Yesterday marked the 1 year anniversary of the official retail launch of Battle for Azeroth, World of Warcraft’s 7th expansion. It has been a fascinating first year for an expansion in WoW, and probably the most contentious first year the game has ever seen a new expansion have.
At this time in 2018, there were apprehensions starting to set in at the root of the playerbase. The War of the Thorns pre-launch event had seen expectations shattered, as the promised intrigue of who did what in the order of conflict escalating between Alliance and Horde played out as nearly everyone predicted – with Sylvanas burning Teldrassil being the ember that lit the powder keg almost literally. The alpha and beta states of Azerite systems had led to a lot of concern about how the game would play on live, and the shine of Legion’s systems had been dispelled early with patch 8.0 taking away artifact abilities and giving us further pruned classes with no meaningful ways to improve that.
The time since has been a bit of a disaster, in truth – the game has charged on the path set with only minor deviations, and while 8.2 has left the game in a better state than that of 8.0 or 8.1, the core systems are still effectively “stuck” in 8.0 mode until the next expansion, with only minor workaround fixes being put into place to stop the bleeding of players.
Looking around the game, it is difficult to imagine how Blizzard got here after Legion – as an expansion, Legion seemed to maintain a high degree of player interest and excitement throughout its lifecycle. While 7.2 left us in a similar state to where we are today, the game was overall in a stronger spot. Moreover, there was an increase in available, current content – a standard 5-player dungeon on top of the Return to Karazhan megadungeon, the Mage Tower challenges, the increased time needed to gear and level off-specs (something Blizzard tried to fix in 7.2 but did not really nail until 7.3), and leveling alts. 8.2 has more content in some ways (multi-faction war campaigns, multiple endgame zones with daily content), but doesn’t have as many fun single-player challenges as Legion did at this point, and that content has to be played with the less-fun pruned classes of present.
I don’t want this post to drag on litigating each and every failing and success of BfA, because I have a whole back catalog of that available to peruse, and I’ll link a few choice ones at the bottom.
What I want to talk about today are the bets that Blizzard made going into Battle for Azeroth, how those bets have paid off (or not, in many cases) and where we go from here.
Blizzard’s Big BfA Bets
Blizzard had a few core ideas going into BfA and coming out of Legion they aimed to hit, and talked about publicly in much of the coverage of the game.
Artifacts, but Simpler – The aim of Azerite was to take what people liked about Artifacts, but to streamline and simplify them, make them easier to understand, easier to catch up, and ultimately have a smaller pool of meaningful choices to contrast with Legion’s Artifact trees, which had big choices interspersed with +x% boosts straight out of the old-school talent trees. Azerite aimed to give players a smaller, shallower pool to play in, but make it a fun shape so that no two laps through it were the same.
What we got was simpler in a way – Azerite mattered less than the Artifact, it is true – but was also far more convoluted. For all the number of buttons you could click and press with the Artifact, the system as a whole was actually really straightforward. Azerite took the idea, but scattered the traits to 3 pieces of gear instead of one, tied the level-up mechanic to a fourth piece of gear, scattered traits across multiple gear pieces for the same slot, and then took the XP mechanism and made it easier to understand but also less transparent and less of a deal (since it is percentage-based when the Azerite Knowledge cost reduction hits, you lose some amount of AP invested since the value of that percentage progress in the same level decreases. Gaining higher item level gear causes some later traits you might have been able to unlock to become unavailable, even still (although it is rarer). The addition to the system for 8.2 has been Essences, giving you an active use ability, a trio of passives, and then Stamina boosts along the way, with Essences being separate items you unlock via content completion. The variety of essences is great, but as with anything that does damage, healing, or mitigation in the game, the math exists to tell you which one best suits a given situation, and there are always winners and losers.
The evolution of Azerite over the expansion has basically been to make it slightly lower-touch and to take away the annoyances or minimize them as much as possible (I can’t take the 5 item level increase final trait on my Heroic Azerite armor pieces at present, as they require rank 60 and I am only 55.). Going forward, I fully expect Blizzard to add in an additional mechanic for Azerite in 8.3 to round out the expansion, not unlike the Netherlight Crucible.
Azerite will be as valued as Artifact Power – Uh, no. To be blunt and short here, Blizzard’s biggest unforced error with Azerite has been making it the sole reward for a lot of content. Islands, which are actually quite fun, have been somewhat maligned because their 8.0 purpose was as Azerite farming mechanisms. When the Azerite system was exposed as not particularly fun, Islands fell out of favor, and while the new rewards systems tied to it are pretty cool, they’ve struggled to regain footing lost from that stumble. Warfronts? Azerite and gear are the core rewards, and while the gear is a powerful incentive for catchup, between LFR Eternal Palace and Benthic armor, there are more reliable ways to stockpile low-level epics, not to mention that Mythic dungeons now give item level 400 gear, beating all drops from victory in Warfronts, matching the Darkshore quest, and only being beaten by the rewards for Heroic Stromgarde.
Faction Conflict is a strong enough theme to play for a whole expansion – This was a bold gambit, mainly because, in a world where Blizzard has better writers and a stronger underpinning lore, this is possible. As much as I like Christie Golden, I have to admit, this expansion has been a stinker for me on the lore front. Faction conflict has always been a red herring in WoW that distracts from the other real threat – even in an expansion like Mists of Pandaria, where the last raid was all about Garrosh, it had lots of Sha undertones and the source of the power was Y’Shaarj. The theme has held better here than it did in MoP, but Sylvanas has largely faded to the background in 8.2, Tyrande has god mode on and isn’t doing anything but fighting in Darkshore, and Anduin is just hanging out in Stormwind waiting to hear more. They’re building up some interesting angles – Thrall’s return and the coming Horde insurrection has my attention, Jaina’s softening to the Horde is an interesting return to form, but the biggest and best hook of the expansion is the Old God threat through N’Zoth, a story that has been tiptoed around until the tail end of Eternal Palace, at which point it roars into focus…with a cliffhanger. I’m interested to see where it goes, but again, it also serves as a counterpoint to the faction conflict, which is barely present in 8.2 despite some severely unresolved plots in motion.
Further streamlining will bring in new players – I don’t think this panned out. Between WoW Classic and BfA, it is becoming obvious that Blizzard isn’t really in tune with what the average player wants. Classes don’t need to have pruned toolkits to be fun, in fact, having flavor abilities and alternate choices is more fun. The team has plucked a lot of enjoyment out of the game by wringing the classes dry, taking their already svelte Legion toolkits and making them more bare, then adding in confusing passive Azerite abilities to attempt to restore a layer of depth.
It goes beyond class design – loot is preselected for you for World Quests and emissaries, PvP gearing involves filling a progress bar until the preselected item is given to you, short of rings and trinkets, item level is pretty much king of gearing now, and the talent system offers no new choices short of revamping existing trees with a few new selections. New players don’t have much to sink their teeth into, existing players have lost fun bits of their prior kits, and not being able to target gearing for PvP is so annoying and frustrating. The game is, by many signs, at or near the lowest player count it has ever had on the back of all of this.
Now, I say all this because I have to be really honest, I am still fairly frustrated with Battle for Azeroth. It had me really excited conceptually, but I feel like Blizzard has failed to execute on a lot of the core competencies the company has had in the past. Raid and dungeon design feels okay, but not exceptional anymore. The world and the concept of split continents is cool, but it feels more isolated and un-worldly now than it ever has. The game struggles to make lower difficulty content enjoyable, while making higher difficulty content so wildly varied in actual difficulty that it becomes frustrating to engage with. Some classes are just simply not fun right now, and it is obvious that they will not be touched in any meaningful way until 9.0, which feels pretty awful of Blizzard to do.
The thing that salvages BfA is that artistically, it maintains a high standard, as the series has at even its lowest points. The game looks great and has a strong soundtrack, although the soundtrack has lost some of the distinct flavor it had under the direction of Russell Brower. Even the dungeons and raids that have irritated me from a gameplay perspective are a joy to behold.
Overall, BfA is probably, I would say, the lowest point in the storied history of WoW. The thing that I find sad is that it is clear that the team at Blizzard has a lot of excitement and energy for the expansion – it just feels like it was channeled into the wrong places and didn’t get the results they wanted.
However, there is still a future for WoW, and the game has started to pick itself up in preparation for future content. 8.2 has a better war campaign due to its simplicity – it begins the act of merging the Horde and Alliance stories into a cohesive and equally-presented narrative through smart use of the once-proudly neutral Jaina and Thrall. The Eternal Palace raid served its purpose well, unifying the factions (sort of) against the threat of Azshara, and the cliffhanger sets us up well for a finale that should be interesting. What we can see on the 8.2.5 PTR is promising, although small – a lot of additional stories from the game’s past are being brought forward and (hopefully) paid off. Patch 8.3 will, in all likelihood, see us tackle the Old God threat of N’Zoth, and with him, hopefully also begin to wrap the launch story. Will the Night Elves find the vengeance Tyrande has gone to great lengths to see to fruition? Will the factions find enough peace with each other to win the true Battle for Azeroth? Will the Horde insurrection need to rise up and overthrow Sylvanas, or will she have something else in mind? How will Blightcaller or Graymane react to Horde insurrection? Is Thunder Bluff in danger from Sylvanas and her Forsaken loyalists? What of Calia Menethil? What of Wrathion? What of the Heart of Azeroth, Magni, and MOTHER?
No matter how bad the first half of the expansion might be to you (and to me, I’d say it’s right around a 6/10), the thing I always find myself liking about the game is that there is a lot in motion, and there has never been this much in motion. Nearly all of these points could pay off in 8.2.5 and 8.3, and while I fully expect some to pay dividends while others wither and die on the vine of the expansion, I am interested in seeing the ride.
For the rest of 2019, we are in bold new territory, as Blizzard is supporting two versions of WoW as active retail products for the first time ever. WoW Classic, set to launch at the end of this month, will join BfA as a part of the WoW live service, and with it comes an expected staggering of updates to maximize subscribed time and to minimize either release stealing the other’s thunder. It’s obvious from outside even that Blizzard’s strategy for WoW going forward is to maintain 3 audiences – a core Classic audience, a core live game audience, and a double-agent base who will play both games. By not offering a separate box purchase for Classic and keeping the single, same subscription to gain access to both, Blizzard is quite wisely playing at “growing” the Warcraft brand on the back of players that have moved on, with hopes of being able to pull them into the live game as well. Time will tell if it works, but it is a shrewd play.
This makes 9.0 only slightly harder to predict. My estimation is that one year from now, we’ll either already be playing it or be fairly close, with probably the pre-patch and related event out. Blizzard appears to be readying the game for a pre-order campaign after 8.2.5 is live, as level 120 boosts have recently been discovered in the game data for the patch. Would this work with the potential level squish? Yes, absolutely. Blizzard will offer the boost as a pre-order bonus, months before 9.0 would be live to squish levels, so it would in fact be necessary to offer it as a 120 boost to hold the same value, for as long as 120 remains the current level cap.
What will 9.0 contain? Well, that is something I’ve touched on a bit before, but I’ll hold off on further speculation. I do know that this year’s Blizzcon is going to be fascinating, as we’ll begin to see how far Blizzard’s plans for Classic go (TBC or WotLK servers, perhaps?) while also seeing the future of the live game, knowing that 8.3 won’t even be in the headlights of our proverbial car as we reach Blizzcon.
Overall, if I am to be frank, this last year has been the only year in my time playing WoW where the primary emotion I’ve felt is disappointment. This expansion had some potential, but the investments made failed to live up to expectations and my biggest hope is that we get a 9.0 that is better in every way for the experience of it.