 more levels, lots more power, new play systems like Trusts, new zones, new story, all of these things combining – that is a powerful offer from Square Enix, and will mark the first physical collector’s edition I’ve purchased for FFXIV since 1.0 (yes, I somehow got roped into buying that CE – the Yoshitaka Amano box art is too good!). I am excited for 8.2 as well – Nazjatar has been a lore giant for so long that finally seeing it is a bit surreal, Mechagon sounds like fun, and the overall slate of content between both places looks like a good assortment – it is certainly one of the strongest-looking patches Blizzard has offered in a while, especially a mid-expansion patch, which tend to fluctuate in content quantity and quality quite a lot.
This is where a lot of my lack of desire to hyper-engage with WoW comes from – it isn’t the case that I think WoW sucks right now or that the game is irreperably broken. I think it took a few missteps and is dedicated to recovering from the stumble with grace, where what needs to happen is for the game to just fall over and get back up. The refusal to fix broken elements without a new expansion – class designs being the biggest example – is causing some unnecessary player churn. But a lot of my time with WoW is still fulfilling and fruitful – I just don’t want to spend passive time with WoW when I can use that time as active time with something more interesting to me at present. Shadowbringers is likely to bring that about for me. Talking about PC hardware here does that for me (hence all the talk about the latest CPU wars which will only increase in volume when my new 12-core CPU arrives next month!).
I do think this will be a good year overall for WoW. Earlier this year, I wrote that I believed the game would have a decent year, rebounding from the start of BfA with feature-complete patches launching and speculated that the full BfA content library would be out by year-end. I might end up being wrong about that – at current pacing, 8.3 may not launch until early 2020! – but I think 8.2 goes a long way towards targeting some of the low-hanging fruit, restructuring larger systemic problems (Azerite in particular), and laying the groundwork for the expected finale of the expansion – N’Zoth is firmly in focus and once Queen Azshara is dealt with, we will find out where the future takes us. At the same time, I think that the game is reaching more of an acceptance window among players. For those of us still playing, we are aware of the current game’s shortcomings, and have basically either resigned ourselves to keep on for 9.0 or have refocused on things we enjoy in the current game. Certainly for me, I’ve moved to almost solely raiding and I enjoy that, more now than in Uldir with the better overall fight design.
The rest of the year has the prospect to be interesting – 8.2 is aiming to transform the expansion with the essence system, new zones (plural!), a mega-dungeon and a raid. While I feel that the core weaknesses of BfA are still trapped into the experience of 8.2, I do look forward to seeing the Heart of Azeroth system transform into something slightly more exciting, alongside meaningful goal-chasing via Benthic armor and the trinket from Mechagon. 8.2.5 will hopefully bring some meaningful updates, and I expect that Blizzcon will bring both news of the 8.3 content to come and 9.0. Speaking of 9.0, I’m not going to spiral into full speculation in this already-rambling post, but Blizzcon and the first showcase of 9.0 offer Blizzard their best possible stage to showcase the ways in which they will evolve their approach to the game. I will likely write about this much closer to Blizzcon (probably about 3 weeks away from it as you are unlikely to see much of anything from me as I am bouncing around the globe!), but I think the most obvious statement we can make at this point is that regardless of the specific content and theme of 9.0, the announcement has to make clear the specific shifts in design philosophy that Blizzard plans to make in order to move the game past BfA and attempt to reacquire the players lost along the way this expansion, while keeping the ones still engaged. It is a tall order, to be sure – and probably the thing about Blizzcon I am most looking forward to. New expansion Blizzcon always offers multiple touchpoints for the WoW team – they get a What’s Next panel, an art panel, a systems panel, and a Q&A panel, at least. I fully expect Blizzard to come to this event very well prepared to answer the mixed response of BfA with something strong – and while there is always the possibility they will fail here, I think we are in for a WoD > Legion style shift in tone.
As we are nearing the mid-point of the year, if you asked me to use just we have seen so far to judge the game’s 2019 on, I’d have a hard time giving it high marks. Season 2 has addressed some concerns through natural inflation of values – casual players coming in now and hitting 120 have a far faster progression past the curve of world scaling, the game’s audience has seemingly stabilized a bit, and the constant waves of anger and frustration have given way to apathy and acceptance. However, the rest of June and the very early part of July mark a major trial for WoW, as the launch of Shadowbringers for FFXIV is going to make an impact. Square Enix, to their credit, knows that they have a unique opportunity to become the unchallenged number 1 MMO in the world, and are coming out swinging – they had a huge presence at last week’s E3, they have a new commercial with Tom Holland and Hannibal Burress, and their videos out of E3 all promote the game by claiming 16 million players, which, if true and counting active players, means the game has exceeded the total player count of WoW’s peak in early Cataclysm. FFXIV fans similarly have rolled out the red carpet, with dozens of guides for so-called “WoW Refugees” and an increased presence of people talking about the game and relating discussion of game mechanics to similar things in WoW.
The rest of the year should be fascinating in the MMO space – funny to me as it wasn’t that long ago where I penned a post asking if the genre was dead. However, as your dedicated MMOs have mostly given way to other genres integrating MMO mechanics, the core MMO genre remains strong, on the back of two juggernauts and a handful of more niche titles, and I am pretty happy to see how this level of active competition influences Blizzard going forward. If you told me at Blizzcon 2017 that I’d end up playing more FFXIV than WoW during the majority of the first year of BfA, I would have laughed, but yet, here we are, and that is pretty much the case.
Fascinating times, indeed.