When I think about what I want in a potential eigth World of Warcraft expansion, a lot comes to mind. Readers who’ve been here a while will know that I claim to be very gameplay-focused but also write a lot about lore. This post is going to change that, by having me focus heavily on gameplay instead!
So, looking ahead – with 8.2 less than a week away and the continuing state of grinding mechanics in WoW shifting to Heart of Azeroth 2.0, with Essences as the main grind mechanic alongside a continued need to at least have some levels in the necklace to fully unlock all traits on raid gear, there is a clear theme for me.
Let’s end grinding.
Okay, so maybe not fully (MMO gameplay is, somewhat by nature, grindy), but let’s at least embrace a system that allows us to combine the most contentious elements of Legion and BfA into a single system that would, in my opinion, address the biggest concerns of both groups.
Legion and Battle for Azeroth share a common DNA via the idea of constantly repeatable content, rewarded via Artifact Power, the means by which we empowered our Artifact Weapons and the means by which we currently empower our Heart of Azeroth. These systems have been met with varying opinions that run the gamut from highly appreciated and central to gameplay down to timewasting nuisances. These two expansions also mark the ramp-up of gear randomness via Titanforging – taking the old 6 level boost of Warforging and turning it into a tiered system with a series of rolls and internal logic that means each success roll adds either 5 item levels up to a defined cap, a single tertiary stat, or a gem socket, with the “best” Titanforge bringing an item to the cap with both a tertiary stat and a gem socket.
Both systems have strong theoretical basis, I’ll admit – the constant empowerment past a level cap means there is something to do and always a new plateau to reach, where Titanforging makes lower end or farm content slightly more exciting, while also fueling a cycle of endless potential upgrades. However, this ideal remains strong only in theory, as endless systems tend to either discourage strong player investment (“it’ll happen when it happens”) or push addictive personality types to burnout via a need to constantly chase the unobtainable goal of being the “best.”
This is where both expansions have met their weakness – endless progression eventually narrows to either burned out players or casual, slow gain of Artifact Power, and the same applies to Titanforging – you either don’t really care and it gives you an occasionally unexpected power jump or you get caught up in an impossible chase of the highest possible item level. All of these outcomes, I think we can say more conclusively now, decrease player investment and engagement, and are prone to making players angry. Couple this with the removal of tier sets in BfA, removing another tangible goal that one could reach, and the end result is that gameplay can feel directionless and meaningless – you either are forced to set your own guidelines and goals (get a full tier appearance, get a drop in every slot from Heroic, etc) or you chase the dragon until it consumes you.
Given that, what I would do as an incredibly inexperienced game designer with no shipping titles and 123 readers is this: merge the systems and make them predictable and controllable.
How would I do that? Let’s explore!
A Titanic Problem, Solved?
Titanforging is the first and immediate problem that I think needs solving. The spirit of it is likable, to me, but the outcome is that the gear grind never truly ends, and the number of possible places an upgrade can be found is massive. Raiders can get potential upgrades from each and every difficulty of the current raid tier, along with Mythic Plus on high key levels. This opens the amount of content one might feel compelled to do tremendously – look at how the Mythic raider playerbase has faded over the last 3 years as a result. Sure, individual guilds are stronger – Method is a juggernaut and their livestreamed progression throughout BfA has been an unmitigated success, but the number of players actually engaging with that content is shrinking. Hell, my only real-life friend that does Mythic gave up on it and joined up with us a few weeks ago.
My idea is this, then – you have to flatten the possibility space for Titanforging to a band per difficulty, limiting the need to run all modes weekly, and you also need to make Titanforging an upgrade that can be accessed in multiple ways.
What this would mean in practice is this – Titanforging can be a maximum of 15 item levels to the base item as obtained. Maybe you leave raid difficulties at 15 item level spacing, maybe you go to 20 – either way. Items, upon dropping, can still Titanforge, but only for item level, and only up to +15. If you get a non-Titanforged drop, no worries – you’ll also acquire Titantic Essences (or some other fun mcguffin named currency) which can be used to purchase the upgrades. They have a weekly cap, and can be obtained through any mode of gameplay – world quests, max level quests, PvP, PvE content, weekly events, and my craziest idea which I will expand upon further down this section – crafting.
An upgrade costs exactly the same number of essences every 5 item levels, regardless of tier, and the weekly cap plus a maximum cap encourages you to spend them without hoarding to excess. It is a system that can be predicted and planned for (you know your weekly and max caps and can plan gear upgrades accordingly) but can also be changed by luck (if you win a Titanforged item, no need to spend essences upgrading it!).
However, it doesn’t stop there, because I’d make a few more changes. Firstly, I’d decouple gem sockets and tertiary stats from Titanforging – instead, I’d suggest the return of item enhancements from tradeskills to add these to select items. Leg Armor from Leatherworkers could add Avoidance or Speed. Spellthread from tailors could add them to your cloaks. Blacksmiths could make an enhancement for some slot (I’m struggling on this one!) to do the same. Basically, every crafting profession should get the ability to enhance an item back, and while enchanting should get the lion’s share of these as always, there is an opportunity to add these back to every profession. Additionally, you could return perks to professions this way – as a Leatherworker, I might be able to sell leg armor patches with +100 Avoidance, but I could put +200 on my own gear.
Gem sockets, on the other hand, should return to all gear as it once was, and be secondary stats only. Jewelcrafters can then make all the gems they want to fill those slots, rather than the current state, where JC is largely useless unless a luck event occurs.
The other crafting fix I would propose in this system is crafters all having cooldowns to convert their valuable trade materials into Titanic Essences. Maybe once a week, or once every 4 days – you can take a high value of trade materials and turn them into a sellable item that offers a reasonable number of essences, maybe as much as 10% of the weekly cap. Alternatively, no cooldown on the ability itself, but it requires a special rare material with a quest that itself serves as the cooldown. For example, you’d need a Titan gem or something of the sort, which Magni (or some NPC) can help you obtain, but they’re only available once a week. That way, you could constrain a double-crafter to limit the economic impact of the items – if I’m a tailor/enchanter, both professions can make an Essence item, but I can only pick up one reagent a week, so I can only make one regardless of having two different recipes for it. The other thing this would allow is for enterprising players to stockpile the items for patches or season changeovers – I can make them late in a season when Essence capping is less popular and sell them for a pittance, or I can wait for a new tier of content and item upgrades and keep the market fueled on them at higher prices!
Lastly, one other new thing I would tie into this system – the return of Reforging. Rather than making reforging a gold sink, make it a means to tap essences from players. I could spend a smaller amount of essences (I’d say between 10-20% of the cost of a Titanforge upgrade) to permanently change a secondary stat on a piece of gear. This brings it back to allow player choice (and in the current state of the game, secondary stats are far easier than they were in Mists of Pandaria anyways) while also making it much more of a measured decision (rather than reforging half my gear with each upgrade, I have to make a much more permanent switch with a higher cost).
These changes all allow for better goalsetting – you know what gear you want, you know how much it will cost to Titanforge and potentially Reforge it, you have more gear enhancement options available, with enchanter slots similar to today’s, new item enhancements from other professions, and gem sockets to fill. There is a defined finish line to reach and you can feel the accomplishment of getting there with a good plan, which can only be helped by lucky pre-Titanforged drops. Blizzard gets their random chance elements adding excitement, but without the downsides, and gets increased player engagement through the goal-focused grind this would introduce. Crafters get to be involved and make bank off the systems this set of changes entail, and the customization of your character increases and is no longer down to chance.
Endgame Progression Is Essence-tial
I’ve made that exact, awful play on words before, and I will likely do so again!
So as I mentioned way above, I do think that post-cap progression is important and can offer something good to a game like WoW. I would, however, propose that linking it to one specific tree with no real choices is not the best possible outcome, and that having it tied to acquisition of specific items is also not ideal. There’s also a question of style – do you offer solely buffs to offensive or defensive abilities, or try to mix both in an interesting way? Do you make these largely passive or do you instead make active use abilities?
The artifact answered this by having one active ability accompanied by purely passive buffs and the occasional semi-passive proc, which enabled some gameplay changes. The Heart of Azeroth, post 8.2, will answer this with the mix of purely passive gear traits, coupled with one active essence and two passive essences.
If we look at these systems, the Artifact was better-received overall, as it had what was the right mix for many – buffs that could change gameplay even while being passive, alongside an active use ability that fundamentally changed your rotation and toolkit. Any such system needs to offer active use abilities and accompany it with passive buffs, of a mix where some have big modifications in moment-to-moment gameplay and others are baseline, purely passive boosts.
My proposal then would be to integrate the two systems, divorce them from gear or items, and create a pure progression system that offers a reasonable hybrid of the two alongside choices.
Let’s say it is the beginning of 9.0, and you’re about to set off for Deathland to bring justice to the tag team of Bolvar, Bwonsamdi, and Sylvanas. You’re given the…I dunno, let’s say the Tome of Life from Freya. It’s got a bunch of branching paths in it, even, inexplicably, for Death Knights.
There are 3 components to it – a center section with a ring of 6 active abilities connected to 12 passive buffs, each of which is linked to 3 of the active abilities. Then, there are two things that look suspiciously like old talent trees, one of which is purely throughput boosting and the other which is purely utility. When Freya gives you the Tome, you get to automatically grab one active ability to start, and she tells you that as you come into possession of more Titanic Essence, the tome will respond by offering more power in return. You then spend the remainder of the expansion empowering the tome. You can get some small fraction of Titanic Essence as you level, but the majority happens at endgame.
The acquisition of Titanic Essence is all that is required to boost the Tome – you don’t need to spend it or fill a bar, but rather it defines the total acquired amount per trait early on, and cycles between the three trees. Let’s say every 5,000 Essence you acquire, you can unlock 1 throughput trait and 1 utility trait, every 15,000 Essence you can unlock a powerful passive from the center ring as long as it is linked to your active ability selection, and every 75,000 Essence or something, you can unlock a new active ability.
The throughput and utility trees are both designed to the letter like old talent trees, with dependencies on earlier traits required to open a path, but the path you take is up to you, limited only by a cap on total points in the tree. You can choose to stay low in the tree, picking up everything there, or you can choose to progress to the end, with a very interesting 1-point trait there that can redefine your gameplay, but may not be for everybody. These would be class/spec based, and there would be no additional requirements for off-spec traits – if you can get it once, you can get it for all specs.
The same goes for the center ring traits, however, these are designed to be much more powerful. Of the 6 active and 12 passive, you can choose half of them – with any 3 active choices and 6 linked passive choices, which must have a link to at least one active ability to be selected. The idea here is that it is limited in order to both provide a meaningful goal to reach, but also for expansion to be possible – later patches could unlock an additional number of points in the throughput and utility trees, or also unlock access to an additional active ability and 2 passives from the center ring, with maybe an end-of-expansion crazy growth moment unlocking everything based on Essence acquisition, allowing you to max out the book and have everything!
The idea here for me is largely that this limits the scope of progression and marries it more closely to core gameplay – you’re playing to unlock Titanic Essences which allows you to boost your gear, but then you can also unlock traits without a separate farming mechanism, there is lore built-in for both, and since Titanic Essences are capped on a weekly basis (you’d have to find a way to account for the maximum cap when it comes to the Tome system) it isn’t infinitely farmable – you don’t feel a need to grind it to death. Play the game normally, acquire Essences to cap, gain all the benefits.
Talent trees are popular and were the most copied aspect of Vanilla WoW by far, and with good reason – the system made for large numbers of possible combinations, full character power customization, and while it eventually gave way to cookie-cutter builds, there were still a large number of builds with some degree of customization. This system would allow that to be restored in some fashion, but with a different design that emphasizes individual choice. There would probably be balancing problems and it’s unlikely that everything would be equally viable, but there are a large number of permutations. Further, with a small (non-scaling) Titanic Essence cost, it should be possible to respec these options, making brand new choices at any time.
Lastly, you could integrate a form of Artifact Knowledge with such a system, as you could simply reduce the amount of lifetime Essence acquisition required per trait over time. Not like the current system, where the total amount acquired doesn’t count towards the net total, and not like Legion where the cost and reward exponentially increases, but where just the acquired amount needed reduces. It could be flexible like the HOA system, or it could be player-activated like early-Legion artifact knowledge, but the option should be there.
So Why Link These Things?
To me, I think that as a playerbase, there are some things about the ideas of Titanforging and post-cap progression that work in our favor. Having multiple ways to advance power through gear and other traits is a huge positive – but the way these things have been woven into the game has either been inconsistent (post-cap progression) or a net negative (Titanforging).
A common theme discussed in my posts of dissatisfaction with WoW and the comments on many of my posts is the concept of goal-setting. The thing I think the current game is missing more than anything is well-defined goals where the game gives you a journey that is ready made with a beginning and an end. Current Blizzard design is heavily based on endless journeys, which is what I would argue is the core problem with the game – you never have a plateau moment where you can really sit and say you’ve accomplished a measurable goal. Your gear could always titanforge higher, your Heart of Azeroth could be higher level, your Mythic Plus keystone could be upgraded even higher, and you can always push towards a paragon reputation cache. Nothing ever ends, and that makes the game feel like a cycle of non-accomplishment of goals.
The reason I targeted these systems and tried to combine them into one sprawling advancement mechanism is simple – there is a strong common theme, and by tying both to a limiter (the weekly cap of Essence), you make them feel far less grindy than they actually are. Most of us liked the Cataclysm dungeon reward system – you could get 7 valor point bonuses a week, and if you wanted to run all 7 in one day, that was fine! The current game uses too many mechanisms to try and force a daily login, or at least an every-three-daily login, and in the process chases off people who would log in daily if they felt they had tangible, acheivable goals to accomplish. Using myself as an example again, I did have some excitement to log on daily to work toward AotC acheivements, and once we got them, I find myself wanting to take a break until 8.2 (so a one-week break, but hey). That was a goal that was tangible, I acheived it, I feel great for having done so, and now it’s time for me to wait patiently for Nazjatar, Mechagon, flying, and the new raid and dungeon.
WoW’s history shows that the game does its best when there are goals to reach, and right now, the number of goals you can meet are not proportional to the full breadth of the available content. This is a bit of a problem, and I think making the most common form of content consumption and incentive more measurable and attainable can only help things!